The Author’s Corner with Daniel Rodgers

9780691181592_0.pngDaniel 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!

 

Was America Born Capitalist?

City UponWe are working hard to get Princeton University historian Daniel Rodgers on the podcast.  He is the author of  As a City Upon a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon.  (He will be featured on the Author’s Corner very soon).  In the meantime, here is a taste of an excerpt from the book published at the Los Angeles Review of Books:

WAS AMERICA BORN capitalist? it is often asked. Ever since Max Weber proposed a causal relationship between early Protestants’ longing for order and rational control and the spirit of modern capitalism, the question has consumed the attention of generations of sociologists and historians. Weber’s ideal types were too abstract, it is now clear. The careful accounting and control of the self that the Puritans so conspicuously valued was only one of the cultural traits on which capitalist economies have thrived. Others, like the risk-taking and labor exploitation on which the tobacco and slave economy of early Virginia was founded, could be successfully capital-generative as well. Capitalism’s identifying features lie as much in its institutions of trade, property law, and labor as in the inner ethos that captured Weber’s imagination.

Measured in these ways, there can be no doubt that Puritan New England was a by-product of capitalism in its expansive, early modern phase. John Winthrop’s settlement arose within one of the great commercial empires of the early modern world. Unlike the Spanish conquest a century earlier, in which arms, expropriation of easily obtained wealth, and missionary zeal took the vanguard roles, the English colonization of the Americas was a merchants’ endeavor. Trading corporations — the Virginia Company, the Massachusetts Bay Company, the Providence Island Company, the Plymouth Company — undertook the work of settlement throughout British America, capitalized by investors’ purchase of their joint stock.

Read the rest here.

Episode 40: Sportianity

PodcastWhat do Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick have in common? Besides being NFL quarterbacks, they’re both famous kneelers. Yet their actions have been interpreted by sports fans and American Christians in very different ways. In today’s episode, we explore the deep historical connections between sports and Christianity. Host John Fea looks into what colonial New England’s Puritans thought about sports. They are joined by Messiah College historian Paul Putz (@p_emory), who discusses his work on the unique melding of sports and religion, “sportianity.”

Turner: “The Pilgrims receive far more attention than they deserve.”

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John Turner of George Mason University is writing a history of the Plymouth Colony.  In his recent piece at The Anxious Bench, he reminds us that the “Pilgrims” and the “Puritans” are not the same thing.  As Turner notes, popular culture loves the Pilgrims, but early New England historians spend most of their time discussing the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay.

This is certainly true in my U.S. Survey course.  We spend a week (in a MWF course) on colonial New England.  On Monday I lecture on the English Reformation (ending with the difference between Puritans and Separatists).  On Wednesday I lecture on 17th-century Massachusetts Bay and the so-called “City Upon a Hill.”  On Friday we read and discuss the trial transcript of Anne Hutchinson.  I mention Plymouth very briefly in Wednesday’s lecture, mostly for the purpose of debunking commonly held myths about “Plymouth Rock” and the First Thanksgiving.

Here is Turner:

Not all historians have accepted the marginalization of Plymouth in the history of New England puritanism. (Morgan, like David Hall in the latter’s study of the New England ministry, devoted considerable time to separatism and the Pilgrims before proceeding to narrate events in Massachusetts Bay). Perry Miller, for instance, argued that the Bay colony churches “would have proceeded along essentially the same line had there been no Plymouth at all.” Miller wrote against earlier historians who assigned responsibility for the very emergence of congregationalism in New England to Plymouth’s separatist example.

Recently, Michael Winship has posed a very vigorous challenge to the post-Miller consensus. In his Godly Republicanism, Winship argues that there is no evidence that the Salem colonists came to New England as Congregationalists. One major piece of evidence for Winship’s argument is that there were very, very few committed Congregationalists among English puritan ministers. Two as of the late 1620s, to be precise: the exile William James and the London “semi-separatist” Henry Jacobs. There is no evidence that the ministers who came to Salem in 1629 were “Amesians.” By contrast, seventeenth-century sources assert that they came to New England with no agreement about how to proceed in the formation of churches.

Read the entire post here.

Hannah Duston: The Puritan’s Memorialized Indian-Killer

Hannah_Duston,_by_Stearns

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.

A taste:

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.

“Till the stock of the Puritans die”

harvard

Harvard University has changed the lyrics of the school’s alma mater.

Goodbye Puritans.

Read about it at The Boston Globe.  Here is a taste:

The lyrics “Till the stock of the Puritans die,” the last verse in the 181-year-old song, will be replaced with the line “till the stars in the firmament die,” according to the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging, a university group that launched a competition last year and solicited suggestions for revisions from faculty, staff, and current and former students…

“Fair Harvard” was first written in 1836 by alumnus Samuel Gilman for the school’s bicentennial celebration.

The stand-out sentence to replace Gilman’s lyric was submitted by Janet Pascal, a graduate of the class of 1984. The updated version of the alma mater already appears on the school’s website, along with a notation about the revision.

Read the entire article here.

