Buy the Book

A City in Heaven

Reagan pushed "a city on a hill" into our political lexicon, to the point where the metaphor's Biblical and Puritan roots lie mostly forgotten.

By 12.13.12

Send to Kindle

In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth
(Continuum, 244 pages, $24.95)
Richard M. Gamble 

In November 1979, while Jimmy Carter worried over the United States' "crisis of confidence," Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy for the presidency. He told the country what it believed about itself: It was not the nation that was to blame for the spiritual and economic doldrums of the '70s, but an unimaginative and incompetent federal government. Drawing on the rhetoric of republican revolutionary Tom Paine, Reagan called for his fellow Americans to "begin the world over again." From Franklin Delano Roosevelt he took the image of a "rendezvous with destiny," and from Pope Pius XII the belief that "into the hands of America God has placed the destiny of an afflicted mankind."

At the climax of his speech, Reagan reached deep into the past to summon a metaphor from the colonial Puritan leader John Winthrop. He quoted words from a moment in 1630, when Winthrop, standing on the deck of the tiny ship Arbella as it sailed across the Atlantic to Massachusetts, told his fellow band of pilgrims,

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 byword throughout the world.

Reagan then challenged America to become, for the sake of "a troubled and afflicted mankind," a "shining city on a hill." With that metaphor, he signified that the United States enjoyed a divine blessing to rescue the world from its cycle of decline, through commitment to the principles of liberty and democracy.

Reagan was neither the first nor last political figure to borrow Winthrop's phrase, only the most successful. (In a display of his rhetorical powers, Reagan added "shining," combining the old gospel metaphors of "city on a hill" with "light of the world," and the extravagance stuck.) Writing from the 1930s through the '50s, atheist historian Perry Miller interpreted the phrase as a Puritan goal to export republican revolution to the world. John F. Kennedy, the first major 20th century figure to employ it, catapulted the image into the public mind in his farewell address to the Massachusetts legislature in 1961, using it as a metaphor for ethical government, and, once later, to represent the nation's spirit of public service. In her 2009 memoir Going Rogue, Sarah Palin uses it as a shorthand for American exceptionalism: "We must remain the Shining City on a Hill to all who seek freedom and prosperity."

Ultimately, the differing meanings of these few words tell us more about the person speaking them than about our past. The phrase is so much part of modern political vocabulary that to know what John Winthrop actually meant by it requires strenuous exercise of our typically flabby historical imagination. This is where Richard Gamble, a professor at Hillsdale College (and -- full disclosure -- one of my professors when I studied there) comes in. In his latest work, he deftly excavates true meaning from the layers that have accreted, century by century, on top of this phrase, originally from the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew. He shows how "city on a hill" became part of the "useable past," which can be "repurposed" for modernity. But the goals of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, as Winthrop described them, don't fit within that contemporary secular narrative.

Mr. Gamble states that the discourse in which Winthrop's phrase appears, A Model of Christian Charity, was not the permanent record of America's self-consciousness it is currently believed to be. The description of dozens of high school history textbooks notwithstanding, it is likely Winthrop never delivered the speech to the passengers of the Arbella. Even more curiously, the document completely disappeared from all American historical records for over 200 years.

The manuscript was composed in 1630, but the only known copy was held by the Winthrop family until 1809. It eventually made its way into the hands of the Massachusetts Historical Society, which in 1838 published a carelessly edited transcription as part of an anthology of early Massachusetts documents. From then, the discourse slowly made its way into the history books. But the now famous phrase, "wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us," was not regarded as a key to the document until as late as 1939.

Winthrop has already done much of the interpretative heavy lifting for any historian who cares to examine the document on its own in terms. He explicitly defined the "end," or purpose of the colony, calling for the Puritans "to do more service to the Lord," to provide for "the comfort and increase of the body of Christ whereof we are members," in the hope "that our selves and posterity may be the better preserved from the common corruptions of this evil world" and hopes that they might "serve the Lord and work out our salvation under the power and purity of his holy ordinances."

Winthrop's vision was for a small political-religious community, bound by history, locality, and the shared convictions of culture and religion. He hoped that "succeeding plantations" would imitate the good example of the Bay Colony, but there is no sense in The Model that Winthrop hoped to grow the colony beyond the walls of the little town. There is a suggestion, something Mr. Gamble does not discuss, that Winthrop didn't expect the colony in its Puritan form to last for more than a few lifetimes. He certainly did not mean to speak generally of New England, let alone the non-existent United States of America.

