Winthrop's "City" Was Exceptional, Not Exceptionalist

tags: American exceptionalism, early American history, John Winthrop

Jim Sleeper, a writer and teacher on American civic culture and politics, is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (Norton, 1990) and Liberal Racism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).

IF I TOLD YOU that today’s America needs instruction from 17th-century Puritans, you’d probably think I was joking. We’ve heard enough about their depravity and their violence toward themselves, religious dissenters, and Native Americans to laugh off any suggestion that some of them may have been far ahead of us in facing the hard realities that we prefer to finesse or ignore as our own society becomes more violent, addictive, deranged, and depraved than theirs ever was. The truth is complicated, as the intellectual historian Daniel T. Rodgers shows in his new book, As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon. It may be even more complicated than Rodgers’s rendering of it.

In the winter of 1629–’30, John Winthrop — Puritan lawyer; owner of Groton Manor in Suffolk, England; and soon to be the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony — was composing “A Model of Christian Charity,” a 6,200-word tract presenting the venture’s religious, political, and economic rules. His “Model” — which evangelical historian Michael Parker called “the most famous lay sermon in all of American history” — projected a “civil and ecclesiastical” regime binding its members to one another and to God in a covenant of Christian charity that would remain in force until 1684, when their charter was annulled.

Read entire article at Los Angeles Review of Books

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