In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth is 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.
Chapter three, A Land of Light, 1630-1838 describes a period before the Model of Christian Charity had achieved “canoncial status.” But that doesn’t mean there was an absence of the “city on a hill” idea. It was prominent in the preaching of Jonathan Edwards:
There is perhaps no people now on the face of the earth whose case has been so parallel with that of the Israelites as ours…If we think to escape divine judgments as much as other people, we are much mistaken. No such thing is to be expected. We are a city set on a hill, and the honor of God doth greatly depend on our behavior.
Edwards used the metaphor of the city to bind his church members with the cords of a national covenant, obscuring the Augustinian understanding of a sojourning City of God on pilgrimage through the City of Man….like so many of his era, he blurred the sacred and the secular. The things of Caesar looked very much like the things of God from inside the walls of Edwards’s city.
Note, though, that the metaphor had not yet degenerated to its contemporary use:
The Puritans knew that a “shining” city does not always shine It can earn a reputation for disobedience and shame and still be very much a city on the hill the way Winthrop, Bulkely, and Edwards feared – a city under judgment, a city that had become a spectacle of folly instead of divine blessing. Later, the metaphor of a city on a hill became entwined with the triumphant narrative of national greatness, but this was not so originally.
So if you didn’t know it when you read the earlier posts, now you know the difference between how Ronald Reagan used “city on a hill” and how the Puritans understood it.