How modern leaders got John Winthrop’s ‘City on a Hill’ wrong

A call for humility has become the battle cry for American exceptionalism

The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon 
By Daniel T. Rodgers
368 pages, Princeton University Press

THE “MORAL CAPITALISM” that Rep. Joe Kennedy called for in a recent speech in Boston – the idea that economic dealings between people ought to be rooted in morality – is an idea as old as Boston. “A Model of Christian Charity,” written by Boston founder John Winthrop, is a guide for economic fairness, but that message remains obscured by its one potent phrase now mythologized as prophesy.

For Ronald Reagan, president at the tail end of the Cold War, Boston was the birthplace of America’s destiny as “a shining city on a hill.” As he told it, American exceptionalism was ordained from the moment that Winthrop preached his sermon, “we shall be as a city on a hill” to a “small band of settlers,” huddled on the deck of a “little wooden boat” named the Arbella, lying at anchor in the cold waters of Boston Harbor in 1630.

“For the last sixty years, a story has been told about the origins of America,” writes Daniel Rodgers, the historian of contested ideas in American public life. “It is an uplifting story and a haunting one. And it is at least half wrong.”

For one, Winthrop never used the word “shining,” a single adjective which changes the meaning of his metaphor of a city on a hill. Winthrop never said we will “build” a city on a hill, or even “be” a city on a hill, but, instead, “we will be as a city on a hill” – exposed for all the world to see. As Matthew’s Gospel recounts Jesus preaching in his Sermon on the Mount, “a city on a hill cannot be hid.”

Winthrop’s Model of Christian Charity was not a sermon for a worship service but an essay or a lecture — a “lay sermon” – written not by a minister, but by Winthrop the lawyer and political leader. It was most likely written in England and not aboard the Arbella, which was a 350-ton ship manned by a crew of 52.

President Ronald Reagan delivering his farewell address in January 1989. In it, he references America as the “shining city upon a hill,” one of at least 30 times he used the phrase in public speeches.

Reagan, the film star who knew a good script when he read one, didn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. He trumpeted the “a city on a hill” motif at least 30 times as president, closing with it as the coda to his farewell address. Through telling and retelling, the Republican from California would transform the humble reality of Boston’s founding into a national myth.

How Winthrop’s Model of Christian Charity was ignored for centuries only to be plucked from the dustbin of history to become a foundational document for America in the 20th century is the subject of Rodgers’s new book, As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon. In it, he “tells the story of a text we think we know so well that we barely know it at all.”

Rodgers is fit to exhume the true meaning of Winthrop’s forgotten words, having previously written the books, Contested Truths: Keywords in American Politics Since Independence, and Age of Fracture, winner of the Bancroft Prize for showing how America’s consensus around big, unifying political ideas unraveled in the 1980s.

To understand Winthrop and the Puritans accurately requires familiarity with the Bible, the fundamental guide for Puritan life in the 17th century.

Like the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible, the Puritans to Winthrop were a chosen people, living out God’s will amid a fallen and corrupted culture. To escape impiety and idolatry in England, they chose exile in the wilderness. Upon arrival, the hardships were many. The risks were high. Their fate was uncertain. And God and the world would be watching to see if their utopian experiment would fail. This is what Winthrop meant when he wrote:

“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 byword through the world.”

Reagan misread Winthrop’s warning of judgment. He skipped over Winthrop’s moral of economic fairness altogether. And Reagan missed the irony of holding up the Puritans as beacons of freedom in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. The Massachusetts Bay Colony of the 1630s was anything but free. It was an exclusive theocracy of like-minded souls, where free-thinking nonconformists were considered existential threats to the entire fragile undertaking, punishable by banishment.

That is why the first three-quarters of Winthrop’s Model of Christian Charity concerns how to maintain social cohesion among a community of unequals. The answer in Winthrop’s Model is love and charity, the subordination of self-interest to the greater good, and fairness and morality in lending, trade, and employment. Winthrop would be rolling over in his grave to know that a cheerleader for free-market individualism had so thoroughly warped his Calvinist sense of self-denial, self-doubt, and self-criticism.

The president who came closest to sounding Winthrop’s original meaning was President-elect John F. Kennedy, in his famous “City on a Hill” speech to the Massachusetts Legislature in January 1961. Written by Ted Sorensen, its themes were Puritan themes — obligation and responsibility — announcing,

“Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us… men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities. For we are setting out upon a voyage in 1961 no less hazardous than that undertaken by the Arbella in 1630. We are committing ourselves to tasks of statecraft no less awesome than that of governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, beset as it was then by terror without and disorder within.”

Invoking Luke’s Gospel, Kennedy added,

“For of those to whom much is given, much is required. And when at some future date the high court of history sits in judgment on each one of us — recording whether in our brief span of service we fulfilled our responsibilities to the state — our success or failure, in whatever office we may hold, will be measured…”

In the best argued brief of speechwriting forensics yet published, Rodgers reveals how the resuscitation and redefinition of Winthrop’s words was performed before Reagan and JFK, by Perry Miller, the Harvard historian who fathered the field of Puritan studies after watching Boston’s tricentennial celebration in 1930 as a graduate student, and by Daniel Boorstin, the American historian who attended Harvard in the 1930s, when Miller was there.

