Vanity Fair, John Winthrop and “a city upon a hill”

Aimlessly leafing through the August issue of Vanity Fair, not even we at the HP could have been expecting to see John Winthrop’s name come up, but such is the power of myth.

In an article on the nature of the political debate over the middle class in America, the author (Michael Kinsley) referred to a speech the then-governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, gave in 1984 in which he lambasted then-President Reagan for ignoring the poor by talking about “two cities”, one rich, one poor. The author said this:

Cuomo’s ‘two cities’ imagery was a poke at Reagan, turning of of his favorite lines against him. In almost every speech he gave, it seemed, Reagan would refer to America as “a shining city upon a hill”, meaning an example for the rest of the world. Reagan got that from the Puritan preacher John Winthrop (though probably not directly). What Winthrop had in mind was a moral example, the but metaphor works on many levels.

Kinsley clearly did not get his information about John Winthrop directly from any historical source, as Winthrop was not a “preacher” at all, but a political leader who was elected many times to be the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony between its founding in 1630 and his death in 1649. It’s a little tricky, perhaps; the line “a city upon a hill” comes from a sermon Winthrop wrote while the Puritans were still on their sea voyage to the New World. The final section of that sermon is the section we set apart and study as the “City upon a Hill” speech.

Why would Winthrop write a sermon if he wasn’t a minister? Because the Puritans held four things very dear: reading the Bible, attending sermons, engaging in conference, and lay prophesying.

Each of these, in that order, was key to opening up one’s soul and consciousness enough to become aware of one’s own salvation (if it existed—but that’s another long story we cover here). The first two are clear; the third, conference, was just  talking with other people who were seeking religious light about what you read in the Bible and what you heard in sermons. The Puritans were extremely social, and their religion was founded on the idea that you must put your heads together—no one person could ever get as far in understanding God’s will as a group could. The Puritans needed and relied on each other for support during the difficult and, in England, the dangerous process of following their religion.

That’s exactly what Winthrop is talking about in the City on a Hill section of his sermon. Go read it here. It is an exhortation to the people to support and love and help each other, to put others first and self last.

So that is what conference meant to the people Winthrop was leading to America, and he was giving a sermon to them as part of conference. One of the striking innovations of the Puritan reform of Anglicanism was that every church got to hire its own minister. In most churches, there is a governing body—bishops, archbishops, pope, whoever it may be—that assigns a minister or priest to a church. The people have no say. But the Puritans said each congregation was independent—no overall, hierarchical governing body could tell it what to do. (That’s why in America they came to call themselves Congregationalists.) If a congregation could not agree on a minister, they went without one until they found one they could agree on. And if there was a shortage of good, reformed ministers, a congregation waited without one until one became available.

In the meantime, the deacons of the congregation preached and did everything the minister would except give communion. That was one of only two sacraments recognized by Puritans, and it had to be done by a minister. Having lay people lead the church was called lay prophesying. It could and did happen even after a minister was found, as members of the congregation were encouraged to share their light during and after church services.

The people crossing the Atlantic had not chosen a minister yet. So they asked their most important lay leader, John Winthrop, to preach them a sermon in the meantime. And he did such a masterful job that it has come down to us through the centuries. Once the people landed in Fall 1630, Winthrop and other lay leaders chose John Wilson to be the teacher of First Church in Boston. (Every Puritan church that could afford to pay them had both a teacher and a minister. Roughly, the minister was the administrative leader of the church who represented the church in meetings with other ministers and with the government; he also visited members of the congregation and gave them spiritual advice. The teacher was the scholar who wrote and preached sermons and published them, as well as other theological works.) Wilson served the church on his own until John Cotton was called as minister in 1632.

So that’s why Winthrop preached a sermon even though he wasn’t a minister. He was engaging in conference with other believers and lay prophesying. To go back to our Vanity Fair article, Winthrop was indeed talking about setting a good example in Massachusetts, but not in the pompous way implied in the article (“a moral example”). He wanted the people to treat each other well so that they would receive God’s blessing, and once they had done this, others would see the blessings that God gave to those who serve him and do the same. But most of all, when Winthrop said “we will be as a city upon a hill” he meant that any failures would be painfully visible to all—he might as well have said “we shall be as a city within a fishbowl”. All previous English colonies in North America had failed (Roanoke) or were failing (Plimoth [too small], Jamestown [small and wretched and chaotic]). The Massachusetts Bay Colony was being watched by all, particularly Spain and France, to see if it too would fail.