What a Historian Said to His Classes Today

CMU

Central Michigan University American history professor Andrew Wehrman was kind enough to let me publish his Facebook post on how he and his students worked through the Las Vegas shootings:

Today was sadly not the first time I’ve had to address a class of students who have just learned about a mass shooting. I’m weary that I’m so used to it. I remember talking to in my first ever self-taught course at Northwestern after the Virginia Tech shooting. I remember talking to students in a lecture hall after a gunman had killed a professor and students at Northern Illinois. And on and on. This morning in my early American history class I reminded the students of what the Puritans did after tragedies. As strange and sometimes horrible as the Puritans could be, after tragedy struck they called for a day of fasting and humiliation. A day of solemn reckoning with events. A day to pray, but also a day to listen, think, and a day to ask hard, searching questions. I emphasized a point that I make in class about what the Puritans would think of our celebration of Thanksgiving. That every year we assume there will be something to be thankful for without taking time to reflect on things that we should be sorry, sad, or angry about and wish to change. I encouraged my students not to let recent tragedies like the mass-shooting in Las Vegas and the on-going tragedy of hurricane Maria dull our senses. I encouraged them not to let these tragic events become background noise. But to fully engage with them as our present and to think about ways not only to be kind to one another but also to seek ways to prevent such tragedies in the future.

Religious Theories on Hurricane Irma

Hurricane_Irma_Suomi_NPP-VIIRS_03092017

Avi Selk has them all covered at The Washington Post:

A taste:

To dive into the wide-ranging and rarely coherent collection of theories that ascribe motive — be it satanic, godly, Gaian or otherwise — to the movements of Hurricane Irma is to risk being immediately overwhelmed by them. They are endless and everywhere, from the mouth of Kirk Cameron to a mass prayer on Periscope, in which thousands commanded demons to vacate the eye of the storm.

We may as well start on the secular end of this thought spectrum — specifically with that thing Jennifer Lawrence said.

“You know,” she said, “you’re watching these hurricanes now, and it’s really hard, especially while promoting this movie, not to feel Mother Nature’s rage.”

Lawrence was referring to a movie she’d just starred in, which she was talking up in an otherwise innocuous interview with Channel 4 last week when the host asked her about the election of President Trump, and the enduring skepticism about climate change. The actress lamented both — then brought up from nowhere the consequential rage of the sentient planet.

She took a drubbing. For “blaming powerful hurricanes on Trump,” as one critic put it. Or for blaming them on climate change, as the antiabortion activist Randall Terry interpreted her remark, before suggesting another mover of storms:

“These hurricanes are not the result of global warming; they are the Judgment of God because of the innocent blood crying to Him for vengeance,” Terry wrote on Christian Newswire.

Hurricanes for abortions, then. And from this point on in our exploration, God will be dragged into nearly every wild explanation of Hurricane Irma, or Hurricane Harvey before it, or the solar eclipse before that — or the coincidence of all of them, as the more apocalyptic theories elaborate upon.

Read the entire piece here.

Of course none of this new.  Check out these eighteenth-century Puritan/Congregationalist earthquake sermons.

 

 

This Video Proves Why Robert Jeffress is the Court Evangelical of All Court Evangelicals

Watch it if you can stomach it.  The court evangelicals were out in force at the Kennedy Center last night.  Paula White was also there.

In just under 6 minutes:

  • Jeffress claimed that “our nation was founded on a love for God and a reverence for His word.”  Is this correct?  I am wrestling with this question all weekend @johnfea1 and at #ChristianAmerica?. We are posting every 30 minutes during Fourth of July weekend.  Or you can just go get a copy of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.  This Christian nation stuff never goes away.  Christians (the followers of David Barton and his ilk will not listen to non-Christians) need to offer an alternative narrative to this way of thinking about American history.  We are here, but we don’t have the resources or the funding.
  • Jeffress dabbles here in American exceptionalism.  He sounds like a 17th-century Puritan delivering a jeremiad calling the new Israel back to its spiritual roots. Jeffress asks “Has God removed his hand of blessing from us?” Earlier today someone on Twitter reminded me of a 2012 statement from Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals.  He was writing about the idea that the United States is a Christian or chosen nation.  Anderson said “The Bible only uses the word ‘Christian’ to describe people and not countries.”
  • Jeffress suggests that Donald Trump is a messianic figure who God raised up to save Christian America from despair.  He says, “but in the midst of that despair came November the 8th, 2016 (wild applause) and that day represented the greatest political upset in American history.  Because it was on that day, November the 8th, that God declared that the people, not the pollsters, were going to choose the next President of the United States.  And they chose Donald Trump” (more wild applause).  I think November 8, 2016 just became part of the Christian calendar at First Baptist Church–Dallas.
  • Jeffress reminds us that 81% of evangelicals voted for Trump.  He says they “understood that [Trump] alone had the leadership skills necessary to reverse the downward death spiral our nation was in” (wild applause). Jeffress claims that people are more excited now about Trump than they were on election day because Trump “has exceeded our every expectation.” OK.  Those expectations must be pretty low. (By the way, I am still waiting for Jeffress and the other Court Evangelicals to condemn the Morning Joe tweets).
  • Jeffress claims that Trump has done more to protect religious liberty than any POTUS in U.S. history. Really?  More than Jefferson?  More than Madison?
  • Jeffress says that “millions of Americans believe that the election of President Trump represented God giving us another chance, perhaps our last chance, to truly make America Great Again.”  Apparently God wants to give us another chance to return to the 1950s or the 1980s.

