An FAQ on America as a “City on a Hill”

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Where does the phrase “city on a hill” come from?

This is a metaphor used by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, addressing his disciples—those who are knowing and trusting and following him.

Here is the wording of Matthew 5:15–16 from the 16th century Geneva Bible that would have been used by Puritans coming to America:

Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill, cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick, and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your father which is in heaven.

In the Bible, imperatives (commands) result from indicatives (statements of reality), and we see that in this passage: Jesus built mission upon identity, telling his disciples that because they are the light of the world, they should therefore let this light shine before others. Why? Because it is the purpose and very nature of light to shine forth, providing illumination for others. And why would they do that? So that others might see the good works of believers. And why is that? So that in seeing these good works, the world would come to glorify God.

To illustrate this, Jesus gives two examples regarding the design of light: (1) a city built up on a hill can’t be hidden—it is there to be seen; (2) when you light a candle, you should put it up on a candlestick (not under a bushel) so that its light will illumine things for those within a house. So too believers are designed by God to be seen, shining the light of Christ to a lost world.

Who was the early American Puritan who famously used the “city on a hill” imagery?

JohnWinthropColorPortraitIn 1630, the Englishman John Winthrop (around age 43), the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, wrote a sermon entitled “Christian Charity, a Model Thereof,” presumably to be delivered aboard the ship Arbella transporting Puritans across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World.

These Christian colonists were in covenant together, “a company professing ourselves fellow members of Christ.” As such, Winthrop said, “we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”

To use the categories above, he was emphasizing their identity more than their mission.

How do most people understand Winthrop’s use of America as a “city on a hill?”

Historian Tracie McKenzie has a good summary of the typical interpretation: “God had given them a special mission. The colony they were establishing (and by extension, the future United States) was divinely destined to serve as an example to the world. God’s plan was for the new nation to model the values (religious, political, and economic) that He desired the rest of the world to emulate.”

What’s wrong with that view? If Winthrop used a phrase by Jesus to describe the world observing the good behavior of Christians with the intent that a watching world would glorify God as a result—wouldn’t it following that when he said the colonists would be a “city upon a hill” and that “the eyes of all people” were upon them, he must have meant that they had a special mission to serve as an example to the world?

Winthrop did think this Puritan colony would be an example to the world. But in the context of the sermon, he was issuing this as a warning—the eyes of the world would be upon them, and they better not blow it or they would become a laughingstock and a reproach to their God. Here’s how he put it in the words immediately following “the eyes of all people are upon us”:

So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.

Well, that doesn’t sound like what Jesus meant by “city on a hill.”

Fair enough. Winthrop, however, didn’t claim that it was. He wasn’t expounding the Sermon on the Mount here but rather alluding to a Scriptural image in order to express his point. But this is a good reminder to all expositors of Scripture: if you use biblical imagery in a way in which it wasn’t intended, don’t be surprised if some confusion results!

What was the background of what Winthrop and company were trying to do?

McKenzie explains:

For nearly a century, a minority of the members of the Church of England had believed that the English Reformation had not gone nearly far enough. Although they were openly critical of the established church, these “Puritans” had not withdrawn into secret “Separatist” congregations. Instead, they had hoped to cooperate with the state in purifying Anglicanism of surviving vestiges of Catholic hierarchy, doctrine, and ritual that they believed were unsupported by Scripture. Under Queen Elizabeth such an outcome had seemed possible, but the hopes for continuing reformation grew dim under her successor, James I, and vanished entirely when James was succeeded by the openly Catholic Charles I in 1625. The eventual result was what historians call the “Great Migration,” a massive relocation to New England of perhaps as many as 20,000 Puritans during the 1630s. In the technological context of the early 17th century, this was an undertaking of monumental proportions.

In his sermon, Winthrop reminds his listeners of the seriousness of the undertaking upon which they had embarked. They were leaving England in search of a new home in which they could more effectively serve the Lord, increase His church, and distance themselves from the corruption of the English church that now seemed to them as beyond reformation. If their venture was to succeed, Winthrop stresses, the migrants must purpose to “love one another with a pure heart,” “bear one another’s burdens,” and be willing to sacrifice their “superfluities” (material surpluses) “for the supply of others’ necessities.” If they failed in these particulars, the governor warned, they would almost certainly fail in their overall mission.

