City on a Hill

John Winthrop’s famous speech, given on a boat crossing the Atlantic in the hope of forming a new kind of community, rooted in (Puritan) faith but also radically committed to “charity,” drew Tom Geogeghan into a bit of a rant about America’s self-perception:

As Obama and his staff thumbed through the great American political speeches in advance of his second Inaugural address, I wonder if it occurred to them to go back to the first attempt to express the American idea, John Winthrop’s famous speech invoking a “City upon a Hill,” written for his fellow Puritans in 1630 on board the Arbella.

George Washington’s Farewell Address, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, and John F. Kennedy’s first all have their admirers. But Winthrop’s remains the ultimate inaugural address: the one that inaugurated everything. And it’s the one we most need to hear again with fresh ears — because it’s also the speech that everyone seems to get completely wrong.

Known colloquially as the “City on a Hill” speech, Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” unfairly gets the rap for the idea of American exceptionalism when presented in its Fox News form: We’re number one and no one should apologize for America.

How could anyone read Winthrop’s speech and reach that conclusion? The first great American political speech, it is terrifying in its humility. Winthrop gave that speech not to pound his chest but to beat it. If we aren’t humble and meek — at least in Winthrop’s telling — the good ship Arbella could well end up at the bottom of the sea.

The speech makes clear that humility is our only hope: “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 and to walk humbly without our God.”

Sound much like the present-day United States, snarled in political gridlock? Here’s the key point we too often overlook in Winthrop’s speech: We ought to think twice about what it means to be a City upon a Hill. If we’re proud and boastful, it’s not a place we want to be. According to Winthrop, God put us up high, not to have the whole world bow down to us — but to give everyone a front row seat to view our example. Should we are no longer be meek and humble, God would rain down fire on our heads before their upturned eyes.

That’s really why we’re the City upon a Hill: to be a giant fireball for all the world to see should we break our covenant with God.

And what is this covenant we dare not breach?

Nothing so tame as interfering with traditional marriage or the right to bear arms. No, while it may come as a surprise to many, the most sacred covenant of the community is this: “[W]e must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of each other’s necessities.”

Yes, Tom, yes, he advocated charity. But the heart of the Winthrop vision was a kind of holiness that establishes the context for charity.

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  • metanoia

    “[W]e must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of each other’s necessities.”

    Sounds more like personal choice and responsibility versus government coercion to do so. His swipe at Fox News was unnecessary. While Fox News does have a conservative slant in reporting the news, they didn’t invent a version of American Exceptionalism. They are certainly entitled to report that a large population of Americans define exceptionalism differently than those who populate the desks of the major networks.

    As for the commentary, there is a slant to it that doesn’t truly represent a conservative perspective on the concept of “City on a Hill” and “American exceptionalism.” While there are those who do some chest-thumping, the vast majority of those I know are very humble of America’s standing and responsibility to the rest of the world.

  • scotmcknight

    metanoia, why call it “coercion”? Were Israelite laws commanding gleaning “coercion” too?

  • metanoia

    I differentiate between the Israelite theocracy and American democracy. As people of faith we should be guided by spiritual discernment and our understanding of biblical teaching for taking care of the less fortunate. When government coerces me through confiscation of my hard earned living, it makes it more difficult to steward my resources to the truly needy instead of supporting levels of bureaucratic waste.

    It’s one thing to abide by “thus saith the Lord” and another to to accept, “thus saith a government bureaucrat.”

  • scotmcknight

    metanoia, I don’t believe a law makes something coercive unless the law is unjust, and then it can lead to coercion. I’m not sure it is coercion until some kind of force is used to demand obedience … so if you choose to go along with it, it’s not coercion; if you choose not to go along with it and go to jail, it is not coercion because you choose your medicine; if you choose not to go along and the govt coerces you to give then it is clearly coercion. To act acc to law under threat of confinement (prison time) under the power of one’s own will may be coercive.

    In other words, I find the word “coercion” as used by many to be exaggerated rhetoric and not helpful.

  • Diane Reynolds

    Another amen Scot. I don”t agree with how some of my tax money is spent, but I accept it as the price of living in a commonwealth.

  • metanoia

    I can’t say how others use of “coercion” is defined, but don’t you think our current tax system is inherently unjust when we are demanded to pay (under penalty of IRS law conditions) for waste? Is it wrong to question, in a democracy, a government’s incessant demand for revenue to fund program after program, that if allowed to be put to referendum would undoubtedly be rejected by the majority. Are we to continue to just accept taxation that weighs down a family to the point of creating conditions where decisions have to made that ultimately harm the family? Is it just for us not question a government that has encumbered the next 2 generations with a tax burden for things those generations may never reap the benefits from? I believe that these are legitimate questions that need to be addressed. Did Jesus say, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” and stop there. What happens when the demands of Caesar make it difficult to “render unto God that which is God’s?’

    With all due respect to Diane in #5, does our responsibility to be stewards of what God has gifted us mean that we are accept waste “as a price of living in a commonwealth?”

    Just curious.

