U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Good Book

During MSNBC’s coverage of the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address this past January 24, Rachel Maddow took issue with Gov. Mitch Daniels’s description of America as  the “shining city on the hill.”  She was irked by what she sees as a spurious addition to John Winthrop’s famous metaphor from his 1630 sermon aboard the Arbella:  “…for wee must Consider that wee shall  be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us.”*

What bothered Maddow was the presence of the word “shining,” a word that does not appear in Winthrop’s phrasing.

“We are going take a quick break,” Maddow said at the end of her segment with Chris Matthews. “The city on the hill will not be shining when we come back. It doesn’t need to shine. John Winthrop just talked about it being up there, in the eyes of the world upon it. That was it. Shining thing was a late addition. I’m sorry. Bugs me. Up next, we’ll be talking with Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Obama. We’ll be right back. It’s not shining. It’s not.”

That “late addition” to which Maddow referred is found in Ronald Reagan’s deployment of the “city on a hill” metaphor at the end of his November 1979 speech announcing his intent to seek the Republican nomination.  In his closing remarks, Reagan invoked Winthrop’s address aboard the Arbella and repurposed the metaphor for his own candidacy as a “rendezvous with destiny”:

We who are privileged to be Americans have had a rendezvous with destiny since the moment in 1630 when John Winthrop, standing on the deck of the tiny Arbella off the coast of Massachusetts, told the little band of pilgrims, “We shall be as a city upon a hill.  The eyes of all people are upon us so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.”

A troubled and afflicted mankind looks to us, pleading for us to keep our rendezvous with destiny; that we will uphold the principles of self-reliance, self-discipline, morality, and—above all—responsible liberty for every individual that we will become that shining city on a hill.

For her part, Maddow seemed to be piqued that Reagan’s “shining city on a hill,” a go-to metaphor for Republican politicians ever since, represents not merely an addition to Winthrop’s phrasing but also a distortion of Winthrop’s meaning.

Clearly, Rachel Maddow does not know her Bible.

John Winthrop’s metaphor is taken from a passage found in Matthew’s version of the “Sermon on the Mount,” in which Jesus talks to his disciples about letting their light shine:

Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.
 Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.
 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.  (Matt. 5:14-16)

Winthrop’s hearers, well-versed in the Bible, would have immediately recognized his metaphor and just as immediately associated it with its scriptural context and connotations. For them, the “City upon a Hill” was implicitly shining — as it was for the “Moral majority” voters of the 1980s who apparently responded very well to this scriptural reframing of American exceptionalism.

My point here is not that Maddow is somehow incorrect to point out that John Winthrop didn’t describe the City as “shining.”  Of course she is correct.  But her point is politically irrelevant.  Most Americans probably don’t connect this phrase to John Winthrop at all, and pointing out that he didn’t say the City was shining will not in any way affect how this modified metaphor resonates with many who hear it.  The “shining city on a hill” will continue to make an appearance in American political rhetoric because it evokes a familiar text that remains as central to the lives of many Americans today as it was to the lives of the Puritans aboard the Arabella.

There is no single text or set of texts that has been more influential in American intellectual history than the Bible.  The (Protestant) Christian scriptures have shaped the political, cultural, social, and intellectual discourse in the U.S. since its colonial days.  Yes, there are other equally crucial influences — but none more influential than the Bible.

The Bible is a key primary text for U.S. intellectual history.  It has been read, re-read, misread, used, misused, repurposed and used again, quoted and misquoted, revered and reviled, throughout American history, by a fairly sizable number of Americans.  However its meanings have been construed at different moments, by different groups of people, the Bible — not merely its theological content or narrative incidents but its very language — has persisted as an integral part of the conceptual framework within which American thought continues to take shape.

Am I suggesting that it is necessary for a U.S. intellectual historian to be familiar with the Bible?  No.  But it couldn’t hurt.  Indeed, it could be quite helpful.  If what we are about is understanding the sense that people have made of their world, and the underlying sensibility from which that meaning-making emerges, we really need to pay attention to the texts and the ideas that were important to them and to the world within which (and sometimes against which) they lived — not just what those texts were, but what those texts said, and what those people used the texts to say.

Those of us who were (un)fortunate enough to grow up going to Sunday School and Children’s Church (and Bible Study and Prayer Group and Vacation Bible School, ad infinitum, ad nauseum) are at an advantage here.  It is beyond easy for someone like me to read William Lloyd Garrison or William James, W.E.B. DuBois or Martin Luther King Jr., Jane Addams or Henry Luce, and recognize when and how they are invoking the language of scripture, and to what rhetorical effect.  I don’t need footnotes to tell me the source of their phrasing or the meaning of their allusions.  This is a real boon when it comes to understanding the ideas at play in a particular text and placing that thought within a larger context.

