This semester, I am teaching the first part of the US History Survey for the first time. It has been a wonderful experience so far, and I have enjoyed going back and reading some of the early American documents to refresh myself on them for my lectures. One of my favorites is John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity.” This is Winthrop’s most famous thesis, written on board the Arbella in 1630. We love to imagine the occasion when he personally spoke this oration to some large portion of the Winthrop fleet passengers during or just before their passage.
In an age not long past, when the Puritan founders were still respected by the educational establishment, this was required reading in many courses of American history and literature. However, it was often abridged to just the first and last few paragraphs. This left the overture of the piece sounding unkind and fatalistic, and the finale rather sternly zealous. A common misrepresentation of the Puritan character.
Winthrop’s genius was logical reasoning combined with a sympathetic nature. To remove this work’s central arguments about love and relationships is to completely lose the sense of the whole. You may read the full text by clicking on the link above. However, below, I have done what so many in American history and literature have done and just given you the last few paragraphs.
Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “may the Lord make it like that of New England.” For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.
And to shut this discourse with that exhortation of Moses, that faithful servant of the Lord, in his last farewell to Israel, Deut. 30. “Beloved, there is now set before us life and death, good and evil,” in that we are commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another, to walk in his ways and to keep his Commandments and his ordinance and his laws, and the articles of our Covenant with Him, that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land whither we go to possess it. But if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it.
Therefore let us choose life,that we and our seed may live,by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him,for He is our life and our prosperity.
A City upon a Hill is a phrase from the parable of Salt and Light in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:14, he tells his listeners, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” The phrase entered the American lexicon early in its history, in the Puritan John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity”. Still aboard the ship Arbella, Winthrop admonished the future Massachusetts Bay colonists that their new community would be a “city upon a hill”, watched by the world—which became the ideal the New England colonists placed upon their hilly capital city, Boston. Winthrop’s sermon gave rise to the widespread belief in American folklore that the United States of America is God’s country because metaphorically it is a Shining City upon a Hill, an early example of American exceptionalism.
American exceptionalism refers to the theory that the United States is qualitatively different from other countries. In this view, America’s exceptionalism stems from its emergence from a revolution, becoming “the first new nation,” and developing a uniquely American ideology, based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez-faire. This observation can be traced to Alexis de Tocqueville, the first writer to describe the United States as “exceptional” in 1831 and 1840. Historian Gordon Wood has argued, “Our beliefs in liberty, equality, constitutionalism, and the well-being of ordinary people came out of the Revolutionary era. So too did our idea that we Americans are a special people with a special destiny to lead the world toward liberty and democracy.”
I think that we still have that call of duty to be the “city upon a hill,” though I see it a little differently. American exceptionalism is alive and well, but in truth what are we exceptional at? Do we continue to uphold a uniquely American ideology, based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez-faire. I don’t think that most of us do. Too many are out for what is best for us, not best for our country or the world. I think that we should believe in what Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [and women] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Why then do politicians and Americans fight against equal rights for the GLBT community? Why are we so often excluded from these ideals? God, and, yes, our Founding Fathers advocated love and equality. Why then are we held back from having equality? Why do some of us have to hide who we are behind a closet door? Why can’t we be accepted for who we are without fear of rejection?
I know there are no easy answer to these questions, but when I look at these early documents and the ideology that the United States was founded on, then it makes me question what kind of government Americans expect us to have and what kind of God they are claiming to follow. In my humble opinion, it is not the government of our Founding Fathers (though most, if not all of the Founding Fathers, would not have wanted equality for what they would have termed sodomites) nor is it the religion of the one true God.
February 13th, 2012 at 3:24 pm
thank you. great post.
February 13th, 2012 at 5:23 pm
Joe: The ideals and principles in these founding documents represent dreams and wishes of the highest order and they quickly run into problems when facing the realities of the time in which they were created and continue to this day.Either by ignorance or gross disregard, people often pick and choose bits and pieces to support their biases. For example, i find it so disheartening that smart and logical people claim to be strict interpretations of the constitution and say they do not allow for viewing the evolution of our unalienable rights thru a prism of the times we live in — if that's the case, only free, white men, who are landowners "deserve" all the freedoms the original constitution was written about.
February 13th, 2012 at 8:37 pm
Excellent, just excellent…now how do we get the Republican wingnuts to read and subscribe to this?Thanks, Joe, well written, and very timely.Peace <3Jay