Trump’s speeches to evangelicals are always the same.  They are getting old. I am pretty sure his speech writers have exhausted everything they know about evangelicals. But why should they think more deeply about faith and public life when they can just have Trump throw out catchphrases and talking points about religious liberty or “the wall” or ISIS and have the crowd go wild.

Trump railed against the fake media and gets rousing cheers from an audience that I assume was made up of parishioners of First Baptist Church in Dallas.  I am inclined to give this cheering a pass because it is not occurring on a Sunday morning in a church sanctuary, but it is still disturbing to watch my fellow evangelical Christians put their hope in a strongman and do so with such zeal.  For example, when Trump says that “in America we do not worship government, we worship God,” the audience starts chanting “USA, USA, USA.” Something is wrong when a reference to the worship of God triggers nationalist chants.

A few final points:

Someone needs to tell Trump’s speechwriter that there was no public prayer at the Constitutional Convention.  Ben Franklin suggested it, but it did not happen.

And let’s also remember that his Executive Order on the Johnson Amendment accomplished nothing.  The Johnson Amendment is still in the tax code.  It can only be changed by Congress.

I remain part of the #19percent!

Barton: God Brings Bad Weather Because of Abortion

purembb

In 17th-century New England, the Puritans set out to forge a “City on a Hill,” a society based upon the teachings of the Bible as they understood them.  They believed that they were a new Israel and thus lived in a covenant relationship with God.  When God was displeased with the people of the Massachusetts Bay Colony he punished them with earthquakes, Indian attacks, bad weather, and a host of other calamities.  Whenever one of these calamities took place, Puritan ministers mounted their pulpits to deliver jeremiads, sermons designed to call the Puritans back to their covenant relationship with God.

David Barton, the GOP activist and culture warrior who uses the past to promote his political agenda, apparently still lives in 17th-century New England.  He believes that the United States exists in a covenant relationship with God not unlike that of the Puritans. On his recent show Wallbuilders Live he went so far as to connect bad weather with abortion.  (This is not unlike his earlier attempt to connect low SAT scores to the removal of Bible reading and prayer in public schools).

Here is what he said:

So we understood and that’s why if you look back on WallBuilders website we have a section in the library of historical documents. We have now 850 actual proclamations that we own that were issued by governors. And they could be Founding Fathers governors like John Hancock, or Sam Adams, or signers of the Declaration like all for Oliver Wolcott, or Samuel Huntington, signers of the Constitution like John- We’ve got their proclamations.

And so often their proclamation says, “Man, we’ve got to have God’s help with the weather. We have to pray, and repent, and fast because something is going on wrong with the weather and our crops need rain.” We understood that.

Well, today 52 percent of Christians think that God does a really lousy job with the weather. Maybe it’s not his choice that is doing it. Maybe it’s our own sin or our own unrighteous policies. Maybe it’s because we love killing unborn kids, 60 million of them. Maybe God says, “I’m not going to bless your land when you’re doing it.”

I believe in God.  I also believe he may have something to do with the weather. I also believe that abortion is a moral problem.  This probably separates me from many of my secular readers.

But I do not claim, like Barton, to have a hotline to the will of God on these matters. In fact, as I argued in Why Study History?, this kind of providentialism is arrogant, idolatrous, and fails to acknowledge the mystery and otherness of God.  To suggest that bad weather is connected to abortion is simply bad theology.  And yes, if the founding fathers made this connection it would still be bad theology.  And yes, it would still be bad theology if David Barton had a primary document that revealed the founders making such a connection.

What also strikes me about this episode of Wallbuilders Live is Barton’s rant on human sinfulness.  He says:

And there’s really three areas that I can quickly point to and pretty much tell whether someone has a basic general understanding, a very broad Biblical teachings. If they have any Biblical literacy at all, even if they themselves are not Christians, it used to be as Tim pointed out, just the culture itself had a pretty good degree of Biblical knowledge and literacy. We understood a lot of Biblical idioms, and phrases, and whatnot, knew where they came from. We knew heroes of the Bible even if people weren’t Christian.

But if I start with the question, “Is man inherently good? Does man generally tend to be good?” If you answer that “yes” that means you don’t understand Bible. Because the Bible says, “No, man does not tend to be good. Man will always be wrong. 

He’ll do the wrong thing. History proves that time and time again. When you leave man to his own ways, he doesn’t get better, he gets worse. unless God intervenes and changes his heart and he moves in the right direction.

And that’s a scriptural teaching, Jeremiah 17:9, the heart of man is desperately wicked. Who can know it? Who can predict it? What you can predict is that it will do the wrong thing.

And so you see secular governments across the world end up being oppressive.  They end up killing in the 20th Century, killing hundreds of millions of people in secular governments.