The stakes were high all around, then, when Winthrop gave his sermon; it became justly famous for urging people to find their best natures in a situation when people often did their worst. The least we can do is understand who Winthrop was and what he wanted for this new world.

Sinners in the hands of an angry God: where did it come from?

Welcome to part 2 of our series on the infamous Jonathan Edwards sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God”. Here we follow on from the description of the original Puritan religion and church practices in part 1 with a description of the Great Awakening and the sermon itself.

As we learned in part 1, by the 1690s the old Puritan Way was eroding in New England for political and demographic reasons. Puritans were no longer the majority population in the New England colonies as outsiders came in to the newly subsumed royal colony. Congregational religion held on; most people living in New England in 1720 who were born into Congregationalism took it seriously, but they did not regard the ministry or the complex, social, intellectual process of church doctrine with the respect that their forebears had felt.

This was partly inevitable; the fervor and complete devotion to the New England Way of the first generations who felt they were fighting God’s fight all alone in the New World could not be sustained by those who came later, born into a comfortable and profitable colony of the British empire. It was also partly the result of compromises to the Way that took the supernatural aura away from it and made it seem more a human creation like any other—no better and no worse than any other way.

Many historians have made a great deal of a supposed falling off of church membership at this time, the early 1700s, but as we have seen, full church membership had always been rare amongst the Puritans, because most of them were not sure that they were truly saved (a prerequisite to becoming a full member was publicly describing and affirming the moment you realized you were saved). So the slightly lower number still of full members in the 1700s is not surprising. In a time of increased doubt, the fraction of those who felt they were saved became even smaller.

Congregationalism was not dead; on the contrary, most Congregationalists were still very concerned with their souls. They just did not respond passionately to traditional Congregationalism anymore.

Enter the First Great Awakening. In the 1730s and 40s, a series of religious revivals swept New England and parts of New York and New Jersey. The theology of the revivalists was a mix; George Whitefield was an Anglican, many Baptists took part, and some Congregational ministers embraced a mix of Calvinist and Arminian principles. We saw in part 1 of this series that Arminianism had been an arch-enemy of the Puritans because it taught that humans could choose to accept God and be saved, which Puritans thought was impossible given the fallen, sinful nature of human beings. So it’s a proof of the shift in New England that an unreformed English Anglican could lead Baptists and Congregationalists in an embrace of Arminianism.

But the revivals did catch on. They spoke to people’s desire to be passionate about religion again, to feel the fire of religious devotion they read about in histories of their ancestors but did not feel in themselves. In the absence of a literal wilderness to fight against, like their settler ancestors had had, New Englanders in the 1730s and 40s fought against a spiritual wilderness. They fought against the apathy and religious complacency they had begun to feel as the Puritan religious zeal was more and more transferred to politics.

Jonathan Edwards was a Congregational minister in Northampton, Massachusetts Bay Colony who embraced certain aspects of the revival. Born in 1703, Edwards had grown up in a very traditional Puritan household; his mother Esther Stoddard Edwards was the daughter of the famous and influential Puritan minister Solomon Stoddard. Edwards believed in predestination, and had had his moment of realizing he was saved; he believed that God alone decided if someone was to be saved and that no human effort or decision could influence God. He was also a passionate amateur biologist who saw the beauty of nature as proof of God’s goodness, and a happily married man who took a special interest in women’s rights.

Edwards appreciated the religious revival because it brought people to church and got them passionate about religion again. It also gave him an opportunity to mix scientific method and the old-school Puritan intellectual approach by taking the revival as an opportunity to study and document the psycholgical steps involved in religious conversion. Perhaps pre-occupied by this angle, he did not realize that many who came to church in fear of damnation did not come to believe that they were saved and fell into despair. A few congregants took their own lives as a result, and revival faded in Northampton in 1735.

