Massachusetts Bay Colony

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On what basis can you say that John Winthrop's city upon a hill failed by 1691?

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One way to claim that John Winthrop’s idea of the “city on a hill” had failed by 1691 is to point out that religious fervor had declined dramatically by that point in Massachusetts’ history.  In fact, religious fervor among the Puritans had declined decades before 1691.

The idea of the city on a hill was that the Puritans who came to Massachusetts were supposed to set an example for the rest of the world. They were supposed to show how people could live in harmony with God’s law.  However, this ideal had fallen by the wayside within a generation or two.

By 1662, religious fervor had dropped off dramatically in Massachusetts.  Originally, people could only be full members of the church (only church members had the right to vote in local elections) if they had truly undergone a conversion experience.  The church leaders would question them closely to see if they had had such an experience.  By 1662, so few had done so that church leaders had to slacken the rules, creating the “Half-Way Covenant” so that people could become full church members without having had a conversion experience.  This shows how far the colony had come from Winthrop’s ideal.

As a text from which I sometimes teach (Carnes, The American Nation Combined Version, p. 86) says,

John Winthrop invested his faith in God...; his grandsons invested in Connecticut real estate.

This line shows how much Massachusetts had gotten away from Winthrop’s idea of the city on a hill  by 1691.

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