In my last post I offered a summary review of Eric Metaxas’ new book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  Metaxas believes unabashedly in American exceptionalism, although he is quick to disavow all forms of jingoism or triumphant nationalism.  The United States is exceptional, he contends, because we have a unique mission—a divinely ordained, unique mission—to be a blessing to the other nations of the world.

Although I’m sure he means well, the theological implications of this belief are enormous and appalling.  One of my favorite historians of the American Civil War, Steven Woodworth, calls this blurring of the roles of the church and the nation “patriotic heresy.”  In his book Bad Religion (which I reviewed here), New York Times columnist Ross Douthat echoes this critique, referring to such views as “the heresy of American nationalism.”  Hugh Heclo, Professor of Public Affairs at George Mason University, writes in his book Christianity and American Democracy, “If America is the redeemer of nations and time, then America is the Christ of history,” Heclo writes.  “This notion may be inadvertent, but it is blasphemy all the same.”  This is not a minor concern.


I am not a theologian, but I have spent the past three decades as a professional historian, and what jumps out at me is the way that Metaxas offers historical evidence to support his essentially theological claim.  I could give numerous examples, but I’ll limit myself to one: his misreading of the message of John Winthrop’s 1630 shipboard sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” and its oft-quoted words, “We shall be as a city on a hill.  The eyes of all people are upon us.”  In fairness to Metaxas, he is hardly alone.  Heclo aptly describes the memorable metaphor as “rhetoric so beloved and so thoroughly misrepresented by later American politicians.”

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.

Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop

Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop

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 (as the group that we remember as “the Pilgrims” had done).  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.”  (Oddly, that’s a portion of Winthrop’s exhortation that almost never gets quoted.)  If the Puritans failed in these particulars, the governor warned, they would almost certainly fail in their overall endeavor.

This brings us, finally, to Winthrop’s famous phrase.  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.


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  3. Tracy, one of your old Vanderbilt profs here. Why doesn’t Winthrop’s use of Matthew 5:14 do both? The complete verse reads “You are the light of the world; a city on a hill cannot be hid.” That says to me that Winthrop in fact saw their mission as of world-historical significance. But *for that very reason* he warned them that failure to create the ideal Christian community would discredit the very aspiration that sent them on their errand. It was both the aspiration and the fear of failure that underlay the great Puritan tradition of the jeremiad, which has resounded through American oratory in orations as diverse as Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. A nation that is appointed with a divine mission is also under God’s judgment. You rightly worry that sacralizing America has dangerous consequences, but by neglecting the responsibility that comes with chosenness you may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

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  6. Jack Be Nimble

    Having just witnessed our 4th of July celebration (on TV, unfortunately), I note that we sing “God bless America” as a prayer for God to bless and preserve us. This is appropriate and timely and I don’t think it out of bounds to ask God to make us a blessing to other nations, but to declare that we know that God’s purpose for us is to replace Israel as His chosen people defies all Scripture and horribly skews our vision for the future. I may be wrong, but I think that the British, at the height of their empire, likely had similar thoughts. After all, they were quite determined to prevent the Jews from returning to Israel after World War II. Correct me if I am wrong but I don’t think Winthrop’s sermon has been added to the canon of Scripture and I find no evidence that God’s covenant with the Hebrew people has been abrogated! I think Eric is trying to stir the embers of the culture wars that our nation has gone through so as to revive the spirits and determination of the evangelical Christian population to “make America great again!” Let us pray that Christians will become the “salt and light” the nation needs to bring glory to God in a fallen world.

  7. Thanks for your review and critique of Metaxas book. Good to hear a historians perspective. I hadn’t realized Reagan (and subsequently Metaxas) had added the word ‘shining’ into the phrase. I did notice that the original source for this phrase is Matthew 5:14 which states in full, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” The sentence before the acclaimed city on a hill reference indicates a shining: “light of the world.” Obviously, the salt and light parable is not a political treatise by Jesus, but it does seem to indicate the Winthrop is implying that not only will their enemies looking upon them, but they are to be an example as well. In fact, people watching them is not mutually exclusive from being an example as well. Instead of being either/or couldn’t it be a both/and.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful insights you provide. Happy fourth of July.

  8. Richard Gamble’s book on the quote and it’s history in American politics is terrific.

  9. Wow, thanks for putting that into context. I have a lot of questions, but will save them until a read some more. Thank you.

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