Thursday, August 26, 2010

City on a Hill, Law & Love

In preparation for an upcoming series in the Christ Church "More to Life: Wall Street Ministry", I was reading some English and American Puritans.  The seventeenth century spiritual giants have a lot to say to us!

John Winthrop was aboard the Arabella from England to America in 1640 when he wrote a sermon that used the phrase "a city on a hill" (from the Sermon on the Mount) to describe his hopes for the new land.  This phrase was quoted by John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan in significant speeches to show their hopes for America. 

Kennedy and Reagan both made inspiring speeches (they are both worth reading, especially Reagan's farewell speech in 1989), casting their vision for America that was full of integrity, courage and good judgment.  Both, however, missed Winthrop's point.

Interestingly, Winthrop's use of that phrase "a city on a hill" was in his summation of his whole sermon, which was on the topic of Christian charity.  He enjoined the colonists to love one another with brotherly affection, and to treat one another with mercy and justice.  So, far from being a statement of (merely) American exceptionalism, it was a statement that summed up Christian aspiration for mutual love.  It is a good example of the Puritans having a solid understanding of human nature (that love rather than external laws changes a person).  Winthrop wrote:

Soe the way to drawe men to the workes of mercy, is not by force of Argument from the goodness or necessity of the worke; for though this cause may enforce, a rationall minde to some present act of mercy, as is frequent in experience, yet it cannot worke such a habit in a soule, as shall make it prompt upon all occasions to produce the same effect, but by frameing these affections of loue in the hearte which will as naturally bring forthe the other, as any cause doth produce the effect.

So, gentle reader, what think ye of Winthrop:  a man can be led to do something once by argument, but a habit only grows from love?

The full text of Winthrop's sermon may be read here (link to the Winthrop Society).
Portrait of John Winthrop, Massachusetts State House Art Collection.