The legacy of ” A city upon a hill”


John Winthrop, the first leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and devout Puritan, wrote A Modell of Christian Charity, to facilitate the development of a strong community, as he and many other puritan settlers were on their way to the new land on the ship Arabella. In his sermon he discusses how the colonist should treat each other in order to ensure the survival of the new colony as well as listing the three reasons for differentiation of rank in society. He notes that firstly, God demonstrates his wisdom in creating different ranks of man, each rank is meant to respect each other, and lastly it brings mankind closer together so that through love and respect we can also depend on one another. To finish his sermon, he states “For wee must consider that wee shall be as a city upon a hill”, meaning that the colony must follow those three guidelines in order for the community to survive because they will be watched by outsiders and if they fail as a community they will have failed God and their beliefs. Winthrop intended for the community to lead by example with Puritan beliefs, due to him and many other Puritans not being able to live under Charles I, who was against the Puritan ideology. Winthrop wanted each class to work together and be able to rely on one another for a properly functioning community, but today we have conflicts amongst majority of Americans in regards to beliefs, gender conformity, politics, and many more. In some regards the “city upon the hill” is still in tact in that America is still one of the leading countries for opportunity and equality, and in some aspects Winthrop was expressing a faith in American Nationalism that would predate the founding of the United States in 1776 which in a sense gave way to the idea of our first amendment. The key difference being that Winthrop was enforcing Puritan ideals and today we focus on a separation of church and state although religion does come up a lot in politics. John Milton on the other hand had different intentions on the meaning of “a city upon the hill” in his speech given to Parliament in 1644, he titled it AREOPAGITICA, in reference to the speech given to the ancient counsel of Athens in regards to the diminished power of the Aeropagus counsel, elders of the community, that would meet on top of a hill. Milton referenced the City on the hill to demonstrate just like the Aeropagus lost rights from the council, people elected from the community, the English people lost their rights when parliament put restrictions on literature. Both Winthrop and Milton are similar in their use of a “city upon a hill” to demonstrate the importance of freedom but they differ on what it means to be that city on the hill. Winthrop means to lead by example with puritan beliefs while Milton means to demonstrate the effects of restriction on their freedom, but they both are stressing the importance of freedom and respect of different ideas which in most aspects is still held in todays world although it is not always as effective as some may wish it to be.  The recent Women’s march that began in the united states was a movement seen all around the world, demonstrating just how important America is to the rest of the world. Marches were seen across the globe in support of women’s rights, although here in America women have more rights than many other women across the globe. The point being that America is still a “city upon the hill” in that across the globe we as a nation have influences everywhere. What happens in America is discussed globally whether that be good or bad. With such a powerful country and an emphasis on freedom of speech and equality, America is constantly in the spotlight and scrutinized for everything that happens as a nation. For example, the election of Trump is globally talked about and has many other governments not only responding on social media in response to Trumps winning the election but also taking political matters into their own hands to support international efforts that trump has just attempted to stop funding for. America will always be “the city upon the hill” I think because with such a powerful country that is so different and so free compared to most other places in the world, we will always be scrutinized for being essentially the symbol of freedom.


Getting the gist of the phrase “city upon a hill”

If we trace the origins of the phrase “city upon a hill” which was taken from Matthew chapter 5 of the Bible, the connotations are made pretty evident. Jesus, the speaker, is encouraging Christians to becoming a shining example of holiness; to practice all of the admirable qualities the “blessed” have (Matthew 5:3-11). Just as a city upon a hill cannot hide, Jesus asks that Christians therefore “in the same way, let your light shine before others that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16). This request isn’t meant to be one that asks Christians to boast about their good works, in fact in the very next chapter of Matthew, Jesus admonishes: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). The city upon a hill, in this sense, is then meant to serve as a “beacon”, and a Christian is not necessarily meant to be a flashy, pompadour, and self-righteous individual, but one that is a role model for goodness and holiness. Obviously we can’t ignore the denotative qualities of the phase “city upon a hill”. A city is a group of individuals coming under one nation; similarly, Christians recognize themselves as the people of God, and so there is a sense of nationality amongst the group. Of course, I believe that this second connotation that we may have derived from the phrase takes second chair. I say this primarily because how the metaphor was wedged in between two other metaphors (the salt and light, the candle and bowl) that were all essentially conveying the same message. This message, as we know, was summarized in Matthew 5:16.