According to Rodgers, it was Miller who “put the ‘city upon a hill’ phrase at the core of historians’ understanding of Puritanism and put Puritanism, for the first time, at the core of the American story itself.” But it was Boorstin who popularized the myth as a foundational idea in the American mind.

In his 1958 book, The Americans: The Colonial Experience, Boorstin began with, “A City Upon a Hill: The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay.” There, Boorstin proclaimed: “John Winthrop, while preaching to his fellow-passengers, struck the keynote of American history… No one writing after the fact, three hundred years later, could better have expressed the American sense of destiny. In describing the Puritan experience we will see how this sense of destiny came into being.”

In Boorstin’s 1962 book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America, imagined events become more real in the public mind than reality itself. Rodgers suspects the imagined event in Boorstin’s book was the source of Reagan’s mythic tale of American destiny.

Winthrop statue at its original site in Scollay Square. (Photo from BPS archives)

The truth, as Rodgers clarifies, is less dramatic: There was no grand sense of destiny among the first Puritans to settle Boston. They carried no ambitions to build a New Jerusalem. They did not name their new home Zion, or Canaan, the promised land of milk and honey. They only sought a place to uphold their covenant with God, free from outside interference. By the second generation of settlement, New England was a backwater in the Protestant Reformation, an inconsequential afterthought to the Puritan Commonwealth in England and the wealthier Dutch Republic. America’s sense of destiny came generations later.

If Winthrop’s Model of Christian Charity holds relevance for today’s generation, Rodgers, the liberal historian, makes a case for two of its forgotten themes: its answer to income inequality and its warning of collective failure in self-government.

Winthrop successor Michael Dukakis attended Brookline High School at the peak of McCarthyism and was in college when Arthur Miller’s The Crucible won a Tony Award for Best Play, in 1953, a time when the Puritans were hardly in favor on the left. Still, as governor of the Commonwealth, Dukakis, the card-carrying member of the ACLU, recalled how Winthrop’s words underscored the necessity of community. So, too, did Bill Clinton, who launched his bid for president in 1991 on a platform he called “The New Covenant” and its themes of “Opportunity, Responsibility, and Community.”

Meet the Author

At a time of when divisive leaders in Washington appeal to the worst in us, Winthrop’s awareness of accountability for our failings, his warning that the political experiment in the New World could go wrong, may be his most urgently relevant, forgotten message of all.

Carter Wilkie was a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and an advisor to late Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.

Sidebar: Bibles, Brahmins and Bosses

For the US Centennial in 1876, Massachusetts sent two statues to the US Capitol to stand in Statuary Hall: a marble statue of John Winthrop carved by Richard Saltonstall Greenough, and one of Samuel Adams, a replica of which stands outside Faneuil Hall today.

On Boston’s 250th anniversary in 1880, a bronze replica of the Winthrop statue was placed upon a pedestal at one of the busiest intersections of the city, near the site now occupied by the entrance to the MBTA’s Government Center station.

The Founders Memorial on Boston Common showing William Blackstone, left, greeting John Winthrop. (Photo by Michael Jonas)

For 23 years, there Winthrop stood, until subway construction forced the statue’s removal in 1903, saving the moralistic Puritan from having to watch Scollay Square devolve into Boston’s vice district frequented by sailors on shore leave.

Boston Mayor James Michael Curley, smiling at center, at 1930 celebration of Boston’s tercentenary, flanked by, at far left, Gen. John J. Pershing, Calvin Coolidge, John D. Rockefeller, Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell. (Photo from Boston Public Library archives)

While lesser figures in Boston history are given prominent perches in the Public Garden and the Commonwealth Avenue mall, Winthrop’s statue was relocated to the Unitarian Universalist First Church in Boston, where it is all but ignored on Marlborough Street. With Boston’s quadricentennial on the horizon in 2030, the Boston Art Commission and Massachusetts Historical Society could work with the First Church to consider more visible locations for Boston’s founder.

More prominent is the Founders Memorial, erected in 1930 on the Boston Common, beside Beacon Street. It depicts William Blackstone, the first European settler in Boston, welcoming Winthrop and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop’s words are memorialized on the monument along with quotes of two other elected leaders: the governor of the Plymouth Colony, William Bradford, and the mayor of Boston at the time, Jim Curley.

In the most enduring act of cultural appropriation in Boston history, there Curley mocked the Brahmin penchant for using three names (e.g., Henry Cabot Lodge, Samuel Elliott Morrison) by styling himself for posterity as “James Michael Curley.” According to another three-named professor, Jonathan Beecher Field, Curley got the last laugh when the monument’s sculptor, John Paramino, could find no historical likeness of Boston’s first colonial resident. For his model for William Blackstone, the artist used Curley.