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A City Upon a Hill: How Sermons Changed the…

A City Upon a Hill: How Sermons Changed the Course of American History

by Larry Witham

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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. ( )
  ALincolnNut | Jul 21, 2011 |
A Protestant Nation

In 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. ( )
  bruchu | Aug 28, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0060854278, Hardcover)

Pivotal moments in U.S. history are indelibly marked by the sermons of the nation's greatest orators. America's Puritan founder John Winthrop preached about "a city upon a hill", a phrase echoed more than three centuries later by President Ronald Reagan in his farewell address to the nation; Abraham Lincoln's two greatest speeches have been called "sermons on the mount"; and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" oration influenced a generation and changed history. From colonial times to the present, the sermon has motivated Americans to fight wars as well as fight for peace. Mighty speeches have called for the abolition of slavery and for the prohibition of alcohol. They have stirred conscientious objectors and demonstrators for the rights of the unborn. Sermons have provoked the mob mentality of witch hunts and blacklists, but they have also stirred activists in the women's and civil rights movements. The sermon has defined America at every step of its history, inspiring great acts of courage and comforting us in times of terror. A City Upon a Hill tells the story of these powerful words and how they shaped the destiny of a nation.

A City Upon a Hill includes the story of Robert Hunt, the first preacher to brave the dangerous sea voyage to Jamestown; Jonathan Mayhew's "most seditious sermon ever delivered," which incited Boston's Stamp Act riots in 1765; early calls for abolition and "Captain-Preacher Nat" Turner's bloody slave revolt of 1831; Henry Ward Beecher's sermon at Fort Sumter on the day of Lincoln's assassination; tent revivalist/prohibitionist Billy Sunday's "booze sermon"; the challenging words of Martin Luther King Jr., which inspired the civil rights movement; Billy Graham's moving speeches as "America's pastor" and spiritual advisor to multiple U.S. presidents; and Jerry Falwell's legacy of changing the way America does politics.

A City Upon a Hill provides a history of the United States as seen through the lens of the preached words—Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish—that inspired independence, constitutional amendments, and mili-tary victories, and also stirred our worst prejudices, selfish materialism, and stubborn divisiveness—all in the name of God.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:05 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Citing landmark sermons that have shaped and reflected the nation, a history of the influence of the sermon on the United States considers such famous speeches as those of Puritan founder John Winthrop, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Lincoln.

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