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.

I’ve been away on vacation for the past few weeks, and as a result haven’t posted anything.  I had a very nice time visiting family in Wisconsin and Michigan.  It’s great to see my children and grandchildren thriving.


In my previous post, I indicated that I’m quite skeptical about viewing happiness as the purpose of life.  I described how being raised in the Christian Reformed Church influenced my views, and referenced the Heidelberg Catechism as having been particularly important in shaping my idea of happiness.  The first two questions and answers of the catechism are illuminating in what they say about how the catechumens were to approach life. Here’s the first question:


“What is your only comfort in life and in death?”


I always thought that the question itself conveyed quite a bit about the Calvinist way of seeing human existence.  Life isn’t about unlimited

Logo of the Christian Reformed Church

Logo of the Christian Reformed Church

human potential, personal fulfillment, self-aggrandizement, or the like.  It’s about finding comfort.  And there is only going to be one comfort available, so be attentive or you may miss out.  The answer to this first question begins with the following statement:


“That I am not my own, but belong–body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”


So life is to be about God, and in particular about the son of God, Jesus Christ.  I accepted that answer then, questioned it for a time, and now believe it more fully than I did as a preteen.  I don’t remember at the time whether I wondered whether there was any place in this accounting of the meaning of life for human happiness.  If I had, the catechism’s second question and answer addressed the issue (here I am quoting from the older translation used in our class, not the one on the CRC website):


“How many things are necessary for you to know, that you in this comfort may live and die happily?”


“Three; the first, how great my sins and misery are; the second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery; the third, how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance.”


So happiness is possible, but the route to happiness is through awareness of misery.  As Kierkegaard later wrote in The Sickness Unto Death, we are all in despair over ourselves, and those who have an awareness of their despair, disturbing as it may be, have an advantage since they are nearer to finding a way out of their discomfort, that is, to finding redemption.  William James distinguished between the religion of healthy-mindedness, which makes little of sin or evil, and the religion of the “sick soul,” which has an acute and rending awareness of wrongdoing.  The catechism certainly promotes the latter.  For the Calvinist, happiness is an appreciation of the magnitude of sin leading to a corresponding appreciation of the gift of forgiveness.  The catechism left me skeptical of any claims to happiness that were not forged via this process of redemption.  I still have what I consider a Calvinist understanding of happiness: it is possible to be happy, but the happiness that is worth having comes only by acknowledging some unpleasant truths about ourselves.  Such happiness comes via faith and humility.


My parents were the models for me of how to live according to this set of beliefs, and I’ll talk about their influence in another post. 



I recently wrote a post on Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy by Eric G. Wilson.  I noted that most of the book was devoted to the praises of melancholy, and his argument on that point was the main topic of my post.  I wanted to say a little more about how he handled happiness, though. 

Wilson believes that there is an “American obsession with happiness,” an obsession that he thinks can be traced to the arrival of the Puritans in New England:

These pious men and women held in their heart of hearts the conviction that they had reached a place of destiny, a special environment fated to give them the happiness they deserved.  (p.12)

It’s hard for me to believe that any self-respecting follower of Calvin would think that he or she deserved happiness.  We Calvinists are about as likely to believe in the Easter Bunny or the Great Pumpkin.  against-happinessSimilarly, Wilson gets confused about the “pursuit of happiness” phrase in the Declaration of Independence, repeating an old interpretation that these words were secretly connected to the ownership of property (historian Darrin McMahon’s Happiness: A History clears up this misconception).  Somehow, Wilson connects the Puritans and founding fathers to contemporary pursuits of security and  comfort.   He laments the sense of control that many Americans think they can exercise over their lives:

Before we even have bootstraps, or know what they are, we think that we can pull ourselves up by them, that we can transform ourselves from suffering adolescents to powerful presidents.  Our technologically efficient culture makes these opinions all the easier to hold, for our gadgets increasingly push anything like reality into the background.  We can substitute our dreams for data, our desires for death.  Everywhere we look, we see the big yellow smiley face.  Everywhere we listen, we hear “Have a nice day.”  (p. 19)

Wilson finds the “dystopia of flaccid grins” everywhere—in academia, politics, Protestant churches, the malls, and suburbia, for example.  He calls American happiness “tepid satisfaction.”  He faults the search for security, the use of positive self-talk, and the preference for the merely pretty over the darkly beautiful.  There’s not much he finds to like.

I agree with many of Wilson’s observations.  Trite verse by Helen Steiner Rice makes me wrinkle my nose in disgust, and I find Thomas Kincade paintings sappy.  Still, I think Wilson is unfair to the average “pretty happy” American.  He complains that these happy folks rely too heavily on abstractions and thereby forget the concrete world from which the abstractions first sprung.  Perhaps so, but I can’t help but note that Wilson’s concept of the typical American is highly abstract.  Are there particular individuals who embody the faults that he describes?   He describes a general type, but doesn’t give concrete examples. 

When I think of the happy people I know, I find that they are all unique in their way of being happy.  Each of them may have a few of the characteristics Wilson describes, but I can’t find a true exemplar of spiritless contentment.  To take one example, my brother Thom has been unrelentingly happy for nearly all his life.  As Wilson would predict, it seems to me that he does oversimplify complex realities and doesn’t give much thought to the darker side of life.  However, he has real relationships, not plastic ones, with friends and family.  He isn’t preoccupied with accumulating material goods,  and isn’t sedating himself with banal entertainment.   He’s suffered mistreatment and hardship, and managed to maintain his good cheer in the face of such difficulties.  His positive mood seems largely a function of unshakable optimism about the future, a belief in the  goodness of others, and a strong faith in God.  He works as a school principal, and brings to the job a wonderful ability to convey to even the biggest troublemakers in the school a sense of what they could become.  There doesn’t seem anything false or artificial about his happiness.  I wish Wilson hadn’t just analyzed happy people from a distance, but had gotten to know happy people like Thom.