After acknowledging that “city upon a hill” has two meanings, the latter not so important, it’s interesting that Winthrop chose to use the phrase. This isn’t to say that John Winthrop was hijacking the phrase and using it out context, only that he wasn’t using the primary metaphor. If we can recall, John Winthrop in his sermon, A Model of Christian Charity, uses “city upon a hill” to describe the colony being established in America. He asks his followers to obey certain cardinal values, for example “Justice and Mercy” (34), and treat others the way you want to be treated (35). The motive behind this sermon, is to encourage the people to work together, so that England can see that they are doing just fine on their own: “For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are upon” (47). Winthrop’s sermon is optimistic, it encourages the people that they too can be a beacon of hope to other pilgrims, provided that they follow a certain set of ideals and more importantly, get along with each other (which ties in the nationality part).

In regards to modern usage of the phrase, if we can successfully separate the fact that John Winthrop was a fervent Christian, knowingly using the phrase with religious connotations, but moreover to encourage a pride of nationality, we can see that modern usage doesn’t do justice to Winthrop’s meaning and definitely not Jesus’. Winthrop, like Jesus was arguing for sense of morality, a goodness that could bring the people together and serve as a beacon, Regan on the other hand, focuses on the city aspect of the phrase. He remarks that we’re different, coming together under the same nation, but that we are a melting pot who is open to everyone. In the speech, he makes it clear that America is a beacon of freedom and that is the only attribute, not that it’s just or that its good or that it’s moral, as Jesus and Winthrop alluded to. Similarly, Obama’s farewell speech took on the same verbiage that America was a beacon of freedom, a melting pot, etc. which changes the original meaning significantly, but not exceptionally. Obviously secular people may disagree, arguing that they’re essentially equal to each other, but as a Christian myself I can see the ways the Word of God has been augmented to fulfill a separate agenda, in the case of Regan and Obama, almost completely. Of course, there are parallels, the ones I have aforementioned, and so I can definitely see the similarities though they are broad.


-Sara Nuila-Chae

A Remodeled City On The Hill

John Winthrop’s sermon, A Modell of Christian Charity, describes the image of a beautiful model city that would be created from a basis of justice, mercy, and loving thy neighbor as one wishes their neighbor would love them. These guidelines were what Winthrop described to be a successful and model nation for the world to see.

To believe that Winthrop’s ideologies are capable to be applied to the present America is not a belief I find worth arguing for. In fact, I would argue that the model set by Winthrop is a model worth pursuing but with restriction. Winthrop mentions that in this nation,  “[w]ee must delight in eache other; make other’s conditions our oune; rejoice together, mourne together, labour and suffer together” (47), and I would agree that this is something that a nation today should strive for as well. In other words, a nation should be one that stays together, takes care of one other, and celebrates one another. Given the time period, to say sticking together is the equivalent of sticking with one’s kind. Bringing Winthrop’s ideas to a the present day would require the acceptance of all backgrounds, cultures, religions, sexualities, and separate beliefs, and I would argue that if Winthrop were among us today with his ideals, he would be appalled at our lives.  

However, recent events have brought some of Winthrop’s words back to life. Winthrop notes that the new nation he travels to will have all, “eies of all people are uppon us” (47), and his tone while saying this is one that is very hopeful of the new colony he was heading to. Indeed the eyes of the world were upon the nation as it developed into the nation it is today, and once again, America is in the eyes of the entire world with the recent inauguration of Donald Trump. This is where Winthrop’s ideas take form to divide the nation as we are watched all around the world. With the eyes of the world, a divided nation either looked for support in their protest or acceptance of their new President.

Overall, while the ideas Winthrop describes is, at a cursory glance, an ideal goal to strive for, but there are changes that would have to be made first.

-Elizabeth Dominguez

The Foundations of a Timeless City

John Winthrop’s “A Modell of Christian Charity” describes a moral and beneficial type of community which the colonies should follow in order to produce the healthiest environment for progress.

While Winthrop develops his ideal for community with his roots in Christianity, many of the core reasons surrounding his ideology have the potential to be universal. For example, “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you” is a simple yet fundamental pillar to society and community. Simply treating others in a way you would like to be treated has grown to be very normal in the 21st century. In regards to being an example of “a city upon the hill,” this American colony will be the precursors to a large and vast country of freedom and unity. Winthrop’s vision for the future and the potential of man is what truly stands out in the text; not without differences compared to Raegan and Obama. It is not entirely that American exceptionalism is the focus of the piece, but that the individuals and social guidelines that create such a community is what truly matters. Furthermore, the city he so highly thinks of has been chosen through divine right, subject also to scrutiny from the church as well as the New World. While the rhetoric revolves around charity and Christian values,  the deeper social ramifications of being a highly visible city is one of uncertainty.

