In the best Farwell Address by an American President since George Washington, on January 11, 1989, President Ronald Reagan admonished us to teach American history to our children, saying, “If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are.” Then he cast his enduring vision of America as that “shining city upon a hill,” a phrase first used by Jesus and first applied to America by John Winthrop in 1630.
John Winthrop (1587-1649) was married at age seventeen. He and his wife Mary had six children and John studied hard to become a lawyer and wealthy landowner. After ten years together, Mary suddenly died. John remarried, but lost his second wife on their first anniversary. His third wife, Margaret, was famous for her great beauty, grace and faith. His love letters testify to a warm covenant of love that intertwined a mutual faith with passionate companionship.
At forty-two, Winthrop worried about the spiritual welfare of his children and country. From Puritan stock, he saw his life within a “covenant” framework. He felt his homeland had broken their covenant with God and it was time to start over. Like many Puritans, he saw America as an opportunity for a new start. Winthrop became one of 20,000 who came to America between 1620 and 1640.
On April 7, 1630, Winthrop delivered his legacy sermon on board a ship full of adventurous Puritans prepared to sail from Old England to New England (or from darkness to light). Winthrop sold his lands and possessions to head west across the Atlantic. His heart’s vision was that of God’s children fleeing a repressive realm to cross the “Red Sea” and climb that proverbial hill, spoken of by Jesus, where God’s light could shine forth to call the world into a covenant of joy and justice.
His watershed 1630 sermon was titled, “A Model of Christian Charity.” His text: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” (Matthew 5:14). Winthrop called for his hearers to lose their spiritual shackles and together escape the coming judgment on England. He wanted to help his fellow colonists forge a model community in the New World, a light at the end of the wicked tunnel in which he thought world was stuck. This called for an earnest sense of vocation and a willingness to work hard. After all, dirty hands and a clean heart made an ideal Puritan. Winthrop laid out the cause and commission of God’s covenant and warned of the wrath of God upon them should they breach that covenant. He preached:
We have hereupon besought Him of favor and blessing. Now if the Lord shall please to hear us, and bring us in peace to the place we desire, then hath He ratified this covenant and sealed our commission, and will expect a strict performance of the articles contained in it.
He was just warming up.
For we must consider that we shall be 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… and so cause Him to withdraw His present help, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.
Winthrop’s audience was previously unacquainted. Yet, they were about to launch into a life wherein their survival would swing on the strength of their bond of unity under God. Above all, his sermon was a clarion call to Christian unity:
For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.
Winthrop understood Jesus’ conviction that the unity of God’s people is a powerful witness to the world. His “city on a hill” was no utopia–just a light. His audience knew that great hardships lie ahead. Christian unity was no more feasible then than it is today. Nevertheless, Winthrop issued the call, paid the price and set his sail.
In one of Ronald Reagan’s last major addresses, he offered the following benediction to the nation he loved:
[May] every dawn be a new beginning for America and every evening bring us closer to that shining city on a hill. (Ronald Reagan, Speech to the Republican National Convention in Houston, Texas, August 17, 1992).
Regan’s blessing may not be a reality today, but the prayer endures.