One of the most enduring phrases at the heart of American exceptionalism is John Winthrop’s famous proclamation that the Puritan colonists were establishing a “city upon a hill.” But the story of this lay sermon is much more complicated, and, according to Bancroft-winning historian Daniel Rodgers, Winthrop was not being triumphalist, but instead a statement of anxiety. Dr. Rodgers joins us to discuss his new book on the sermon and its endurance, As a City on a Hill.
Daniel Rodgers is Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. This interview is based on his new book As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon (Princeton University Press, 2018).
JF: What led you to write As a City on a Hill?
DR: “City on a hill” is a phrase almost every American knows. They know its roots in the Sermon on the Mount. Many of them know that the leader of the Puritan settlement in New England used the phrase to describe the society he hoped his countrymen would build in their new world. They recognize “shining city on a hill” as a synonym for the United States that Ronald Reagan and his speech writers polished to perfection. A belief that they had been called to be a “city on a hill” for the world is said to have run through the entire course of American history, carrying the sense of mission and moral destiny that the Puritans had planted at the culture’s very beginnings.
I had taught the Puritan sermon from which the “city on a hill” phrase is drawn in just that way to generations of students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and at Princeton. But like so many other historians and pundits I was wrong. After its writing in 1630, John Winthrop’s sermon dropped almost completely out of sight for three centuries. It was not understood as a founding document of the nation until the 1950s. And, most strikingly, what Winthrop meant by “city on a hill” was radically different from the meaning we routinely give the phrase now. Anxiety, not pride, was at its heart, together with an admonition to charity that we have let disappear from the core values of our political culture. How could changes this dramatic have happened? This book is an answer to that puzzle. It tells the story of a phrase and a text which have become so familiar that their unexpected twists and turns, their disappearance and revival, their radically shifting meanings, and their connections with the world beyond America have been all but forgotten.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of As a City on a Hill?
DR: The claim that Americans have always thought of themselves as “a city on hill” to the world is a myth, an invented tradition created during the struggles of the Cold War. The phrase and Winthrop’s sermon were not present at the nation’s foundation; they were revived in the twentieth century, filled with much more nationalistic meanings than they had carried before, and then injected into an imagined past as if they had been there all along.
JF: Why do we need to read As a City on a Hill?
DR: If we are to get an honest picture of our nation and our world we need a less mythic history of our past. The distinctive character of the American nation was not the product of Puritanism or of any single founding moment. It was not the product of an “exceptionalist” history. A great deal of the rhetoric of providential mission and destiny that saturated the American past was a variant on the nationalistic formulas of other nations. The meanings those ideas would carry in the United States were worked out through aspiration, argument, and contention. They are still under construction now. In our post-Cold War world, where no one nation can dominate the globe as the U.S. did in the in the generation after 1945, we need a more realistic and self-critical understanding of our history than Ronald Reagan’s remake of John Winthrop’s words can give us.
At the same time, there are forgotten themes in Winthrop’s sermon worth recovering. When Winthrop announced that “we shall be as a city on a hill” he did not mean that a future American nation would be an object of admiration to all the world. He meant that his social and religious would be visible: open to the eyes of everyone and nakedly exposed to its critics. Its burden was not to radiate its ideals but to try, as best as anxious and deeply fallible persons could manage, to live up to them. Winthrop injected a second strain in his “Model of Christian Charity” too: an insistence that the morals of market and trade would not be sufficient to the project. Sacrifice of private advantage for the public good, love for others, and care for the poor: all these were essential for the “city on a hill” that Winthrop imagined in America. Like the Puritans’ call for self-scrutiny, these, too, are worth remembering.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
DR: I did not imagine I might teach and write history until after I graduated from college. Like others of my student generation I was swept up in the civil rights movement, where I saw a nation changing some of its oldest and ugliest values right under our feet. I went from Brown University in 1965 into the VISTA program to join the “war on poverty.” When I realized that my real love was teaching, I knew I wanted to teach how social and cultural change occurred. History does not move in straight lines without swerves and interruptions. Its course is often crooked and surprising. Why does history sometimes jump its accustomed tracks, for good as well for bad? Many members of my generation thought the answer lay in the history of social movements, and they were not wrong. But I thought the deeper history was to be found in the ideas and ideals persons carried in their heads: in their efforts to make sense of and to change the shifting world around them. I have been writing and teaching about those themes ever since.
