“A holy experiment.” That’s how the English Puritans understood what they were attempting to do, by crossing the Atlantic in the first part of the 17th century and planting a colony far from the reach of bishops or kings. Seeing themselves as the wandering Israelites, seeking the Promised Land after escaping Egypt, the pious faithful huddled on the top deck of the Arbella as their leader, John Winthrop, delivered his now famous sermon.
“A Model of Christian Charity” (1630) has since entered into the pantheon of classic national literacy as the initial spark from which the entire American enterprise was derived. In his sermon, Winthrop weaves together images of piety, prosperity, poverty, mutuality and vision, all under the banner of Covenant; the colonists are the recipients of this conditional covenant with God as long as they follow the commandments set forth.
If they remain faithful to God’s work then, “He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, ‘May the Lord make it like that of New England.’ For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”
This July, as we celebrate our anniversary as Americans, amidst the fireworks and cook-outs, it might be worth dusting off that nearly 400-year-old sermon to see how far we’ve come and how much farther we must go to continue to be a “city on a hill.”
Winthrop tells the faithful, “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, and to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work…”
These days, the knitting yarn seems weak, if not altogether dry-rotted. In this time of deep political, economic and social polarization, may we discover the strength to seek the vision of those colonial pilgrims, as we continue this grand American experiment.