So, the heart of man is not good. If you think man inherently tends to be good…

I actually agree with Barton’s understanding of human nature.  But unlike Barton, I would also apply this belief to the founding fathers.  Last time I checked they were also human beings.  And perhaps their sinfulness explains something about the character of the American founding.

Making Fun of the Puritans

Puritans

The Scarlet Letter.  The Crucible.  “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

Over at the blog of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History, University of Pennsylvania graduate student Chris Fite suggests that our modern understanding of seventeenth-century New England Puritans have been shaped by these works.  These works portray the Puritans as Calvinist killjoys and fundamentalists and ignores their contribution to the modern age.

Here is a taste of his post:

Arguably, English and American Puritans contributed greatly to the development of modernity (to the extent that we can ever define modernity). However, the popular caricature of the Puritan relies on a different understanding of modern. In that definition, what is modern equals what is right and good in the present or recent past. In this way, the Puritans join modernity’s malcontents in the popular imagination. They become zealots who lived in dysfunctional communities. They also become fodder for jokes about ignorance, shame, and anything else considered illiberal in our own time.

Historical misperceptions are frustrating. However, they should also prompt us to reflect on our own work as historians. What do these misperceptions tell us about historical memory? How we might promote different understandings? For those more familiar with the histories of Puritanism and its historical memory, I welcome suggestions for further reading or for addressing these issues in the classroom.

Read the entire piece here.

A Guide to the Bible in Early America?

genevabible

Over at The Junto, Joseph Adelman calls for the creation of a “Guide to the Bible in Early America.”

With the flourishing of digital projects, at this point I could foresee something online. The problem I want to solve is to understand particular passages in historical context, so I want to be able to look up a passage from the Bible that was used frequently by a group in early America and find an explanation of the Biblical passage as generally understood, some notion of how the group or groups read this passage, how understandings of the passage changed across time and space within early America, and possibly links to other resources. It wouldn’t have to cover the entirety of both the Old and New Testaments, but instead could focus on the most frequently used books, chapters, and verses.

Let me sketch out a quick example with a verse that I used in a lecture last week on the Puritans as an introduction to Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God. When Puritans came to Massachusetts, they thought they were founding a new holy city in accordance with Revelation 21:10:[1]

10 And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and an high mountain, and he showed me that great city, that holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God,

With a passage like this, I would want to know something about the consensus exegesis (am I allowed to do that to the English language?) of Revelation 21—a little primer on the chapter within the context of the entirety of the book for those of use not familiar with it. I would want to know a little something about John Winthrop and his “A Model of Christian Charity” sermon he delivered aboard the Arabella, and perhaps other examples of Puritan figures using the verse in order to support their arguments about the settlement of Massachusetts. Were there other groups in early America that drew inspiration from the same verse? I don’t know that well, but somebody does, and it would be interesting to be able to access that. And in this particular case, there could be an extension to discuss the resonances of the idea of a “city on a hill” in modern American politics.

What a great idea!  This sounds a lot like a cross between a Bible Encyclopedia and an Oxford English Dictionary for Bible verses instead of individual words.

And then Adelman delivers the part of the post that hit me right between the eyes:

In my mind’s eye, this kind of project would build on something like Lincoln Mullen’s fantastic America’s Public Bible project, which tracks the use of Biblical quotations in American newspapers. What I’m looking for would be a bit more interpretive, and take advantage of the expertise of a range of scholars. (Usually when I imagine it, John Fea plays a role overseeing the project. John, you’re not busy, right?) In fairness, it’s a massive undertaking, and might not even be feasible. But the Puritans didn’t get across the Atlantic by thinking small.

If someone would provide me with a multi-million dollar grant and a team of researchers I would happily consider “overseeing the project.”  🙂

 

Review of Eric Metaxas, “If You Can Keep It: Part 6

MetaxasWe are in the midst of a short series on Eric Metaxas’s new book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  You can get caught up here.

This post, our final one in the series, examines Metaxas’s understanding of American exceptionalism, an idea that drives much of his thesis in If You Can Keep It.

Metaxas roots his understanding of American exceptionalism in the famous words of John Winthrop, the first Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In his lay sermon A Model of Christian Charity (1630), Winthrop used the phrase “city upon a hill” to describe the colony.  The phrase comes from Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:14-16: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

Here is how Winthrop used the phrase in A Model of Christian Charity:  “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…”

It is worth noting that Metaxas has made the common mistake of taking Winthrop’s words, which were addressed to the inhabitants of one British-American colony, and applying them to the United States writ-large.  Winthrop, of course, was not applying his “city upon a hill” metaphor to the already-existing colonies of Virginia, Plymouth, and the Dutch colony of New Netherland (which became New York thirty-four years later).  Yet these colonies and several others–colonies in which the “city upon a hill” metaphor was not part of their founding ideal–would also be part of the United States of America in 1776.  Metaxas is in good company here.  John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, both fans of the “city upon a hill” metaphor, also made this mistake. (More on Reagan below).

At the heart of Metaxas’s argument in If You Can Keep It is the idea that America remains a “city upon a hill” today.  It is, and always has been, a nation chosen by God to do His will in the world.

