Review: City on a Hill

City on a Hill

City on a Hill: A History of American ExceptionalismAbram C. Van Engen. New Haven: Yale University Press, Forthcoming, February 25, 2020.

Summary: A history of Governor John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon, and how the phrase “city on a hill” from the sermon became the metaphor for American exceptionalism.

On April 8, 1630, the Arbella stood off Massachusetts Bay, part of a fleet of Puritan-filled ships organized as the Massachusetts Bay Colony, with John Winthrop elected as their first governor. Governor Winthrop preached a sermon titled “A Model of Christian Charity” that called upon the company to embrace the virtue of charity in the community they would found, a mutual care for each other. He concluded with this peroration describing the consequence of such charity:

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, “may 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 our 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 through the world.

As significant as the sermon would later become, it appears it was more or less forgotten in the concerns of settlement. It’s survival in handwritten manuscript form is a story in itself. In fact, it was forgotten for two hundred years, and only came into political parlance in the 1960’s when the “city on the hill” portion was first quoted by John F. Kennedy. In succeeding years it would turn up in the speeches of nearly every American president. Until President Trump.

Abram C. Van Engen traces the fascinating story of this sermon from its beginnings to the present in his new work, City on a Hill. He considers its initial import as a call to loving community among the Puritans. He follows the history of the manuscript, how it existed in obscurity among papers from the colony’s early years. He profiles archivists like Jeremy Belknap at Harvard and Ebenezer Hazard in New York, who passionately, tirelessly, and often at personal cost collected and contributed these materials at some of the earliest examples of the preservation of historical materials in Harvard and at the New York Historical Society. It was in New York that the sermon was stored, but not noticed for many years.

Van Engen considers the decision to center this historical archival work around the Puritans, rather than earlier arrivals to North America–the Pilgrims, the Dutch in New York, the Jamestown settlers, the French, the Spanish, and the Native peoples. The account was a New England account, a religious account focused on God’s providence. It shaped first the New England consciousness, and then a wider American consciousness, even while the sermon, apart from brief notice in the 1830’s continued to be ignored. He explores why it remained obscure as a lengthy sermon as opposed to a concise statement like the Mayflower Compact.

He then introduces the scholars that brought this Puritan heritage to national notice from Weber to Perry Miller to his successor Sacvan Bercovitch. An striking part of this account are his chapters on Perry Miller, who was concerned about the materialism that arose from Puritan values, and held up “A Model of Christian Charity” as the epitome of the spiritual values that even atheist Miller wanted to see embraced, incorporating it into anthologies used in teaching American history. I hope some day Van Engen follows up with a full-length study of Miller, a brilliant and tragic figure.

Miller’s work was the likely source of Kennedy’s use. Van Engen then follows its usage through successive presidents, culminating in Ronald Reagen who more than anyone appropriated the image for the country’s exceptionalist destiny, no where more movingly than his Farewell Address on January 11, 1989:

The past few days when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the shining “city upon a hill.” The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important, because he was an early Pilgrim – an early “Freedom Man.” He journeyed here on what today we’d call a little wooden boat, and, like the other pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.

I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind, it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind swept, God blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace – a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.

As Van Engen concludes this book, he notes President Trump’s lack of use of this language and contends that it represents a significant shift from rhetoric focused around American ideals to American interests. He argues that our current president focuses not on what makes us exceptional but on what we have in common with all nations–that we put our interests first. The vision of exceptionalism is one of being first. Van Engen wonders whether this shift in rhetoric is a longer term shift or one confined to this administration, acknowledging the flaws in each approach.

This is an important work in so many ways, from tracing the sermon’s origins and after history, to the ways the sermon has been misappropriated, ignoring the body of Winthrop’s appeal, to exploring the ways a focus on Puritan origins has blinded us to other aspects of the American story–the Native peoples, African slaves, settlement in other parts of the country, and the ways the religious focus of the message has been transformed into a founding document of America’s civil religion.

Within this narrative, Van Engen also highlights both the significant contribution and blind spots of archivists and curators in American historiography. Van Engen shows how our histories are shaped by what is collected. In the process, Van Engen also faces us with crucial questions of the substance of the rhetoric we use to describe our sense of national purpose and character at a time where we may be witnessing a sea change in that sense.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

3 thoughts on “Review: City on a Hill

  1. I was reminded by the title of a previous work with the same title: Philip Graham Ryken, City on a Hill: Reclaiming the Biblical Pattern for the Church in the 21st Century (Chicago: Moody, 2003); on Moody Press at https://www.moodypublishers.com/books/current-issues/city-on-a-hill/ [accessed 10 FEB 2020]. Perhaps others would find it useful to study the historical and public square foundation provided in Van Engen’s work, and following up with the contemporary ecclesiastical applications Ryken focuses on.

  2. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: February 2020 | Bob on Books

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