Patrick Dineen has an excellent article, “Cities of Man on a Hill” in the inaugural issue of an important new journal, American Political Thought. His take on the various types of American exceptionalism is definitely worth reading. But, for today’s purpose, it provides a chance to think briefly about John Winthrop’s iconic sermon that gave us the oft-quoted concept of a “city on a hill.”
A couple of years ago, the Witherspoon Institute sponsored a church-state seminar, and we were reading Winthrop’s “Modell of Christian Charitie.” Called the greatest sermon of the millennium by Harvard’s University Preacher, it is one of the most anthologized works of American literature. All of us who went to school in the U.S. undoubtedly had to read it, and we learned that Winthrop delivered it on the Arabella, the ship bringing the early Puritans to the New World.
What I found amazing, when I looked in to it, was that Winthrop’s sermon has had enduring effects on presidents and preachers, but it doesn’t appear to have moved his listeners. Winthrop’s most recent biographer tells us that, despite the Puritans’ penchant for leaving an impressively abundant documentary record, “not a single individual recorded in a letter, diary, or other source having heard Winthrop deliver the sermon.” In fact, early Puritan historians, including one who sailed on the Arabella with Winthrop, never mentioned the sermon. (See Francis Bremer, John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father (2005).)
I’m not sure what that tells us other than, perhaps, it takes a while to find out what will stand the test of time, much as Roger Williams’ religious liberty writings were virtually unheard of in America until they were discovered a century later and used to great effect by Isaac Backus and other Baptists.
One final thought: at the end of Winthrop’s sermon, he talks about a covenant (i.e., essentially a contract) between the Massachusetts Bay Company and God. What do you think the terms were?