America Founded as a City Upon A Hill?

There is disagreement these days over whether America was founded as a Christian nation. In actuality, the topic is very debatable with ample support for both sides of the argument. Does it really matter? Yes, it does. 

A City on a HillIt’s important to keep historical contexts clear. First came the Explorers. In 1492 Columbus “sailed the ocean blue” sponsored by Spain and actually landed in what is today the Dominican Republic. He continued to head south and explored Central and South America, never landing actually on what is today US soil. In 1497 John Cabot landed in Newfoundland (north coast of North America). He was sponsored by England and so began the initial slow colonization of North America by the English.

Were they Christian? Only in the same sense that the whole European world was culturally, predominantly Roman Catholic.

Over 20 years later came the Reformation. Originating in Germany in 1517, Martin Luther’s Reformation changed the world’s religious landscape. Over the following decades and centuries this historic reformation (reforming abuses in the Roman Catholic Church) would lead to deep divisions of peoples and countries and the establishment of the Protestant churches.

Over 100 years later came the Pilgrims and Puritans. In 1620 the Pilgrims landed off the coast of Cape Cod in New England as part of a small group of religious dissenters (Separatists) from England. (See past Biblical Viewpoint post, Pilgrims’ Process.) The Puritans started arriving in droves over subsequent years. They were more aligned with the English Anglican church (ironically, think of them, if you can, as more liberal than Pilgrims).

Among them ago was John Winthrop, a devout Puritan lawyer with a profound vision for this budding land.

“A City upon a Hill”
On this day 385 years ago, June 12, 1630, John Winthrop, head of the Massachusetts Bay Company of England, was entering Salem Harbor in Massachusetts after 72 days at sea. He and 700 other colonists were arriving in 11 boats to the new world filled with great anticipation of a new life. Winthrop had recently written:

“I do resolve first to give myself – my life, my wits, my health, my wealth – to the service of my God and Savior who by giving Himself for me and to me, deserves whatsoever I am or can be, to be at His commandment and for this glory.”

As they approached the Salem settlement (founded by John Endecott and 266 English settlers over the previous 2 years), all that was visible was a collection of huts and canvas sheets. He soon found out that only 85 original people remained in this pathetic settlement of Salem. More than 80 had died and the rest had returned to England – many of those remaining were planning to do the same.

At this disheartening sight, Winthrop thought of the words he had written the day before to spell out his goals for the new colony, which he titled “A Model of Christian Charity”:

Thus stands the cause between God and us: we are entered into covenant with Him for this work…

Now the only way…to provide for posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God…for this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man…We must hold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality. We must delight in each other, make one another’s condition our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our Commission and Community in His work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when He shall make us a praise and glory, that men of succeeding plantations shall say, “The Lord make it like that of New England.” For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a hill.”…

Winthrop is referencing Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:14) when He says “You are the light of the world. A city located on a hill can’t be hidden.” These words in the same context were used by US Presidents John F. Kennedy and more famously by Ronald Reagan.

The U.S. Founding Fathers
And then 150 years later, in 1776, in the midst of the Age of Enlightenment, the elites of America, our Founding Fathers, drafted the Declaration of Independence separating the 13 colonies from English rule and ultimately establishing the United States of America with George Washington as its first President.

Were they all devout Christians? Hardly so, probably not unlike the mixed group of people in our Congress today varying widely in their beliefs, denominations and even level of devotion to their faith. But they believed in a Supreme Being and would have called themselves Christians and believed in its moral code. Patrick Henry, John Jay, John Hancock, Samuel Adams were quite strong and devout in Christian faith. Memoirs show John Adams and James Madison were devout as young men but later backslid toward Unitarianism. It’s said that Alexander Hamilton converted to a belief in Christ late in life. George Washington was probably a deist (a religion based on design/laws found throughout Nature presupposing a Designer), as was Ben Franklin. Both distrusted organized religion but upheld the Bible as essential for a just and harmonious society. Even Thomas Jefferson described himself as Christian though he rejected core doctrines.

So What?
So what of it? It shows me that the history of western man over the last 500 hundred years is that of people seeking life, freedom and fortune. And faith is intimately tied with all of human history. Why wouldn’t it be? Man was created by God and Jesus came and died for a purpose that is revealed in the Bible for all to read and receive. His impact will never be swept away by the secularists and non-believing elements of society. Whether people of high stature believe Him or not does not negate the truth. That this country, America, was founded by imperfect people of Christian faith and continues to be populated as such, only speaks to the continued fulfillment of Winthrop’s vision of this community as a beacon for a dark world seeking light.

Are you the light of the world?
You are the light of the world. A city located on a hill can’t be hidden. People don’t light a lamp and put it under a basket but on a lamp stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people in such a way that they will see your good actions and glorify your Father in heaven.” – Matthew 5:14-15

Categories: Faith, Holidays, Purpose, Thanksgiving, Theology

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