What Is the City on the Hill?
What Is the City on the Hill?

What Is the City on the Hill?

On the uses and abuses of John Winthrop’s famous sermon.

March 18 th 2021
What Is the City on the Hill?
City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020. 379 pp.

When President Ronald Reagan delivered his “Farewell Address to the Nation” in 1989, he called on his fellow citizens to be true to the purposes for which America was founded. To support his urgings, he cited a sermon preached by the Puritan leader John Winthrop in 1630. In that sermon, Reagan said, Winthrop, “an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man,” had used the Bible’s “city on a hill” image “to describe the America he imagined.”

Reagan was engaging in more than a little historical revisionism. For one thing, Winthrop was not a Pilgrim. He was a Puritan leader who had come to Massachusetts directly from England; he had no affiliation with the Pilgrim band of separatists who had left the Netherlands to settle in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620. For another, Winthrop’s sermon had nothing to do with the vision of a nation that would have a special role in God’s providential plan for the world. Winthrop was simply using Jesus’s words to his followers in Matthew 5:14–16 to encourage his Puritan congregation to be the kind of God-fearing community that the Lord calls the church to be in all times and places.

In his new book, City on a Hill, Abram Van Engen demonstrates convincingly that the practice of featuring Winthrop’s sermon in accounts of America’s origins is misguided. The sermon was just that—a sermon. And as such it did not even stand out among the hundreds of other seventeenth-century sermons about Christian faithfulness. For that reason, as Van Engen points out, it was pretty much ignored for a couple of centuries—showing up only in the occasional sermon anthology. In the nineteenth century it began to be referenced for its regional significance in the history of New England. But it did not come to be used as a “founding” document of the American nation as such until after World War II.

The influential Yale historian Perry Miller figures prominently in the shift in how the sermon was understood. He insisted that the sermon is crucial for understanding the origins of the American nation. The title of Miller’s best-known book, Errand into the Wilderness, published in 1956, signals the parallel Miller drew between American beginnings and ancient Israel’s wilderness pilgrimage. Both nations, he argued, were on the way to establishing a state with a unique mission. Miller himself was an avowed atheist, but he admired what he saw as the fundamental intent of Winthrop’s “city on a hill” motif. He contended that “without some understanding of Puritanism . . . there is no understanding of America.”

Perry’s use of the sermon was one of the significant acts of historical revisionism that later enabled figures such as Reagan to invoke Winthrop’s sermon as they did. In taking this approach Miller was not only ignoring the actual biblical content of Winthrop’s sermon, but he was effectively setting aside other historical factors as formative in shaping the sense of America’s calling. He argued, for example, that the role of Jamestown in Virginia in influencing the self-understanding of the United States did not have enough “coherence” to contribute to the vison of a flourishing America. What Winthrop’s Puritan vision provided, he argued, was a strong sense of national purpose, along with a narrative that gave the American nation a prominent place in the global human community, as well as inspiring a vibrant bond of civic kinship.

Like other historians discussed by Van Engen, Miller had to make some choices in order to feature Winthrop’s sermon in his narrative about the “meaning” of America. Not only did he decide to focus on New England rather than Virginia in constructing his narrative, but he even had to look to Boston rather than Plymouth in looking for the formative vision. And even more basic: Miller had to decide to use one particular document—the Winthrop sermon—to locate the origin of a vision of a flourishing American nation.

Soon after the new scholarly attention to Winthrop by Miller and others, “city on a hill” references began to show up in the rhetorical tool kits of American presidents. John F. Kennedy was the first American president to make use of it, although he “localized” its relevance by applying it primarily to Boston’s history. Reagan was the first president to credit Winthrop with a formative vision of America’s future—and he was followed in this by all of his successors until Donald Trump.

It would be easy, and in many ways right, to criticize these historians and political leaders for their selective understanding of American history and the place of Winthrop’s sermon within it. But in reading this important book I thought about my own journey as an institutional leader. One of my duties during my twenty-year presidency of Fuller Theological Seminary was to articulate a vision of what the school stood for in the world of theological education. On my rough estimate I talked about Fuller’s founding vision in at least two hundred speeches over the two decades. Typically I would explain Fuller’s mission by referring to a book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, by the evangelical leader Carl F.H. Henry, published in 1947, the same year in which Fuller was founded. Henry was one of the original faculty members of the school, and I used themes that he wrote about in his book to explain what Fuller came into existence to accomplish.

Reading Van Engen’s book made me aware that in making the case by using the Henry book I was making a series of choices. I think they were reasonable choices, but I could understand it if others associated with the school saw them as determined by my own personal agenda. Why treat the Henry book as having a “founding document” status in the school’s history? The book did not directly address issues in theological education. And while it was published in the same year that the school opened, Henry likely had thought much during previous years about the topics he would eventually discuss in the book—including in a time when he had no idea that he would serve on a faculty of a new seminary. Furthermore, why did I rely more on Henry’s book in explaining Fuller’s founding vision than on, say, the address by the school’s newly installed president at the beginning of the first academic year? Or, on a more basic level, why all of my emphasis on what was in the minds of those who established the school? There are associations and companies that have moved so far beyond what was intended by their founders that they understandably talk more about the present and the future than about the past.

