"A City Upon A Hill"

Proper 9.B.21
Psalm 48 (Independence Day)
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

“Great is the Lord, and highly to be praised; in the city of our God is his holy hill. Beautiful and lofty, the joy of all the earth, is the hill of Zion, the very center of the world and the city of the great king.”

Zion is synonymous with City of God. From a biblical standpoint, Zion can refer both to Jerusalem in a temporal sense, as well as Jerusalem as in the Heavenly City of God. It’s an inspiring concept which has found its way into the self-understanding of our nation.

Puritan John Winthrop in his famous treatise “A Model of Christian Charity”, speaks to colonists before they set sail to settle our city of Boston in 1630. In his lecture he states that the eyes of the world would be upon the colonists, that they would be as a city set upon a hill for all to observe.” Should they fail, this would been seen, or should they succeed, they would be an example for inspiration.

In the era in which we live, many historians have taken a hard look at how the United States was settled—and have pointed out many of the ways in which both our forebears and ourselves, have gotten things wrong. That’s helpful and it’s important; yet it seems to me that there are many ways in which good people of years past have striven hard to get things right, and we are the beneficiaries of their faith and labor.

And so, on this Independence Day, I’d like to share with you the story of two individuals: Manasseh Cutler and his son Ephraim.

This information comes from the book The Pioneers by historian, David McCullough. McCullough’s book details the settling of the Northwest Territory. In his book he profiles several individuals; however, I am focusing on only two of them.

I confess, having spent several years driving on Interstate 70 through Ohio into Indiana I was convinced there wasn’t much that would be of interest to me in the state. I was wrong. Reading about the lives of those who settled this area was downright inspiring.

What’s more, Manasseh and Ephraim both have a connection to Massachusetts—and even to Dedham. Manasseh Cutler was a Minister who was pastor of the Congregational church in what is now Hamilton, MA. His wife, Mary Balch, was from our fair town of Dedham. Manasseh was a man of tremendous intellectual breadth as well as physical stamina. In addition to being pastor of a church, he was also a member of the United States House of Representatives and was influential in the passage of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which was our nation’s first organized incorporated territory. Manasseh wasn’t a man to let any moss grow under his feet. He was proficient in the theology, law and medicine of his day. He conducted painstaking astronomical and meteorological investigations and was one of the first Americans to conduct significant botanical research. He is considered a founder of Ohio University.

Here is what Manasseh did. Through force of will and outstanding and exhausting politicking, he ensured that the Northwest Ordinance stipulated that in the whole of the territory there would be absolute freedom of religion and particular emphasis on education. Most importantly, there was to be no slavery. In his mind, this was essential. This was his great contribution, and it was no small thing to get passed.

His son, Ephraim, is no less impressive. Unlike his father, who preferred life in Massachusetts, Ephraim was one of the first settlers of Marietta, Ohio. By the time of Ephraim, the era of the Federalists had passed, and the Jeffersonian Republicans had come to the fore, and the issue of slavery once again found itself on the table. In 1802 Jefferson decided that he wanted Ohio to permit slavery—and went about it by suggesting that slaves be permitted in this territory until they were 35 years of age, at which time they would be set free. The idea was to hip away at the anti-slavery clause until it was meaningless.

Ephraim fought back vigorously. The convention was deeply divided. By the day of the vote, the debates had taken a toll on Ephraim. He was so ill that he could not get out of bed and was carried to the convention on a stretcher. Later, he wrote: “It cost me every effort I was capable of making, and it passed by a majority of one vote only.” Ephraim’s opposition to slavery never faded. Here’s what McCullough tells. us about him:

Partly for speculation and partly to encourage settlers to come to Ohio, Ephraim purchased land from proprietors in New England on credit, which he sold to new settlers on credit, then waited on them until they could raise cattle to pay him. No fewer than 200 families were thus furnished with farms.

This led Ephraim into the “droving business”, repeatedly driving a herd of eighty or more cattle back over the mountains of Pennsylvania to markets in the east. He wrote: “There was no other means of raising funds to pay my debts, and it resulted in placing many poor families who had nothing (with which) to buy land within very flourishing circumstances.” ….

It was on such a drive a few years after his vote on slavery that Ephraim crossed paths in Pennsylvania with a party of slave drivers and masters, with two or three droves of (slaves) and (in his words) he “gave one of the drivers and the master who rode in a carriage a lecture they will be likely to remember,” adding that he felt better for it. Ephraim, it should be noted, was also active in the work of the Underground Railroad.

Education was also important to Ephraim. The state’s first library was begun in his home. To cover the cost of the books, it was decided to collect raccoon skins. Proceeds from the sales of these back in Boston made possible the purchase of some fifty books selected by Manasseh Cutler. This is known to us today as the “Coonskin library.”

With considerable opposition, Ephraim worked to establish educational opportunities for settlers in the region—which meant raising taxes. He writes: “I am not without hopes, of effecting a change in our system of taxation and of getting a law passed for establishing school districts and encouraging schools.” His hope being that the poor along with the the rich might receive the advantage of education.” With much struggle, the vote passed.

Neither Manasseh nor Ephraim ever became wealthy, nor did they come from money. They took tremendous economic and political risks not for personal gain—but for the betterment of the society of which they were a part. Descended from Puritans, they are the embodiment of citizens of the city upon a hill of which John Winthrop spoke.

When Ephraim died on July 8, 1853 his obituary in the Marietta Intelligencer read “In every sphere and relation of life, Judge Cutler was a useful man. He was an upright judge, an intelligent legislator, a good neighbor, a public-spirited citizen, an affectionate father, a sincere Christian, and an honest, true man.”

Today, as we celebrate the Independence of our nation, we give thanks for all those who have striven and continue to strive to ensure that our nation becomes a place of freedom and justice for all people. Their names may not be famous, they may have neither wealth nor even great power on their side—but their actions are a lasting testimony to their faith and their hope. I imagine that for such people, when they reach the gates of the heavenly city of Zion, for them it is not an unfamiliar place but one which feels very much like home. In Jesus’ name. Amen.