The Words That Stirred a Nation
From colonial times to the present, from Abraham Lincoln to Billy Graham, the sermon has been the dynamic medium through which America conducts its most important debates, motivating us to fight wars as well as fight for peace and ultimately defining the course of our history. A City Upon a Hill tells the American story through these powerful words, showing us at our best—and sometimes at our worst.
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About the Author
Larry Witham is the author of The Measure of God, Where Darwin Meets the Bible, and By Design: Science and the Search for God. As a journalist, he has won the Religion Communicators Council's Wilbur Award three times and has received several prizes from the Religion Newswriters Association as well as a Templeton Foundation award for his articles on science and religion.
Read an Excerpt
A City Upon a Hill
How Sermons Changed the Course of American History
Robert Hunt's Library
The Sermon Comes to America
Robert hunt looked over the bow of the creaking Susan Constant. The masts and ropes crackled as its sails caught a wind up the wide James River in a land called Virginia. Hunt had survived seasickness and scurvy on the open ocean in the great oaken ship, typical of its kind in 1607, and now he relished the bright spring morning, which revealed a landscape of dogwoods and redbuds in bloom.
At age thirty-eight, Hunt had left a wife, children, and country church in England to make the Atlantic crossing. Soon after landing, he became the first Anglican minister to give a sermon in Jamestown, England's only permanent outpost on American shores. He had his health, his faith, and his library of religious books intact. The tribulations were finally over, or so it seemed. The Susan Constant and two other ships dropped anchor by a wooded prominence, easy to defend on all sides. Now the task of the roughly one hundred men and boys, a quarrelsome group already, was to colonize these woods and waterways for God and for King James I. They were there to bring wealth to the nation and convert the Indians to Christianity.
Hunt's first mission was to establish an English pattern of church worship. He began the day they landed by conducting a ser-vice under a sail strung in the treetops. His pulpit was a pole lashed between two trees, and on this he laid his Book of Common Prayer, which prescribed two sermons on Sunday and prayers twice a day. That first sermon is lost to history, but it islikely that Hunt, trained at university, had Puritan leanings in the Church of England and may have preached in their simpler style.
The short spring and humid summer gave way to winter, and then came the first cycles of disease and starvation. Eight months after the landing, a fire destroyed the settlement. In the ashes lay Hunt's library, the first American repository of resourcesHebrew, Greek, Roman, and Christianthat produced the sermon. In fire and ash, Hunt's library christened the New World soil. Only a third of the original settlers survived the first year. Hunt was dead before he could begin his second year of preaching in the Virginia wilderness. "Our good pastor," as Captain John Smith called him, dissolved into the marshy riverbanks along with his library.
Jamestown holds a pride of place in America's founding. But like other early settlements, it was a transient affair. The English cultures that shaped colonial America were still to come. Before then, the Roman Catholic empires of Spain, France, and Portugal also sought a foothold in America. The late sixteenth century, thanks to the Protestant and Catholic reformations, was a golden age of preaching. It was expressed in men like Hunt, but also in the Catholic friars who pioneered New Mexico and Quebec.
By the time Hunt died, a wagon train of Spanish soldiers, colonists, and Franciscan friars had trudged north into the uncharted domain called New Mexico. They named their destination Santa Fe, where two rivers met in a high plateau ringed by mountains. Most of the friars were callow but rugged young men. The Catholic reformation had decreed that they learn to preach, attend seminary if possible, and carry new handbooks with sample sermons.
The French empire landed elsewhere, at a sharp turn in the frigid St. Lawrence River, and from the fort city of Quebec the royal mandate to "increase" Catholic dominions began. In those early days both Huguenot, or French Protestant, and Catholic ministers arrived, but only Catholicism had a mission. Quebec became the springboard for Franciscans and Jesuits to carry the faith along the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River and down to the delta, to be called New Orleans.
European politics dictated the pattern of settlement as well as what kinds of sermons sank roots in America. Once England had defeated the Spanish Armada, for example, it was free to attempt commercial ventures such as Jamestown. As part of the spoils of the war between England and the Netherlands, the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam became New York. This opened the way for a century of warfare between England and France, the outcome of which gave the American colonies their boundaries. Through it all, the English sermon prevailed under English dominance.
All the New World empires were Christian, however, and the library of Robert Hunt reflected that basic heritage. Having studied Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, Hunt was exposed to all the ancient works on preaching. He saw that the Old Testament orators, more prophets than preachers, nevertheless remarked on how "pleasant speech increases persuasiveness" (Proverbs 16:21). When Moses shrank back because he stammered, the Lord assured him, "I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak" (Exodus 4:12). The New Testament preacher also believed that divine inspiration would come. "Say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak but the Holy Spirit," Jesus told his disciples (Mark 13:11).
