As a City on a Hill

The Story of America's Most Famous Lay Sermon

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Daniel T. Rodgers
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , November
     2018.
     368 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691181592.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon, the latest offering from Daniel T. Rodgers, uses John Winthrop’s now famous “A Model of Christian Charity” as a prism to illumine four centuries of political and religious mythmaking. In three sections—Text, Nation, and Icon—Rodgers traces the original meaning of Winthrop’s sermon, its invisibility for most of American history, and its late-20th century resurrection as an iconic statement of American exceptionalism. 

The first section, Text, patiently exhumes the original meaning of Winthrop’s words. Far from an announcement of America’s world-historical destiny, Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity,” in Rodgers’ reading, offered a meditation on how Puritans could deal with the inevitable reality of social inequality. Winthrop was caught between indebtedness to the colony’s investors and the obligation to Massachusetts’ poorer residents. He urged all to adopt charity as a rule of Christian life. Similar to other Puritans, Winthrop worried about the growth in commercial exchange and “did not accept market morals whole” (105). He viewed love as a “ligament” that bound together societies and compelled wealthy men to sacrifice on behalf of the poor. The New England model Winthrop imagined depended on an insular community committed to a covenantal relationship with God. His message sounded idealized themes for a Christian community, but Massachusetts lost its standing during the English protectorate and soon found itself eclipsed by newer American colonies. By the end of the 17th century, “no one was watching” the city on a hill (85). 

Rodgers’ fascinating second section, Nation, examines the “invented foundations” of American nationalism. He convincingly demonstrates that American nationalism mirrored the nationalisms within other countries during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Citizens from several nation-states imagined themselves as the chosen instruments of God. Several of them even drew on the same biblical metaphor as Winthrop. In particular, white colonialists and black nationalists viewed the experiment in Liberia as a clear illustration of an African city on a hill. But virtually no one in the 18th or 19th centuries read Winthrop’s sermon. Antiquarian societies published excerpts of Winthrop’s sermon in 1840 and 1916. In the preface to the 1916 publication, Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison bemoaned its “emphasis on collectivism rather than individualism” as an example of “much of the rigor and intolerance” of early New England (182). 

It would remain for 20th century Americans to resurrect Winthrop’s words. In the final section of the book, Icon, Rodgers traces the rehabilitation of the Puritans, which began among historians and eventually transformed the rhetoric of American presidents. Perry Miller played a decisive role in this shift. He viewed Winthrop’s sermon as a key text for understanding the “New England Mind,” which was, for Miller, at the heart of American identity. In the face of God’s inscrutability and life’s incomprehensibility, the Puritans courageously committed themselves to a covenantal belief that held no guarantee of success. That courage looked appealing in the existential battles against fascism and communism. Miller’s Puritans became role models for 20th century Americans. His student, Edmund Morgan, amplified Winthrop’s reputation as a prudent governor trying to manage the passions raging around him. Daniel Boorstin’s influential textbook, “The Americans,” drew on Miller’s scholarship to portray Winthrop as a man with wisdom for modern times. 

These careful scholarly efforts eventually caught the attention of Cold War politicians casting about for American origin stories. John F. Kennedy drew on Winthrop’s sermon in a 1961 address to the Massachusetts legislature. In 1971, Richard Nixon narrated the (almost certainly apocryphal) story of Winthrop preaching aboard the Arbella. Most famously, Ronald Reagan quoted from Winthrop’s sermon throughout his political career. Rodgers shows how Reagan shifted his interpretation of the sermon over time. As an insurgent candidate, Reagan echoed Winthrop’s warning about becoming “a story and a by-word” if America failed to turn from its wicked ways. Once he ascended to the Oval Office, Reagan rarely quoted that line, opting instead for an optimistically amended metaphor—the “shining city on a hill”—that buzzed with free commerce and open doors to immigrants. Rodgers closes the final section of the book with a bemused survey of the countless historical misreadings of Winthrop in modern America, alongside a surprising analysis of the ambivalence that evangelicals have shown toward Winthrop’s sermon. 

As a City on a Hill is a masterful synthesis. Spanning four centuries, the book deftly narrates the intellectual history of “America’s most famous lay sermon,” even as it shows the lack of fame the sermon had for three of those four centuries. It excavates the original meaning of Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity,” illustrates the many (non-Puritan) sources that forged American nationalism in the 19th century, and narrates the marriage of Winthrop’s sermon to American exceptionalism in the last fifty years. The epilogue wonders if the days of Winthrop are numbered, now that we have a president who, quite unlike Reagan, views America as a “disaster” and a “dumpster fire.” If Reagan’s wistful nostalgia papered over America’s faults and misread history, Trump simply omits history altogether in favor of a crass transactionalism. Perhaps, as Rodgers modestly suggests in closing, we could learn a few things from Winthrop’s model—but only by following a more cautious path in our search for a usable past.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Seth Dowland is Associate Professor of Religion and Chair of the Women's and Gender Studies Program at Pacific Lutheran University.

Date of Review: 
June 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel T. Rodgers is Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. His books include Age of Fracture, winner of the Bancroft Prize; Atlantic Crossings; Contested Truths; and The Work Ethic in Industrial America. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

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