The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

Preaching to the converted: how sermons helped make America

Another new book to add to my sagging and overcrowded shelf: A City Upon A Hill: How Sermons Changed the Course of American History by Larry Witham.

According to the description at

The Puritan founder John Winthrop preached about “a city upon a hill,” Abraham Lincoln’s two greatest speeches have been called “sermons on the mount,” and Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” oration is nothing if not a sermon. Not only can the history of the United States be told through its reflection in the landmark sermons preached from its pulpits and in front of its memorials, but in fact it was often the sermon that inspired and helped define American history.


Between the colonization of America and the terrorist attacks of September 2001, the sermon has both shaped America’s self–understanding and reflected both sides of its most important social, political, military, and philosophical debates. That is the story of A City Upon a Hill: How the Sermon Made America, a narrative history of events, people, and ideas, showing us at our best––and sometimes at our worst. The book will cover American history from 1606 to 2001, building links between the pulpit and politics, between preachers and presidents, between sermons and historical events.

A City Upon a Hill will elaborate on two unifying themes. The first and central theme will be the idea of America as a “chosen” nation (raised as recently as the second inaugural of President Bush in 2005). A second underlying theme will be the perennial debate in America between liberty and order. In addition, the role of the sermon as the first mass media will be examined.


Lo and behold, in today’s Wall Street Journal online, they’ve published the first chapter of the book, with this account of the first man to preach in the New World:

Robert Hunt looked over the bow of the creaking Susan Constant. The masts and ropes crackled as its sails caught a wind up the wide James River in a land called Virginia. Hunt had survived sea-sickness and scurvy on the open ocean in the great oaken ship, typical of its kind in 1607, and now he relished the bright spring morning, which revealed a landscape of dogwoods and redbuds in bloom.

At age thirty-eight, Hunt had left a wife, children, and country church in England to make the Atlantic crossing. Soon after landing, he became the first Anglican minister to give a sermon in Jamestown, England’s only permanent outpost on American shores. He had his health, his faith, and his library of religious books intact. The tribulations were finally over, or so it seemed. The Susan Constant and two other ships dropped anchor by a wooded prominence, easy to defend on all sides. Now the task of the roughly one hundred men and boys, a quarrelsome group already, was to colonize these woods and waterways for God and for King James I. They were there to bring wealth to the nation and convert the Indians to Christianity.


Hunt’s first mission was to establish an English pattern of church worship. He began the day they landed by conducting a service under a sail strung in the treetops. His pulpit was a pole lashed between two trees, and on this he laid his Book of Common Prayer, which prescribed two sermons on Sunday and prayers twice a day. That first sermon is lost to history, but it is likely that Hunt, trained at university, had Puritan leanings in the Church of England and may have preached in their simpler style.

The short spring and humid summer gave way to winter, and then came the first cycles of disease and starvation. Eight months after the landing, a fire destroyed the settlement. In the ashes lay Hunt’s library, the first American repository of resources–Hebrew, Greek, Roman, and Christian–that produced the sermon. In fire and ash, Hunt’s library christened the New World soil. Only a third of the original settlers survived the first year. Hunt was dead before he could begin his second year of preaching in the Virginia wilderness. “Our good pastor,” as Captain John Smith called him, dissolved into the marshy riverbanks along with his library.

Fascinating stuff. For those who hear The Word, and those who preach it.

Comments read comments(3)
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posted August 30, 2007 at 11:34 am

In your last line, did you mean to say “The World” or “The Word”?

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Deacon Greg Kandra

posted August 30, 2007 at 11:47 am

Anon…Ack. Thanks. That’s what I get for posting before I’d have my second cup of coffee…I just fixed it. :-) Dcn G

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Fr. James Weldon

posted August 30, 2007 at 5:36 pm

Re: First Sermon to be preached in the New World. Spanish missionaries had been preaching in the New World since 1492. The English were latecomers in preaching the Gospel.

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