Here are some pertinent passages from the book:

p.25: “Therefore, if in any sense we care about the rest of the world, we must first ‘keep’ this republic.  We are to shine not so that we can admire our own brightness but so that we hold out a beacon of hope to the rest of the world.  Our exceptionalism is not for us but for others.”

p.188-189: In speaking about the United States as a “chosen” nation akin to Israel in the Old Testament, Metaxas writes: “So far from being a selfish idea, it is the idea of living for others–of showing them a new way of thinking–that was at the heart of America.  To miss that is to miss everything.  This idea of being as a ‘city upon a hill’ that can be seen from afar–and that will be seen from afar–has been with us from the beginning.  It is the idea that what we have is indeed something extraordinary, but because of this we have been given the tremendous burden of stewarding and sharing what we have with the rest of the world. So if we are exceptional, we are not exceptional for our own sakes.  We are exceptional for the world beyond our shores, for all who are interested in seeing what we are doing and in joining our project.”

p.194: “Reading Reagan, we see that this most conservative of modern presidents, even in underscoring this idea of American exceptionalism, pointedly expressed the idea that America existed for others, for those not yet here among us.  So if this is an idea that has been at the very core of our identity from before the beginning, can we truly continue to be America if we forget it?

p.211-212: “…Lincoln did not think America’s exceptionalism a mere accident of history.  Indeed…he makes clear that he sees our special role in history much as John Winthrop saw it and as many men in the two centuries connecting them saw it: as nothing less than a holy calling.”

p.212-213: “We are not here talking about the contested and controversial idea of ‘Manifest Destiny,’ nor merely of noblesse oblige, but of something far more serious, of something that is even sacred.  Lincoln felt that America had been called by God to fulfill a role and to perform a duty for the rest of the world.  It was not something to be giddy about.  Far from it.  He understood that to be chosen by God–as the Jews had been chosen by God, and as the prophets had been chosen by God, and as the Messiah had been chosen by God–was something that was a profound and sacred and even terrifying obligation.”

p.214-215: “[The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay] would care for one another.  The rich would lift up the poor.  This is something that resonates with us today in large part because Winthrop and his fellow shipmates were successful.  What they did shone so brightly that their distinctly biblical model carried on beyond the Massachusetts Bay Colony and into the United States of America.”

So what is wrong with these passage from If You Can Keep It?

A lot.

Before we examine the historical and theological problems here, let’s remember that the United States has, at times, been a force for good in the world.  It has provided a home to millions of immigrants fleeing persecution and economic hardship.  It has offered aid to oppressed and sick people groups around the world.  It has used its power to stop tyrants and advance freedom across the globe.  And in some circumstances American leaders–Woodrow Wilson comes to mind immediately–believed that they were extending American relief and support as leaders of a Christian nation.  (The previous sentence is a historical observation, not an ethical or theological one.  In other words, I am not saying that Wilson and others were right in believing this).

With that said, we must begin our critique with Metaxas’s use of Winthrop’s famous phrase.  Metaxas believes that Winthrop was correct when he called Massachusetts Bay a “city upon a hill.” I don’t know how he knows this, since there is nothing in the Bible about the United States of America, but he nevertheless thinks that Winthrop was on to something.  And then he argues that somehow the special mission assigned to Massachusetts Bay got transferred, presumably at some point during the American Revolution, to the United States.

As historian Tracy McKenzie has pointed out in his own critique of If You Can Keep It, Metaxas does not understand the way Winthrop was using the phrase “city upon a hill” when he uttered it in 1630.  I will let Tracy take it from here:

So what did Governor Winthrop mean when he told the Massachusetts Bay colonists that they would be “as a city on a hill”?  The most common reading—Eric Metaxas’ reading—is that Winthrop was telling the colonists that God had given them a special mission.  The colony they were establishing (and by extension, the future United States) was divinely destined to serve as an example to the world.  God’s plan was for the new nation to model the values (religious, political, and economic) that He desired the rest of the world to emulate.  Metaxas strengthens this interpretation by adding the adjective “shining” to the metaphor—“a shining city on a hill”—although we have Ronald Reagan to thank for that phrase, not John Winthrop.

Admirers of this reading have been deeply convicted by the sense of America’s high calling that it embodies.  In If You Can Keep It, Metaxas exhorts readers to rediscover this noble mission and rededicate themselves to it.  Critics, on the other hand, have scorned the arrogance that Winthrop was supposedly reflecting and promoting.  Both evaluations miss the mark, because both are based on a misreading of Winthrop’s original statement….

Far from claiming that the Lord had chosen the Puritan migrants to serve as a glorious example to the world, Winthrop was instead reminding them that it would be impossible to hide the outcome if they failed.  Their massive departure had unavoidably attracted the attention of the countrymen they left behind.  They would be watching, many of them hoping that the Puritans would stumble. If Winthrop had been writing today, he could have conveyed his point by telling his audience that everything they did would be under a microscope.  The point was not that they had been divinely selected to serve as an exemplary beacon, but rather that they could not possibly escape the scrutiny of their enemies.