It was sparked back to life in 1740 when the famous English Anglican minister George Whitefield answered Edwards’ request to come preach in Northampton. Whitefield, a superstar of his day, was on a tour of the American colonies and attracting thousands of people to his hellfire sermons. He preached four times in Northampton that fall of 1740, and led Edwards back to preaching the full revival.

The next summer, July 8, 1741, Edwards preached his “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” sermon. To us it is a great event, but it was just one of many fiery sermons Edwards preached, and is only famous today because it was the one chosen to be anthologized in American literature texts.

The sermon is puzzling in a few ways, considering who Edwards was. He tells people they are in immediate danger of hell and urges them not to continue in their sinful ways, and to seek a “remedy” for their sin, but as a Congregationalist he cannot just tell them to accept Christ and be saved—he doesn’t believe in that. So the “remedy” remains very vague, which probably deeply upset his listeners. Early generations might have understood that they were supposed to begin the painstaking process of study, prayer, and church-going that would open their souls to God’s grace and let them know if they were saved, but by 1741 this process was about dead and buried. Young people in 1741 would not know anything about it, and would most likely have discounted it if they had known, for who would begin a years- or even decades-long process of discernment when the threat of hell is immediate? There’s no time for Puritanism any more.

The emotional nature of the sermon is also confusing, as the one thing Edwards disliked about the revival movement was its emotion. He did not approve of or encourage his listeners to cry out in church, throw themselves on the floor, or do any other dramatic thing, yet a sermon like this one could not help but provoke listeners to frantic despair.

It’s also unusual for a Puritan minister to deliver a “hellfire” sermon. Puritan sermons had usually focused on the process of searching for God’s grace, and the technical points of how to read God’s word and discern his will for you. They were not focused on hell and damnation because ministers assumed that most people in the Congregation did not know their spiritual status (whether or not they were saved) and so haranguing them about hell would be unfair and even counter-productive. It’s only when you begin to believe that you can act on your own to accept God and be saved that you can harrass people for not doing so.

Edwards tells people that very few humans are saved, and even says that most of their friends and loved ones who have died, people whom everyone liked and who seemed godly, are undoubtedly in hell, but gives no clear way out for the living, since salvation is restricted to such a tiny fraction of people. He tells them that God is “incensed” with them because of their sin, that they deserve to go to Hell and should go there, and that God will likely send them there and would be justified in doing so… then urges them to seek the “remedy”. But what remedy is there, if you deserve Hell and God has likely condemned you to it:?

Edwards uses the now-familiar phrase “born again”:

“Thus all you that never passed under a great change of heart, by the mighty power of the Spirit of God upon your souls; all you that were never born again, and made new creatures, and raised from being dead in sin, to a state of new, and before altogether unexperienced light and life, are in the hands of an angry God.”

These are Arminian ideas: that God can change your “heart” or soul (the Puritans believed that God never changed his creation because it was perfect), that humans can become good (Puritans believed this to be impossible), that God can decide to save someone previously condemned to Hell (Puritans believed that before the world was created God decided the fate of every human who would ever live, and then never changed his mind). Edwards continues the mystification by reiterating that there is nothing humans can do to avoid Hell (“…[you have] nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment”), and then saying humans have to do something: “Thus it will be with you that are in an unconverted state, if you continue in it”. Saying “if you continue in it” seems to clearly imply that you can choose not to continue in your sin, and thus can do something to save yourself.

We will do a close-reading of the sermon in the next post. For now, we’ll wrap up by saying this sermon is an artifact of the religious flux and change going on in Congregational New England at the time. Arminian ideas were creeping in, passion was replacing reason, and mixed messages about what was possible, what God’s nature was, and how humans stood in relation to God’s will proliferated. That’s what made the revival at once satisfying and horrible for those who participated: it satisfied their need for a passionate, non-intellectualized call to God, but then failed to offer a clear solution to the problem of their damnation. It would take a few more decades, really until the beginning of the 19th century, for the Protestant tenets we know today to take shape: that humans can choose God and salvation, that God can be influenced in his judgments, and that being “born again” means believing in Christ.  For revivalists in 1741, such a clear-cut doctrine was nowhere in sight.

