America’s Covenant with God: John Winthrop’s ‘City on a Hill’ Speech (1630)
In 1630, John Winthrop, who went on to become Governor of Massachusetts, wrote a famous speech or sermon titled, “A Model of Christian Charity,” which he delivered to the Puritans of New England. This speech is the source of the well known phrase, “city upon a hill”, which both Presidents Kennedy and Reagan used to describe America.
The phrase “city on a hill” has inspired many Americans, and perhaps irritated some others who claimed it expressed a dubious attitude of American exceptionalism. But as I have studied this speech, it has come more and more to impress me as something profound and deeply significant. America, indeed, for Winthrop, was to be a city placed on a hill for all to see. But in what way was it to serve as a model? Of democracy? A land of liberty? A land of productivity and commerce? The answer is plainly revealed in Winthrop’s title: America is to be a model of ‘Christian charity’. And by this, Winthrop meant something very specific. He meant that America needed to exemplify that particular kind of charity and love described by Saint Paul’s Epistles, in which a community is united by love, such that each person is as a different part of the body, and all work together for the common good. In Winthrop’s words,
We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.
This speech arguably ranks with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as one of the foundational documents of the American people. The Constitution is a compact we have made amongst ourselves. But Winthrop’s speech is, as it were, a compact or covenant made with the Supreme Being, God. The terms are that Americans will be a community united in charity. If this is accomplished, God’s blessing is anticipated. Should we fail, then a “shipwreck” is portended.
I believe as many Americans as are able should read and reflect on this marvelous document, or at least the concluding paragraphs.
But one manuscript is known to exist, now in the possession of the New York Historical Society. Not in Winthrop’s handwriting, it is possibly a verbatim record of his sermon made by someone else, perhaps a hearer.
Two ‘official’ transcriptions have been made from this manuscript, both published by the Massachusetts Historical Society. The earlier transcription has definite errors. Both can be found online in pdf format:
- Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 3rd series, Volume 7, pp. 31-48. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1838.
- Mitchell, Stewart (ed.) . The Winthrop Papers, Volume 2 (1623-1630), pp. 282-95. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1931.
Scanned images of the manuscript (not very easy to read, the ornate script being indistinct in places) are available online at the New York Historical Society website.
There are two main html versions already online (which have also been re-posted various places). One, from Hanover College, is based on the poorer 1838 version by the Massachusetts Historical Society. The other html version is based on the more accurate 1931 transcription; however the editor took liberties in attempting to modernize the wording.
At present there is a need to place on the web a canonical version of the sermon. This might be done by comparing the 1838 and 1931 transcriptions of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and using the scanned images to resolve discrepancies. My suggestion would be to modernize spelling (e.g., replace ‘soule’ with ‘soul’), but to otherwise retain archaic words (e.g., ‘hath’). The archaic words are little different than what we find in the King James Version Bible or Shakespeare. They are still understandable by modern readers, and possess a certain poetic appeal. I would place such a version online myself except that other tasks have priority.
Credits: Thanks to staff at the Library of Congress and the New York Historical Society for help in compiling this information.