“The City upon a Hill” by John Winthrop: what is it about?

Posted on June 28, 2010. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

The “City upon a Hill” section of the sermon called “A Model of Christian Charity” was written in 1630 by the Puritan leader John Winthrop while the first group of Puritan emigrants was still onboard their ship, the Arbella, waiting to disembark and create their first settlement in what would become New England. The “City” section of this sermon was pulled out by later readers as a crystallization of the Puritan mission in the New World.

Of course, as with any topic touching on the Puritans, there’s some myth-busting to be done. By now, the “City upon a Hill” excerpt has come to represent irritating Puritan pridefulness—they thought they were perfect, a city on a hill that everyone else would admire and want to emulate. In reality, the excerpt is far from a back-patting exercise. It is a gauntlet laid down to the already weary would-be settlers. Let’s go through it:

Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck and to provide for our posterity is to follow the Counsel of Micah, to do Justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God:

The “shipwreck” Winthrop refers to is the wrath of God that falls on peoples or nations who fail to do God’s will. Earlier in the sermon, Winthrop has been at once warning the people that they must not fail in their efforts to set up a godly state in the new World and reassuring them that this does not mean they can never make a mistake. God is with them, and will suffer small failings. But if, like the government and church of England, the Puritans forsake their mission to create a truly godly society, they will suffer the wrath of God. This is the shipwreck to be avoided.

…for this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man, we must entertain each other in brotherly Affection, we must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities, for the supply of others necessities, we must uphold a familiar Commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality, we must delight in eache other, make others Conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labour, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our Commission and Community in the work, our Community as members of the same body, so shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace, the Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us, as his own people and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways…:

This is a beautiful passage, reminiscent of the Sermon on the Mount in its focus on mercy, kindness, sharing, and other selfless qualities. The Puritans will not succeed by harrying out the sinner or otherwise smiting evil, but by loving each other, caring for each other, and “abridging our selves of our superfluities, for the supply of others necessities” (that is, there will be equality of wealth, with no one living in luxury while others starve). They will delight in each other,  making others’ conditions their own, and they will do all this to create a natural community of faith. The point here is that religious faith will not be mandated or policed or forced on anyone. It will be generated naturally by the hope and love and faith of the people themselves. It will be an effect, not a cause. The Quakers would try to live out this same philosophy decades later.

…so that we shall see much more of his wisdom power goodness and truth than formerly we have been acquainted with:

And how. That’s an understatement. The projected society would be almost unequalled anywhere in the known world.

…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:

Here comes the crux of the excerpt. Why will later settlers hope their societies will be like New England? Because of the love and comradeship, care and goodwill in New England. Notice that so far Winthrop has been urging his people to be caring and loving and selfless. He isn’t saying they already are all those things. He isn’t boasting about a pre-existing condition. He is urging them to become caring and loving and selfless, in the name of their godly mission, so that they will truly succeed. If—and it’s a big if—they succeed in becoming all those good things, their society will be admired. It’s not really that the Puritans will be admired so much as their society will be admired. There’s no self in this for Winthrop; it’s all about serving God as a society, and not about individuals becoming famous for their virtue. To him, there’s a difference. Fame may come as a result of serving God, but it’s the serving of God that matters.

…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 byword through the world, we shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the way of God and all professors for God’s sake; we shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into Curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whether wee are going:

First, we see what “city on a hill” really means: it doesn’t mean perfect, it means visible. They will be under a microscope, unable to hide their failures from all the eyes trained on them. No one wants to live in a city on a hill, because all of your faults and failings are in plain view.

