In my last post I briefly discussed Ross Douthat’s new book Bad Religion and his penetrating critique of what he provocatively labels “the heresy of American nationalism.” Douthat’s argument dovetails nicely with many of my own concerns. As a Christian historian, I have long been alert to the temptation to idolatry that awaits us whenever we study history. We face this temptation as we study the past for the same reason that we struggle with it as we live in the present: our minds are idol factories, as John Calvin so memorably put it. And as C. S. Lewis understood, even the most devout Christian can fall prey to what Lewis labeled “Christianity And,” a mindset in which we gradually blend our allegiance to Christ with any number of other loyalties. For many American Christians, “Christianity And” takes shape as we unconsciously equate the role of the United States in the world with the mission of the Christian Church to the nations. The most common name for the resulting mindset is “manifest destiny”: the belief that the United States—not the Church per se—is God’s chosen instrument for spreading Christianity around the globe.
As Douthat observes, no historical metaphor has been more frequently invoked in support of this mindset than the comparison of the United States to a “city upon a hill.” Both supporters and critics of manifest destiny vaguely recall that somebody important in early American history employed the phrase in describing America’s mission to the world. That somebody was John Winthrop, the Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (who Douthat misidentifies as the Pilgrim governor of Plymouth Colony.) Winthrop invoked the analogy in the year 1630 as part of a shipboard sermon to migrating Puritans that he titled “Christian Charity, a Model Thereof.” “We shall be as a city upon a hill,” Winthrop told the colonists. “The eyes of all people are upon us.”
But what did Winthrop mean by this memorable phrase? The most common 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. Admirers of this reading have been deeply convicted by the sense of America’s high calling that it embodies. Critics have scorned the arrogance that it supposedly reflected and promoted. Both evaluations miss the mark, because both are based on a misreading of the original statement.
In context, Winthrop was not remotely claiming that God had decreed a special mission for the political community that the Puritans were about to establish. For nearly a century, a minority of the members of the Church of England had believed that the English Reformation had not gone nearly far enough. Although they were openly critical of the established church, these “Puritans” had not withdrawn into secret “Separatist” congregations. Instead, they had hoped to cooperate with the state in purifying Anglicanism of surviving vestiges of Catholic hierarchy, doctrine, and ritual that they believed were unsupported by Scripture. Under Queen Elizabeth such an outcome had seemed possible, but the hopes for continuing reformation grew dim under her successor, James I, and vanished entirely when James was succeeded by the openly Catholic Charles I in 1625. The eventual result was what historians call the “Great Migration,” a massive relocation to New England of perhaps as many as 20,000 Puritans during the 1630s. In the technological context of the early 17th century, this was an undertaking of monumental proportions.
In his sermon, Winthrop reminds his listeners of the seriousness of the undertaking upon which they had embarked. They were leaving England in search of a new home in which they could more effectively serve the Lord, increase His church, and distance themselves from the corruption of the English church that now seemed to them as beyond reformation. If their venture was to succeed, Winthrop stresses, the migrants must purpose to “love one another with a pure heart,” “bear one another’s burdens,” and be willing to sacrifice their “superfluities” (material surpluses) “for the supply of others’ necessities.” If they failed in these particulars, the governor warned, they would almost certainly fail in their overall mission.
This brings us, finally, to Winthrop’s famous phrase. Far from claiming that the Lord had chosen the Puritan migrants to serve as a shining 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, and 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 meticulous 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. “Manifest destiny” this was not.