Don’t get me wrong:  the idea of sitting down to read the Bible is no more pleasant for me than it might be for someone who was not brought up to know it backwards and forwards.  In fact, it’s probably a good deal less pleasant for me than it would be for those who can approach the text without quite so much, well, history.   Nevertheless, the durability and ubiquity of the Bible as a common cultural referent throughout American history — a source and resource of thought accessible and appropriated across lines of race, class and gender — combined with its plasticity as a text from which multiple meanings have been shaped and reshaped at each new moment in American thought, should make it an indispensable primary source for U.S. intellectual historians.

So, brothers and sisters, I urge you — certainly not by the mercies of God, but rather by the exigencies of doing first-rate U.S. intellectual history — to bite the bullet, take your medicine, and read your Bible.

*Winthrop, “A Modell of Christian Charity,” in Hollinger and Capper, The American Intellectual Tradition, vol. 1, pp. 6-15 (p. 15).

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Hah! Awesome. I got into an argument once with someone over a third person’s essay about fundamentalist religious movements. (Something about their impact on human rights law; both my interlocutor and the author in question were in that field. I forget the exact details, this was ages ago.) Anyway, my criticism was that the author never once cites the religious texts in question which makes the fundamentalists funamentalist. The response I got was that to cite them would require interpreting them, and they weren’t qualified to do that, so they didn’t.

    I thought this was a completely ridiculous argument, and said that if they submitted it to me, I’d give ’em a big fat “F” for failing to offer any evidence at all to corroborate their argument. You’d think lawyers would care about evidence, but apparently scriptural interpretation was a bridge too far. So the moral of the story is that reading your Bible is too much to ask of some people.

  2. Of course, it’s useful to know the Bible not just for U.S. intellectual history, but for intellectual history in general. Heck, for Western culture in general. The AV is the single most important text in the English language. Its presence is inescapable. It and Homer, if you don’t know those, you really are swimming around in the dark.

  3. Nicely done, Lora!

    Doesn’t matter, though, that Winthrop’s main point regarded charity and not an assumed exceptionalism? I completely accept your point regarding what people have used the bible to affirm–mostly whatever it is they are involved in at that moment or whatever plans they have for their community. Can you talk a bit more about how you see the reframing of the passage from Matthew as a framework for American exceptionalism. Such a twist is effective rhetorically but shouldn’t the use of that passage strike Maddow and others (including Mitch Daniels) as a bit too generous to America?

  4. Sorry to be so long in replying. What writing I have managed to get done today since putting up this post is not suitable for public consumption. So, my apologies — and my replies…


    What makes fundamentalists fundamentalists is not so much the texts they use as the way they read them. That’s one thing I found so ironic about Rachel Maddow’s annoyance with the “shining city” — she was grumpy about the fact that someone had messed with / reworded / reappropriated Winthrop’s metaphor, zeroing in on the change in wording as an indicator that people somehow aren’t “using it right.” As Ray suggests, people are probably not using the metaphor in the same way that Winthrop did, but that doesn’t have a thing to do with the presence or absence of the word “shining.” As the scriptural context makes clear, the idea of “shining” is implicit in the image of a city on a hill.


    Sure it’s important that Winthrop’s invocation of the City as part of an admonition to the colonists to model Christian charity has given way to more recent deployments of the image as a signifier for American exceptionalism. You asked for an example of how the metaphor is used in that context — how about Newt Gingrich’s recent movie, “City on a Hill”?

    But Maddow’s critique amounted to, “that’s not what Winthrop said,” and never ventured into “that’s not what Winthrop meant.” And while an intellectual historian might be interested in the argument, “that’s not what Winthrop meant,” most Americans probably couldn’t care less what John Winthrop really meant in his sermon aboard the Arabella. However, many Americans remain interested in “what the Bible means” — or can be made to mean. So if Maddow had recognized the common source of both Winthrop’s and Reagan’s metaphor, she might have made the case that the “(shining) city on a hill” is not an appropriate designation for a nation anyhow, and certainly not for a society that seems rather short on “good works” towards the poor. That’s a sort of social gospel argument, I suppose, probably more convincingly made by Jim Wallis or Al Sharpton.

    It’s also a bit of an “inside baseball” argument, and it depends on taking the step that Varad’s associates didn’t want to take — establishing some sense of what the scriptural text was/is thought to mean to those who were/are using it. Not something one would expect from TV pundits talking on the fly, but definitely something one would expect of intellectual historians. At the very least, it would be helpful if intellectual historians were able to recognize when “the Bible” is being invoked, something that often happens beyond overt discussions of its meaning.

