City on a Hill: A Foreign Country

In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Mythis written by Richard M. Gamble, Hillsdale College professor and Ruling Elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. In the coming weeks we’ll look at some excerpts.

In his first chapter, A Foreign Country, Gamble sets out to provide a fresh look at John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity. We need a fresh look because

a fresh reading of the Model is the only way to recognize just how many layers of interpretation have been added to the Model and its metaphor over the years and what those layers have done to obscure not only historic Christian interpretations of Matthew 5:14, but also Winthrop’s intentions in 1630, and, ultimately, the full significance of later re-readings of the metaphor that did so much to secularize and politicize the city on a hill.

This includes understanding the goal of the New World Puritans:

The Puritans sought not a generalized or abstract freedom for all to worship according to the light of their own interpretations of Scripture or their own consciences but rather the freedom to build biblical churches. Liberty meant the freedom to worship God in the way his Word dictated, not the modern freedom of religion in a pluralistic society promoted by a secular, neutral state.

He looks at A Model of Christian Charity itself, including different handwriting on the document, its state of finality (and lack thereof), sources that influenced it, and whether there is sufficient evidence to conclude that it was orally delivered as a speech on the deck of the Arabella.

Overall, the Model

…was not a blueprint for how to organize civil society in general. Rather, it offered the patter of Christian love and mercy that ought to govern one outpost of the Body of Christ at a particular moment in redemptive history. It addressed earnest believers intent on doing God’s will in the world.

Gamble concludes:

Generations of New Englanders would wrestle with the early settlers’ precedent of trying to harmonize Jesus’ distinction between the “things of God” and the “things of Caesar.” Winthrop’s blending of the sacred and secular city shaped the Bay Colony for generations to come. America’s identity as a city on a hill could appear plausible and desirable only in a system of beliefs that accepted this standard of conduct for earthly polities.


Filed under Church and State, City on a Hill

6 responses to “City on a Hill: A Foreign Country

  1. I’m teaching on the Puritans tomorrow in Sunday school so this is timely.

  2. Richard

    Dr. Gamble also did a great job of placing the “city on the hill” language within the context of Winthrop’s words about God’s providence (p. 35), God’s character manifested in social hiearchies (p. 36), and natural law requiring we show mercy toward other Christians (p. 37). It helps to know where Winthrop was coming from.

  3. What can I say? When I see “Arabella/Arbella” in my reading then see it as backdrop to KG on media day, I get a feeling that I’m doing just what I should be doing exactly when I should be doing it. That kind of feeling is probably all that’s left of my charismatic days.

    Good catch – per p.96 there was a quirky translation of the Model that left us with two spellings.

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