November 23, 2017

FROM THE THANKSGIVING ARCHIVES: HOWDY, PURITAN?:

Footnote on Reagan�s �City on a Hill� phrase (L. John VanTil, 06/19/2004, Z Wire)

In recent days many Americans were deeply moved by the week-long farewell ceremony in honor of President Ronald Reagan. Among the many tributes were frequent references to his vision for America. Numerous speakers, including Vice President Cheney and Supreme Court Justice O�Connor, specifically referred to, and even quoted, John Winthrop�s lay-sermon on board the Arbella in 1630 as the prime example of President Reagan�s vision for America. Winthrop challenged his fellow settlers to work hard, to do the right thing and to carry out the purpose of their mission as they settled in New England. And why? Because, he said, �we shall be as a city upon a hill,� continuing with the observation that all the world would be watching to see how they did in their little experiment in America, ready to mock them if they failed. The networks replayed President Reagan�s delivery of this quotation many times during the week and numerous pundits cited the line as well. Every one of the dozens who quoted or commented on Winthrop�s phrase during the memorial events referred to him as a �Pilgrim� leader.

In the interest of historical accuracy it must be pointed out that John Winthrop was not a Pilgrim and that stating so on any decent history test would result in points being lost. Well, then, who was Winthrop if not a Pilgrim? It is no small point to state that he was, in fact, a Puritan and that Pilgrims and Puritans were not the same settlers at all. And, it must be said that Pilgrims are admired by Americans, even admired in some history texts, while queries about Puritans generally result in a frown and a negative opinion. [...]

If Winthrop was not a Pilgrim, how did it happen that he came to be called one by President Reagan and then by dozens who quoted him or quoted Winthrop from their own experience during the memorial ceremonies? The likely answer to this question involves a long-standing erroneous reputation of the Puritans.

During the first half of the twentieth century, history textbooks that commented on Puritans and Puritanism had a decidedly negative tone in their interpretation. This negative tone probably arose from the writer�s personal dislike for the strict Christian views held by the Puritans, but that is a topic beyond the scope of this piece. Puritanism has been rehabilitated by an outstanding group of Harvard and Yale historians beginning with the work of Samuel E. Morison in the 1930s (�The Builders of the Bay Colony�), continuing with major works by Perry Miller (�The New England Mind�) and Yale historian Edmond S. Morgan (The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop). Their students and their students� students have carried on this restoration of Puritanism, therein creating an accurate picture of it. Indeed, I would count my own �Liberty of Conscience: The History of a Puritan Idea� as a chapter in this reconstruction of Puritanism. In brief, it is clear that Puritans were generally witty, educated, hard working, and devout Christians. They certainly were not prudes as Edmond Morgan has pointed out.

�Cultural lag� and simple obstinacy, not to mention a continuing revisionism of American history, have prevented the more accurate picture of John Winthrop�s Boston from becoming the prevailing view of Puritanism. Hence, it is likely that whoever first gave President Reagan this quotation did not know the difference between Pilgrims and Puritans. Or, more likely, this person thought that using the name Puritan would undermine whatever positive message the �city on a hill� phrase had.


Heck, there are still folks who haven't figured out that Jonathan Edwards was one of our most important Founders.

Interesting to note though that when Ronald Reagan first famously used the "city on a hill" phrase, back when he was writing all his own material, he didn't make the Pilgrim mistake, We Will Be A City Upon A Hill (Ronald Reagan, January 25, 1974, First Conservative Political Action Conference):

Standing on the tiny deck of the Arabella in 1630 off the Massachusetts coast, John Winthrop said, �We will be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we 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.� Well, we have not dealt falsely with our God, even if He is temporarily suspended from the classroom.

He did though err when he had speechwriters, Farewell Address (Ronald Reagan, January 11, 1989):
The past few days when I've been at that window upstairs, I've thought a bit of the 'shining city upon a hill.' The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we'd call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free. I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But 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 here. That's how I saw it, and see it still.

And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure, and happier than it was 8 years ago. But more than that: After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she's still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.

(originally posted: 6/25/04)

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Posted by at November 23, 2017 12:10 AM

  

The original reference is probably Mt 5:14.

Posted by: Gideon at November 22, 2007 11:40 PM
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