A City Upon a Hill

The phrase “City upon a Hill” entered the English popular lexicon through the 1630 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” (see page 47 in our e-text), preached by Puritan John Winthrop while still aboard the ship Arbella crossing the Atlantic.  Winthrop admonished the future Massachusetts Bay colonists that their new community would be “as a citty upon a hill”, watched and judged by the world.  The phrase alludes to the parable of Salt and Light in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:14, he tells his listeners, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.”

The phrase exemplifies what De Quincey calls “the literature of power”—the ability to move people emotionally throughout the ages and across cultures—especially as a code word for American exceptionalism in U.S. presidential politics since the mid twentieth century.  John F. Kennedy revived the phrase in his famous 1961 speech from Massachusetts, Ronald Reagan later recycled it in his speech on the eve of his election and in his farewell address, and, most recently, Barack Obama reworked it as an anti-Trump slogan in the 2016 Democratic convention [check out the video of Reagan’s famous farewell speech below].  In all these usages, regardless of party affiliation, the message is the same: America is a unique country in human history, a beacon of freedom for the world to follow.

Blog post question prompt:

Students will write a post based on the following questions: does “City upon a Hill” hold the same meaning for Winthrop as it does for us today?  Was he expressing a faith in American exceptionalism that predates the official founding of the United States in 1776?  Hint: John Milton uses a similar expression in Areopagitica, which alludes to the hill in Athens, Areopagus, where the apostle Paul preached Christianity to the pagan Greeks as told in the Bible (Acts 17:18-34).  Students should consider if Winthrop and Milton were referring to the same religious and political ideals when they borrowed the biblical imagery of the city.

The posts are due this Wednesday (Jan. 25th) by 1pm, but students have the option to edit and revise it until Friday 6pm.  Before you write the post, please review the directions on blog post writing and the blog post grading rubric in the syllabus, as well as the “How to Post” tab above.  Please categorize your post under “The English Revolution” and don’t forget to create specific and relevant tags (I will show students how to do this in class Monday). And please sign your posts so that your TA, Hannah, and I know who wrote what.  We will not always able to tell who you are from your WordPress username.


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