. . . Far from claiming that the Lord had chosen the Puritan migrants to serve as a glorious example to the world, Winthrop was instead reminding them that it would be impossible to hide the outcome if they failed.  Their massive departure had unavoidably attracted the attention of the countrymen they left behind.  They would be watching, many of them hoping that the Puritans would stumble. If Winthrop had been writing today, he could have conveyed his point by telling his audience that everything they did would be under a microscope.  The point was not that they had been divinely selected to serve as an exemplary beacon, but rather that they could not possibly escape the scrutiny of their enemies.

Has Winthrop’s sermon always been popular? 

In his book, In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth (Continuum, 2012), historian Richard Gamble says there is no extant evidence of anyone quoting this sermon by Winthrop prior to 1838.

So for over 200 years no one seemed to know about it or quote it.

So when did the sermon come back onto the American radar screen?

Between 1860 and 1930, “A Model of Christian Charity” was discovered, quoted, analyzed, and excerpted in anthologies. But even then, the “city on a hill” passage was often not included, and it was not connected with American exceptionalism, manifest destiny, or a special calling from God for America to export its contributions of republicanism, civilization, and Christianity to the world.

And how about the “city on a hill” bit in particular??

Gamble shows that it in the 1950s, historians Perry Miller and Daniel Boorstin sought to turn this imagery into a keynote of American history.

Then, on January 9, 1961, 21 days before his inauguration as President of the United States, John F. Kennedy said the following in an address to the General Court of Massachusetts:

I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier. “We must always consider,” he said, “that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us.”

Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill—constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities. For we are setting out upon a voyage in 1961 no less hazardous than that undertaken by the Arbella in 1630. We are committing ourselves to tasks of statecraft no less awesome than that of governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, beset as it was then by terror without and disorder within. 

You can hear JFK say this at around the 3:42 mark below:

From this point on, especially at the popular national level, the connection was made between Winthrop’s sermon and America’s mission to the world.

Two decades later, while running for President, Ronald Reagan referenced Winthrop’s sermon, adding the adjective “shining” to the “city on a hill”:

I have quoted John Winthrop’s words more than once on the campaign trail this year—for I believe that Americans in 1980 are every bit as committed to that vision of a shining “city on a hill,” as were those long ago settlers . . .

These visitors to that city on the Potomac do not come as white or black, red or yellow; they are not Jews or Christians; conservatives or liberals; or Democrats or Republicans. They are Americans awed by what has gone before, proud of what for them is still . . . a shining city on a hill.

Perhaps Reagan’s most famous use of it, though, was in his January 11, 1989, farewell speech to the nation:

I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it and see it still.

U.S. Senator (and future President) Barack Obama referenced Winthrop’s sermon in his commencement address at the University of Massachusetts Boston on June 2, 2006:

It was right here, in the waters around us, where the American experiment began. As the earliest settlers arrived on the shores of Boston and Salem and Plymouth, they dreamed of building a City upon a Hill. And the world watched, waiting to see if this improbable idea called America would succeed.

More than half of you represent the very first member of your family to ever attend college. In the most diverse university in all of New England, I look out at a sea of faces that are African-American and Hispanic-American and Asian-American and Arab-American. I see students that have come here from over 100 different countries, believing like those first settlers that they too could find a home in this City on a Hill—that they too could find success in this unlikeliest of places.

More recently, in 2016, Mitt Romney referred to America as “a shining city on a hill” when critiquing Donald Trump:

His domestic policies would lead to recession; his foreign policies would make America and the world less safe. He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president, and his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill.

What am I supposed to do with all of this background information?

I just write the fake questions that I provide real answers for online—it’s your job to decide what to do with it. But it never helps to believe or to perpetuate historical urban legends. We should always try to discover the original intent, and then to trace how mythologies develop over time.

At the end of the day, you really can believe that America is to be a city on a hill, shining its values as a beacon of light to a watching world. But just don’t say that’s what John Winthrop (or Jesus!) meant when they used that phrase.

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