  5. “What makes fundamentalists fundamentalists is not so much the texts they use as the way they read them.”

    Indeed so. What my associate and the author in question (who I didn’t know and never met) wouldn’t do is even acknowledge that there was a text in the first place. The effect of this was that you wouldn’t even know what they were being fundamentalist about, apart from relgion in the most generic sense. So it wasn’t that they weren’t “establishing some sense of what the scriptural text was/is thought to mean to those who were/are using it.” It was that they wouldn’t take the basic step of acknowledging that a text was being used at all, nor even what text. It would be akin to me trying to write about Plato without ever naming Republic because I’m not a philosopher. Crazy.

  6. This weekend I have been testing my own hypothesis, or at least questioning my own assumptions, in my reading. I have been by turns slogging and flying through E.D.E.N. Southworth’s _The Hidden Hand, or, Capitola the Madcap_. I will forbear from commenting (here) on the particulars of the novel. I have opined on it elsewhere. But here’s a meta-commentary…

    This is a critical edition of the novel, part of the American Women Writers series. It has a decent scholarly apparatus. There is the occasional footnote, including here and there a gloss explaining the source of a particular Biblical allusion. But these notes are few and far between, and there are places in the text where the allusion in question is crucial to a full sense of the author’s meaning, and it goes utterly unremarked.

    Does this mean that your average non-Biblically-literate intellectual historian, looking at this as a specimen of 19th century sentimental fiction, will not be able to use the novel as a source for understanding American sensibilities in the mid-19th century? Hardly. But it does mean that much of the meaning of the text — much of its meaning for its author and its readers — gets flattened and lost. There’s still plenty here to work with, but to miss the Biblical allusions is to miss an entire register of significance within the text, and thus within the times.

  7. Lora:

    Thanks for the detailed responses to our queries. Your post kept me thinking all weekend and will use your insight when I deploy the PBS series God in America. I know that series is far from perfect but your post and replies would make for a couple of good classes on reading and transforming biblical references.

  8. Gosh, Ray, I can’t tell you how pleased I am to hear that you might be able to make use of this post. You have absolutely made my day — and my day could use some help, for sure.

    On the transformation of the “city on a hill”…

    Even in his rewording / redeployment of Winthrop’s image, Reagan retained the sense that the “shining city on a hill” was something that America should aspire to become. Indeed, Reagan quoted Winthrop’s admonition to the colonists that there was a real danger that they might fail in their task. So even in 1979, the image as Reagan used it carried this sense of potential — this is what America could be, or should be.

    I think the image is still used that way in some political rhetoric — “this is something to which we should aspire.” But it seems to me that one key transformation in the meaning of this image over the past twenty or thirty years is the notion that America is the shining city on the hill. In other words, this is not something that will be true of the nation only to the extent that it lives up to its ideals, moral vision, etc, but it is now already true. We are the shining beacon of hope, etc., etc.

    Most recently, the “city on a hill” idea, which in the scriptures, in Winthrop, and even to some extent in Reagan, is an admonition to strive towards becoming a good example, gets conflated with other scriptural images suggesting ideas of “election,” the “chosen people,” etc., etc.

  9. Fascinating post and exchange! A few random thoughts:

    1) When I was in graduate school, a very senior scholar in my department who shall remain nameless to save her embarrassment suddenly declared in seminar one day that she had just discovered the key to understanding 19th-century US history: the Bible! The universal graduate student response (of course shared entirely behind her back) was: this was news to you?!? I’m happy to say that I think that this story is less likely to happen today than back in the early 1990a. But US historians, especially but not exclusively intellectual historians, still ought to know our Bible better than we do.

    2) I do think that Winthrop’s alteration of the image–removing the shining–is important. Winthrop’s city might shine…or it might not. The possibility of failure is much stronger in Winthrop’s use of the metaphor than in Matthew’s.

    3) I do think exceptionalism is critical here…or rather exceptionalisms. The Puritans believed that they were, rather exclusively, attempting to build a Godly society. Reagan’s version of the metaphor makes America a rather exclusive shining city. The message of the gospel seems broader (at least potentially) to me: the light comes from all followers of Christ (though, as we see in the Puritan case, one can always deny that most people who consider themselves to be followers of Christ really are).

    4) This speech wasn’t published until the early 19th century. The Puritans themselves didn’t seem to think it was very special. It gained real political significance only over the course of US history.

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