As Obama once said in his farewell address, “I learn from each and every one of you every day;” suggesting that the human relationship built between both government and the people fosters an environment of progress. This progression towards a better America partly constitutes the “city upon a hill” concept that Winthrop preached about. While the language of the message has changed with the years, the central idea of morality has not. Although, the political message of Winthrop’s scrutiny versus Reagan’s self-proclaimed greatness is the dividing difference. Winthrop stresses the importance of “proving” oneself while Reagan pridefully claims that America is already great.

And so, much of Winthrop’s optimism for a better future is kept alive by the American people in a way that emphasizes human connection and charity above political or economic progression. Without the support and inter-dependency between people and government, such a “city upon a hill” would never have lasted beyond Winthrop’s time.


-Daniel Corral

City Upon a Timeless Hill

As stated by John Winthrop (1630), “For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon.” This means that this new area that they are approaching must become a leading example of rightful living for the following colonies that are yet to come. Winthrop wants this newly found land to be the standard of community/government for the rest of the unknown territory that lies ahead.  Although Winthrop has stated certain democratic/freedom ideas in the Model of Christian Charity, it must apply to those with him in the Arbella. Even though he has used biblical words that imply democratic ideals, such as “Wee must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekeness, gentlenes, patience and liberality.” He did not hold up his end of the bargain with the Native Americans that lived in the territory. As history has told us, the Natives roaming in what we call today as “America”, were pushed away and conquered by the colonists. They conquered the Natives and became a colony with their own set of rules and guidelines. By claiming righteousness of God and so forth, it lays the foundation of what is to become of this land. And over a century later, these colonists had declared their independence from Great Britain and became Americans. This land was no longer part of Great Britain, but a part of early American history.

But does the “city upon a hill” still have the same meaning it did when Winthrop had said it? Yes. It sets up a parallel to what JFK went through during his time period. In the 1950’s, the United States had just finished World War II and has entered the battle against Communism. Communism was spreading like wild-fire and the United States had declared that they will prevent it from spreading. They did this by establishing their own ideologies and economic systems around the world. By intervening in Korea and Vietnam, the United States had finally become this “city upon a hill,” and is now trying to spread its “greatness” elsewhere. When JFK used it during the General Court of Massachusetts, he stated that the United States and its actions has caught the world’s attention. He also addressed how the United States government and its infrastructure at every level is like a “city upon a hill”. What JFK means by this is that their model of government is a leading example for the world to follow. Thus, JFK is using the phrase for propaganda and patriotism for his country. However, in comparison to Winthrop, JFK’s meaning of leading by example was much bigger globally. Winthrop was discovering unknown territory whereas JFK and his predecessors and successors were trying to establish their own set of ideologies in different countries by policing the world. But what they did was the same, push the established agenda away and set up camp for themselves.

Even today the phrase is still being used in American politics. Just last year, Barack Obama referred to the phrase to counter Donald Trump’s claim to “fixing the United States by himself. Obama is stating that it takes more than just one person to “fix” America and its problems. It takes everybody in the United States to come together to solve its problems. As America’s future is uncertain under Trump, Obama believes the people of the United States will be able to pull through the hard times and become a nation that is united and not divided. Just like Winthrop stated in the Model of Christian Charity, we all must come together as one. Both Winthrop and Obama believe that people must come together as one to make this so-called “city upon a hill”. Although times have changed, the phrase has not. However, the original phrase from the Bible has lost its original meaning throughout time. But when it comes to Winthrop’s take on the city upon a hill, it has its uses in propaganda and patriotism. But for how long? Winthrop was referencing from the Bible; JFK and Reagan referred to Winthrop- how long would it take for someone to refer to the phrase “city upon a hill” to former presidents instead of the Bible and Winthrop?

-Christopher Luong

A City Upon a Hill: Vulnerable prosperity

At the top of a peak, off in the distance among the protruding sunrise- a kingdom. When we look at something ideal, models, and dreams, we associate them with precision, unity and gracefulness. A community on top a hill shows knowledge and cooperation. Many tales are told to that of which a person must climb a hill or mountain if they want to obtain some mystical knowledge, quite literally rising to a higher power.

Winthrop writes of the absolute necessity of having to unify as a community. It is through the message of God that the people- rich and poor- will be the body, joined together intertwined shooting forth for one purpose. It may be as that of a master crafted watch: all the parts must move together operating intricately in order to have functionality and be able to display the master craft. A model community is to be in place and display harmonious bonding that radiates profound love. The mercy, understanding, and patience of everyone in the community is what will maximize the relation to the church and to God. God is said to have made people in different classes to show his wisdom in the variety of different people. We must see the differences in others, absorb them, and then find common ground.

