Recent generations of Americans are becoming accustomed to hearing the country referred to as a”City on a Hill,” a term which usually means that it is, or could be, a moral exemplar. In a 1961 address to the General Court of Massachusetts, President Kennedy introduced contemporary political discourse into the term from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:14). Google’s Ngram Viewer demonstrates the proliferation of this phrase after President Reagan famously used it to the eve of his election in 1980 and subsequently closed out his two-term presidency using it in 1989. President Barack Obama deployed the term, as have many other politicians in both major parties.
Our recent nationwide self-examination, nevertheless, suggests that the cover of the mountain has become more of an ambition than an achievement. Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s dynamic”The Hill We all” for instance, read in the inauguration of President Biden, articulated America’s ethical struggles and returned instead to a more aspirational verse in American political theology: Micah 4:4, the hope which everyone could someday”sit under their vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.”
Whatever the”City on a Hill” isalso, the term was not discovered by Kennedy or Reagan, obviously. They discovered this scripture not only for its own sake, but to recall its historic usage in a sermon by John Winthrop. Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, allegedly given the sermon aboard the Arabella before the Puritan arrival in 1630. The sermon, and its role in American politics, has become the topic of three revisionist research studies. In 2012, Hillsdale historian Richard Gamble questioned America’s”redeemer myth” and warned against excited civil religion. Winthrop’s sermon, A Model of Christian Charity, gained attention not simply due to its historicity, but in an effort to ask questions about the nation itself.
Why all the fuss about Winthrop’s sermon, particularly given the wealth of sermons at Puritan New England? If one were to inspect the history or literature curricula in secondary and college instruction, as an instance, the answer is evident: Winthrop’s sermon is frequently cast as a founding text to America, one of its oldest statements of purpose and identity. It is like the Declaration of Independencebut in the beginning of the nation’s Table of Contents. Some even have presupposed a direct line of importance –with Winthrop putting a base on which Jefferson, Madison, and following statesmen built.
This is where the historic”Gotcha” starts. The sermon was missing for two decades after its supposed delivery. It therefore could not have affected the Founders, or perhaps the ancient republic. Van Engen, like Gamble and Rodgers, demonstrates that the sermon simply cannot be found where one might expect to find it from the historic American canon. Even after it had been discovered, and eventually published in 1838, nobody seemed to care much about it–or at least no longer than the rest of the sermons produced in New England over two decades. Even more astonishing, nobody cared much about the term”City on a Hill” until after World War II. Even Reagan’s usage suggested how much Winthrop had turned into a convenient trope instead of a real historical fascination. Reagan called him a”Pilgrim.” But maybe Reagan did not have to know a Pilgrim out of a Puritan because, after all, he had been more interested in summoning a highly effective national self-understanding of American exceptionalism.
Contrary to Gamble or Rodgers, who are more enthusiastic about taking exception with that exceptionalism, Van Engen is interested in tracing its lineage. Van Engen begins the substantial portion of his debate from the historic archives that allowed Winthrop’s retrieval and kept so much ancient American history by being lost eternally. He cautioned how archival collections were created, often against all odds, due to the creators who built and hauled these institutions to enable particular interpretations of American destiny.
Willard’s heritage tale of America marginalized everyone but New Englanders.After setting themselves at the 1820s, historic societies gathered up the documents currently taken for granted by scholars. Protestantism is relevant again insofar as these leaders like Jeremy Belknap or Ebenezer Hazard felt the call of God to their labors. Not only did they believe ancient scholarship a vocation, the past might be prologue when Americans learned of the ancestors’ love of liberty and deployed that the case studies of background due to their happiness.
New England since America
Published collections of manuscripts and early printed stuff, followed by commentaries, fought initially to pay for themselves but eventually became rather common. By the 1820s, historic works accounted for more than 85% of best sellers. Americans were soon devouring stuff about their past. The absolute most crucial Americans in this narrative were, needless to say, New Englanders–a theme which continues now. There were lots of reasons for focusing on New England, but the most noticeable one was that only New England appeared to give America a clear origin stage. This meant decreasing, or even erasing, a great deal of American history. Tocqueville, as an instance, took Harvard historian Jared Sparks’s concept of roots, combined it with all the Puritan hagiography he discovered in colleges across America for his account of America’s origin.
Willard’s founding tale of America marginalized everyone but New Englanders. Employing a typically fine turn of phrase, Van Engen explains Willard’s function to mean that anybody else”might find America, but they did not found it.” The pious reasons of Puritans, and progressively”Pilgrims, were raised above the allegedly avaricious motives of other American lands. Daniel Webster and others solidified the legend of the Pilgrims from the 1820 bicentennial of the Plymouth Rock landing. The striking part about this movement to a New England heritage of America, nevertheless ubiquitous from the thinking of scholars and laymen, was , as Van Engen explains it,”Before 1820, both Pilgrims and Puritans are mostly a regional affair.”
Not everyone joined the New England enthusiast club. Most historians praised their own Calvinist forebears, but novelists such as Nathaniel Hawthorne criticized them. Critics such as Methodist minister William Apess urged Americans to break out of the past and rebuke it precisely because these very first New Englanders weren’t seeds of freedom, but weeds who choked off freedom. Such criticism has been carried forwards into academic history by Vernon Louis Parrington and into more popular journals by H.L. Mencken. James Savage, an antiquarian’s antiquarian, was not just scrupulous in his study of old documents, but scrupulous in his criticisms of all Puritans. All, that is, except one: John Winthrop.
