American Exceptionalism Comes From The Sermon On The Mount

Posted: Mar 21, 2018 12:29 PM
American Exceptionalism Comes From The Sermon On The Mount

John Winthrop’s 1630 City upon a Hill sermon[1] based on Jesus’[2] Sermon on the Mount has been used as a metaphor for American Exceptionalism.  Governor Winthrop’s prophesy was astounding, and he declared to his fellow Puritans aboard the ship, Arbella, in 1630:

"For we must consider that 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 by-word through the world….But if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it." [3]

Governor Winthrop, and his colleagues, would ratify the first constitution in America in 1643. It was titled, Articles of Confederation, hence setting the precedent for the eventual Articles of Confederation for the United States.  Winthrop’s Articles established a Union between the governments of the Plantations of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New-Haven, and New-Plymouth.  These colonies established because they “came into these parts of America with one and the same end and ayme namely to advance the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ and to enjoy the liberties of Gospell in puritie with peace.  And whereas in our setteinge (by a wise Providence of God).”[4]  The precedence which would run through the Colonies and into what would become the United States of America was set.  Ebenezer Hazard, editor of the collection, wrote in the publication’s preface that the “Union…retained its Sovereignty” and that it acknowledged the “Judgement of God.”[5]

Nearly three hundred years later, President Calvin Coolidge reflected the same sentiment on the heirs of the passengers of the Arbella; the American people.  On December 25, 1927, Calvin Coolidge wrote To the American People – :

"Christmas is not a time or a season, but a state of mind.To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas.  If we think on these things, there will be born in us a Savior and over us will shine a star sending its gleam of hope to the world." [6]

Alexis de Tocqueville, after his nine month tour of the United States, proclaimed, “The civilization of New England had been like a beacon lite upon a hill, which, after it has diffused its warmth around, tinges the distant horizon with its glow.”[7]

The United States, the Shining City upon the Hill, is also known as the Great Experiment (as derived from Alexis de Tocqueville’s book, Democracy in America.[8])  Tocqueville wrote that:

"In that land the great experiment was to be made, by civilized man, of the attempt to construct society upon a new basis; and it was there, for the first time, that theories hitherto unknown, or deemed impracticable, were to exhibit a spectacle for which the world had not been prepared by the history of the past." [9]

George Washington also called America “the last great experiment for promoting human happiness,”[10] and stated that “the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”[11]

In Federalist 1 Alexander Hamilton opens expounding that the very choice to be made is, in fact, an experiment for mankind.Hamilton states:

"It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind." [12]

Alexis de Tocqueville agreed that, “The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional.”[13]

The birth of this exceptional thread has many origins in history.  Yet, both the culmination and birth of this exceptionalism was directly derived from the Puritans. They literally moved to the New World to begin their Godly society from the many threads of history which wove out of the Garden through the ancient Middle East and Egypt to Jerusalem, from Calvary to Rome, up into the European continent and finally crossing the Atlantic to the shore of New England.  God’s hand would forge this tiny enclave of His society.It would rise out of His grace and the act of people clinging to His Word.  A great empire tied to God would rise, but it would weave together a wide variety of historical threads and revelations, all marked with God’s fingerprints.  As humans they would, more than not, bumble their way through it but nonetheless they would forge forward with God’s help and guidance.  Historians Perry Miller and Thomas Johnson in 1938 would eloquently describe this revolution and convergence of historical threads which made their way to the Puritans, a group that eventually landed in the New World of North America.  On the theory of the State and Society they explain:

"It has often been said that the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century mark the first real break with the Middle Ages in the history of European thought.  Even though the Renaissance and Reformation transformed many aspects of the Western intellect, still it was not until the time of Newton that the modern scientific era began; only then could men commence to regard life in this world as something more than preparation for life beyond the grave.  Certainly if the eighteenth century inaugurated the modern epoch in natural sciences, so also did it in the political and social sciences.  For the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire religion could be separated from politics, doctrinal orthodoxy divorced from loyalty to the state, and the citizens of a nation permitted to worship in diverse churches and to believe different creeds without endangering public peace.  Various factors contributed to effecting this revolution; the triumph of scientific method and of rationalism made impossible the older beliefs that government was of divine origin; the rise of capitalism, of the middle class, and eventually democracy, necessitated new conceptions of the role of the state…

