En route to what would become Massachusetts John Winthrop laid out his vision for the new society in a sermon called A Model of Christian Charity. He lays out codes of behaviour and ethics for the emergent community and says that it should be, “as a city upon a hill.” (Winthrop) Here Winthrop is referring to Matthew 5:14 in which the Christian community is set apart to function as an example to the entire world, and in so doing he suggests that this group of puritans should endeavour to establish their colony as a guiding utopia. Then Winthrop explains what a successful and what a failing City on a Hill will look like, and in so doing inadvertently undermines the rest of his vision.
The condition of failure for Winthrop is such: “if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other gods, our pleasures and profits, and serve them… we shall surely perish out of the good land.” (Winthrop) Conversely, in a successful City on a Hill Winthrop writes, “ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemy.” (Winthrop) Winthrop believes so fully in an interventionist god that he places all evaluative measures of his new society in its material survival and success. He does not imagine a mechanism by which the community can examine and change itself from within, and for him this is not necessary for surely should they fail morally then God would not allow them to thrive. As a result, physical conditions in the new community become the barometer for moral ones and no procedure for self-evaluation and improvement is adopted; these are the critical oversights that tilt the City on a Hill concept into the abyss of failure. (It is important to note that the failure implied is one of concept rather than substance, because the new colony did indeed become a prosperous new land to which many in the world would look to for starting anew) The society where individual worth is measured by material demonstration (as it was in Puritan culture through “signs”) creates marginalized populations who suffer the stress of being labeled inferior or wrong for conditions beyond their control.
Slaves are a prime example of such a marginalized population. Blacks were said to be descendants of Ham, and therefore condemned to slavery by god through Noah (Gen 9:25). Much of the argument that blacks were inferior was predicated on the condition of African civilization, a stance which seems to mirror the logic of Winthrop, but in a negative sense. At the time it could have been argued that if slaves were intended to be free and reap the bounty of New England then God would provide them the means by which to raise themselves up. Alternately, it was argued that slavery is that means in as much as it gave blacks access to knowledge of Christ and thrall to whites was either of little consequence due to the fact that bodily suffering was regarded as temporary and acceptable to gain salvation or slavery was an improvement to barbarism and apostasy in Africa (Saffin). For Puritan society on the one hand the trappings of this world are transitory and pale when compared to the bounty of the divine so we shouldn’t revel in them, but on the other hand, they are so important that they define if we are a success or failure, damned or saved, slave or free. We find parallels in Winthrop when he says at first that for Christians worldly possessions and status matter so little compared to status with God that we should give freely of ourselves to help our fellow man, and then in the same turn that as a community our worldly status matters so much that it demonstrates how God feels about the group.
A lonely voice of contradiction comes in the pen of Phyllis Wheatley, a slave and poet. In her poems Wheatley describes the disconnect between the suffering of slaves and the freedom of Christians when the two are joined in a single individual. The poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” is especially informative of her arguments. The text of the poem is as follows:
“’Twas mercy that brought me from my Pagan land,/ Taught my benighted soul to understand/ That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:/ Once I redemption neither sought now knew./ Some view out fable race with scornful eye,/ ‘Their colour is a diabolic die,’/ Remember Christians, Negros, black as Cain,/ May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.”
Wheatley’s poem can be read as an attempt to highlight the imbalance between her moral/spiritual freedom as a converted Christian and her material oppression as a slave. The first line of the poem, “’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,” (Wheatley) can be taken to refer to the land of the unconverted soul rather than literal land. The word mercy is particularly telling because it guides the reader to think in a context of religious language. Also note that italics are placed on the words Pagan, Saviour, Christians, Negros, and Cain further implying the religious subject matter and that the blackness and ignorance in the context of the poem is spiritual instead of racial. The Christian notion of mercy had elevated Wheatley to a religious status equal to whites. There is something missing, however, and in the final two lines of the poem Wheatley nudges the reader to fill in the blank, “Remember Christians, Negros, black as Cain,/ May be refin’d and join th’ angelic train.” (Wheatley) If blacks, through salvation, “May be refin’d and join th’ angelic train.” along with whites then why can’t they be raised to the level of whites on the mortal plane? The poem seems to be telling the reader that while he or she sees and hears of Africa as a savage place because the physical conditions in which its people live that the souls and the people of Africa are equal but for want of freedom and opportunity. Wheatley’s poems and Wheatley herself help whites break out of the cyclical argument that Africans have been enslaved because they are inferior and they are inferior because they have been enslaved. If she had ever judged herself in the terms of whites and of Winthrop would she even have bothered trying to pray or write?