JF: What is your next project?
DR: After five books which have won more than their share of prizes, As a City on a Hill may be my last book-length project. But I love the essay form. I’ve written about radically changing ideals of work, about continuities and disruptions in political language and culture, about the transnational dimensions of U.S. history, about the dwindling place of the “social” in contemporary American ideas and culture and, now, about the lives of a “foundational” text. These all remain concerns of our current moment. We’ll see where they take me.
JF: Thanks, Daniel!
Check out Barbara Cutter‘s fascinating piece on Hannah Duston, a Puritan woman who was used as a “national symbol of innocence, valor, and patriotism to justify westward expansion.” Cutter is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Northern Iowa and the author of Domestic Devils, Battlefield Angels: The Radicalism of American Womanhood, 1830-1865.
On a small island north of Concord, New Hampshire, stands a 25-foot-tall granite statue of Hannah Duston, an English colonist taken captive by Native Americans in 1697, during King William’s War. Erected in 1874, the statue bears close resemblance to contemporary depictions of Columbia, the popular “goddess of liberty” and female allegorical symbol of the nation, except for what she holds in her hands: in one, a tomahawk; in the other, a fistful of human scalps.
Though she’s all but forgotten today, Hannah Duston was probably the first American woman to be memorialized in a public monument, and this statue is one of three built in her honor between 1861 and 1879. The mystery of why Americans came to see patriotic “heroism” in Duston’s extreme—even gruesome—violence, and why she became popular more than 100 years after her death, helps explain how the United States sees itself in world conflicts today.
Born in 1657, Hannah Emerson Duston lived in Haverhill, Massachusetts, at a time when disputes among English colonists, the French in Canada, and various Native American nations resulted in a series of wars in the region. King Philip’s War (1675-1676), for example, decimated southern New England Indian nations, which lost between 60 and 80 percent of their population as well as their political independence. Many were sold into slavery. By the late 1680s and the start of King William’s War, fragments of those southern tribes had joined the Abenaki and other northern New England Indian nations allied with the French to fight the continuing expansion of the English colonists to the north and west. Native men conducted raids on frontier English settlements, burning property, killing or injuring some colonists, and taking others captive, either to ransom them back to their families, or to adopt them as replacements for their own lost family members.
Read the rest here.
JF: What led you to write The Last Puritans?
PB: If I back up all the way, The Last Puritans is my effort to explain mainline Protestants, not just as a historian but as a participant/observer. For the last ten years I’ve been at the Congregational Library up on Beacon Hill in Boston. My office is literally in the stacks of a wonderful collection documenting the history of this denomination, from the original Puritans on up to the 1950s, when most of the Congregationalists joined in the ecumenical merger that created the United Church of Christ. For much longer, I’ve been married to a Congregational (UCC) minister, which means I’ve had a front row seat to all kinds of churchy things, the good, the bad, and the ugly. I was raised in a conservative, doctrinal tradition (the Christian Reformed Church), and was regularly puzzled by my husband’s parishioners, and the personal piety so many of them took for granted. It’s fascinating: in one of the most liberal denominations in Christendom, I hear prayers and sermons and testimonies that would not be out of place in an evangelical congregation. What, I always ask myself, besides the presence of gay people in the pews, is the difference? It’s more than doctrinal or political. We’re talking about different religious cultures, and I wanted to see if I could identify and explain the liberal side.
PB: I argue that mainline Protestants are not just “failed evangelicals,” churches that weakly capitulated to modern culture, but, like evangelicals, made their own selective peace with it. The story of one denomination, the Congregationalists, shows them wrestling over and over with the meaning and implications of their Puritan past, defining and redefining their obligations to their ancestors, and in the process understanding their modern faith not on a literal reading of Scripture but on the messy complexities of history.
PB: Here’s one practical reason: since the 1980s, if we use George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture as the benchmark, historians of American religion have been working overtime to understand evangelicals. It has worked well, really well. The old stereotypes have been demolished and we now have a richly textured picture of evangelicalism in all of its aspects, from fundamentalist to Pentecostal.
