The way in which John Winthrop used the phrase “city upon a hill” meant something different than how most use it in modern times. In fact, he didn’t state it as an actual location–a destination or a place to be in life–he said: “we shall be as a city upon a hill.” The notion here is that his followers ought to behave–to act–as a city upon a hill; they had to take the image, allowing themselves to be seen by everyone, by God. This could translate simply to a scenario in which a child’s parent asks them to be on their best behavior because all eyes are on them, to be an example for other children (in Winthrop’s lens: a follower of christ). What John Milton did to the phrase of this hill was make it an actual physical place of being, as opposed to Winthrop’s use wherein he states it as a way of behaving or practice religion. Milton uses the hill as a physical place–a location–where religion is practiced, which paved way for the modern use of the phrase: a destination. As Reagan used it, as Obama and JFK did as well, the term is meant to be viewed as a final destination, or as a means to say that we have fought our way to get to the top of the hill. In modern times we see this phrase in a much more literal sense, as if it is our home that we drive up to after a long day at work. This is why, and how, the uses of the phrase “city upon a hill” are so different as the years have passed, because over time they have been seen as more literal–a destination–whereas in the past it was simply a way of being, a way of behaving and setting examples for others. The religious tie to the phrase has dissipated as well. When referring to a city upon a hill in modern day, the speaker typically means a location, most likely a destination of higher ranking through hard work, and the religious aspect is gone.
–Daniel Lizaola Lopez