In the mid-17th century the Massachusetts Bay Company, Puritans)departed for North American in pursuit of a place where they could practice their religious beliefs and building a new, reformed society.
One legacy of the Puritan settlement in North America is the genealogy of the "City on a Hill" ideal. John Winthrop, Governor and leader of the Massachusetts Bay Company, referenced the biblical term in a 1630 sermon he gave to his fellow Puritans on route to their new homes abroad. In his famous invocation he pronounced, "wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill."(fn.1) Since Winthrop's time, the term "City on a Hill" has come to inherit a special meaning for the way some have conceptualized the birth, growth, and success of America. Today, the allegory of America as the world's City on a Hill encompasses a broad range of concepts, from freedom of religion to racial reconciliation. This appropriation of Winthrop's famous reference, however, sheds little light on what his words might have meant to the Puritans he addressed in 1630. When we view the Massachusetts Bay Puritans not with our systematic categorization of Puritans as "good" or "bad", but with an interpretive eye that looks at the political and cultural factors that influenced the Company's venture, we see clearly that the Puritans' settlement did not occur in a historical vacuum. The Puritans' City was not intended to be a birthplace of the new nation America, but rather a new community of reform""their own model society""centered around the tradition of old England and around the doctrine of their Puritan faith.
The creation of the Massachusetts Bay Company occurred in a capricious political and social environment. The term "Puritan," first used in the 1500's, originally referred to a minority following within the Church of England.(fn.2) The Puritans were known to be staunch reformists who distrusted the hierarchical nature of the Church, and who sought to reform the Church by following in the steps of the Protestant Reformation leader John Calvin.(fn.3) They believed in strict adherence to biblical teachings and the importance of a personal relationship with God. In early 17th-Century England, questions of authority came to a head with the Stuart James I on one side of the debate, and an increasingly Puritan-minded Parliament on the other. Unlike Queen Elizabeth, who with much skill had successfully leveraged her toleration for the growing Puritan movement, James I and his successor Charles I flexed their commitment to royal authority in their clashes with a Puritan backed Parliament. After the departure of the Massachusetts Bay Company, a civil war broke out in the mid-1600's between the faction loyal to the crown and those who sided with Puritan interests.
The Puritan movement itself can be characterized as a dynamic bed of change. During Winthrop's time, Conservative Puritans occupied one end of the spectrum. These Puritans wanted to model the Church of England after Scotland's Presbyterian church. Separatist Puritans, who eventually split with the Church entirely, occupied the opposite end. And in the middle of the spectrum stood Puritans who believed earnestly in reforming the Church of England, their true church, yet did not see fit the conclusion of completely separating with the Church. It seems that Winthrop and his followers took this middle position.(fn.4)
These political and social forces of early 17th-Century England converged upon a devout Puritan named John Winthrop and the soon-to-be settlers of the Massachusetts Bay colony in a profound way. In 1629, Winthrop learned about the Massachusetts Bay Company, a new trading venture that had received rights to a plot of land in North America and authority from the King to establish a settlement there. The charter was unusual for its kind because it did not include the standard requirement of having the company headquartered in England. This meant that the company could establish itself as a self-governing group, with its board of directors, shareholders, and offices all physically located right in its midst. Taking advantage of this special opportunity, in 1630 the company departed for North America with charter in hand.
A number of prominent Puritans controlled the Company, and among the several hundred that eventually departed were educated Englishmen and Puritan ministers, but these Puritans had been neither the dissenting voices in Parliament, nor the leaders of the Puritan movement. Rather, the leaders and members of the group were men and women loyal to the crown who had been given an opportunity, finally, to accomplish what they could not in a tempestuous England""a society based on a Puritan-inspired reformed Church of England. Their "Citty upon a Hill" would be a model society built for the sake of their brethen at home, a community which once realized could be taken back home to England. In the same sermon in which he referenced the City on a Hill, Winthrop also encouraged the group to act as one community, to "mourne together, labour, and suffer together, allwayes having before our eyes our Commission and Community in the
worke."(fn.5) Above all, their City on a Hill would be a community""if they succeeded, they would succeed together; if they failed, they would fail together. What they faced when they arrived in North America was a cultural and physical wilderness hardly imagined, and which critically shaped their latter generations.
Popular history tells a paradoxical story of the Massachusetts Bay Puritans: that on the one hand, as a persons they were an overly strict and inherently hypocritical; but that on the other hand, they were the forefathers of America's City on a Hill legacy. We might take this paradox for granted because it of its easy categorization, but as interpreters of the past, we need to uncover the reality behind the fallacies. Winthrop's reference to the City on a Hill has trickled down to successive generations as a plethora of meanings, some of which are laughed at as outdated ideology, and some of which are respected fervently. Whichever may be the case, we can understand Winthrop's sermon on that day in 1630 as having had a profound meaning to those who sincerely received his commission and made it their own.
1. "John Winthrop's City on a Hill, 1630," From Vincent Ferraro's website, www.mtholyoke.edu, September 1, 2000.
2. "Puritans," The World Book Encyclopedia, 1988.
3. Kai Erikson, WAYWARD PURITANS (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1966) 36.
4. Erikison 39-40.
5. "John Winthrop's City on a Hill, 1630."