To be on a hill is being seen, and so more pressure will be on to do good, and well. The most refined actors, athletes, public speakers, politicians, and singers all have one thing in common: When they perform, it looks effortless and shows art and beauty. That is how the hill is supposed to resemble and foster all those that reside within it.


-Daniel Estrada

Leading by Example (Not a Reddit Article)

One thing I find interesting about John Winthrop’s sermon, especially in terms of the “city upon a hill” section, is how upfront and brutal he is about being judged. In a way, I feel as though he is almost demanding that this “New England,” this “city upon a hill,” be a “beacon to shine.” He does not seem alarmed of being put under scrutiny. In fact, he appears to embrace it. On page 47 of “A Model of Christian Charity,” Winthrop boldly declares, “The eies of all people are uppon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.” Here he is acting a huge commitment of the new congregation. He is telling them that they will be under constant scrutiny and that should they not upkeep God’s work they will become the example for all future communities of what not to do.

That attitude is in stark contrast to what many would consider to be mindset of the “city upon a hill” in America today. While many Americans in positions of power are obsessed with letting their “lights shine” through social media and the trending of all their numerous good deeds, they do not actually want to be scrutinized or exposed. They live lives of covered up scandals all the while smiling at the camera and saying, “Look at me. Be like me. I am the ideal.” I think the main difference between Winthrop’s ideals and the ideals of people in power today is that Winthrop understood that he might fail. He trusted in the people of his congregation on their merit, not their cover up skills. He actually had faith in not only God, but in other people. I believe for him, a “city upon a hill” was not the equivalent of a sparkly expensive tower to gawk at, but an actually body of people committed to leading by example and honestly striving for that goal.

– Elle Lammouchi

The City Under a Microscope: Christian Charity in Modernity

In John Winthrop’s sermon, A Model of Christian Charity, Winthrop creates a working model for Christian love (i.e. charity), which will serve as a functional model for the moral moderation of colony life in Winthrop’s Massachusetts Bay Colony, a colony of which he lived to be a leading member.

In his sermon, Winthrop expresses a need for communitarian solidarity, saying that “every man might have need of others, and from hence they might all be knitt more nearly together in the Bonds of brotherly affection” (34). This sense of warm togetherness is devoutly Christian, as Winthrop asserts the pertinence of the command which asks one to “love his neighbor as himself,” notably because the neighbor is “the same flesh and image of God,” being “a brother in Christ allsoe” (35).

In Winthrop’s view, the Massachusetts Bay Colony is ordained by God, protected with spiritual essence endowed by a holy covenant, enshrined in Christian love and charity. If a failure is to occur, it is a spiritual one: “but if wee shall neglect the observation of these articles which are the ends wee have propounded, [we] shall fall to embrace this present world and prosecute our carnall intentions” (46). If blight and suffering is to come, it is because “the Lord will surely breake out in wrathe against [them]” (46). For Winthrop, the safety and security of this colony is dependent on the adherence to the Christian ideology of self-less love. In this way, the failure of this ‘Christian experiment,’ properly denoted as the “city upon a hill,” will echo throughout the world, given that the “eies of all people are uppon [them” (47). For Winthrop and his guild, their failure would not only be a failure for themselves, but for Christ and all of Christendom.

In this way, I do not believe that Winthrop was “expressing a faith in American exceptionalism;” rather, I think he was cautiously wary about what might happen in the case of failure. For the colony, Christian ideology works as a binding gel, drawing together the people as one collective force for their mutual survival. Winthrop’s portrayal of a city upon a hill is a collectivist one, united within a Christian moral framework and the sacking of the city on the hill, created and structured by Christian love, would resound throughout the world, Christian or otherwise.

In modern American society, we would like to be united—in the same extent—under our nationality, our statehood, or our Bill of Rights, yet representation, respect, and collectivism is an uphill battle, especially in modern American politics. The use of this phrase within politics, such as Obama’s and Reagan’s application, is an interesting rhetorical choice, given that the political arena has been reduced to a binary: red/blue, conservative/liberal, terms which for some mean right/wrong, good/evil. We are not collectivist, united in Christian charity for our fellow American. In reality, modern politics would have us think the opposite is true.

One comparison to Winthrop, however, has a clarity that is almost crystalline. We are a city upon a hill in that we are still a nation on the world stage: a brave attempt at creating some form of populist democracy—the extents of which are of course debatable. We have made a path towards unity when our nation is defined by difference: geographical, religious, ideological, and cultural. Although we are not a nation binded by the romanticism of Christian charity, we are a nation glued by the shakiest, uncertain form of nationalism ever imagined, and for that, we are a nation on the tallest hill imaginable.

—Nathaniel Schwass

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.