The Massachusetts Medievalist DOES NOT LIVE in a “Shining City on a Hill”

Last week, my university hosted former British prime minister David Cameron as part of the Boston Speakers Series, and he closed his remarks with that shop-worn reference to Boston and the United States as a “shining city on the hill.” The Massachusetts Medievalist will now set the record straight on that enormously irritating phrase. World: please stop using it to refer to my city and my country. Its actual context is pretty much the opposite of what you intend.

The original Biblical reference is quite spectacular.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ tells his followers that “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid” (Matthew 5.14). He encourages his followers to be strong in their faith, even in the face of persecution and oppression.

Our contemporary culture likes to refer to Boston as a “shining city on a hill” due to a much less palatable usage, however, that of an early governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, who had been elected before the departure from England.  He wrote his 1630 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” on board the Arbella, the ship that brought him and many of his fellow puritans to the “new world” to establish a religiously pure colony away from the corruption (as they saw it) of the Church of England.

Winthrop’s allusion to Matthew 5.14 occurs towards the end of the sermon, when he exhorts his fellow puritans:

For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

Winthrop invokes the Sermon on the Mount to encourage his fellow colonists to remain true to their religious convictions — not so much because that’s a valuable thing to do in itself, but more importantly  because others will see them if they don’t. Winthrop’s conclusion creates a world of early protestant surveillance, where “all people” are ready to watch and judge the actions of the colonists. Winthrop’s goal in his sermon and throughout his governorship was enforcement of his version of puritan beliefs and regulations, one in which poverty and illness were signs of God’s displeasure for morally corrupt behavior and lack of religious faith.

Winthrop regimented the daily lives of the colonists he governed as much as possible, ignored instructions from the English Parliament regarding open elections and appointments to office, and established intrusive and humiliating procedures for vetting the religious faith of potential new residents in the colony. He also “owned” two enslaved Pequots, who may have been captured during the 1636-38 Pequot War. And historians now consider Winthrop to be something a of a “moderate” among the puritans in his cohort.

While politicians and cultural pundits frequently invoke Winthrop’s “city on a hill” in a positive way, consider the very beginning of the sermon, which must be largely unknown to those pundits:

GOD ALMIGHTY in his most holy and wise providence, hath soe disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poore, some high and eminent in power and dignitie; others mean and in submission.

In other words, God established social class in his divine wisdom and all true believers had to accept their places in those classes. It is worth pointing out that Winthrop was at the top of each category mentioned (wealth; political, religious, and social power; social status). At the very beginning of the sermon, then, Winthrop establishes divine imprimatur for rigid social and political hierarchies. He also believed, like almost all men of his era, in gender hierarchy — which probably seemed so obvious to him that he did not bother to include it in his list of divinely-created assessed categories.

Note that neither the New Testament nor Winthrop uses the word “shining,” although that adjective is now included in most contemporary political misquotations, including Cameron’s of last week. The idea of “shining” is perhaps implied in Christ’s phrase “the light of the world” but contemporary commentators use it to refer to Boston as a beacon of light, a brilliant example of Boston’s rich cultural heritage that illuminates everyone else, metaphorically and literally. Presidents as disparate as Kennedy, Reagan, and Obama have invoked Winthrop’s “shining city on a hill” to celebrate Boston specifically or the United States in general; the full texts of their speeches make it clear that they are referring to Winthrop and his puritan sermon, not the Sermon on the Mount.

The greater Boston area (which includes Cambridge, where I work, and the suburbs, where I live) does indeed serve as an example of a broad community that values education, the arts, scientific inquiry, and multiculturalism. But we also face crucial issues of overt racism, gentrification, income inequality, and entrenched sexism.  We need to move away from the rigid social hierarchies and narrow minded righteousness embedded in the historical context of Winthrop’s sermon in which he envisioned Boston as a “city on a hill.” Let’s agree to stop using that tired, inaccurate phrase in our own discourse, as it is actually a misquotation of an exclusionist, racist, intolerant Puritan referring largely to his own superiority. That’s not my Boston.

Next Blog Post: some suggestions for a replacement

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