The BEST: A City Upon a Hill

Yisroel Ben-Porat Tradition Online | January 13, 2022

Summary: The oft-cited phrase “city on a hill” might evoke different associations for Jews and Christians. The motif appears in the short lay sermon, “A Modell of Christian Charity” (1630) by John Winthrop, the first governor of the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony. In our liturgy for Friday nights, we sing the words ve-nivnitah ir al tilah (Jeremiah 30:18), which ArtScroll renders, “As the City is built upon its hilltop.” A more accurate translation of the phrase would read “mound” or “heap” in the sense of rebuilding over destruction (cf. Deuteronomy 13:17). Christians, on the other hand, hear in Winthrop’s words an echo of the New Testament: “A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid” (Matthew 5:14).

Despite its obscure origins, “Christian Charity” is considered canonical in early American literature. Before the Puritans’ departure from England to the New World in April 1630, Winthrop provided a message of unity, love, and faith to the future colonists. Like many midrashim, Puritan exegesis typically “opens” with a Scriptural citation. While the verse is missing in the surviving manuscript, recent scholarship traces the sermon’s themes back to Galatians 5:13 in the Geneva Bible.

The sermon begins with three explanations for the theological and political problem of wealth inequality: 1) to conform with the diversity of creatures in the natural order, which elevates the glory of God; 2) to manifest the spirit of God by preventing class conflict and exercising grace through the “mercy” of the wealthy and the “obedience” of the impoverished; and 3) so people “might be all knitt more nearly together in the Bond of brotherly affeccion.” Winthrop, citing Scripture, reminds the reader that one’s wealth is merely a reflection of God’s will, as all earthly possessions belong to Him. 

Why this is The BEST? The context within which Winthrop first formed this seminal metaphor—while often overlooked—is quite significant. Winthrop distinguishes between the natural law of the Decalogue and the law of grace of the New Testament. Accordingly, Winthrop invokes the hospitality of Abraham, Lot, and the old man of Gibea, alongside apostolic exhortations to love one’s enemies and to provide extraordinary measures of aid even at great personal cost.

Winthrop then discusses one’s duty to give charity, lend money, and forgive loans as needed—invoking both Deuteronomy and Matthew—counterbalanced by Solomonic cautions to take care of one’s own family and to anticipate adversity. We must always be prepared to provide aid to those who seek it, he warns, especially for the church, reminding his brethren of Puritan martyrs.

He employs an anatomical metaphor, defining love as the force that binds together the parts, joints, and ligaments that comprise the perfect, spotless, and unified “body of Christ” and his Church. As a result, Christians should have sympathy and provide aid for each other. Unfortunately, however, the Edenic original sin caused selfishness among humanity, but like-minded Christians will naturally model the love between Adam and Eve, King David and Jonathan, and Ruth and Naomi.

Winthrop applies these teachings to his present company, highlighting the necessity of mutual affection to create “a due forme of Goverment both ciuill and ecclesiasticall,” to purify the Church and eschew idolatry, and to serve God by strictly fulfilling His word and covenant. On a loftier, somewhat hyperbolic note, he casts the colony as a model for future endeavors:

wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among vs, when tenn of vs shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when hee shall make vs a prayse and glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantacions: the lord make it like that of New England: for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty vpon a Hill, the eies of all people are vppon vs.

Consequently, he warns, failure to live up to their Puritan ideals will result in God forsaking them, causing great blasphemy, shame, and their ultimate destruction from the New World. Winthrop then concludes his discourse by adapting Moses’ farewell exhortation in Deuteronomy.

The meaning of texts can take on new significance over time. In its original context, much of “Christian Charity” reflected commonplace themes of seventeenth-century Puritan literature, including its conservative emphasis on obedience to hierarchy. While Puritanism also had a radical and revolutionary streak, Winthrop’s defense of inequality was characteristically conservative and elitist. Nevertheless, this essay deserves our attention for its rhetorical brilliance, spiritual potency, and its enduring influence on American politics.

The manuscript remained mostly unknown for two centuries until its first publication in 1838. It reemerged prominently in the work of historian Perry Miller, who reimagined it as a blueprint for what he termed the Puritans’ grand “Errand into the Wilderness” (1953) and a harbinger of America. Although scholars have thoroughly refuted this anachronistic exaggeration, politicians since the Cold War have appropriated the phrase hundreds of times as a symbol of American exceptionalism. Most notably, Ronald Reagan crafted Winthrop’s “shining city” into a founding myth of America as a land of freedom and democracy and a beacon of hope to the world.

Jewish intellectual leaders have also embraced this notion of American exceptionalism. In a sermon in 1939, R. Moshe Feinstein lauded the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the United States Constitution, contrasting American liberty with the Soviet “Amalek.” (Darash Moshe, vol. I, 415). Bernard Revel heralded the new Yeshiva College as the “House of God on the Hilltop.” Similarly, R. Jonathan Sacks championed the motif of covenant in “Christian Charity” as a model for our own thinking as religious Jews.

Like the Puritans in New England, we too see ourselves as a small and distant minority meant to live exemplary lives as a light unto the nations. It is easy to read ourselves into Winthrop’s words, to hear his call for unity as a reminder of the values of tzedaka, ahdut, hesed, and similar traits toward others. For American Jews, it is tempting, yet problematic and anachronistic, to latch on to the narrative of the Puritans’ Hebraic spirit as a “Judeo-Christian” origin story. We, of course, must also acknowledge the Puritans’ own antipathy toward real-life Jews beyond the pages of Scripture. 

Thus, “Christian Charity” remains useful not only for thinking through our place in contemporary political discourse about America’s origins, but also as a beautiful articulation of biblical ideas central to Jewish thought. In today’s era of bitter polarization and divisiveness, Winthrop’s words remain timely as ever.

Yisroel Ben-Porat is a Ph.D. candidate in early American history at CUNY Graduate Center and an editor at The Lehrhaus.

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