Those are all reasonable questions. And in reading Van Engen, I gained some sympathy for historians and political leaders who have chosen to use Winthrop’s sermon as an American founding document.

Winthrop was preaching about a faithful church and not about a righteous nation.

To repeat, though: Winthrop was preaching about a faithful church and not about a righteous nation. Miller and others who looked to Winthrop’s sermon for a vision of national renewal failed to grasp the Puritan leader’s meaning. And as Van Engen rightly points out, even if Winthrop’s message could be made to apply to a political community, it would not fit well with the purposes that Miller and others wanted it to serve. For instance, Winthrop was not at all inclined to grant political freedoms to groups with different religious convictions. He and his followers had not left England in search of broad freedoms for diverse religious and non-religious groups, but to exercise their own religious devotion with fewer impediments. As Van Engen explains, the “liberty” that Winthrop celebrated in his preaching “meant a new ability to do what was right, not a broadening of choice to do as one pleased.”

The clarity with which Van Engen shows how scholars and presidents have misused Winthrop’s “city on a hill” image warms the hearts of those us who have been shaped by the Dutch statesman-theologian Abraham Kuyper. Church and nation occupy different “spheres” of cultural interaction. Each has its divinely ordained place in the scheme of things, with its own unique tasks and authority structures.

We cannot simply stop there, though. We must examine how the two spheres relate to each other. The late Harvard theologian Ronald Thiemann wisely pointed to the need for local congregations to serve as “‘schools of public virtue,’ communities that seek to form the kind of character necessary for public life.” The kind of life together that we experience in a godly church community will have at least some significant continuities with what we pray for and promote in the life of the nation.

Van Engen points us to the relevant continuities when he lists the themes Winthrop does set forth in his sermon: “Liberty, liberality, new beginnings, social stations, a well-ordered society, financial exchange governed by a law of love—above all, the mutual affections of a godly community generated first and foremost by the love of God.” It is difficult to see how we could experience those realties within the Christian community without wanting at least some of it to show up in our broader life together as a political community.

As Van Engen’s book demonstrates, the positive lessons from Winthrop’s sermon apply to all churches, in any of the nations in which they are called to serve the cause of Christ’s sovereign purposes. Each church is meant to be, in this sense, a “city on a hill.” Nothing in this gives any support to a doctrine of “American exceptionalism.” The unique history and collective character of the United States does not give it a privileged position among the nations.

Here too, though, there are topics that deserve detailed theological exploration. Kuyper and his younger colleague Herman Bavinck made much of the promise in the book of Revelation that “the honor and the glory of the nations” will be gathered into the Holy City in the end time. The full splendour of God’s cultural purposes, they insisted, can only be revealed when the unique contributions of diverse national cultures will be on display in the coming kingdom. This is not about national “exceptions,” but it does point to the reality of unique national “assignments.” It is with these divine purposes in mind, then, that Christian citizens can urge—while also praying for—their nation to reflect on and pursue its specific calling.

American Christians have an obligation to seek out the resources for articulating a vision for a nation that aspires to the ways of righteousness.

The call to examine that responsibility is a timely one, and Van Engen does not avoid addressing its timeliness. He focuses on recent patterns in American life at the end of his book. In his penultimate chapter, “American Exceptionalism and America First,” he points out that Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” is not an expression of American exceptionalism. America’s “greatness” for Trump, says Van Engen, “has nothing to do with historic ideals or bedrock values rooted somewhere deep in the American past.” Rather, it is about becoming the winner in a free-for-all in which each nation seeks to protect its interests by accumulating wealth and power.

For George W. Bush, as well as for several recent American presidents, exceptionalism meant a special obligation to “support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture.” Trump saw that national purpose as profoundly mistaken. As he put it as a presidential candidate in 2015, “I want to take everything back from the world that we have given them.”

Van Engen is convinced in the end that the spirit of “America First” has so come to dominate the national culture that any further attempts to promote the United States as a “city on a hill” will fail. He is probably right about that. American Christians have an obligation, however, to seek out the resources for articulating a vision for a nation that aspires to the ways of righteousness. In this quest, we can be grateful that Van Engen has taught us so much about the misuses—and the possible appropriate uses—of John Winthrop’s vision. Thanks to him, we are, as a church and as a nation, in a better position to know what it truly means—and does not mean—to be a city on a hill.

Image: "Castle (Castle Fairy Tale)" by Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis, 1909.

Richard Mouw
Richard Mouw

Richard J. Mouw is a widely respected theologian and philosopher. For many years he was a professor of Christian philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, and he also served as its president from 1993–2013. He is now a senior research fellow at Calvin University's Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics.


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