So it is that in the very next sentence after noting that “the eyes of all people are upon us,” Winthrop warned that “if we deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken . . . we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”  In so many words, he was telling the migrating Puritans that they would become a laughingstock, objects of scorn and derision.  What was worse, their failure would “open the mouths of enemies to speak evils of the ways of God.”  Rather than puffing up the Puritans with claims of a divine mission, Winthrop intended his allusion to “a city upon a hill” to send a chill down their spines.

If McKenzie is correct, and I think he is, then one of the central arguments of Metaxas’s book completely falls apart.  McKenzie shows that there was little continuity between the way John Winthrop used the phrase “city on a hill” and Ronald Reagan (and Metaxas) used it in the 1980s. When Winthrop used the phrase it had nothing to do with Massachusetts Bay (or the United States of America) sharing its ideals with other nations.

But the problems with Metaxas’s argument go deeper.  I hope that his Christian readers will be bothered by the fact that Metaxas equates the United States of America with God’s chosen people.  By equating the United States with the chosen people of God he is propagating one of the worst forms of American exceptionalism.  Most versions of Christian theology teach that God no longer works through the nation of Israel but has instead established a “new covenant” with the church.  The church is a community made up of those who have embraced the redemptive message of the Gospel and, as a result, live their lives devoted to building the Kingdom of God, a kingdom defined by loving God and loving neighbor.  In If You Can Keep It, Metaxas conflates the calling of the church with the United States of America.  I am not sure whether to call this blasphemy or idolatry. Perhaps both.

For a more thoughtful Christian assessment of American exceptionalism I highly recommend John Wilsey’s American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea.

Benjamin Carp on Edmund Morgan’s “Slavery and Freedom”

Morgan

Edmund Morgan

As some of you may recall, Edmund Morgan’s 1972 Journal of American History article “Slavery and Freedomwon the 2016 Junto Blog “March Madness” tournament for the best journal article in early American history.

Over at Process: A Blog for American History (the official blog of the Organization of American Historians), Ben Carp of Brooklyn College reflects on the significance of Morgan’s essay.  I can’t think of a better person to do this right now.  Carp recently published a great essay on Morgan in Reviews in American History and has been tweeting about Morgan in honor of what would have been his 100th birthday (Morgan died in 2013). Follow along at #edmorgan100

Here is a taste of Carp’s post:

“Slavery and Freedom” is an article about Puritans, even though it doesn’t mention them at all; it’s about what happens when you try to colonize a place without them.

The article purports to be about how the Revolutionary leaders’ “dedication to human liberty and dignity” arose alongside “a system of labor that denied human dignity and liberty every hour of the day.” And indeed, we largely remember the piece for articulating “the central paradox of American history”: how the United States emerged as a beacon of freedom when so many African-Americans remained in chains, with entangled repercussions that still define the nation.

And yet the article spends surprisingly little time on the ideals of the Declaration of Independence or Virginia’s slave society, and neither does American Slavery, American Freedom. It’s an irony that Edmund S. Morgan (1916–2013), the article’s author, would have appreciated (call it the “the ‘Paradox’ paradox”): how an unintended argument became his most enduring legacy.

“Slavery and Freedom” began life as Morgan’s presidential address to the Organization of American Historians in April 1972. Morgan had analyzed the Puritan work ethic and the way that the Founders applied it to their rebellion. But when he tried to attribute the ethic to elite slaveowners like Thomas Jefferson, he realized the argument wouldn’t quite hold. So he looked more closely at history of early colonial Virginia to figure out why the South turned out differently. “Slavery and Freedom” was primarily interested in the problems of work and discipline, which led Morgan into discussions of English ideas about debt and idleness, Francis Drake and the Cimarrons, the cultivation of tobacco, the fate of laborers who completed their indentures, and Bacon’s Rebellion.

Read the rest here.

Cruz: “I Am Not Running for Pastor-in-Chief”

Cruz Pastor in Chief

Here is Ted Cruz talking with David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network about his so-called “God Talk.”  (I am having trouble embedding the video.  Watch it at the link above).

Cruz is a master politician.  This is a very shrewd answer.

He says that it is not his “calling” to deliver the salvation message.  Fair enough.  Cruz will not use the presidential bully pulpit to preach the Gospel.

He is right when he says the First Amendment reflects the religious beliefs of Muslims and atheists.  Again, Cruz is right.  But the Texas Senator rarely talks about religious liberty outside the context of Christianity.

And when Cruz says that the United States was founded on Judeo-Christian principles that need to be restored today in America, it raises questions about how he reconciles this belief with his defense of religious liberty.

And one more thing about his discussion of the “founding.”  The United States was not “founded” by people fleeing religious oppression.  Most of the so-called founding fathers were born in the British colonies. Here Trump is confusing the “founding” with what I have called the “planting” of the British colonies in the seventeenth century.  I talk about the difference here and in Chapter Five of Was American Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

But let’s give Cruz the benefit of the doubt here.  Perhaps he might accuse me of playing semantics when I distinguish the “planting” from the “founding.”  What Cruz is really talking about is the seventeenth-century migrants who first settled along the eastern seaboard, developed societies, and eventually rebelled against England in 1776.

