Winthrop’s “City upon a hill” in Context

You can’t avoid city-on-the-hill talk in American elections. Every presidential election season since Reagan must include numerous references to Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” by those advocating a “return” to American greatness and those complaining about those “dominionist” or theocratic Christian Rightists. winthrop

Much could be said on the use of the sermon over the last few decades, but I think it would be useful to place Winthrop’s sermon in his context and see what the text actually says.

1. The sermon was not published, nor widely known, until the mid-19th century. The New York Historical Society first published it in 1838. Between 1630 and 1809, the Winthrop family had possession of the only known manuscript, and it received little attention in the 19th century. So the sermon did not directly influence the development of New England puritanism, colonial politics and society, and the American founding. It had very little significance until Reagan’s appropriation of it. This calls into question John Fea’s recently claim in Christianity Today that “Ever since the Puritan John Winthrop said that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was a ‘city on a hill’ Americans have seen themselves as God’s chosen people—a new Israel with a special destiny.” The American belief in some special destiny did not come from Winthrop’s sermon, at least not until very recently.

2. Most of the sermon is a discussion on social harmony, brotherly affections, rich/poor relations, lending, forgiving debts, and obligations in community emergencies. What ties the people together, claims Winthrop, is love. The irony is that despite the almost exclusive recent use of the sermon by Republicans, the sermon could be used (though wrongly, I think) by left-liberals to argue for robust government programs for distributive justice. Here’s example:

All the parts of this body being thus united are made so contiguous in a special relation as they must needs partake of each other’s strength and infirmity, joy and sorrow, weal and woe. (1 Cor. 12:26) If one member suffers, all suffer with it; if one be in honor, all rejoice with it.

The primary focus of the sermon is internal, not external. There is no call for foreign interventionism, nothing about making the world safe for puritanism, and nothing about some inherent superiority over other nations. Winthrop’s concern throughout the sermon is the relationship of the people in the community. He hoped that the community, by displaying social harmony in mutual love, would serve as an example for future “plantations” and not be a “by-word through the world” due to any false dealing with God.

3. Many misunderstand what Winthrop meant by “city upon a hill.” He never used the word “shining” in the sermon. He did not say “shining city upon a hill.” Here is what he said in context:

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, “may 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.

First, notice that brotherly love is what ought to be on display, not power, wealth, or international control. But more important is that being a city on a hill simply means that the “eyes of all people are upon us.” It does not mean that the city is shining; it could be dark. Winthrop’s point is that the Massachusetts Bay Colony could be either an example to follow for future plantations or an example of what to avoid. So Winthrop is not claiming that as a city upon a hill that the colony has a special divine destiny. The whole point is that “the eyes of all people are upon you.” They are a spectacle to others, good or bad. Be an example for others who attempt this experiment, he commands the people.

And what is interesting about the experiment is that it is not socially radical. The first few paragraphs of the sermon affirm natural social hierarchy (and see here). There is nothing radical in the discussion on lending and debt forgiveness either. The exceptional nature of the experiment is something else, which I discuss next.

4. Some people accuse Winthrop of a type of puritan arrogance. After all, he thought that their socially harmonious and godly colony would be the example for others to follow and that the eyes of the world are fixed on them. However, simply reading the sermon would temper, I suspect, any charge of arrogance. True, Winthrop says that the people have covenanted with each other and God to be a godly people (which would not be considered arrogant among Calvinists of his time), but let’s consider also the historical context. Winthrop is giving a sermon to a people who are truly doing something unique. They are traveling to settle in a land largely unsettled by Europeans. It is an incredible opportunity. So what would you say to such a group? “Ok guys, we know that this will likely fail. So let’s be realistic about things and not set a high standard for ourselves. We don’t want people in the future to think we’re arrogant puritans.” The critic of Winthrop would be a terrible coach for the underdog team. When leaders begin something momentous and dangerous, they seek to inspire people to do their best. They are not always realistic, nor ought they be.

Perhaps Winthrop thought of it all as realistic, but it doesn’t matter. The sermon marked the beginning of a momentous event, and for that reason whatever unrealistic standard Winthrop set is perfectly justified. Just imagine a pastor of a new church and new congregation, fully aware that many, if not most, established churches in history went apostate or at least liberal, being realistic: “yes, congregation, your great grandchildren will probably be liberal apostates. So let’s not have high hopes here. Let’s keep it real.” Would any of us accept that? Wouldn’t we rather want to hear a pastor say, “Let us, through our mutual service and love for one another, be an example for existing churches and new churches. Their eyes are upon you.” Yet we can’t accept such optimism from Winthrop.


We need to place Winthrop in context. Regardless of the antipathy you might have towards “American exceptionalism” don’t blame Winthrop for it. He had nothing to do with it. Winthrop did his duty as a Christian leader. He sought the best from his people, and he deserves our praise for it.

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