"…The Puritan theory of the state began with the hypothesis of original sin.  Had Adam transmitted undiminished to his descendants the image of God in which he had been created, no government would ever have been necessary among men; they would all then have done justice to each other without the supervision of a judge, they would have respected each other’s rights without the intervention of a policeman.  But the Bible said – and experience proved – that since the fall, without the policeman, the judge, the jail, the law, and the magistrate, men will rob, murder, and fight among themselves; without a coercive state to restrain evil impulses and administer punishments, no life will be safe, no peace secure, no honor observed.  Therefore, upon Adam’s apostasy, God Himself instituted governments among men." [14]

Perhaps Brutus in Anti-Federalist No. 23 gives the most insightful description by contrasting America with Europe and aligning America to the Original Intent.  “The European governments are almost all of them framed, and administered with a view to arms, and war,” disclosed Brutus, “as that in which is their chief glory.”  He continues enlightening that “they mistake the end of government.”

"[Civil government] was designed to save men’s lives, not destroy them.  We ought to furnish the world with an example of a great people, who in their civil institutions hold chiefly in view, the attainment of virtue, and happiness among ourselves.  Let the monarchs in Europe share among them the glory of depopulating countries, and butchering thousands of their innocent citizens, to revenge private quarrels, or to punish an insult offered to a wife, a mistress, or a favorite.  I envy them not the honor, and I pray heaven this country may never be ambitions of it." [15]

Thus, Brutus is describing a critical aspect of American Exceptionalism: while we have not been perfect to this affect, America has driven this worldview throughout the globe at a pace and scale never previously considered, nor achieved in history.

From this converging of historical threads emanating originally from the Garden, the American Empire would rise out of these tiny groups of Puritans to become a Shining City upon a Hill.  Forged by fallen men to bring forth the grace of abundance promised by God and salvage by Christ, this imperfect but glorious city would be built.  Daniel Boorstin would write of the Puritans is that; “what really distinguished them in their day was that they were less interested in theology itself, than the application of theology to everyday life, and especially society…their interest in theology was practical.  They were less concerned with perfecting their formulation of the Truth than making their society in America embody the Truth they already knew.Puritan New England was a noble experiment in applied theology.”[16]  Alexis de Tocqueville would directly observe this pattern of behavior in Americans 175 years later.

The great American historian Jack Greene remarked that “between 1764 and 1776, [the Americans] developed radically divergent views that ultimately led to the secession of thirteen of the North American colonies from the empire.”[17]  This secession would build the Shining City upon the Hill which would then become the beacon of God’s divine light unto the world.

Our Founders understood that their victory over the Motherland was due to Divine Providence, and recognized this Blessing accordingly.  In April 1788 the Federal Farmer and Planter[18] in Anti Federalist No. 26 acknowledges this stating, “[I]f God, in his anger, should think it proper to punish us for our ignorance, and sins of ingratitude to him, after carrying us through the late war, and giving us liberty.”  He further urged Americans by exclaiming the following: “You fought, conquered and gained your liberty – then keep it, I pray you, as a precious jewel.” It is a gift from God; “Trust it not out of your own hands; be assured, if you do, you will never more regain it.”[19]

[1] John Winthrop’s famous "City upon a Hill" sermon (The sermon’s actual title is A Model of Christian Charity) delivered aboard the ship, Arbella, in 1630 (The place and time of the actual delivery of this message has not been verified historically.  See Mark Kalthoff, March 4, 2013, “Colonial Settlement,” History 102: American Heritage – From Colonial Settlement to the Reagan Revolution, February 25 to April 29, 2013, (Hillsdale College Lecture Series, Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, MI), [], see 20:45 – 23:40 minutes.  declares that the Puritan colonists immigrating to the New World were part of a special pact with God to create a holy community.  The phrase "city upon a hill" is derived from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:14: "You are the light of the world. A city built upon a hill cannot be hidden." (New International).  Presidents Ronald Reagan (during his 1984 Republican Party acceptance speech and on January 11, 1989 for his farewell speech to the nation) and John F. Kennedy (on January 9, 1961 during an address delivered to the General Court of Massachusetts) used the phrase as a metaphor for the United States.

