Recent generations of Americans have become accustomed to hearing their country known as a”City on a Hill,” a term which usually suggests that it is, or can be, even a moral exemplar. In a 1961 address to the General Court of Massachusetts, President Kennedy introduced modern political discourse into the word in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:14). Google’s Ngram Viewer shows the proliferation of this phrase after President Reagan famously employed it to the eve of his election in 1980 and subsequently closed out his two-term presidency with it in 1989. President Barack Obama set up the term, as have many different politicians in both significant parties.
Our recent national self-examination, nevertheless, indicates that the top of the hill has become more of a dream than an accomplishment. Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s dynamic”The Hill We Climb,” for instance, read at the inauguration of President Biden, articulated America’s moral challenges and returned rather to a more aspirational verse in American political theology: Micah 4:4, ” the hope that everyone may someday”sit under his vine and fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.”
No matter the”City on a Hill” is, the term was not found by Kennedy or Reagan, obviously. They discovered this scripture not just for its own sake, but to remember its historic use in a sermon from John Winthrop. The sermon, and also its role in American politics, has ever become the topic of three revisionist studies. In 2012, Hillsdale historian Richard Gamble questioned America’s”redeemer fantasy” and warned against excited civil religion. In 2018, Princeton historian Daniel Rodgers likewise challenged the creation of”historic myth” and recounted Americans’ wrestling with existential concerns of destiny and morality. Winthrop’s sermon, A Model of Christian Charity, gained interest not only due to its historicity, but in an effort to ask questions regarding the nation .
Why all the fuss of Winthrop’s sermon, especially given the abundance of sermons at Puritan New England? If you were to inspect the history or literature curricula in secondary and college education, for instance, the answer is evident: Winthrop’s sermon is frequently cast as a founding text to America, among its earliest statements of identity and purpose. It’s like the Declaration of Independencebut at the beginning of the country’s Table of Contents. Some have presupposed a straight field of importance –with Winthrop putting a base on which Jefferson, Madison, and following statesmen built.
This is the point the place where the historic”Gotcha” begins. The sermon was dropped for two centuries after its supposed delivery. It therefore couldn’t have influenced the Founders, or perhaps the ancient republic. And as the writer of City on a Hill, William 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, shows the sermon only cannot be found where you would like to find it from the historic American canon. Even after it had been found, and eventually released in 1838, no one seemed to care much about it–or at least no longer than the remaining sermons produced in New England over two centuries. Much more surprising, no one cared much about the term”City on a Hill” until after World War II. Even Reagan’s use indicated how much Winthrop had become a convenient trope instead of a real historical curiosity. Reagan called him a”Pilgrim.” But maybe Reagan didn’t need to know a Pilgrim out of a Puritan since, after all, he had been more interested in summoning a potent national self-understanding of American exceptionalism.
Contrary to Gamble or even Rodgers, who are more interested in taking exception with that exceptionalism,” Van Engen is interested in distributing its lineage. Van Engen starts the significant part of his argument in the historic archives that allowed Winthrop’s recovery and kept so much ancient American history from being lost forever. He recounts how archival collections came into existence, often against all odds, due to the creators who built and stocked these institutions to empower particular requirements of American destiny.
Willard’s heritage tale of America marginalized everyone but New Englanders.After establishing themselves at the 1820s, historic societies accumulated the records now taken for granted by scholars. Protestantism is applicable 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 ancient scholarship a vocation, the past might be prologue when Americans learned of their ancestors’ love of freedom and set up that the case studies of background due to their joy.
New England since America
Published collections of manuscripts and early printed stuff, accompanied by commentaries, struggled initially to cover for themselves but eventually became quite common. By the 1820s, historic works accounted for at least 85% of best sellers. Americans were soon devouring stuff about their past. The absolute most significant Americans in this narrative were, needless to say, New Englanders–a subject that continues today. American Indians, Virginians, Dutch, Spaniards became”issues, not participants” in American history. There were many reasons for focusing on New England, however, the most noticeable one was that just New England appeared to give America a very clear origin point. This meant decreasing, or even erasing, a great deal of American history. Tocqueville, for instance, took Harvard historian Jared Sparks’s concept of roots, blended it with all the Puritan hagiography he discovered in colleges across America for his accounts 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 job to mean that anyone “could find America, but they did not discovered it.” The pious motives of Puritans, and increasingly”Pilgrims, were elevated above the supposedly avaricious motives of additional American lands. Daniel Webster and many others solidified the legend of the Pilgrims in the 1820 bicentennial of their Plymouth Rock landing. The striking part about this movement to a New England heritage of America, still ubiquitous in the thinking of scholars and laymen, was , as Van Engen describes it,”Prior to 1820, Pilgrims and Puritans were mostly a regional affair”
Not everyone connected the New England fan club. Most historians commended their own Calvinist forebears, however, novelists like Nathaniel Hawthorne criticized them. Critics like Methodist minister William Apess encouraged Americans to break out of the past and rebuke it precisely because these very first New Englanders were not seeds of liberty, but weeds who choked off freedom. Such criticism has been carried forward into academic intellectual history by Vernon Louis Parrington and to more popular journals by H.L. Mencken. James Savage, an antiquarian’s antiquarian, was not just scrupulous in his study of older records, but meticulous in his criticisms of all Puritans. All, that is, except one: John Winthrop.