Were these settlers fleeing religious persecution?  Some of them were.  In New England a small group of Puritans came to Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay in pursuit of religious liberty from what they perceived as the tyrannical leaders of the Church of England, clergy and bishops who were not fans of Calvinism.

But when they arrived in North America, they were certainly not champions of the kind of religious liberty that Cruz celebrates in the First Amendment.  They imprisoned, fined, ousted, and even killed people who did not share their religious beliefs.  So let’s not pretend that the colonies were planted (or “founded”) on principles of religious liberty. As I tell my classes, inhabitants of Massachusetts Bay were religious free–free to conform to Puritan orthodoxy.  Government did “get in the way” of people practicing their faith according to the dictates of their consciences.  Just ask Anne Hutchinson, Roger Williams, and Mary Dyer, to name just a few.

But the Puritans are only a small part of the story.  There were several colonies–including Virginia, the first British colony–that were not founded by people seeking religious liberty.

I am afraid that Cruz is taking his history cues from David Barton, the Republican activist who runs his super-PAC.

I also want to call attention to what Cruz does not say in this interview with Brody.  He never says how his Christian faith will inform the way he governs or his moral vision for the United States.

This may be going too far, but I wonder if Cruz’s claim that he will not be “pastor-in-chief” can be compared to the way that John Winthrop, the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was also not a “pastor-in-chief.”  Winthrop was a political leader.  He was not responsible for preaching the gospel in the colony.  At the same time, he enforced and advanced all of the discriminatory policies I mentioned above.

In Massachusetts Bay, church and state were separate.  Technically, it was not a theocracy. But the line that separated the government from the church was very, very thin.

And finally, if the events of the last couple of days are any indication, it appears that Cruz’s commitment to the Constitution is not as important as his moral politics.

Found: The Actual Site of the Salem Witch Hangings

proctor

Proctor’s Ledge, Salem, MA

A team of researchers which included Emerson Baker, author of A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Witch Trials and the American Experience, have confirmed the site where nineteen people were hung for witchcraft in 1692.

Here is a taste of the story from the CBS affiliate in Boston:

After nearly three centuries of conflicting beliefs, the city of Salem confirms a team of scholars verified the site where 19 innocent people were hanged during the 1692 witch trials as Proctor’s Ledge. The historic site is an area located in between Proctor and Pope Streets in Salem, Massachusetts.

“We are happy to be able to bring years of debate to an end,” Salem State University Professor Emerson Baker told the city of Salem. “Our analysis draws upon multiple lines of research to confirm the location of the executions.”

City reps confirm to WBZ that a team of researchers used sonar technology combined with eyewitness testimonies from centuries-old documents dating back to the Salem Witch Trials.

The city of Salem acquired the strip of land near the base of Gallows Hill in 1936 “to be held forever as a public park” and called it “Witch Memorial Land.” As it was never marked, most people erroneously assumed the executions took place on the hill’s summit.

A group of researchers on the Salem witch trials called The Gallows Hill Project team, now identifies the site as a rocky ledge much closer to Boston Street, at the base of the hill, basing its conclusions on the early 20th century research of historian Sidney Perley, an eye-witness reference to an execution from the trial papers, maps from different periods, and newer technology not available previously.

Read the rest of the article here.

 

The Author’s Corner with Margaret Bendroth

Peggy Bendroth is Executive Director for the Congregational Library and President of the American Society of Church History. This interview is based on her new book, The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past (The University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

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.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Last Puritans?

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.
JF: Why do we need to read The Last Puritans?

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.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

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.

JF: Thanks, Peggy!
 

Cotton Mather Movie Reviews

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.

The Author’s Corner with Abram Van Engen

Abram C. Van Engen is Assistant Professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis. This interview is based on his recent book SympatheticPuritans: Calvinist Fellow Feeling in Early New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Sympathetic Puritans?

AV: When I entered graduate school, I knew that I wanted to combine many interests into a project on literature and religion. I first proposed a study of Auden, but to cover my major field exams in American literature, I started with the Puritans and never really left. One thing in particular startled me: the tears. I had been given to understand that the Puritans were a stern, unyielding, unemotional, iron-hearted bunch of settlers who solved their problems primarily through a great deal of thought. That is what I learned through Hawthorne; and that is the crude version of Perry Miller’s magnum opus that seemed to filter through intellectual history and guide literary studies. The Puritans were a people of the head, not the heart. So what were teary, sentimental Calvinists doing in seventeenth-century Puritanism? I wanted an answer, and the answer I found led me into a Puritan theology of sympathy that seemed to have all sorts of ramifications for cultural, intellectual, and literary history. For the Puritans, the heart mattered most (as most scholars of Puritanism know full well)–and one good sign of a healthy heart was the proper experience and expression of sympathy.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Sympathetic Puritans?

AVSympathetic Puritans argues that a Calvinist theology of sympathy shaped the politics, religion, and literature of seventeenth-century New England with widespread and long-lasting consequences. In this period, a dual meaning of sympathy–the active command to fellow-feel (a duty to sympathize with saints), as well as the passive sign that could indicate salvation (a discovery of such sympathy within)–pervaded Puritan society and came to define the very boundaries of English culture, affecting conceptions of community, relations with Native Americans, and the development of American literature.