Next time: let’s read the sermon

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God: what does it mean?

Welcome to our series on the (in)famous 1741 Jonathan Edwards sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God”. This is a text that is taught unfailingly in American literature courses in high school and college; students read a short excerpt, one of the many that focuses all too intently on describing the horrors of hell and the wretched situation of humans living seemingly comfortable and happy lives on Earth but destined—pre-destined—to wind up scorching eternally.

It’s usually presented as an example of the awfulness of the Puritans and their religion, but it’s not really a Puritan sermon at all. In this series, we’ll trace the evolution of this sermon, the Great Awakening of which it was a part, and the overall religious climate of New England in the mid-1700s.

Let’s begin with a sizing up of religious feeling and practice in New England at the time. New England had been settled by Puritans—English people who wanted to strip the Anglican church of its remaining “Catholic” practices—to purify it (much more on the Puritans throughout this site!). The church these people created in the New World came to be called Congregational, because each individual congregation was completely autonomous—there were no bishops and archbishops assigning ministers and dictating doctrine. The people attending a church had complete control over who became their minister, voting for and against candidates for that office, and each church was free from interference by the state.

When on earth, you ask, will we get to the sermon? It is coming; in the very next post we’ll get to it. But you can’t understand why Edwards’ sermon was so powerful unless you know where his congregation of 1741 was at with their religion and their souls.

This original Congregational church was strong from 1630, when the Puritans arrived in New England, until about 1700. Early on, the Puritans codified their beliefs and, most importantly, their church practices in a body of doctrine called the New England Way. One of the most important things to understand about the real Puritanism of this period, rather than the religious practice that came later in the early 1700s, is that Puritan religion was very intellectual. It required lots of thought, reading, prayer, conversation, and soul-searching done in the quiet of reflection. The New England Way laid out a series of steps one must take in order to a) open oneself to God’s grace so that b) one could realize whether one had been given God’s grace and was saved. It’s a little bald, but let’s put it into bullets:

—Puritans believed that everyone in history and in the future had already been given grace/salvation by God or had not

—There was nothing you could do to earn God’s grace/salvation; no sinful human could ever deserve it

—God decided millennia before you were born whether to give you His grace or not (this is called predestination)

—Your job was to live as good a life as you could, following Congregational doctrine as closely as you could, in order to make your fallen soul as receptive as possible to the word of God, which would

—make it possible for you to realize whether you had received God’s grace or not.

—If you realized you had been saved, you were all set. If not, you had to keep trying. Puritans, for all their strictness, were loathe to actually tell someone to give up, that they weren’t saved.

Puritans were fully committed to their Way. They saw it as a fixed doctrine, set for the ages. But in 1659, the Halfway Covenant was introduced. In the Congregational church, infants were baptized, and anyone baptized in a church could attend it. But unless they became full members, they could not take communion or take part in church votes. To become a full member, you had to complete the long series of steps toward opening yourself to God and have the realization that God had indeed saved you. Very, very few Puritans, even in the fervent early decades, did this. They took their religion very seriously, and very few people could bring themselves to think that they had been given the priceless gift of God’s grace and salvation. The Halfway Covenant allowed people who weren’t full members to have their own children baptized.  They could not take communion or vote, but they could be part of the groups that sought to know God’s will. This was a compromise that kept children in the fold without corrupting the Congregational practice of requiring full membership  before you took communion or voted.

Churches across New England battled in mini civil wars over whether they would accept the Halfway Covenant, and some churches were torn apart. Argument about what the New England Way really was fired the region. The Halfway Covenant was eventually accepted, but it did plant a seed of doubt in people’s minds—was Congregational doctrine really handed down from God, and unchangeable, or something created by humans that had no real authority?

This question would remain as the 17th century drew to a close. The Massachusetts Bay Colony lost its autonomy in 1691 and was made a royal colony under direct control of the English king, and many thousands of non-Puritans entered the colony. The old religion held on, but inevitably it changed. Whether you thought that change was for the better or the worse influenced how you felt about the Great Awakening, and Jonathan Edwards’ preaching, when they came.

Next time: the Great Awakening and the Sermon