I took a course on Boston history, and the question was asked of us, “Is it possible to analyze colonial Boston without understanding the religious outlook of the Puritans?” Here’s my response:
It is possible to look at Boston’s colonial history from a secular point of view, or from a view presuming understanding of the spiritual devotion of the early settlers of the day, but in doing so we make a glorious, colorful picture black and white. The Puritans were very unlike the stodgy, fire-and-brimstone personalities a lot of people make them out to be. They were probably the most Biblically-based and most God-devoted strain to come out of the Protestant Reformation, marked by their recognition of God’s utter sovereignty. Their writings and teachings communicate a delight and joy in the glories of the Lord. They understood God’s sovereign election which would not have been a fearful thing to them but a wonderful gift: There is no sinner too far gone for God to save. Their theology was one based on faith, not works, which released them to live fearless lives. David Brainerd was a tireless missionary to the Native Americans. Jonathan Edwards wrote extensively about God’s hand in nature. Many of the Puritans knew Hebrew and Greek so they could study the scriptures in its original language. They gifted Christianity with the articulation of a theology of suffering, finding great joy and peace in every circumstance knowing the sovereign hand of God guides everything. The Puritans have also made a resurgence today, and their writings are influencing a new generation of pastors and church planters.
Look at John Winthrop’s commission to his people:
The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as his oune people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our wayes. Soe that wee shall see much more of his wisdome, power, goodness and truthe, than formerly wee haue been acquainted with. Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when hee shall make us a prayse and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, ‘the Lord make it likely that of New England.’ For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.
His words are not of terror or condemnation, but of hope and trust in something higher than himself. By mentioning “Israell” and “the God of Israell” he’s paralleling the travels of his people to the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt, being brought to a land that God promised them. By becoming a “citty upon a hill” they would become what Jesus commissioned his people to be: light to the world, salt of the earth, a city upon a hill. They are, essentially, living out a narrative written by a good, sovereign God, and they would have been delighted to be part of furthering God’s glory upon the earth, even in the dark, unknown places. They would go there, across the ocean, because they knew that God was with them. Their fervor and faith actually did make Boston a city upon a hill; it was around Boston that the Great Awakening took place, it was on the Common that George Whitefield preached and converted thousands, and Park Street Church became the hub of missionary activity.
Can we look at colonial Boston without understanding the religious outlook of the Puritans? Yes, and it’s because we’ve done that for so long – misunderstanding the Puritans, becoming cynical at the passionate faith they practiced, and essentially forgetting our roots – that we indeed have made Boston a byword and ceased to be a city upon a hill.