Perry Miller, in Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge: Harvard-Belknap, 1956).

Verbatim excerpts:

— Introduction:

[ix] What I believe caught my imagination, among the fuel drums [in Africa], was a realization of the uniqueness of the American experience; even then I could dimly make out the portent for the future of the world, looking upon these tangible symbols of the republic’s appalling power. I could see no way of coping with the problem except by going to the beginning. Walt Whitman says, in a somewhat different context, that he commenced his studies, but was never able to get beyond the beginning. … The beginning I sought was inevitably — being located in the seventeenth century — theological. This was not a fact of my choosing …

I have never entertained the slightest ambition of making these ideas palatable to my contemporaries in any other sense than the historical one. There they are — those with which American thought began. Respect for them is not the same thing as believing in them — as Nathaniel Hawthorne preëminently demonstrated.

— Chapter headed “The Puritan State and Puritan Society” [1938]:

[147] The belief that government originated in the consent of the governed was equally congenial to the Puritan creed. The theology is often enough described as deterministic, because it held that men were predestined to Heaven or Hell; but we are always in danger of forgetting that the life of the Puritan was completely voluntaristic. The natural man was indeed bound in slavery to sin and unable to make exertions toward his own salvation; but the man into whose soul grace had been infused was liberated from that bondage and made free to undertake the responsibilities and obligations of virtue and decency. The holy society was erected upon the belief that the right sort of men could of their own free will and choice carry through the creation and administration of the right kind of community. The churches of New England were made up of “saints,” who were born in it, or were forced into it, or joined because of policy and convention. The saints were expected to act positively because they had in them a spirit of God that made them capable of every exertion. No doubt the Puritans maintained that government originated in the consent of the people because that theory was an implement for chastening the absolutism of the SDtuarts; but they maintained it because they did not believe that any society, civil or ecclesiastical, into which men did not enter of themselves was worthy of the name.


[149] When men have entered these covenants, first with God, then with each other in the church and again in the state, they have thrice committed themselves to the rule of law and the control of authority.


Abram van Engen, “How America Became ‘A City Upon a Hill’,” Humanities 41, no. 1 (Winter 2020)  

That 1630 sermon by John Winthrop is now famous mainly for its proclamation that “we shall be as a city upon a hill.” Beginning in the 1970s, Ronald Reagan placed that line, from that sermon, at the center of his political career. Tracing the story of America from John Winthrop forward, Reagan built a powerful articulation of American exceptionalism—the idea, as he explained, “that there was some divine plan that placed this great continent between two oceans to be sought out by those who were possessed of an abiding love of freedom and a special kind of courage.” In 2012, American exceptionalism—as summarized by the phrase “city on a hill”—became an official plank in the platform of the Republican party.

Before Miller began his career, no politician had turned to “A Model of Christian Charity” as the origin of America or sought national office by quoting, citing, or invoking it. Hardly anyone knew this sermon existed, and no one described the nation as a “city on a hill.” It wasn’t just Reagan who picked it up, either. After Miller, Winthrop’s text has been quoted by almost every president to hold office: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.


But the content of Winthrop’s sermon—what Miller thought Winthrop was actually saying or proposing as a model—differed radically from what Reagan and others would make of it. According to Miller, this sermon called Puritans to model radical communal solidarity. It had nothing to do with the American Dream, nothing to do with bettering one’s life, nothing at all to do with making money or getting ahead. In fact, Miller claimed, Winthrop specifically rejected all such ideas. Going it alone, pulling ahead of others, getting rich or even trying to—these were the very dangers that Winthrop sought to guard against. Society’s success depended instead on mutual affection, being “knit together in this work as one man.” According to Miller, the Puritans exhibited “a mighty conviction of solidarity,” a “living cohesion” and “concept of a fellowship united in a common dedication.” Unlike today, Miller insisted, New England theorists thought of society “not as an aggregation of individuals, but as an organism functioning for a definite purpose, with all parts subordinate to the whole, all members contributing a definite share, every person occupying a particular status.”

According to Miller, the commitment to a higher cause and the dedication to God had made the Puritan community unusually successful, and the success of their venture—the wealth it generated—had eventually undermined the venture itself. When Puritans started making money, their purposes collapsed. “A hundred years after the landings, they were forced to look upon themselves with amazement, hardly capable of understanding how they had come to be what they were,” he wrote. They had lost sight of their cause and plan, their purpose and devotion. For Miller, the point of this failure was clear: The demise of the Puritans did not arise from external opposition; rather, it came about from within. It was caused by the Puritans’ own success.

That was the story Miller saw playing out again in the 1950s: The success of the United States, its sudden wealth and power, would soon prove the nation’s undoing. According to Miller, this paradigm had been repeated in a host of societies scattered through the leaves of history. The downfall of the Roman Empire, which Miller explicitly compared to America, also came about through dissolutions wrought by its own success. For Miller, history was fundamentally ironic. Victory and achievement produce disappointment and disaster; progress results from causes other than one’s own intentions; and no advance is finally secure since all growth contains within it the seeds of a new and possibly more catastrophic decline. As the historian Henry May once summarized, “His works on Puritanism all illustrate the slogan that nothing fails like success.” Wherever Miller turned, he saw the same laws of history replayed, and, in his mind’s eye, the beginning of demise could be read in the modern riches of America’s rise.


Miller’s dedication to the Puritans and to “A Model of Christian Charity” finally could not address or explain the concerns that dominated American society in the mid-twentieth century. At the opening of Miller’s career, W. E. B. Du Bois published Black Reconstruction in America (1935), a searing account of the way historical studies had systematically excluded and denigrated the struggles and contributions of African Americans. The next year, 1936, Langston Hughes wrote “Let America Be America Again”—a plea that the promises of America extend themselves to African Americans at last. In 1941, the same year that Henry Luce published “The American Century” in Life magazine, Richard Wright documented the diverse lives and hopes of 12 Million Black Voices in the Great Depression. A decade later, the civil rights movement erupted. And through all these years, millions and millions of African Americans migrated from the South to the North, from agricultural fields to urban centers—including the Austin neighborhood of Chicago, where Miller grew up. “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line,” Du Bois prophesied in 1903. Yet the problem of the color line appears nowhere in all the mighty works of Perry Miller. No single book, and no single scholar, can address every single issue, of course. But Miller explicitly set himself the task of explaining the “meaning of America,” and that meaning never touched on one of the most vital issues engulfing the nation. If he felt that he had failed—if he felt that his story of America was increasingly hard to hold together and decreasingly important to the American people—he was right.

In one way, however, Miller succeeded far beyond his grandest hopes. He brought John Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” before the public and turned it into the key text of American origins. Miller pronounced it the first articulate statement of community, a sermon expounding the idea that America would be dedicated to the life of the mind. He read in Winthrop’s text a monumental testimony against the basic premises of the American Dream. The irony of history—one that Miller might well have appreciated—is that in promoting Winthrop’s sermon, he caused it to become the key statement of all that he most feared and lamented. In the years to come, Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” sermon would become “the shining city on a hill” of President Reagan: a celebration of individual freedom, material prosperity, and American power—above all, a call for Americans to renew their optimism and believe in themselves again. Nothing breeds failure like success. And no one was more successful than Perry Miller in making Winthrop’s sermon the cornerstone of American culture.

One thought on “Perry Miller on covenant (with allusions to Whitman, Hawthorne); also van Engen’s ‘How America Became “A City Upon a Hill”’

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