Recent generations of Americans have become accustomed to hearing their country called a”City on a Hill,” a term which normally suggests that it is, or can be, a moral exemplar. At a 1961 speech to the General Court of Massachusetts, President Kennedy introduced contemporary political discourse into the word from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:14). Google’s Ngram Viewer demonstrates the proliferation of this phrase following President Reagan famously employed it on the eve of his election in 1980 and then closed out his two-term presidency with it in 1989. President Barack Obama set up the term, as have a number of other politicians in both significant parties.
Our current nationwide self-examination, nevertheless, indicates that the surface of the hill has become more of a dream than an accomplishment. Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s lively”The Hill We all” for instance, read in the inauguration of President Biden, articulated America’s moral challenges and returned instead to a more aspirational verse in Western political theology: Micah 4:4, the hope that everybody may someday”sit under their vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.”
No matter the”City on a Hill” is, the term was not discovered by Kennedy or Reagan, of course. They also deployed this scripture not just for its own sake, but to remember its historical usage in a sermon by John Winthrop. Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, allegedly presented the sermon aboard the Arabella just before the Puritan coming in 1630. Even the sermon, and also its role in American politics, has long ever become the topic of three revisionist studies. In 2012, Hillsdale historian Richard Gamble questioned America’s”redeemer fantasy” and cautioned against excited civil religion.
Much Ado About Winthrop
Why all the fuss of Winthrop’s sermon, especially given the wealth of sermons at Puritan New England? If one were to analyze the history or literature curricula in secondary and college instruction, by way of instance, the solution is obvious: Winthrop’s sermon is often cast as a founding text to America, among its earliest statements of purpose and identity. It’s like the Declaration of Independencebut in the Start of the country’s Table of Contents. Some even have presupposed a direct line of importance –with Winthrop putting a base upon which Jefferson, Madison, and subsequent statesmen built.
This is where the historical”Gotcha” begins. The sermon was missing for two decades following its assumed delivery. It therefore couldn’t have influenced the Founders, or even the ancient republic. And as the author of City on a Hill, Abram Van Engen, is fond of pointing out, it’s questionable that Winthrop’s Model influenced anyone at all–such as the Puritans! Van Engen, such as Gamble and Rodgers, demonstrates that the sermon just can’t be found where one would like to find it from the historical American canon. Even after it had been discovered, and finally published in 1838, no one seemed to care about itor at least no more than the remaining sermons made in New England over two decades. Much more astonishing, no one cared about the term”City on a Hill” till after World War II. Even Reagan’s usage suggested how much Winthrop had turned into a convenient trope as opposed to a genuine historical fascination. Reagan called him a”Pilgrim.” But perhaps Reagan did not have to know a Pilgrim from a Puritan because, after all, he had been interested in summoning a potent national self-understanding of American exceptionalism.
Contrary to Gamble or even Rodgers, who are more enthusiastic about taking exception with this exceptionalism, Van Engen is considering distributing its lineage. Van Engen starts the substantial portion of his debate from the historical archives that allowed Winthrop’s retrieval and kept so much ancient American history from being lost forever. He cautioned how archival collections were created, often against all odds, due to the creators that built and hauled these associations to enable particular interpretations of American fate.
Willard’s founding tale of America marginalized everybody but New Englanders.After establishing themselves at the 1820s, historical societies gathered up the records currently taken for granted by scholars. Protestantism is relevant again here, insofar as these leaders like Jeremy Belknap or even Ebenezer Hazard believed the call of God for their labors. Not only did they believe historical scholarship a vocation, the last may be prologue if Americans learned of their ancestors’ love of liberty and set up the case studies of background for their joy.
New England since America
Published collections of manuscripts and early printed materials, accompanied by commentaries, struggled initially to pay for themselves but finally became rather common. By the 1820s, historical works accounted for at least 85 percent of best sellers. Americans were soon devouring materials about their past. The most important Americans in this story were, needless to say, New Englanders–a motif that continues today. There were many reasons for focusing on New England, however, the most noticeable one was that just New England appeared to give America a clear origin stage. This meant decreasing, or even erasing, a lot of American history. Tocqueville, by way of instance, took Harvard historian Jared Sparks’s concept of origins, combined it with the Puritan hagiography he found in schools across America for his account of America’s origin.
Willard’s founding tale of America marginalized everybody but New Englanders. Employing a typically fine turn of expression, Van Engen describes Willard’s work to imply that anyone else”could find America, but they did not found it.” The pious motives of Puritans, and progressively”Pilgrims, were elevated above the supposedly avaricious motives of other American settlers. Daniel Webster and many the others solidified the legend of the Pilgrims in the 1820 bicentennial of the Plymouth Rock landing. The striking part about this movement to a New England founding of America, still ubiquitous in the thinking of scholars and laymen, was that, as Van Engen explains it,”Prior to 1820, both Pilgrims and Puritans were largely a regional affair”
Not everybody connected the New England fan club. Most historians praised their Calvinist forebears, however, novelists like Nathaniel Hawthorne criticized them. Critics like Methodist minister William Apess urged Americans to separate from the past and rebuke it precisely because these very first New Englanders weren’t seeds of freedom, but weeds that choked off freedom. Such criticism was carried forward into academic history by Vernon Louis Parrington and to popular journals by H.L. Mencken. James Savage, an antiquarian’s antiquarian, was not only scrupulous in his study of old records, but scrupulous in his criticisms of Puritans. All, that is, except one: John Winthrop.
