A City on a Hill


Ronald Reagan was fond of quoting from John Winthrop’s seventeenth century lecture, “A Model of Christian Charity,” in which he called on the Massachusetts Bay Colony to be “as a city on a hill.” and reminded his fellow Puritans that “the eyes of all people are upon us.”  But the popular symbol of America as a shining beacon of freedom for the world is a long way from Winthrop’s original concept.  The city he envisioned was one in which community – not freedom – was the dominant theme.

“We must delight in each other,” Winthrop said, “make other’s conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together.”  The city on a hill was one in which people would put the common good before their own desires and ambitions, “that every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection.”  (Yes, even including the Church of England.)

They were more concerned with their dependence on each other than with independence from any authority.

The Puritans who came to New England‘s shore in the 1630s believed they were bound in a covenant with God.  If they failed to keep their end of the bargain, they should expect to be punished – not individually but as a community.  “If we deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken,” said Winthrop, “we shall be made a story and byword through the world.”  In other words, they would be a public humiliation, a scourge upon the earth.  The city on a hill was a warning as much as a promise.  Keeping that covenant put the Puritans under specific obligations.

It required them to be charitable to each other.  “There is a time when a Christian must sell all and give to the poor,” Winthrop insisted.  “There is a time also when Christians (though they give not all yet) must give beyond their ability.”  They were to let no one go hungry or without shelter.  They had a duty to visit the sick, and to comfort those whose loved ones had died. They were supposed to watch out for each other.   “Mutual watch,” they called it, and they took it very seriously.

If “mutual watch” sounds comforting, we should remember that it has a dark side.  It’s the uncomfortable part of living in community.  It means that if you beat your wife, you should expect to be reported to the authorities.  Your absence from worship will be noticed and if you miss enough services, you will be reprimanded.  If you get drunk and insult your neighbor, you’ll have to apologize for it –  in public.

Anyone who’s lived in a small town has experienced this to some extent.  If you grew up in a community under 2,000 people chances are you never quite lost that sense that everyone knows your business.  And you know everyone else’s.  You don’t forget that everything you do and say will likely be recorded in someone’s memory and played back to someone else. You remember you need to take care of your reputation, because once you lose it, you can’t get it back.

The “mutual watch” was a duty, and it went way beyond sharing information.  It required doing whatever was necessary to relieve the suffering of others in the community.  Winthrop spoke of a “double law” that regulated all their relationships: “This law requires two things,” he said. “First, that every man afford his help to another in every want or distress.  Secondly, that he perform this out of the same affection which makes him careful of his own goods.”

This understanding of each person’s responsibility for the common good of all was integral to life in the “city on the hill” that was Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Not exactly what Ronald Reagan had in mind.

In fact, the Puritans were as wary of personal freedom as we are entranced by it.  Their commitment was to community.  They understood its costs and its perils.  They knew that community wasn’t easily accomplished; it was a difficult and often frustrating undertaking.  Charity was not an option, but a duty.

They also knew that freedom, unharnessed by a self-reflective humility, was a dangerous thing.  It had the potential to loose the demons of greed and corruption, to elevate self-righteousness, and ultimately to destroy community itself.

America has come a long way from the Puritan dream.  Few of us would want to go back to it, even if we could.  But have we perhaps forgotten something life-affirming and necessary in our pursuit of freedom?  Does personal freedom, when taken to an extreme, have a way of isolating us?  Even in crowds, we seem to find ourselves alone as we listen privately to music on our iphones or carry on texting conversations as we walk down the street.  We often feel anonymous, just numbers on a social security or credit card.  We receive phone calls from robots.  We spend hours sitting alone in our cars, commuting to work, driving to shopping malls.  We try to fill our need for community with characters from television series shows or by joining special interest groups, or drinking in bars.  We chase our dreams across the globe, but they’re never quite within our grasp.

Community makes demands on us.  It intrudes on our personal space and requires us to relinquish some of our own freedom for the good of all.  As Winthrop says, it requires us to “abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply others’ necessities.”  But it is through these sacrifices that we become part of something greater than ourselves.  “Love,” claims Winthrop, “is the bond of perfection.”  In this bond people “partake of each other’s strength and infirmity, joy and sorrow, weal and woe.”  This is true community.  This is life-changing,  world-changing hard work.

3 thoughts on “A City on a Hill

  1. Great post. You address a very basic and current need in our society. People are afraid of true community and the commitment that it requires of them. They think it will take away their freedom when in fact, when surrounded by a supportive community, you are free-er to do what you are called to do, to be be your authentic self.

    For example, as a Roman Catholic, I am constantly reminded by my church that spirituality is not “me and Jesus” but “God and us.” The Lord’s Prayer does not say, “Give me this day my daily bread” but says “us,” meaning in part that we are praying for the whole church but also, we are the hands and feet of the church ready to provide the bread we eat and the bread we live on (The Word).

  2. I did not know about this aspect of the Puritan mindset. It gives a more complete picture of their lives. Watching out for others and community have light and dark sides: light for the higher, life affirming ideals the Puritans had, and dark for the misuse of the concept of community.
    Great post. The writing is perfection.

    • Thank you! The Puritans were more complex than we give them credit for. They certainly had light and dark sides. What I find particularly fascinating is how it’s possible to trace both of those light and dark strands down through the generations into our own time.

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