Early Christianity, moreover, borrowed heavily from the rhetorical tools of the Greco-Roman world, finally illustrated by the life of St. Augustine, who was not the only pagan professor of Latin rhetoric to convert to Christianity. Hunt's library may have contained Augustine's fifth-century work On Christian Learning, a synthesis of Christian preaching and classical oratory. The ancients had developed rhetoric to persuade in courts and legislatures and at ceremonies. It was an art for Everyman. But the philosophers, from Plato (in Gorgias and Phaedrus) to Aristotle (in Rhetoric), explained why rhetoric worked. The Roman statesman Cicero summed it up best in On Invention and On the Orator, works that Christians imitated for centuries.1
Cicero said the duty of the orator was to prove, delight, and stir, depending on the circumstances. Plain speaking could prove. A middle style pleased the ears. But grand oratory was necessary to fire audience . . .A City Upon a Hill
How Sermons Changed the Course of American History. Copyright © by Larry Witham. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Longtime Washington Times journalist Larry Witham has turned his attentions to writing books full-time in recent years, with particular interest in religious topics. In ¿A City Upon a Hill,¿ he offers a unique approach to the history of Christianity in the United States, focusing on sermons rather than denominations or church planting. In some ways, this is a no-brainer. Since the Puritan settlers, sermons have been preserved at an astonishing rate in North America. Aside from virtually innumerable single sermons and sermon collections that have been professionally published in books and periodicals over four centuries, there are sermon manuscripts in all sorts of archives. As such, there is a treasure trove of material from which to draw. Witham¿s approach, though, probably owes as much to American sensibilities as to the accessibility of primary source materials. While sermons have always been important articles of faith ¿ consider how many are preserved even in the Bible itself ¿ preaching is almost uniformly at the center of Christian practice in America. Whether because of the Puritan influence, or the impact of the Great Awakening and subsequent preacher-driven revivals, or the explosion of religious publishing that circulated printed sermons, the pulpit has been the focal point of Christianity in America. Witham sees three main periods in American religious history: pre-1800, 1800-1900, and 1900 to the present. In practice, these divisions roughly relate to the establishment of a new nation and its identity (pre-1800), the making of contemporary religion (1900 to the present), and everything in between. Despite the different focus of this book, the main considerations are the same. The early chapters focus mostly on the Puritans and the Great Awakening, with subsequent considerations of the frontier, industrialization, urbanization, and the role of mass media. A significant contribution of this book in contrast to most writing on American religious history, however, is the chapters related to war-time sermons of the Revolutionary War and Civil War eras, decisive periods in religious development that are frequently underappreciated. In short, Witham offers a highly readable account of Christian history in the United States using the specific lens of preaching. While there is little here that is particularly new to students of religious history, others will find the account informative. The subject matter is well chosen, if overly reliant on the usual high-profile characters with only a couple of surprises. Still, it serves as a vivid reminder of the influence of preaching in American history, not just within the church.
A Protestant NationIn this survey of religious oratory Larry Witham explores the social and cultural influences of famous sermons in American history. "City upon a Hill", that phrase now ubiquitous with American exceptionalism, initially phrased by Puritan preacher John Winthrop speaking through divine providence in the shared spiritual speculation of the New World. Resurrected 400 years later by Ronald Reagan in his 1976 bid for the GOP and who later evoked his famous "one nation under God" speech. Through "City Upon a Hill", we see that preachers and their sermons have consciously and sub-consciously reached deep into the social and moral fabric of American society. Witham's survey is complete, and comprehensive. Readers unfamiliar with colonial and antebellum period history will find the first two sections a little dense on names and events. But it is in fact the preachers and their sermons of the first and second great awakenings that form the bedrock of American Protestantism. Witham's characterizations of George Whitefield, Charles Grandison Finney, and Henry Ward Beecher, the three most influential preachers of their time are both accurate and complete. The last section is wholly dedicated to early 20th century fundamentalist movements, TV evangelicalism, and activist preaching including a whole chapter on Black Liberation Theology as preached by Martin Luther King Jr. In my opinion, Witham could have elaborated a bit more in the contemporary period as I suspect that is what most people who will buy this book will be looking for.Some of the more interesting but less obvious influences of Protestant oratory that Witham highlights in the book include: 1848, meeting between women at Wesleyan Methodist Church in Seneca Falls, New York that produced the Declaration of Sentiment, the first document for women's rights in America.1864, Lincoln's Second Inaugural speech drew on Puritan oratory reaching deep into long-held American presumptions about the "nature of God" and "his providence".1893, In the same year as the Columbia exposition in the "White City", Rauschenbusch's sermons galvanizing the Social Gospel movement against gilded age corruption and gross social inequalities.1917, Billy Sunday, the bombastic evangelist famous for his "booze sermon" and "Get on the Water Wagon" which is now standard for going dry, helping pave the way for the 18th amendment to prohibit the sale and consumption of liquor.1950's, Henry Luce incorporating preacher Reinhold Niebuhr's "Christian Realism" into his media declaration of the "American Century". Witham's book is important because it shows that religious thought is highly coupled with intellectualism in America. The two are inseparable in my opinion despite what the pundits and the so-called highbrow freethinkers claim. This is a very well-written, well-researched book that will undoubtedly change people's opinion of Protestantism in America. Witham is an excellent writer and his gift of prose is evident. I recommend the book to anyone who wants to learn more about religion in America.