John Smith, James Fort, and the “City upon a Hill”

The “City upon a Hill” is likely most familiar to us within the context of American history and the associated pedagogy surrounding American exceptionalism. “City upon a Hill” becomes shorthand for “land of the free, home of the brave” or the 20th Century vision of America as the “melting pot” of the “best and the brightest” that stands out as a shining beacon of liberty, etc. The origin of the phrase comes, not surprisingly, from the Bible in Matthew 5:14 and gained minor historical significance as part of John Winthrop’s sermon to the Massachusetts Bay colonists on the eve of their mission to New England. The meaning being: the world is watching us as we are a city upon a hill, so we mustn’t fail in our values and commitment (to God).

Given this religious foundation, you might be interested to find that Mr Winthrop was not a minister; he was, in fact, a lawyer. It’s worth remembering that generally speaking, everyone in 15th and 16th Century Europe was more religious than their counterparts today, but with Winthrop we are entering the Puritan mind where the boundary between the secular and the spiritual breaks down.

This is one of the many veins of thought that I want to investigate in this blog series. Histories of the English Civil War disagree even today about the role religion played in the conflict. The Puritan control of the Parliamentarian movement definitely creates an association between the cause of Parliament and the Puritan cause of further reformation. English puritanism died out much sooner than its colonial offshoot, so I’m hoping that by studying the early Americans, who were still very English at this point, we can learn something about their shorter-lived brothers back across the Atlantic.

The reason I put John Smith and not John Winthrop in the title of this post is that I’d like to demonstrate how deeply ingrained the “City upon a Hill” metaphor was within puritanism even before John Winthrop made it explicit in the written record. John Smith’s name will be familiar to most Americans at least through exposure to depictions of John Smith in popular culture like Disney’s Pocahontas. John Smith was the rakish mercenary and colonist who, despite being convicted of mutiny only a month into the journey to found Jamestown, eventually rose to lead and helped save the fort from one of the many starvation events that plagued it until after 1610. In the climax of his Jamestown career, Smith admonished his fellow colonists on the virtues of hard work and the fate of those who would expect a ‘free ride’:

You must obey this now for a law, that he that will not work shall not eat

If I told you that our new acquaintance was also quoting the Bible here you wouldn’t be too surprised would you? I hope not, because that’s precisely the point. But, before we move on it’s important to understand a few things about the makeup of James Fort up to this point. Smith’s The Proceedings provides a crew manifest in its first chapter laying out the names, titles, professions, and functional roles of 67 members (out of 105) of the voyage, presumably recorded for their importance or perhaps just their memorability. Relevant to us: out of the first 105 colonists, 29 were listed holding the distinction of “Gentlemen” as their function within the expedition. Smith himself was listed as “Councell” along with five others including their preacher. Other functions include “Laborers”, “Carpenters”, and, endearingly, “Boyes”. If this manifest is to be believed, a rough 30% of the crew would have been posher stuff than the modern stereotype of the yeoman farmer of early America.

Indeed, the colonists’ initial plans never included “vi[c]tual” self-sufficiency. Being enterprising “Gentlemen”, the crew of the first voyage intended to trade both with locals and their investors back home in England to acquire food and profit. Even their choice of landing was motivated more by the need for defense from Spanish than any concerns about staple agriculture; the land around James Fort was mostly marshland with limited fresh water. Had times been different, the colonists’ gamble might have paid out, but as the archeological record reveals, and unfortunately for Smith and his compatriots, the Jamestown region suffered a near-thousand-year drought during the first few supply voyages. These environmental conditions, combined with the socially-upscale composition of the crew and the likely-inevitable tensions with the locals under chief Powhatan, undermined the initial plans for the colony sending it on an unstable trajectory. In the Summer of 1609 when Smith wrote his exhortation, James Fort had over 200 settlers and was entirely reliant on supply ships from England to prevent another mass death like the one experienced in 1607. By the time these ships arrived in May 1610, the colony had 50 inhabitants, barely clinging to life.

With this context in mind, let’s turn back to the Captain’s quote above. Smith is referencing the Bible here, specifically 2nd Thessalonians 3:10. A more casual eye might end the inquiry here, satisfied that Smith was simply using the common cultural reference point of the day, the Bible. This alone does demonstrate how deeply ingrained knowledge of the word of the Bible itself was at this point, even to a commoner like Smith who spent most of his adult life in the field as a mercenary. But let’s go one step deeper here and look at 2nd Thessalonians as a whole. Roughly put, the book is framed as a letter from Paul, writing in Corinth, to a new and struggling church recently established further north. Paul covers some points of apparent concern to this church, giving instructions for how to identify the second coming and for how to identify his letters from counterfeits. The main content of his letter, though, is devoted to convincing these founders to stick by their faith and also covers how to handle incompetent peers, calling to “keep every brother who leads an unruly life”. Paul instructs not to punish these “brothers”, but rather literally to “admonish them”. Within this section, Paul writes:

For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat

In his letter, Paul takes a tone similar in character to Smith in his letter to the colonists (and investors), reassuring his audience that there are better times ahead for them and that this will be assured specifically by a strong and equally-shared commitment to making their church a success. Failures are blamed specifically on members who are not perceived to be ‘pulling their weight’ as we might put it.

I find it too coincidental that Capt. Smith writes in very much the same context. As a foundational figure in the colony’s existence, Smith finds himself writing from a position of authority attempting to set a standard for the settlers to follow. He really does “admonish” his fellow colonists that:

the labors of thirty or forty honest and industrious men shall not be consumed to maintain a hundred and fifty idle loiterers.

The colony is not simply a business venture gone terribly wrong: it is a figurative “City upon a Hill”, a public symbol of the progress of reformed Christendom in the physical world. The success of the wider movement depends in part on the success of each small step into unknown territory, which itself depends on each member contributing as equally as possible in the face of adversity. Yes, Smith is writing this in part to drum up strong sentiment to preserve the financial backing for James Fort, but the parallels here are hard to ignore. What this demonstrates to me is that well before the more famously religious Puritan charters to New England, English colonists to the Americas were already well-imbued with a sense of their role in not only a national mission, but a religious one as well.

What that mission entails precisely, will have to wait for another time…