America’s Covenant with God: John Winthrop’s ‘City on a Hill’ Speech (1630)
N 1630, John Winthrop, who went on to become Governor of Massachusetts, delivered a famous sermon titled, A Model of Christian Charity, to the Puritans en route to New England. This sermon is the proximal source (the actual origin is biblical, i.e., Matthew 5:14) of the phrase, “a city on a hill,” which both Presidents Kennedy and Reagan used to describe America.
The city on a hill metaphor 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 outlines a compact or covenant made with the Supreme Being.
Thus stands the cause between God and us: we are entered into covenant with Him for this work. We have taken out a commission. The Lord has given us leave to draw our own articles; we have professed to enterprise these actions upon these [articles], and these ends; we have hereupon besought Him of favor and blessing.
The terms are that Americans will be a community united in charity.
For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality.
If this is accomplished, God’s blessing is anticipated.
The Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us as His own people and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness and truth than formerly we have been acquainted with.
But should we fail to uphold our terms of the covenant, and turn from God and charity to materialism and selfishness, a “shipwreck” is portended.
I believe as many Americans as are able, especially Christians, 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.
A Modern Edition
Errors in and discrepancies amongst published versions and lack of a canonical edition in modern English have posed a considerable hindrance to the contemporary reading and appreciation of this important work. I have therefore consulted the published versions, as well as the scanned images of the manuscript copy, and prepared a more accurate and readable version. Explanatory footnotes are supplied, spelling of archaic words has been modernized, and many scriptural citations overlooked in the previous editions have been added. The new edition can be downloaded for free as a pdf document or in MS Word format.
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.
Another transcription, of intermediate quality relative to the other two, 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.
There are several online versions based on the faulty 1838 transcription.
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.
A book to recommend: 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.