While this historiographical war has been excruciating, Winthrop’s Model sermon remained unidentified until it had been published in 1838. Its accompanying introduction by Savage leveraged the sermon to encourage courageous American growth. Community trumped independence, Savage claimed. Greatness of soul trumped greatness of substance acquisition. However, nobody in the time concept of this Model as a legacy record, including the New York Historical Society who acquired it by a descendant of Winthrop currently living in New York. Even Savage did not reflect on its publication as a portion of his life accomplishments. Van Engen writes,”Throughout the first hundred years of this sermon’s life as a public and printed text, A Model of Christian Charity was never related to the significance of America rather than situated as the origin of the nation.” If politicians and scholars knew that it existed, they did not care.
It had been shorter and more readily placed at one end of a direct line through other constitutional documents and, eventually, into the Constitution itself. In the event the Model was included in ancient anthologies, it had been edited; these edits revealed more about the editors compared to about Winthrop. Even Charles Beard’s Progressive historiography could not find something to leverage from Winthrop’s warning against riches, however far Max Weber’s flawed understanding of Calvinism had succeeded in making Puritans the creators of domestic riches and power.
Perry Miller’s Puritans
This brings Van Engen into Harvard intellectual historian Perry Miller, the scholar most responsible for sustaining real curiosity about (and respect for) that the Puritans also in the wake of criticisms found from the nineteenth century.” In a series of chapters which make one desire Van Engen would write a biography of Miller, Van Engen writes up to Miller the guy as he does on his responsibility to situating that the Puritans in modern American sense. Miller lived long enough to listen to President Kennedy summon Winthrop, and Kennedy’s assassination three years later likely led to Miller’s own untimely passing.
During his influence in history and literature, Miller hoped that Puritanism could grow to be the American frame of mind. Miller’s missionary zeal was not exactly what one might suppose; he was not evangelizing for Puritan piety. “Grace” was nothing more than learning mid-twentieth century liberal pieties, and Miller expected that schooling could enable a Puritan cast of mind that would rescue American community out of American individualism. Puritanism was raised by Miller over the paltry vision of the Pilgrims and also the”incoherent” vision of Virginians, for instance.
American Puritanism, based on Miller, should evoke neither idle compliments nor idle criticism for its connection to freedom. He considered that Puritans embodied a paradox which will solve a number of America’s ethical challenges famously characterized by Life magazine’s Henry Luce (one of several powerful kids of missionaries) on the eve of the World War II. Although Miller eschewed imbuing that the Puritans with federal moral significance ahead of his service in the war, he also changed his mind afterwards. Miller soon shared the concern of powerful Americans such as Billy Graham that the country lacked a feeling of purpose. That feeling of purpose would only come, Miller thought, through the type of self-criticism where Puritans excelled.
Van Engen’s study of Miller is filled with anecdotes from Miller’s students to make his point. Here I shall add yet another from a fellow scholar of Puritanism, church historian John Gerstner. Gerstner and Miller were both admirers of Jonathan Edwards, and Gerstner would tell the story of attending a lecture using Miller. Afterwards, Gerstner commented that the speaker did not emphasize enough redemption came only after good trial and searching. Miller, thinking in rational provisions, considered that only when Americans gave up their economical elegance or easy-believing (i.e., their complacency) would they find their federal calling. Winthrop’s Model, for Miller, could develop into a founding document for this search.
Winthrop’s Model Now
This notion of this jeremiad not so much as a means of redemption, but a tool of rhetoric, has been advanced later by Sacvan Bercovitch, another mythical scholar of American Puritanism. Van Engen’s study of Bercovitch brings the book back around to the question of this Model and the reason why it became so important. So far as Van Engen is concerned, Bercovitch leveraged it through questionable scholarship to advance not so much a normative vision of America, however a report on its own political tropes.
He is rightly curious about things like which Bible Winthrop employed due to his text, and also even the provenance of Winthrop’s sermon, for instance. He does not get bogged down in theological theories like the covenant or typology, however he does pertinently and sensibly deploy theological background where appropriate. He tersely gets the point that Winthrop had much better scripture for triumphalism. Simply speaking, it’s tough to see Winthrop to mean exactly what twentieth-century Americans examine him to mean. What’s more, differences between Catholics and Protestants had stark gaps regarding the”City on a Hill” intended for the individuality of the church, with Catholics claiming a more triumphant function for the church and Protestants projecting the church more as a”little flock.” Although Van Engen does not say so, this debate about whether the church is still a ruler or even a remnant is arguably the most critical contemporary debate in contemporary American Protestantism.
Although Van Engen’s novel is frequently about historiography and the objective of history, subjects that threaten to become rather ironic, he avoids the heavy weeds and dull minutiae. Concerning the more obvious controversies of this woke number, Van Engen acknowledges budding theories of supremacy in eighteenth century historiography, but he resists getting a dull scold of deceased people. He’s something intriguing, even fresh, to say not merely about one recognizable thing, but about many. His prose is engaging and filled with many fine turns of phrase. His argumentation is eloquent, not driven, along with the story he tells is fascinating. City on a Hill need to encourage us to reconsider what we believe we know about both history and historians.