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Reverse-Engineering the Covenant: Moses, Massachusetts Bay and the Construction of a City on a Hill

Matthew Rowley ORCID logo


This article examines the famous “city on a hill” sermon delivered by John Winthrop at the start of colonial Massachusetts Bay. It focuses on belief-formation, looking at how Winthrop reverse-engineered the covenant in two senses. First, he found a blueprint for a godly society in the Pentateuch. Moreover, scholars have missed Winthrop’s reversal of the covenant-formation process. In the Pentateuch, God approached Israel with a covenant offer—setting the terms of the agreement and setting the supernatural verification that the covenant was ratified. However, when Massachusetts Bay entered the covenant, Winthrop reversed the order: he approached God, he set the terms of the covenant and the standard of verification that God ratified the covenant. America’s “founding covenant,” though taken by many as a parallel with biblical Israel, is actually its opposite. In reverse-engineering the covenant based on the Pentateuch, Winthrop also altered the role of God and his people. One of the benefits flowing from covenant obedience, Winthrop argued, would be victory in battle against Native Americans.

Corresponding author: Dr. Matthew Rowley, Honorary Visiting Fellow, Department of History, Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester, Leicester, LE1 7RH, UK, E-mail:
I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers whose critiques strengthened the article.


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Published Online: 2021-10-14
Published in Print: 2021-10-26

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