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 modern source (the actual origin is biblical, i.e., Matthew 5:14) of the 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 sermon. I would, however, suggest that new readers may wish to read only the last 60% of the sermon (which begins, “Having already set forth the practice of mercy…”), which contains the heart and soul of Winthrop’s message. The first 40%, very dissimilar in style, gets into specific recommendations for how lending and borrowing should be conducted in the new colony; it lacks the inspired eloquence, timelessness, and prophetic character of the second part of the sermon. Read the first part another time if you wish; but don’t let it dilute or distract your attention from the inspired message of the second half, which is the basis of the sermon’s fame, cultural importance, and modern relevance.
I do wish to add one further point, however. Critics of Winthrop’s sermon, and of the Puritan experience in general, are wont to see it as a failed experiment in theocracy — as evidence that Church and state must be forever separate. They say it simply didn’t work; that Winthrop and St. Paul were wrong, naive; that it asks too much of human beings to suppose they could ever organize themselves into a society based on the principle of Christian charity.
I think we can certainly look at the Puritan experiment in New England and see that it was doomed to fail. It reached too far, and tried to coerce all members of society into formal membership in the Church, and into a rigid, legalistic moralism. Yet there is another way to understand Winthrop’s sermon: as not applying to every member of society, but instead to a society within society — a society of saints, of children of light — which is what the Church should be. Therefore I would propose that the true way to understand Winthrop’s sermon today is not that we should expect the entire nation to follow the pattern he outlines. But rather that we endeavor to create a true body of Christ, joined by the ligament of Christian love, amongst American Christians. Then, together, we may serve as the animating force and guiding spirit of society.
No original of the sermon in Winthrop’s handwriting exists, and it was not published until the 19th century. It is believed the sermon was circulated amongst Puritans in England and Massachusetts, hand-written copies being made for this purpose. One such manuscript copy is known to exist, now in the possession of the New York Historical Society.
Two published transcriptions have been made from this manuscript copy by the Massachusetts Historical Society. The later transcription improves considerably over the earlier one, but still has errors. Both transcriptions 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.
The 1931 version is a decided improvement over the 1838 version. Another transcription, of intermediate quality, is:
- Morison, Samuel Eliot (ed.). “A Modell of Christian Charity.” Old South Leaflets, Vol. 9, No. 207. Boston: Old South Association, 1916, pp. 7–22.
Unfortunately, many online versions are based on the defective 1838 transcription.
Discrepancies amongst published versions and lack of a ‘canonical’ version in modern language has posed a considerable hindrance to the contemporary reading and appreciation of this important work. I have therefore consulted a variety of published and online versions, as well as the scanned images of the manuscript copy, to produce a more accurate and readable version. This also contains more (and more accurate) scriptural citations than earlier versions. It can be found here (pdf) and here (MS Word).
Scanned images of the manuscript copy (not very easy to read, the ornate script being indistinct in places) are available online at the New York Historical Society website.
I know of no better book on this topic than: Matthew S. Holland, Bonds of Affection: Civic Charity and the Making of America, Georgetown University, 2007.
Credits: Thanks to staff at the Library of Congress and the New York Historical Society for help in compiling this information.