While this historiographical war has been raging, Winthrop’s Model sermon remained unidentified until it had been published in 1838. Its accompanying debut by Savage leveraged the sermon to promote courageous American growth. Community trumped liberty, Savage asserted. Greatness of spirit trumped greatness of material acquisition. Still, no one at the time thought of this Model as a founding document, such as the New York Historical Society who acquired it in the descendant of Winthrop now living in New York. Even Savage did not reflect on its novel as a portion of his lifetime accomplishments. Van Engen writes,”Throughout the first hundred decades of this sermon’s lifetime as a printed and public text, A Model of Christian Charity was never connected to the meaning of America rather than situated as the origin of the nation.” If scholars and politicians knew that it existed, they didn’t care.
The rising star of the first half of the first century, based on Van Engen, was that the Mayflower Compact. It had been shorter and more easily placed at one end of a straight line through other constitutional papers 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 than about Winthrop. Much Charles Beard’s Progressive historiography couldn’t locate something to leverage from Winthrop’s warning against wealth, however far Max Weber’s flawed understanding of Calvinism had succeeded in creating Puritans the creators of national wealth and power.
This brings Van Engen into Harvard intellectual historian Perry Miller, the scholar most responsible for sustaining real interest in (and admiration for) that the Puritans much in the aftermath of criticisms found from the nineteenth century. In a series of chapters that make one want Van Engen would compose a biography of Miller, Van Engen writes up to Miller the guy as he does about his responsibility to situating that the Puritans in modern American consciousness. Miller lived long enough to hear President Kennedy summon Winthrop, also Kennedy’s assassination three decades later likely contributed to Miller’s own premature death.
During his influence in history and literature, Miller expected that Puritanism could turn into the American frame of mind. Miller’s missionary zeal was not what one might suppose; he was not evangelizing to get Puritan piety. Miller himself was an atheist, however Reinhold Niebuhr described him as a”thinking non-believer.” “Grace” was nothing more than learning mid-twentieth century liberal pieties, also Miller expected that schooling could enable a Puritan cast of mind that would save American community out of American individualism. Puritanism was elevated by Miller over the paltry vision of the Pilgrims and also the”incoherent” eyesight of Virginians, for instance.
American Puritanism, based on Miller, should evoke neither idle compliments nor idle criticism for its connection to liberty. He believed Puritans embodied a believer which may address some of America’s ethical challenges famously characterized by Life magazine Henry Luce (among several influential kids of missionaries) on the eve of the World War II. And though Miller eschewed imbuing that the Puritans with federal moral importance ahead of his service in the war, then he changed his mind thereafter. Miller soon shared the concern of powerful Americans like Billy Graham the country lacked a feeling of purpose. That feeling of purpose could just come, Miller thought, through the kind of self-criticism where Puritans excelled.
Van Engen’s study of Miller is filled with anecdotes out of Miller’s pupils to make his point. Here I shall add yet another in the fellow scholar of Puritanism, church historian John Gerstner. Later, Gerstner commented that the speaker did not emphasize enough redemption came only after good trial and searching. Miller, believing in moral or rational terms, believed that when Americans gave up their cheap energies or easy-believing (i.e., their complacency) would they locate their federal calling.
Winthrop’s Model Today
This idea of this jeremiad much as a way of redemption, but an instrument of rhetoric, has been advanced later by Sacvan Bercovitch, another legendary scholar of American Puritanism. Van Engen’s study of Bercovitch brings the book back into the question of this Model and the reason why it became so important. So much as Van Engen is concerned, Bercovitch leveraged it through questionable scholarship to advance much a normative vision of America, but a report on its political tropes.
Van Engen, a professor of literature, has recently written a remarkable job of historical scholarship. He’s rightly interested in matters such as which Bible Winthrop employed due to his text, and also the provenance of Winthrop’s sermon, for instance. He doesn’t get bogged down in theological concepts like the covenant or typology, but he can pertinently and sensibly deploy theological backdrop where appropriate. He tersely gets the point that Winthrop had much better scripture for triumphalism. Simply speaking, it’s tough to read Winthrop to mean what twentieth-century Americans read him to mean. Furthermore, differences between Catholics and Protestants had stark differences concerning what”City on a Hill” intended for the individuality of their church, with Catholics asserting a more triumphant role for its church and Protestants projecting the church more as a”little flock” Although Van Engen does not say so, this debate about if the church is still a ruler or some remnant is potentially the most critical modern debate in modern American Protestantism.
And though Van Engen’s publication is frequently around historiography and the goal of history, topics that threaten to become quite dry, he avoids the deep weeds and dull minutiae. Concerning the more obvious controversies of this woke variety, Van Engen admits budding theories of supremacy in eighteenth century historiography, however, he resists becoming a dull scold of deceased men and women. He’s something intriguing, even brand new, to mention not merely about one familiar thing, however, about many. His argumentation is eloquent, not driven, and the story he tells is interesting. City on a Hill need to motivate us to rethink what we believe we know about both historians and history.