¶ … Winthrop's "City upon a Hill"
John Winthrop's "Model of Christian Charity" impacted not only the Massachusetts Bay Colony settlers but also the history of America by laying a Calvinist foundation of thought for future geopolitical movements. Winthrop's motivational sermon highlighted the specialness of the new American settlers, challenging them to be the model of Christian charity for the rest of the world -- yet Winthrop's interpretation of charity was different from the traditional Roman Catholic concept, which had held sway over Europe for more than a millennium. Winthrop and his people were a "new light" -- a new set of "chosen people" with a "new sense" of religious concepts and practices. And it is this new approach that formed the backbone of the American way of life. This paper will discuss the how and why Winthrop's "city upon a hill" left such a lasting impact on America.
When John Winthrop refers to the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a "city upon a hill," he is alluding to the Parable of Salt and Light, preached by Jesus Christ in His Sermon on the Mount. The sermon has been said to be directed to "God's chosen people," but there is some dispute among Biblical scholars as to who exactly made up the audience of that famous sermon -- whether it consisted only of Jews (the disciples) or if the audience was larger and more diverse (with Gentiles). Barber suggests that there is room for both interpretations. However, Barber asserts that the meaning of the association is clear in the Gospel of Matthew when Christ states, "You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden" (Matt 5:14): In the context of the New Testament, it is the followers of Christ, who are the new "city upon a hill" because they adhere to the Word of God, which sets the ultimate standard by which men are supposed to live good lives. For the Old Testament Jews, the application is somewhat different -- as they were chosen by God rather than the other way around (in the New Testament, sinners "choose" Christ, Who accepts them as Sons of God). Therefore, it is not surprising that a sense of specialness associated with the "city upon a hill" is confused with a sense of being "God's chosen people." After all, the Calvinists have been described by some scholars, such as E. Michael Jones, as being Judaized Christians -- that is, persons with a Christian veneer but with a Jewish way of thinking. This sense of "being chosen" is especially evident in the doctrines of Calvin, who essentially eliminates "free will" from the Christian drama of salvation: according to Calvin, one is either chosen or not chosen by God, seemingly willy-nilly; whereas in the New Testament, God allows all sinners to choose for themselves whether they will be saved.
Thus, Winthrop, interpreting Scripture from the Calvinist position, views himself and the Colony as "chosen people" in the sense that they are of the elect (generally speaking). This association is more like that sense attributed to the Jews as the "chosen people" than the Christian sense of one who "chooses to follow Christ." This difference in perspective is important because the former fosters a spirit of entitlement and "exceptionalism" (notably in the doctrine of "Manifest Destiny") while the latter is meant to foster a spirit of humility and to retain a respect for the mystery of the interaction between grace and free will (the traditional Roman Catholic perspective). Winthrop's "city upon a hill" aka Massachusetts is an identification that is meant to both motivate his followers and fill them with pride (all eyes upon them): they are special because they alone are the cream of the Christian crop -- the elect -- the chosen, given a new land in America by which they are meant to prosper.
It is a mixed legacy that the Puritans and Calvinists left behind in America. If one judges by American literature, such as that of Hawthorne or Melville, the Calvinist legacy is a dark one. If one judges by history, such as the Protestant ideology of "Manifest Destiny" which essentially dictated that all of America was theirs for the taking (and when that ran out, all the world) is...
However, the innovation and diligence with which America grew (with the support of the banking elite) implies that there has been a high degree of exceptional vigor in the American spirit.
It is this exceptional vigor with which JFK chooses to associate in his speech to Massachusetts before taking the White House. He quotes and alludes directly to John Winthrop's "city upon a hill" sermon (rather than the source from which Winthrop took the quote -- namely Jesus Christ) as though seeking to assure the Protestant north that his Catholicism will not get in the way of his mandate in the White House (Kennedy). It is JFK's way of saying, "I am like you -- a descendent of Winthrop and the Puritans," when in reality JFK is a Roman Catholic and therefore, at least dogmatically speaking, should interpret the "city upon the hill" verse with more humility and reverence for the mystery of grace and free will. Instead, JFK wants to give the impression that Massachusetts is remarkable, a strong, proud state with a great and unique heritage that truly does shine a light on the rest of the world. But in doing so JFK neglects the dark side of history, as seen in works like The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick, or the slaughter of the native Americans, or the vicious exploitation of workers throughout the Industrial Revolution, or the takeover of the nation by the northeast banking cartel in 1913 with the Federal Reserve Act. All of this is glossed over so that JFK can shower praises upon his home state and calm fears about his religion getting in the way of Protestant "business."
Relation to American Exceptionalism
American Exceptionalism is essentially rooted in Winthrop's interpretation of the "city upon a hill" verses and the way in which he identifies the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a kind of "chosen people" similar to the Jews. There is more of a spirit of pride in this sense and that is the basis of the American Exceptionalism that explodes throughout the nation in the following centuries. The Puritans/Calvinists/Pilgrims essentially viewed themselves as the "new" chosen people and "America" as a kind of new land. Coupled with the Jewish propensity for finance (the Age of Rothschild is set to begin in the coming years at this time), and the Puritanical sense of Self and Place can be viewed as thoroughly Exceptional. These are, after all the reformers and/or the only "true" Christian religionists left. This ideology is strong and inherent in the American fabric and helps to explain the WASP mentality that is prevalent in the northeast too. It is even cited today by President Obama who told the U.S. Military Academy that he believes "in American exceptionalism with every fiber of [his] being" (Jaffe). Essentially, the establishment politicians and the political elite still believe that they must pay homage to the ideas lain down by Winthrop centuries ago in order to cultivate a positive image and to establish a positive legacy of their own. Winthrop's Colony has transformed into a nation that believes it is "elected" to be the leader of the world. How well America has lived up to that image of itself is debated intensely as critics refer to America as an authoritarian State that is 5% of the world's population but that yet has 25% of the world's prison population.
Positive and Negative Ramifications
The positive ramifications of Winthrop's "city upon a hill" may be seen in the adoption of a spirit of confidence and self-worth that drives the nation to fulfill its "manifest destiny." The people are devoted to their cause, right or wrong: they believe themselves to hold a special relationship with God and take advantage of that to assert themselves in American society. These positive ramifications are mostly supported by establishmentarians who view with a special favor the "white culture" that "founded" America -- even though there is a horde of evidence that illustrates how very different ethnicities and cultures were working in America before the business/religious colonies of England took root.
The negative ramifications may be viewed as the same "manifest destiny," which can essentially be translated into meaning "land grabbing." If one is a beggar, or a savage (native American), or has a propensity for vice, that person is clearly not one of the elect and cannot be saved -- therefore, they do not need to be respected or helped or converted. This way of thinking is not explicit in the Calvinist creed but it is there in a kind of subtext. Human nature what it is, it is not surprising to find that charity among the Puritans is reduced to philanthropy,…
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