“A City Upon a Hill”- an ideal

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden” reads Matthew 5:14 which relates the sermon upon the mount of Jesus Christ to his followers. The message explains that despite hardship they are destined for greatness. This is the allusion John Winthrop uses to convey to the members of the company aboard the Arabella that the colony they are traveling to is a place where it is possible, and even a duty, to be exceptional. He says “wee must not content ourselves with usuall ordinary meanes. Whatsoever wee did, or ought to have, done, when wee liued in England, the same must wee doe, and more allsoe, where wee goe”.(45) 

The settlement is a place where ideals can be met and for Winthrop these ideals were religious in nature. He asks that each person view the other as part of a team so to speak, a brethren who live under the love of Christ and because of that love for Christ should be loving of one another.

“For the persons. Wee are a company professing ourselves fellow members of Christ, in which respect onely though wee were absent from each other many miles, and had our imployments as farre distant, yet wee ought to account ourselves knitt together by this bond of loue” (44)

He states “Wee must beare one anothers burthens. We must not looke onely on our owne things, but allsoe on the things of our brethren. Neither must wee thinke that the Lord will beare with such faileings at our hands as he dothe from those among whome wee have lived;” (44) There is a sense of a creation of a “we” vs “they” mentality against the places where ’such failings’ have been possible and the new settlement that is to be. The loyalty remains to the English crown as is observed in “The Humble Request of His Majesty to his Royal Subjects” however the settlement is different because here is a place where it is possible to live a life in Puritan ideal.

The term “A City Upon Hill” is used by Winthrop as a means by which to pull up people to aspire to an ideal “we shall be as a city upon a hill”. Though, the term in time as we progressed into becoming ‘America’ carries with it still the connotations of being exceptional in Winthrop’s, time has inevitably changed our understanding of this city upon a hill.

When we listen to Reagan’s departing statements there is no longer a sense of urgency to become and uphold ourselves to be a city upon a hill. The assumption that we are great and achieved being that city upon a hill is already made. 

Most interesting to me was the idea of ‘if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors” and that these doors were “open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here”. This is a new idea added to ‘the city upon a hill’ that did not previously exist in Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity”. Winthrop’s ideal “City Upon a Hill” that established a “we” “they” mentality of those who were living by Christian ideals to Puritan standards and those who were not.

The phrase a “City Upon Hill” has become a means by which politicians can define what the ideal of the now country should be while still appealing to the American people in conveying the exceptionalism of the country ignoring the dark reality of what really made the coloinies and now America succesful

Araceli Garcia Munoz

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