When President Ronald Reagan delivered his “Farewell Address to the Nation” in 1989, he called on his fellow citizens to be true to the purposes for which America was founded. To support his urgings, he cited a sermon preached by the Puritan leader John Winthrop in 1630. In that sermon, Reagan said, Winthrop, “an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man,” had used the Bible’s “city on a hill” image “to describe the America he imagined.”
Reagan was engaging in more than a little historical revisionism. For one thing, Winthrop was not a Pilgrim. He was a Puritan leader who had come to Massachusetts directly from England; he had no affiliation with the Pilgrim band of separatists who had left the Netherlands to settle in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620. For another, Winthrop’s sermon had nothing to do with the vision of a nation that would have a special role in God’s providential plan for the world. Winthrop was simply using Jesus’s words to his followers in Matthew 5:14–16 to encourage his Puritan congregation to be the kind of God-fearing community that the Lord calls the church to be in all times and places.
In his new book, City on a Hill, Abram Van Engen demonstrates convincingly that the practice of featuring Winthrop’s sermon in accounts of America’s origins is misguided. The sermon was just that—a sermon. And as such it did not even stand out among the hundreds of other seventeenth-century sermons about Christian faithfulness. For that reason, as Van Engen points out, it was pretty much ignored for a couple of centuries—showing up only in the occasional sermon anthology. In the nineteenth century it began to be referenced for its regional significance in the history of New England. But it did not come to be used as a “founding” document of the American nation as such until after World War II.