Second, Winthrop wasn’t just speculating. This fate of becoming a byword for failure had already befallen every English colony in North America by 1630. Roanoake had disappeared, and Jamestown was so well-known in England for the horrors its unprepared settlers suffered that by the time the Puritans sailed their main goal was to avoid Jamestown’s very well-publicized failures. Among the many reasons the Puritans did not want to settle in Virginia was to avoid contamination with Jamestown’s perpetual bad luck (which the Puritans put down in large part to the colony’s lack of a commission from God). Even Plimoth Plantation, founded by Separatists just 10 years earlier, wasn’t exactly thriving. The Puritans settled far from the Pilgrims. So there was evidence, to Winthrop, that God had already withdrawn his support from all previous English settlements. The stakes were high.

…And to shut up this discourse with that exhortation of Moses, that faithful servant of the Lord in his last farewell to Israel [in] Deut. 30. Beloved there is now set before us life, and good, death and evil in that we are Commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another, to walk in his ways and to keep his Commandements and his Ordinance, and his laws, and the Articles of our Covenant with him that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land whither we go to possess it:

In closing (“to shut up this discourse”), Winthrop dramatically positions his group on the very edge of life and death, good and evil; they have never been more free to choose which way they will go. It’s all up for grabs. If Winthrop was sure that it would be easy for the Puritan to make the right choice, because they were so much better than everyone else in the world, he wouldn’t have hammered this point home. He wouldn’t have had to show them how high the stakes were, and he wouldn’t have supposed there was even a choice to be made. Since he was a realist, albeit a compassionate one, Winthrop reiterated the fact that the Puritans too, like everyone else, had to choose good over evil.

… But if our hearts shall turn away so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced and worship other Gods, our pleasures, and profits, and serve them, it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good Land whither we pass over this vast Sea to possess it:

Again, high stakes. The important thing to note here is what Winthrop considers to be the threat: “our pleasures and profits”. Colonies were founded to make money. Everyone knew that. And even the Puritans would have to repay their investors. They were business people, many of them London merchants, and they would set about creating industry in New England. They were also normal people who loved dancing, music, alcohol, sex, and love, and they would enjoy all those things in their new land. Being a Puritan was not about denial. It was about balance. Enjoy without attachment, enjoy without letting pleasure become your master—this was the Puritan ideal (it’s also very Buddhist—see The Bhagavad Gita).

Therefore let us choose life, that we, and our Seed, may live; by obeying his voice, and cleaving to him, for he is our life, and our prosperity:

Let us choose life: it’s a very positive, very idealistic, beatific closing to the excerpt and the sermon. Winthrop even wrote it out in verse (I didn’t do that here for space reasons). Choose life that we may live, choose God for God is life. This sermon must have truly inspired the Puritans who heard it, in part because it did not confirm their virtue but challenged it. It is an exhortation to do better than they normally would, to try harder, to aim higher. It is not a smug confirmation that they are the best people in the world and that whatever they do will be better than what anyone else does. It is a call to virtue and effort, love and compassion, sharing and helping that does Winthrop and his group credit. In that sense, it is the first of many other great American calls to idealism and justice, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation.

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11 Responses to ““The City upon a Hill” by John Winthrop: what is it about?”

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[…] Of course, New Englanders don’t like to think that they can learn from anyone.  We generally like to be a model for others – a way of thinking that has been around for many years. […]

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thanks great stuff here. Will bookmark so I can find it easy another time

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Thank you Lord Jesus Christ for my life

I am a Christian the son of Christians born of the Puritans descendent

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How do you know for sure you’re from the Puritans lineage?

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Hello Danilo; what do you mean?

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Short and informative. I liked.

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[…] “‘The City Upon a Hill,’ by John Winthrop: What’s It All About?,” The Historic Present, June 28, 2010.  Referenced at:  http://thehistoricpresent.wordpress.com/2010/06/28/the-city-upon-a-hill-and-puritan-hubris/ […]

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[…] can be no doubt: in the national spotlight, Boston is once again that City on a Hill, with the eyes of all people upon us. As we have been a leader in so many things, I know we can be […]

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Reblogged this on HillCities Blog and commented:
The Covenant People of God should hold in their hearts and efforts this vision of ” a city on a hill.”

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