The metaphor of a city on a hill, to Winthrop, was as much a note of warning as of praise and hope: If the colony failed to honor God by rigorous devotion to the virtues of Christian charity and mercy and the right forms of worship, it would be ridiculed by the whole world. Indeed, when Reagan first used the phrase in October 1969, he included Winthrop's cautionary prophecy, "the eyes of all the 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 byword through all the world." But eventually the warning dropped out under the weight of Reagan's praise for America's perpetual excellence.

This is not the first time the past has been mythologized to serve modern political purposes. Battling such false mythologies is one of the most important challenges a conscientious historian faces. Mr. Gamble explains the mentality of the field arrayed against him:

The metaphor of the city on a hill comes up most often these days when historians, journalists, and politicians try to trace the origin of some praiseworthy or blameworthy feature of modern American back to its alleged Puritan roots. They engage in what the Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield called the "quest for origins." They look for the source of what they love or hate about the United States and its domestic and foreign policies. They imagine how the Puritan exceptionalist narrative, supposedly embodied in the idea of the city on a hill, set the nation's trajectory toward civic and religious freedom, toward democracy, economic prosperity, and humanitarian benevolence or, conversely, toward genocide, capitalist exploitation, prudery, messianic delusions, and ruinous overseas adventures. The "city on a hill" finds itself caught in the fierce crossfire of the battle to define the American identity.

To combat this cloud of witnesses, Mr. Gamble follows the best historiographical practices: reading primary sources closely with respect for the historical usage of language, collecting a large body of high quality evidence, attending to the modern historiography, making careful, limited judgments while avoiding the cowardly piling on of hesitant qualifiers. But in the last chapter, he editorializes on the history.

He laments that the phrase has been misused, not only by modern politicians, but by the Puritan himself. Winthrop used the phrase in a far different manner than Jesus, who told his disciples that they, and by extension the church, would witness to the world the faithfulness of a community to God, as an unmistakable light to the world. The metaphor belongs, originally, to the Christian church.

Modern Americans have become unable to hear that original message through the historical noise. It has been co-opted, in much the same way that Lincoln co-opted the Gospel phrase "a house divided." Mr. Gamble appeals to the church to reclaim the metaphor for itself. It would be an act of service to America, to protect it from false delusions of messianic glory. It would be an act of service to its own members, to remind them of the church's primary responsibility as witness to Christ.

On November 14, in a speech at the Spectator's 45th Anniversary Gala to the gathered warriors of the right, who had just about recovered their sense of balance in their wake of the electoral defeat, Senator Tom Coburn roused the room with an appeal to political courage on the model of George Washington's resistance at Valley Forge. Asking the room to seek conservative wisdom in the great men of history who endured perilous times, he cited the distinction of the ancient Christian theologian Augustine between the city of God and the city of Man. Mr. Coburn invited conservatives to regard the vision of the city of God as their own, a vision in which all individuals are flawed, but welcomed into a political life of shared prosperity on the basis of the acknowledgement of human freedom, liberty, and dignity under one Creator. He contrasted this vision with the leftist ideal of the city of Man, which "offers shared misery through the redistribution of wealth and class envy." "Their vision," he said, "is unsustainable, ours is sustainable. Where they offer a rendezvous with debt, we still offer a rendezvous with destiny."

The old temptation is still at work. Augustine would have resisted this transformation of his meaning. He wrote his City of God shortly after 410 AD, the year when Alaric the Goth sacked Rome. Jerome, the great saint and translator of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew to Latin, wrote in a letter upon hearing the news, "My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth and sobs choke my speech." Romans began complaining that the ruin of their city was the fault of the Christians who forced Rome to abandon its old gods. Augustine's work was a defense of the Christian doctrine that hope lay not in human political organization, no matter how honorable, but a heavenly Kingdom administrated by God.

Using the language of Christian eschatology to shape and to inspire worldly political activity invites false hope and false confidence. A movement charged with that sort of language all too often becomes confident that it, and it alone, participates in a divinely inspired political tradition with Messianic potential. Mr. Gamble's book, In Search of a City on a Hill, is a light to beat back the darkness of that error.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Matthew Taylor is an editorial intern at The American Spectator, with a scholarship from the National Journalism Center. He is a graduate of Hillsdale College. Email him at taylorm@spectator.org or follow him on Twitter @mjohntaylor.