The Afterlives of Winthrop’s “City on a Hill”

"Two Puritans." Edward Hopper, 1945. Courtesy of ARTstor, for educational purposes only.

“Two Puritans.” Edward Hopper, 1945. Courtesy of ARTstor, for educational purposes only.

John Winthrop’s sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity” (1630), abounds with claims to moral authority. Perhaps that comes as no surprise given the conventional purposes of a sermon – to give moral instruction and spiritual encouragement within the bounds of a particular religious doctrine, and to remind the faithful of what could happen should they not heed the lesson. Winthrop’s sermon does this usual work within a particular setting, within the drama of a colonizing scene. He delivered it to a group of English Puritans departing for the New England colonies, with a charter from the English government to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

“A Model of Christian Charity” suggests that the Puritan colonists imagine their life together as an ideal community of love, mercy, and equality among themselves. The goal is to be “all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection” (Norton 167), to be in perfect ordered unity under the Providence of God. That equality, however, does not extend equally to all people within their group (i.e. women), nor does it extend outside their community (i.e. anyone else they might meet in the populated lands of North America). In the colonizing context, it’s not hard to imagine the dark side of their belief that God created and maintains a hierarchical order of social ranks among people (166-68).

Yet one of the most famous claims to moral authority comes at the end of the message, in the noted image of the “city on a hill”:

“We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, ‘the Lord make it like that of NEW ENGLAND.’ For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with you God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word throughout the world.” (176-77)

In this passage, Winthrop gives his audience of several hundred Puritans a powerful motivation for performing according to their doctrine. Nothing less than the eyes of the whole world are upon them, Winthrop claims. In its reference to the New Testament book of Matthew, the “city upon a hill” image communicates the idea of a shining example, a beacon for others to emulate. This reinforces the belief that their mission is special on a global scale and divinely blessed. So they better not fail!!

While this image is consistent with the theology and politics of the Puritans, who intended to set up a new church-state polity, “a due form of government both civil and ecclesiastical” (175), it’s really interesting to see how this claim to moral authority has been deployed much more recently in U.S. presidential rhetoric, long after a separation between church and state was instituted.

On January 9, 1961, John F. Kennedy invoked the image in his farewell speech to the Massachusetts legislature, just prior to being sworn in as president. Calling on his home-state pride as a “son of Massachusetts,” Kennedy invokes the image of the “city on a hill” to claim that global focus is still on U.S. governance, that society is still embattled within and without, and that he hopes to bring the kind of moral authority demonstrated by Winthrop to his new post. Twenty-eight years later, Ronald Reagan used the same image during his presidential farewell speech to remind listeners of the “profoundly good” nature of the U.S.

No matter how you may – or may not – be persuaded by the rhetoric of Kennedy or Reagan, it’s fascinating to me to note that leaders within recent memory on both sides of the political aisle have used this particular image to try to convince people of the moral authority of the U.S. Its ideological pull is mighty, because it under girds the powerful notion ofAmerican exceptionalism – a secular version of Winthrop’s ideal Puritan church-state that has become part of a powerful set of cultural beliefs about the U.S.

What would it mean to read against the grain of this idea? To think through its contradictions, and its exclusions? Are we up to the task?

– Rebecca S.C.

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One thought on “The Afterlives of Winthrop’s “City on a Hill”

  1. Being a journalism major, the first thing that struck me about this post was its parallels with the way we often approach televised media. Professor Steele noted in his lectures on “A Streetcar Named Desire” that censors forced the director of the movie version of Tennessee Williams’ book to change its ending to convey the immorality of rape to the theater-going audience. Today many of us subject television programming to a seemingly similar criticism: that it should not be endorsing violence by portraying it in a graphic manner onscreen. On its face, this argument is the sibling of the “city on a hill” argument, seeming to suggest that airing a given act is akin to giving it the stamp of approval.

    However, the issue is more complicated than simply one of endorsement: psychological studies have suggested that viewing violence, especially in arguable excess as it is today, can have negative psychological effects, especially on children. Beyond that, the 2008 study “Mitigating the harmful effects of violent television” suggested that endorsement of violence does have problematic effects, since there are more harmful effects of children watching violence because it is the “good guys” as well as the “bad guys” who are engaging in it.

    We are, in effect, asking television networks to become a sort of city on a hill, an electromagnetic world in which only the condemned, or perhaps not even they, are allowed to lash out. This is potentially problematic because it requires the networks to adhere to one set of people’s view of what is right and wrong, but the alternative may be even more problematic if children are exposed to the programming. Just as we are now in a period of questioning whether it is right for America to believe itself alone to have the power to set moral standards for the world, we must also grapple with how best to protect children while bearing in mind the complexities of restricting viewpoints.

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