  • Scot McKnight

    There’s the rub. You contend that something is unjust — you say so. It is your opinion. Then you say since it is unjust it is therefore unjust. Since it is unjust then it is coercion. This is a wax nose argument.

    The fact is this: we are Americans; we vote in leaders; they make decisions about taxes. Our leaders — yours and mine — have made these on the basis of law and representation of us. How can that be coercion?

    It is coercion for you because you disagree. Your idea of waste is someone else’s idea of government-sponsored help or whatever. No, it is not wrong to question. That’s a wonderful thing about America. But in the end the one with the most votes wins and we all are then implicated in the majority view, whether we like it or not.

    I say it is law because our leaders, whom we voted, made that vote in DC. WE voted them in. Therefore, it is not coercion but law.

    As I see it, you don’t support what our leaders are doing. That’s not coercion; it’s disagreement.

  • metanoia

    There is an abundance of regulation that is being imposed on us as Americans that has been adopted through the circumvention of the legislative process. Something is not unjust because I declare it so, it becomes unjust when the people are being denied proper representation. It is to be challenged because we are the government of the people, by the people.
    I didn’t suggest in a blanket way that I disagreed with our leaders. I very distinctly raised the issue of waste, of which there is abundant information available. To continue to ask for more revenue without making any concessions on eliminating waste and reforming redundant programs is where the injustice occurs. And to demand that we continue to pay for this injustice using the threat of incarceration and fines is coercion from a government that has lost its moorings in basic fairness.

    Just because someone was voted in doesn’t give them carte blanche to do whatever they please unchallenged. That is also the beauty of America.

    I didn’t get my questions addressed. I respectfully ask, Where am I wrong?

  • Scot McKnight

    metanoia, Kris and I are at the airport… and have to leave. I’m not sure where you asked “Where am I wrong?”

  • metanoia

    The questions raised in #6. Those are the questions upon which I based my definition of injustice. BTW, If you’re at O’Hare, I’ll pray for you. 😉

  • Percival

    The city on a hill imagery has often been misunderstood. In the gospels it is less like ‘a shining example’ and more like ‘there’s a target on your back’. A city would like to be able to be hidden from an enemy but the fact that it is sitting up on a tel/hill means that is impossible.

  • Scot (9),

    Charity is indeed what Christ asks of us. If, however, you are looking for an example of coercion in American government, look no further than the recent tax hike on the top 2% of earners. Did the top 2% vote to increase their own taxes or did the 98% vote to take it from them? Even in a democracy there can be tyranny, for this is the tyranny of the majority. That 98% of us have stolen from the 2% may be legal, but it is not moral. Jesus could have used His power over the crowds to incite them to take more of Zaccheus’ money, but He did not…for it would have left less room for Zaccheus to show charity.

    There’s nothing Christlike, charitable, or even fair about “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me; let’s tax that fellow behind the tree.” Even democracies can be coercive.

  • T.S.Gay

    Too bad this morphed into America today. The point of the “City Upon a Hill” still resonates. Let’s try to put a face on it. You……and perhaps me…….may get to reign in the future. That is, you will be placed in a position of leadership( probably because you have ingrained habits of the Spirit of God, that were not outlined, but specifically taught by Jesus. These are diametrically opposed to attitudes many follow outside the kingdom of God). Now, once your in that position of reigning, if you don’t exhibit those be-attitudes, God can’t help you, but those following will have quite a fire-work display according to Winthrop.

  • BradK

    Scot #4,

    You appear to be using a non-standard definition of coercion. Merriam-Webster defines it as:
    : to restrain or dominate by force
    : to compel to an act or choice
    : to achieve by force or threat

    Your objection that a law is not coercive unless unjust seems pointless. Who decides if a law is just or unjust? Your view that if one refuses to comply with a law and goes to jail it is not coercive because one is only getting what one deserves is more than a little troubling. One might assume that if a law was enacted that required public repudiation of Christ, you would see it as coercive for those who refuse to comply. One could argue that such a law is unjust, but every law has some who think it unjust. And those who enact laws always think they are just or they would not enact them. Are you making the case that justice is determined by popular vote?

    Regarding your question about whether OT laws of gleaning were coercive, did those specific laws provide for punishment for those who did not obey them? Obviously Israelites were warned in Deuteronomy that they would be cursed if they did not obey all that God had commanded them, but the law also provided for specific punishments (e.g. stoning) for specific crimes. Did the government of Israel punish people for failure to comply with the laws of gleaning?

    Btw, I liked the article and think he makes a pretty good case. The church would do well to heed his warning.

  • Scot
    Scot Your comment about coercion is confusing. I agree with BradK. The commands about gleaning are not coercive, because no temporal sanctions were specified. There is only moral suasion, which can be ignored.

    The law against theft of a sheep (Ex 22:1) is coercive, because it has temporal sanctions. Even if I would like to steal a sheep, the severity of the sanctions will most likely compel me into not stealing.

    It is temporal sanctions that make a law or command coercive, not its justness. An unjust law with no temporal sanctions is not coercive, because it can be ignored.

    Civil government has the power to coerce, because it can impose temporal sanctions. Voting does not change that.