City upon a Hill

City upon a Hill

ESSA Writers
March 15, 2014

The year was 1630. A fleet of ships carrying about 900 Puritans from England sailed across the Atlantic.[1] In every sense, it was a journey away from the Old World to the New. Aboard the flagship, the Arbella, leading Puritan John Winthrop delivered a lay sermon entitled, “A Model of Christian Charity”. Winthrop declared this voyage a divine quest to found a “City upon a Hill”.[2]

This sermon came to outline the founding principles of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, New England. The colony was to develop almost exclusively upon the emerging Puritan ethic that was causing a stir back in England and Europe in light of the Reformation. With this exodus from the Old World to the New came a new theological understanding of Man. With this new theological understanding of Man, also came a new sociological understanding of the possibilities and limitations of Man’s worldly existence[3].

This shifting theological outlook in the increasingly Protestant Europe was bound to have much wider implications. Nothing seemed to be able to stop these changes happening in the spiritual sphere from spilling over into the practical, worldly sphere.

The Puritan settlement across New England that came with the Great Migration[4] played a crucial role in the development of the emerging capitalist ethic. The rise of a new industrious and ambitious people reversed the whole conception of Man-in-the-world as a submissive and impoverished wretch to a wealth-seeking, commercial animal. As we shall see, however, the Puritans did not readily swallow free enterprise hook, line, and sinker.

He that lives upon hope will die fasting [5]

Puritan values were primarily derived from the Calvinist doctrines. Without going into too much detail of this major Protestant sect, there are a number of concepts that were radical departures from not just Catholic theology but the Protestantism of Luther as well.

Usury and profit, which had previously been rendered sacrilegious by established Christian doctrines, received theological sanction through Calvin.[6] This gave the green light for traders to strive for and accumulate profit. It was no longer a sin to make money, as long as it wasn’t pursued for personal greed, but only for the glory of God.

The Calvinist notion of Predestination (the idea that people had been preselected by God to go either to heaven or hell) brought with it two significant notions, both rooted in the practical activities of individuals.

Firstly, people who had energy in their daily works and were successful in their trade signaled that they had been chosen for Salvation.[7] Though nobody could work for their Salvation, it was hoped that if they did work hard it would be a sign to themselves and to others of their Election.[8]

Secondly, the doctrine of predestination brought with it an aversion to idleness and inaction.[9] Religious devotion should exist through one’s good works, not dreamy contemplation.[10] Hard work in the practical world of increasing commerce and trade turned from being suspicious and immoral to being virtuous. The aversion to sloth and idleness meant that they took a more careful approach to the problem of poverty. They thought monasteries parasitic and beggars suspicious, and charity was to be more ‘targeted’.[11]

For the purposes of this article, the most significant development of John Calvin’s Protestantism was the gradual embracing of the mercantile and commercial ethic that increasingly characterized the 17th century. Business was not a suspicious activity, and increased living standards were gradually accepted.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood[12]

Though the increased capitalist ethic was being greeted with open arms by the hoi polloi, many Puritan theologians attempted to ‘draw the line’, as it were.[13] In fact, there was always a tension between whether it was this new Puritanism that was shaping the new self-interested, economically virtuous man, or whether it was the other way around. Was it the call for fiscal restraint, or the endorsement of production and hard work that was to provide the road to heaven?

John Winthrop

Though the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was no political economist, his theology was undoubtedly intended to have political and economic implications. John Winthrop encapsulated the Puritan ethic, but more, the emerging American identity. Speaking aboard the Arbella in his famous sermon, he outlined his belief that inequality among human beings was just part and parcel of God’s Creation[14], and stated elsewhere, “whatsoever wee stand in need of is treasured in the earth, by the Creator and is to be fetched thence by the sweat of our Browes.”[15] I’d highly recommend people to read his “A Modell of Christian Charity”. It was a visionary statement that was to have an enormous impact on the emerging America character.

Thus stands the cause between God and us[16]

The Puritans of New England thus had one foot in the past and one in the future. It was a society that held this tension between Old and New at its very heart. The emphasis on hard work and industry foreshadowed the ‘American entrepreneur’, yet the theocratic governance of Massachusetts was a powerful counteracting force.

For John Winthrop, the founding of New England was to be built upon a collective effort of work and production for God. But the evolution of New England led to something very different to what he had imagined. It instead paved the way for a whole new realm of possibilities for Man, from which we’ve never looked back.

Nonetheless, Winthrop was uncannily prophetic when he said after his “City upon a Hill” proclamation of New England that, “the eyes of all people are upon us”. [17] Indeed they were. And some still are.


[1] James Truslow Adams, The Founding of New England, The Atlantic Monthly Press Boston, 1921,

[2] John Winthrop, quoting Matthew 5.14 in ‘A Model of Christian Charity’, Winthrop Papers, Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1929-1992, as can be seen in

[3] For more about how this was so, see Max Weber’s sociological classic, ‘The Protestantism Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ Ch. 4. This is text is a must read for economics students.

[4] J T Adams, The Founding of New England

[5] Benjamin Franklin, The Way to Wealth, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1993, 267

[6] R H Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, Pelican Books, 1980, 113-115.

[7] K Samuelson, Religion and Economic Action: The Protestant Ethic, the rise of Capitalism, and the Abuses of Scholarship, University of Toronto Press in association with the Renaissance Society of America, 1961, 43.

[8] Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, 117.

[9] Note the popular Puritan proverb “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop”, Proverbs 16.27.

[10] Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, 241.

[11] Ibid., 251-270.

[12] Reference to Robert Frost, ‘The Road Not Taken’

[13] Richard Baxter, The Practical Works of Richard Baxter, p. 854 at

[14]  Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity”, link above n 2.

[15]  Edgar A J Johnson, ‘Economic Ideas of John Winthrop’ The New England Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Apr., 1930),  235-250.

[16] Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity”, link above n 2.