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A City Upon a Hill: How the Sermon Changed the Course of American History
HarperOne / 2007 / Hardcover
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How has the pulpit shaped the nation's consciousness? In this marvelous window into our past, Witham surveys how important lights in each age have framed our intense struggles into such enduring images as John Winthrop's "city upon a hill" and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a dream." 304 pages, 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.
Larry Witham is the author of The Measure of God, Where Darwin Meets the Bible, and By Design: Science and the Search for God. As a journalist, he has won the Religion Communicators Council's Wilbur Award three times and has received several prizes from the Religion Newswriters Association as well as a Templeton Foundation award for his articles on science and religion.
It takes a nonspecialist to write this sort of history nowadays. Journalist Witham has most recently been writing popular studies of science, Darwinism and creationism in the U.S. Here he narrates the history of preaching in America, taking as his title John Winthrop's famous sermonic description to his fellow Puritans on their way to New England. Except, as Witham points out, no Puritan thought it remarkable to describe the desired commonwealth in biblical terms at the time. Witham knows when to pick up the narrative pace and when to slow down for delicious detail: for example, evangelist George Whitefield was the colonies' first celebrity, and the last few decades have been marked by "activist" preaching across the ideological spectrum. Historians and theologians will find points with which to quibble. Yet Witham succeeds in lifting up Roman Catholic, women, evangelical and black preachers alongside the mainstay white males. He also resists the temptation to sermonize himself until the last few pages, where he asks whether American preachers' longstanding comfort with assigning "good" to our motives and "evil" to others' is more dualistic and Manichaean than Christian. But by then he's done the good historical work necessary for the one hard question to linger with the reader. (Aug.) Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Journalist Witham narrates the history of preaching in America with good pacing and delicious detail.
“[Witham] weaves the summaries into . . . a history of the theology contained in the American sermon.”
Award-winning religion writer Larry Witham says the pulpit has profoundly influenced crucial public debates over independence, abolition, prohibition, civil rights and much more.
One of the “Top Ten Books Every Preacher Should Read”
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