As those familiar with the HP know, explaining what the section of puritan leader John Winthrop’s lay sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” commonly referred to in modern times as “the City on a Hill speech” is all about is our national pastime. It’s right at the top of our site as one of our few static pages, and it’s consistently #1 or #2 in the list of posts visited on our site.
We’re not the only ones, however, rocking the COH scholarship. Historian Daniel Rodgers has a commanding new exploration of Winthrop’s work, the great majority of which focuses not on the actual 17th-century document that COH is part of, but on the loss and later, 20th-century rediscovery of COH.
It was those early 20th-century Americans who discovered, then chose to use, the COH phrase to undergird the purposes of their own times. The phrase languished in obscurity until the 1930s, when the puritan scholar Perry Miller brought it into the light. He was the first, 300 years after COH was written, to present it as the core of the puritan mission and mind, to make it the thing you had to know about the puritans, and therefore about America itself. He irretrievably linked the two for the first time.
Once flushed back out into the open, the COH was used by politicians in the 1950s to justify and locate a new definition of American exceptionalism. In the 60s and 70s it was used to justify a conservative Christian purpose in our founding. In the 1980s, it was famously misused by Ronald Reagan to justify unquestioning praise of America as always in fulfillment of its mandate of moral history. Thus, a puritan document was used to define the 20th-century American mission, so that America could have a straight-line of history in which our 20th-century identity was created in, and proceeded from, the 17th entury. One unbroken line of history and identity that began with the puritans—a strong, clear, purposeful teleology for a strong new international superpower.
This is what allowed Americans during the Cold War to say that “the most important thing the puritans brought with them to New England was the dream of being a model of freedom to the world.” And then when we learn in school that the puritans didn’t do that, we actually interpret it as the puritans failing to do this. We accuse them of reneging on a goal they never set for themselves, let alone for us. It was a goal we set for ourselves in 1787 that we now locate in the 1600s.
But enough from us: here’s a short review of Rodgers’ great book As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon. Read it, then get the book and enjoy.