Shining City on a Hill

In 1630, a Puritan leader named John Winthrop stepped to the pulpit and delivered what would later be called, “the greatest sermon of the millennium”. His inspiring words brought a fresh vision to early colonists for what a new world in the wilds of America could be. 350 years later, the wilds of America had become the greatest nation in the world. But, locked in a Cold War and facing an economic crisis, it was a nation in need of a fresh vision of what it could be. Into this moment in history, Winthrop’s sermon continued to preach. The words of the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony inspired another governor who would cite Winthrop’s sermon on his way to the presidency. 

Hear how the greatest sermon of the millennium inspired one of America’s greatest presidents on this special episode of Faith and Liberty Rediscovered with Alan Crippen.

Ronald Reagan, for nearly two decades, had spoken about a “shining city on a hill”, an allusion to the gospel of Matthew chapter 5 and verse 14. Historians would later recognize this biblical image to signify the president’s political vision in moral and economic terms. In his parting words to the nation, Reagan revisited this image and explained its meaning. 

“In my mind [that shining city] built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, 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,” Reagan said. “That’s how I saw it and see it still.” 

The conviction, clarity, and eloquence with which Reagan spoke is remarkable. There’s a reason this speech is famous and still rings true today. But, what inspired Reagan’s words? What gripped his heart with such conviction? The great President was inspired by a great sermon. In fact, it was called the greatest sermon of the millennium by Harvard University’s Peter Gomes. The sermon was entitled, “A Model of Christian Charity” and was written and delivered by a Puritan named John Winthrop. 

John Winthrop was a statesman who sought to bring all British institutions under the kingship of Christ. As a Suffolk County squire and magistrate, he tried to reform the British justice system and the Church of England, but King Charles I and his regime thwarted those efforts. The King dissolved Parliament (a bastion of Puritan influence) in 1628, and arrested and imprisoned nine of its leading Puritan members. That’s when Winthrop and others decided to set sail for the English colonies in America, where they hoped to create a culture of Christian faith and discipline.

Among Winthrop’s most influential actions for the future of America was his investment in a faith-based venture capital company, the Governor & Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England, where he quickly rose to prominence as its CEO.  The company would help make a new England in the wilds of America. It was to be a model society for a watching world. Winthrop said that this could not be “a better or more honorable work” to undertake.

Winthrop applied manpower to his vision by assembling in Southampton’s port a fleet of ships—the Arbella, Talbot, Ambrose, and Jewel—that transported more than 1,000 colonists to Salem, Mass. It was in this pivotal moment that Winthrop gave his “Christian Charity” sermon, in which he offered no certainty of success. In fact, borrowing from nautical imagery that certainly could not have been lost on his hearers, who were about to hazard their lives at sea, Winthrop posits the possibility of a political shipwreck. Then he says, “Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck and to provide for our posterity is to follow the counsel of Micah: to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God.” Winthrop closed his sermon: “We are entered into a covenant with Him for this work…. For we must consider that we shall be like a City upon a Hill; the eyes of all people are upon us.” 

One of the most important features of this story is Winthrop’s integrative vision for faith-inspired economics and politics – that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was as much a Biblical economic vision as it was a political vision. In other words, Winthrop understood the virtue of love was the basis for economic and political prosperity. Reagan understood this as well.  

The late president remains a conservative icon because, like Winthrop, he was a “fusionist” who melded religiously motivated social ideals and values with economic principles. For a nation revisiting its own first principles, perhaps a closer look at Winthrop is in order. His story offers an example for the integration of economic and social concerns under a compelling biblical vision of love for society. When faith guides liberty toward justice the shining city is in Reagan’s words, “built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace. That was the vision of Winthrop and Reagan…and I hope by God’s grace, ours as well. Faith guides Liberty toward Justice.

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