I recently read As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon by historian Daniel T. Rodgers. The book is a history of John Winthrop’s address (it doesn’t actually fit the conventions of a sermon) to the Puritans who immigrated to New England in 1630, founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Winthrop’s manuscript is titled “A Model of Christian Charity,” and he worked on it not just on the boat to America but for some time before that. It is often cited as one of the founding texts of the American national enterprise. However, as Rodgers explains in some detail, Winthrop’s document was not consulted by the nation’s founders or anyone else, since it quickly sank into obscurity. It only gained some recognition in 1930, with the 300th anniversary of the Winthrop expedition’s arrival in Boston, and subsequently in the work of historian Perry Miller. Even then, it would have remained unfamiliar to the vast majority of Americans had not a politician who was later to become president found a passage from the “Model” and incorporated it in many of his speeches.

The politician, of course, was Ronald Reagan, and the two sentences he fixed on read as follows:

“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.”

It’s interesting that Reagan used this passage in two distinctly different ways. From the late 1960s through the 70s, governor and then presidential candidate Reagan used the second sentence to warn that the country could fall into barbarism and anarchy if current cultural trends weren’t reversed. As president in the 1980s, he emphasized instead the first sentence, talking reassuringly of the city on the hill as something already accomplished, a reality that offers hope to the world. I was struck by his vision of the city on a hill, offered in his farewell address to the nation:

“In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get there.” Quoted in AACOAH, p. 245

The contrast with more recent political discourse about walls is notable.

Neither of Reagan’s readings of the city on the hill was all that close to Winthrop’s original meaning. Winthrop was writing not of America but of a specifically Christian settlement, the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It wasn’t the eyes of the whole world that the Puritans were concerned with; the eyes that mattered were those of England, and the hope was that the colony would provide their home country an example of how a Christian society should operate. Being on a hill was not an occasion for pride but for anxiety, since visibility would expose the colonists’ failures to their critics and to God, whom they feared they would disappoint.

Similarly, the other modern political appropriations of Winthrop’s city on a hill haven’t used that image in a way similar to what it would have meant to the Puritans. Rodgers suggests that the closest usage has been that of American evangelicals, who like the Puritans believe that they have a special place in God’s providence and who, also like the Puritans, see themselves as misfits in a culture that is going astray. Though I don’t identify as an evangelical, their take on Winthrop’s message resonates more with me than do either of Reagan’s uses or subsequent appropriations of the image to support American Exceptionalism.

Rodgers points out that the city on the hill comes only in the last section of Winthrop’s manuscript. The previous three sections have been neglected by modern audiences, but they were Winthrop’s main concern. Those sections detail what he hoped the colony would be an exemplar of, namely charity as it ought to be practiced by Christians. He began by noting that there would always be inequality between rich and poor. Rather than lamenting such imbalances, he pointed out several advantages, especially that through charity both rich and poor “might be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection.” He distinguished between two divinely established laws–laws of justice and of mercy. Mercy–and, with it, charity–is not optional, but is an obligation that Winthrop traced through both the Old and the New Testament. It is founded in love, which is the primary obligation of all followers of Christ. And Winthrop carried this emphasis on love and charity over to his conception of how business should be done and markets operate. Rodgers notes:

“To the extent that the Model stands at one of the foundation points of the American story, Winthrop’s concern to establish the proper place of markets within the moral imperatives of charity must be recognized to stand there, just as prominently, too.” AACOAH p. 97-8

Would that America embrace Winthrop’s concern for mercy as integral not just to religious settings but to the world of commerce as well! Then, in the place of capitalism little influenced by moral constraints, we would have markets in which the flourishing of all members of society are as much a goal as is earning a profit. Modern-day Americans can most profitably look to “A Model of Christian Charity” not as a foundational text for the nation but as encouragement to display love and charity in every realm of life.