The rise of a sermon phrase – “a city on a hill” – to explain American exceptionalism

An English professor describes how a sermon by John Winthrop in 1630 came to describe the United States:

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In 1630, John Winthrop, the first Puritan governor of Massachusetts Bay, declared that “we shall be as a city upon a hill.” When President Ronald Reagan used Winthrop’s words to describe America, he helped transform “A Model of Christian Charity” into a foundational text of American culture. In its own day, Winthrop’s sermon went unrecorded, unpublished, and almost entirely unnoticed. It was found and first published in 1838—at which point it continued to be ignored for another century…

Winthrop’s sermon is a communal statement of love—a “model of Christian charity,” exactly as it is called. The question behind his sermon is simple: What do we owe each other? And Winthrop’s answer is the same as Paul’s: whatever redemptive love requires…

The phrase “city on a hill” also has a fascinating and largely unknown 17th century context. The phrase comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (specifically Matthew 5:14), and in the 1600s, it was Roman Catholics, not Puritans, who loved it most. They used Matthew 5:14 to prove Protestantism false and Catholicism true. The Catholic Church, they said, was the only one visible church since the time of Christ (Jesus “set it on a hill”). Protestants, in contrast, described the true church as small or hidden, turning to Luke 12:32 and Revelation 12. When it came to Matthew 5:14, they had to reinterpret this verse to pry it from Catholic hands. Instead of the universal church being a “city on a hill,” Protestants like Winthrop claimed that “city on a hill” applied locally, to this place or that, wherever the true light of the gospel shone. Because the phrase did not refer to one universal church, it could be reapplied to individual congregations, towns, cities, and eventually—as we have come to see—a nation…

My book moves from the 1600s through the American Revolution and the making of the first national history textbooks in the 1800s to the claims and impact of the influential German sociologist Max Weber in the early 1900s. But for me, the most enjoyable chapters to write were on Perry Miller, a Harvard scholar who had a giant influence on the way we understand the Pilgrims and Puritans today. It was Perry Miller, an atheist, who above all made John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon central to the American story. He did so not just to set the US apart from the USSR, but also to challenge American society, which he saw as having fallen from its Puritan origins. Just a few years before Miller died, the Harvard-educated John F. Kennedy became the first president to use Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon in a speech. When Reagan picked it up, it became famous—a linchpin in larger narratives of American exceptionalism.

Another example of how civil religion develops: several centuries after a sermon is given, it is picked up and interpreted by political leaders and others who want to tie several strands of social life together. Implied above is that another politician in another time period – say Grover Cleveland in the late 1800s – may not have been able to prompt the spread of this connection in American life. Ronald Reagan, who tried to be optimistic about American life, helps give the quote, which had some public airing because of John F. Kennedy, new life in a particular context.

The 17th century context of the meaning of a “city on a hill” is fascinating given what the phrase came to represent. If Winthrop meant to use the phrase in contrast to Catholic interpretations, the fact that the phrase came to represent a powerful America is a twist. The Protestant interpretation discussed above applied to a small context. When Americans use the phrase today, they tend to mean a powerful city on the hill, casting light on the countryside below or holding a fortified position or occupying the high ground. The American bastion of freedom and Christendom has replaced the prior holders of this title.

This phrase also gives more credence to cities than Americans have over the course of their history. Even with some important cities on a global stage, Americans are generally anti-urban and instead embrace suburban life. Updating the phrase, perhaps Americans would rather say “the suburban megachurch on the hill” or the “quiet yet stately suburb on the hill.”

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