A City upon a Hill

Image: Gov. John Winthrop -- In honor of the birthday of Governor John Winthrop, born June 12, 1587. Burn, K. H. (between 1860 and 1880) Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/98505313/
John Winthrop said that the eyes of the world would be upon the settlers of New England. Was this due to the actions of the colonists or simply because they were some of the first settlers in the New World? Are there dangers associated with believing you are, or should act like, a chosen people? Why do you think presidents as diverse as John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan have cited Winthrop’s remarks?
Was the United States a “new order for the ages”—an exceptional nation— and thus committed to breaking with the traditional practices of nation-states in Europe? (See Declaration of Independence, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 22, Federalist 1, Market Speech, Special Message Regarding the Annexation of Santo Domingo, The Olney Corollary, Message to Congress Requesting a Declaration of War with Spain, Against American Imperialism.)

This sermon has been cited as one of the earliest examples of “American exceptionalism”—the notion that the United States is set apart from other regimes and possesses a special, providentially designed role in the affairs of mankind. The address was given by the second governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, either prior to the departure of his flotilla of four ships to the New World in 1630 or while on board the Arbella. Winthrop is considered the founder of the city of Boston, and this address, formally titled “A Model of Christian Charity,” has been cited as the first reference to the New World as a beacon of hope, “a city upon a hill.” That phrase is derived from Matthew 5:14, “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a 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.”

Neither John Winthrop nor his fellow colonists could claim to be the first Englishmen to settle in the New World; that honor belongs to the settlers at Jamestown in 1607, and later the Pilgrims in Plymouth in 1620. But Winthrop’s arrival in 1630 and the promulgation of this sermon secured his place as something of an unofficial “founder” of the notion of American exceptionalism. Winthrop’s sermon experienced a revival during the twentieth century, after having been ignored by much of the country outside of Boston. President-elect John F. Kennedy cited Winthrop’s remarks 331 years after they were first delivered when he spoke to the Massachusetts state legislature in January 1961, his only public speech between his election and his inauguration. Ronald Reagan repeatedly cited Winthrop’s remarks as well, adding the phrase “shining city” to bolster America’s special standing. Reagan ended his 1980 presidential campaign with an election eve address citing Winthrop’s sermon, and included similar passages in his farewell address to the American people in 1989. Neither president may have properly understood Winthrop’s comments, which were focused more on theological than secular matters, but for Kennedy and Reagan and for many of their fellow citizens, the notion of the United States as a beacon of hope to the rest of the world was a truism.

—Stephen F. Knott

Source: John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity,” Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society (Boston, 1838), 3rd series, 7:31–48, available at https://history.hanover.edu/texts/winthmod.html.

… Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as his own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways. So that we shall see much more of his wisdom, power, goodness, and truth than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when he shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “the Lord make it like that of New England.” For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. 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….

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