[2] More historical sources from non-Christian writers from the first and second century reference Jesus than many other historical people, such as Caesar Tiberius.  See Jerry Newcombe, March 7, 2013, “The Historical Jesus,”, [].  For a specific example see Flavius Josephus (translated by William Whiston), 1999 (c. First Century), The New Complete Works of Josephus, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications), pp. 590-592 and 987-997.

[3] John Winthrop, 1630, “A Model of Christian Charity,” [].

[4] Ebenezer Hazard, 1792, “Historical collections consisting of state papers, and other authentic documents; intended as materials for an history of the United States of America,” Vol. II, (Philadelphia, PA: T. Dobson), p. 1, [].  The spelling given is the original old English as is used in the publication.  

[5] Ebenezer Hazard, 1792, “Historical collections consisting of state papers, and other authentic documents; intended as materials for an history of the United States of America,” Vol. II, (Philadelphia, PA: T. Dobson), Preface, [].

[6] “Letter from Calvin Coolidge to the American People,” December 25, 1927, (Aired on The O’Reilly Factor, November 29, 2012: Bill O’Reilly’s private collection).

[7] Alexis de Tocqueville, 2007 (originally published in 1835 and 1840), Democracy in America, Volumes 1 and 2, Unabridged, (Stilwell, KS: Publishing), p. 32.

[8]Democracy in America was written in two volumes in 1835 and 1840.

[9] Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835 and 1840, Democracy in America, Vol. I and II, (London, England: Oxford University Press), p. 28.

[10]President George Washington on January 9, 1790, wrote a letter to the famous British historian, Catherine Macaulay Graham.  In the letter he told her that “the establishment of our new Government seemed to be the last great experiment for promoting human happiness.”  Taken from John Rhodehamel, 1998, The Great Experiment: George Washington and the American Republic, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), p. 1.

[11] John Gabriel Hunt (Ed.), 1997, “George Washington: First Inaugural Address, April 30, 1789,” The Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents: From George Washington to George W. Bush, (New York, NY: Gramercy Books), p. 6.

[12] Alexander Hamilton, October 27, 1787, Federalist Paper No. 1.  Taken from James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers: The Classic Original Edition, (SoHo Books), p. 1.  This point is noted in Jeff Carter, July 23, 2012, “The Federalist Papers Prove America is The Greatest “Start Up” in History,”, [].

[13] Alexis de Tocqueville, 2007 (originally published in 1835 and 1840), Democracy in America, Volumes 1 and 2, Unabridged, (Stilwell, KS: Publishing), p. 334.

[14] Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson, 1938, The Puritans, (New York, NY: American Book Company), p. 181 and p. 182.

[15]Antifederalist Paper No. 23, Brutus (Robert Yates), January 3 and 10, 1788, (The New-York Journal).  Taken from Patrick Henry, Robert Yates, and Samuel Byron, The Anti Federalist Papers, 2010 (originally published 1787-1790), “, (Lexington, KY:  Pacific Publishing Studios), p. 42.

[16] Daniel J. Boorstin, 1958, The Americans: The Colonial Experience, (New York, NY: Random House), p. 5.

[17] Jack P. Greene, 2011, The Constitutional Origins of the American Revolution, (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press), p. 187.

[18] It is generally believed that the Farmer and Plant was either Melcancton Smith or Richard Henry Lee.

[19]Antifederalist Paper No. 26, A Farmer and Planter, April 1, 1788, (The Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser).  Taken from Patrick Henry, Robert Yates, and Samuel Byron, The Anti Federalist Papers, 2010 (originally published 1787-1790), “, (Lexington, KY:  Pacific Publishing Studios), p. 50.