We also have an assumption that there was no spiritual curiosity or zeal anywhere else, and that mainliners in particular were boring and feckless bureaucrats presiding over their own demise. Very few of us have actually worked through primary sources, however, and we know surprisingly little about what happened in mainline denominations for most of the twentieth century. That means that we cannot explain, as David Hollinger and others now argue, how mainline liberal values—tolerance and cooperation—have quietly come to define so much of mainstream American culture today. I’m thinking especially of Amazing Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, a picture of American religiosity far different from the usual stereotypes of the culture wars. Mainline denominations may be disappearing, but this is, I think, more of an organizational problem than a failure of their ideals.
PB: Probably in grade school, after I finished reading Johnny Tremain. And then I majored in history in college because I liked music, art, and literature and figured that would be a way to do it all. We are talking about a time, of course, when young women weren’t asked the hard questions, like “how will you support yourself.” The assumption was that you wouldn’t need to. And so the big change for me was seeing history as a career and myself as a historian, and that came somewhat painfully during the ritual paring of the sheep from the goats in graduate school. I had to learn pretty quickly, as a woman in a virtually all-male setting, to take myself and my vocation seriously and have the long view always in mind. At the same time I had to keep a sense of humor about myself and decide what to take to heart and what not.
JF: What is your next project?
PB: Despite what I said in an earlier question, I am going back to write about evangelicals and fundamentalists, and I’m putting together some ideas about their understanding of history, time, and tradition—a kind of part two for Last Puritans. It’s an interesting problem: in some ways evangelicals care very little about historic traditions. They are oriented to the present and the future. But in other ways they are deeply invested in history, and not just the mythology around George Washington and all that, which John knows so well. History is their standard of proof. It’s vitally important to have a historical Jesus, and as we’ve seen lately, an Adam who actually lived in a place called the Garden of Eden centuries ago. I think this is a key, and largely unexplored way of thinking about evangelicals, and what distinguishes them from more liberal and mainline Protestants.
This New Yorker post is from 2014, but Rick Kennedy, author of a great new biography of Cotton Mather, brought it to my attention via Facebook.
What would Cotton Mather think about contemporary movies? Tom O’Donnell speculates.
Here are a couple of Mather’s reviews:
“American Hustle” gets 1 out of 5 stars:
What dark Serpent of Hell did contrive such a Satanical tale? Greed, Lust, Intemperance, and indecently large Hairstyles comprise an Entertainment so Lewd and Sinful that a Christian Man of God can be forgiven for skipping it in Theatres. As Job awaited Deliverance, so you should await the DVD Release of “American Hustle.”
“The Hobbit” gets 1 out of 5 stars:
A Small Pagan is enlisted by a Scheming Warlock to help a Pack of Bearded Devils recover their Gold from a Wicked Serpent. What can I say, I loved this Film. Nay, that was but Sarcasm! I have used the Great Deceiver’s own Device against him. In Truth, “The Desolation of Smaug” is an Endless Satanical Parade of Witchcraft and Lycanthropy, designed to lure all good People of God toward the hateful Flames of Perdition. I can only hope that the Third Installment is better.
Disney’s “Frozen” gets 0 out of 5 stars
Snowmen are Graven Images sculpted of the Devil’s Ice by Idle Hands and Abhorrent in the Eyes of the Lord. The Presence of a Snowman alone would qualify “Frozen” as Satanical. But the Snowman in this Film is brought to Life with Witchcraft! Like Moses in the Desert, I am at a Loss: to continue this Review would require the Invention a new Word meaning “the most Satanical Thing I have seen since the Daemonic Talking Candlestick from ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ ” Therefore, I will end my Review here, as inventing new Words should be left up to God.
Read the rest of Mather’s reviews here.
Classic Rick Kennedy here. I wish I could be as cool as him.
Check out his forthcoming book The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather According to Kennedy, if Mather lived today he would be a blogger, youth pastor, and a supporter of praise bands. My favorite part of the interview is when Kennedy says that Mather needs a hug.