JF: Why do we need to read Sympathetic Puritans?

AV: My study of Puritan sympathy addresses dominant narratives in intellectual history, the history of emotions, and American literary history. First, of course, there are the Puritans. For a general audience who sees the Puritans as the stern and iron forebears of Hawthorne, this book reveals a surprising Puritan investment in tears and emotion. For those who have long been familiar with Puritanism’s language of affection and the heart, this book demonstrates how and why Calvinists focused on such matters. And for both sets of readers, this book uncovers the significant and widespread impact of Puritan sympathy on early New England while also tracing forward its effects on important developments within American culture and literature.

Second, this book revises a prevailing story in intellectual and literary history, which attributes the beginning of any real thinking about sympathy to moral sense philosophers in the eighteenth century (Shaftesbury, Hutchinson, Hume, Smith, and so on) and traces the rise of America’s vast sentimental literary tradition to these thinkers. That narrative starts the story too late and assumes too secular a shape. My book shows that sympathy had religious roots and connotations in early America, and I open the possibility that a theology of sympathy in seventeenth-century Puritanism preempted, prompted, and even perhaps enabled the shape and embrace of moral sense philosophy that followed, as well as the meaning and experience of sentimental literature much later.

Finally, scholars in the history of emotions seem especially torn about historical distance and present understanding: does the experience of sympathy three hundred years ago, for example, resemble in any way what we might call sympathy now? Well, yes and no, it seems to me. The more I engaged with Puritan sympathy and its consequences for community, conversion, persuasion, preaching, rhetoric, and literary form, the more I realized how much these ideas recur today, sometimes in a strikingly similar form. A historical study of Puritan sympathy can teach us a good deal about the way we view sympathy now.

For all these reasons, I hope the book speaks to any student of American culture, American religion, American literature, and the history of ideas and emotions. The more one unpacks a Puritan theology of sympathy in early New England, the more one discovers just how far its consequences extend.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

AV: This question is a bit vexed for me, since I never seriously considered becoming a historian (maybe because my father is one). Instead, I set out to become a philosopher. Good philosophy, I thought, can change lives by shifting the way we think about the biggest questions we face. But the more English classes I took in college, the more I realized just how attached I was to a well-told story or a well-wrought poem. Good literature, I thought, can change lives by putting into words what had only been sensed or by giving us whole new experiences and new ways of seeing the world. I thought maybe I would become a writer, and I worked hard at short stories and poetry. Along the way, meanwhile, I nursed a love of history and especially American history (in high school, for example, I collected books about the Civil War and toured battlefield sites). Good history, it seemed to me, could reveal how lives had actually been changed by facing big questions or encountering new experiences. Then one influential professor explained that if I went into English, I could do both history and philosophy while studying, writing, and teaching good stories. Such a claim is problematic, I realize now, but as an undergraduate I was inspired. I wanted to do philosophy, I loved history, and I’ve always been inspired by literature. English seemed to me the most amenable to doing it all.

In an interdisciplinary age, my desire should seem rather unexceptional now. Still, disciplines are disciplines because they often train people differently, emphasizing certain kinds of skills and certain ways of looking at evidence, arguments, and significance. I recognize that. And I am more comfortable describing myself as an English professor than an American historian. At the same time, like many English professors flooding archives across the country these days, I am drawn to American history–and not just as background context for a piece of literature. A new literary history requires a sustained engagement with cultural, intellectual, and other kinds of history as well. When I began the research for this project, I chose a dissertation committee composed of English professors and historians, and I wrote a book that I hope will speak to both.

JF: What is your next project?

AV: My next project is a history of John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon, A Model of Christian Charity. Many do not know the surprising story behind this text. In its own day, A Model of Christian Charity went unrecorded, unpublished, and almost entirely unnoticed. Only when nineteenth-century antiquarians rediscovered it two hundred years later did the sermon slowly turn into a defining statement of American identity. First published in 1838, A Model of Christian Charity gradually worked its way into national consciousness, achieving status as an American classic in the mid-twentieth century. My next book, American Model: The Life of John Winthrop’s City on a Hill, writes the biography of this rags-to-riches sermon, studying its original context, changing uses, new editions, and competing interpretations in order to examine both the way literary history takes shape and the changing shape of American self-conceptions.


Some of this work has been done previously (see Richard Gamble’s In Search of the City on a Hill), but much remains to be told. For example, in an early essay from this project appearing in The New England Quarterly, I argue that the sole surviving manuscript is incomplete and that a headnote added later greatly influenced the reception and framing of this sermon in American culture. Another forthcoming essay sets the context for Winthrop’s utterance by revealing the broader seventeenth-century Catholic-Protestant debate about the meaning of “city on a hill” (Catholics claimed that this verse proved Protestants false). I am now delving into the nineteenth century recovery of the sermon and beginning to study the role of historical societies in the making and shaping of American literary traditions. In the end, I hope to offer a broader narrative about dominant and competing visions of American identity–the different “meanings of America” that emerge through rediscoveries, reinventions, and reinterpretations of its literary past.

JF: Thanks Abram!