Though this historiographical war was raging, Winthrop’s Model sermon remained unidentified until it had been printed in 1838. Its accompanying debut by Savage leveraged the sermon to promote courageous American expansion. Community trumped liberty, Savage asserted. Greatness of spirit trumped greatness of material acquisition. However, no one in the time notion of this Model as a legacy record, such as the New York Historical Society who obtained it from a descendant of Winthrop currently living in New York. Even Savage did not reflect on its publication as a portion of his lifetime accomplishments. Van Engen writes,”During the first hundred decades of this sermon’s life as a printed and public text, A Model of Christian Charity wasn’t related to the significance of America rather than located as the origin of the country.” If politicians and scholars knew it existed, they did not care.
The rising star of the first half of the first century, based on Van Engen, was the Mayflower Compact. It had been shorter and more readily put at one end of a direct line through other constitutional papers and, finally, into the Constitution itself. If the Model was included in ancient anthologies, it had been edited; those edits showed more about the editors compared to about Winthrop. Much Charles Beard’s Progressive historiography couldn’t locate something to leverage from Winthrop’s warning against riches, however far Max Weber’s flawed reading of Calvinism had triumphed making Puritans the creators of domestic riches and power.
Perry Miller’s Puritans
This attracts Van Engen into Harvard intellectual historian Perry Miller, the scholar most responsible for sustaining genuine fascination with (and admiration for) the Puritans also in the wake of criticisms found from the nineteenth century. In a collection of chapters that make one want Van Engen would compose a biography of Miller, Van Engen writes as much about Miller the man as he does about his obligation to situating the Puritans in contemporary American consciousness. Miller lived long enough to hear President Kennedy summon Winthrop, and Kennedy’s assassination three decades later probably led to Miller’s own untimely death.
Throughout his influence in history and literature, Miller expected that Puritanism could become the American state of mind. Miller’s missionary zeal was not exactly what one might suppose; he was not evangelizing for Puritan piety. Miller himself was an atheist, although Reinhold Niebuhr described him as a”thinking non-believer.” “Grace” was nothing more than learning mid-twentieth century liberal pieties, and Miller hoped that schooling could enable a Puritan throw of thoughts that could rescue American community from American individualism. Puritanism was elevated by Miller over the paltry eyesight of the Pilgrims and also the”incoherent” vision of Virginians, for instance.
American Puritanism, based on Miller, should evoke neither idle praise nor idle criticism for its connection to freedom. He believed that Puritans embodied a paradox that may solve a number of America’s moral struggles famously characterized by Life magazine’s Henry Luce (among several influential kids of missionaries) on the eve of the World War II. And though Miller eschewed imbuing the Puritans with national moral importance before his support in the war, then he also changed his mind thereafter. Miller soon shared the issue of influential Americans like Billy Graham that the state lacked a sense of purpose. That sense of purpose would just come, Miller believed, through the kind of self-criticism where Puritans excelled.
Van Engen’s study of Miller is filled with anecdotes from Miller’s pupils to make his point. 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 how redemption came only after great trial and searching. Miller, believing in rational terms, believed that when Americans gave up their cheap elegance or easy-believing (i.e., their complacency) could they locate their national calling. Winthrop’s Model, for Miller, would become a founding document for this particular search.
Winthrop’s Model Today
This notion of this jeremiad not so much as a means of redemption, but an instrument of rhetoric, was advanced after by Sacvan Bercovitch, another legendary 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 significant. So far as Van Engen is worried, Bercovitch leveraged it through questionable scholarship to advance not so much a normative vision of America, but a report on its own political tropes.
He is rightly curious about things such as which Bible Winthrop used due to his text, and also the provenance of Winthrop’s sermon, for instance. He doesn’t get bogged down in theological theories like the covenant or typology, however he does pertinently and sensibly deploy theological backdrop where appropriate. He tersely gets the point that Winthrop had better scripture for triumphalism. Simply speaking, it’s tough to see Winthrop to imply exactly what twentieth-century Americans read him to imply. Although Van Engen doesn’t state so, this debate about whether the church is a ruler or a remnant is arguably the most crucial contemporary debate in contemporary American Protestantism.
And though Van Engen’s book is often around historiography and the goal of history, topics that threaten to become rather ironic, he avoids the heavy weeds and tedious minutiae. Concerning the obvious controversies of this woke variety, Van Engen acknowledges budding concepts of supremacy in eighteenth century historiography, however, he resists getting a dull scold of dead men and women. He’s something intriguing, even fresh, to say not only about one familiar thing, but around many. His prose is engaging and filled with a number of fine turns of expression. His argumentation is seamless, never forced, and the story he tells is fascinating. City on a Hill should motivate us to reconsider what we believe we know about both historians and history.