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“The City upon a Hill” by John Winthrop: what is it about?

Posted on June 28, 2010. Filed under: 17th century America , Puritans | Tags: City on a Hill , John Winthrop , New England , Puritans |

The “City upon a Hill” section of the sermon called “A Model of Christian Charity” was written in 1630 by the Puritan leader John Winthrop while the first group of Puritan emigrants was still onboard their ship, the Arbella, waiting to disembark and create their first settlement in what would become New England. The “City” section of this sermon was pulled out by later readers as a crystallization of the Puritan mission in the New World.

Of course, as with any topic touching on the Puritans, there’s some myth-busting to be done. By now, the “City upon a Hill” excerpt has come to represent irritating Puritan pridefulness—they thought they were perfect, a city on a hill that everyone else would admire and want to emulate. In reality, the excerpt is far from a back-patting exercise. It is a gauntlet laid down to the already weary would-be settlers. Let’s go through it:

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:

The “shipwreck” Winthrop refers to is the wrath of God that falls on peoples or nations who fail to do God’s will. Earlier in the sermon, Winthrop has been at once warning the people that they must not fail in their efforts to set up a godly state in the new World and reassuring them that this does not mean they can never make a mistake. God is with them, and will suffer small failings. But if, like the government and church of England, the Puritans forsake their mission to create a truly godly society, they will suffer the wrath of God. This is the shipwreck to be avoided.

…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 our selves 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 eache other, make others Conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labour, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our Commission and Community in the work, our Community 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…:

This is a beautiful passage, reminiscent of the Sermon on the Mount in its focus on mercy, kindness, sharing, and other selfless qualities. The Puritans will not succeed by harrying out the sinner or otherwise smiting evil, but by loving each other, caring for each other, and “abridging our selves of our superfluities, for the supply of others necessities” (that is, there will be equality of wealth, with no one living in luxury while others starve). They will delight in each other,  making others’ conditions their own, and they will do all this to create a natural community of faith. The point here is that religious faith will not be mandated or policed or forced on anyone. It will be generated naturally by the hope and love and faith of the people themselves. It will be an effect, not a cause. The Quakers would try to live out this same philosophy decades later.

…so that we shall see much more of his wisdom power goodness and truth than formerly we have been acquainted with:

And how. That’s an understatement. The projected society would be almost unequalled anywhere in the known world.

…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:

Here comes the crux of the excerpt. Why will later settlers hope their societies will be like New England? Because of the love and comradeship, care and goodwill in New England. Notice that so far Winthrop has been urging his people to be caring and loving and selfless. He isn’t saying they already are all those things. He isn’t boasting about a pre-existing condition. He is urging them to become caring and loving and selfless, in the name of their godly mission, so that they will truly succeed. If—and it’s a big if—they succeed in becoming all those good things, their society will be admired. It’s not really that the Puritans will be admired so much as their society will be admired. There’s no self in this for Winthrop; it’s all about serving God as a society, and not about individuals becoming famous for their virtue. To him, there’s a difference. Fame may come as a result of serving God, but it’s the serving of God that matters.

…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 byword through the world, we shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the way 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 whether wee are going:

First, we see what “city on a hill” really means: it doesn’t mean perfect, it means visible. They will be under a microscope, unable to hide their failures from all the eyes trained on them. No one wants to live in a city on a hill, because all of your faults and failings are in plain view.

Second, Winthrop wasn’t just speculating. This fate of becoming a byword for failure had already befallen every English colony in North America by 1630. Roanoake had disappeared , and Jamestown was so well-known in England for the horrors its unprepared settlers suffered that by the time the Puritans sailed their main goal was to avoid Jamestown’s very well-publicized failures. Among the many reasons the Puritans did not want to settle in Virginia was to avoid contamination with Jamestown’s perpetual bad luck (which the Puritans put down in large part to the colony’s lack of a commission from God). Even Plimoth Plantation, founded by Separatists just 10 years earlier, wasn’t exactly thriving. The Puritans settled far from the Pilgrims. So there was evidence, to Winthrop, that God had already withdrawn his support from all previous English settlements. The stakes were high.

…And to shut up this discourse with that exhortation of Moses, that faithful servant of the Lord in his last farewell to Israel [in] Deut. 30. Beloved there is now set before us life, and good, death and evil in that we are Commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another, to walk in his ways and to keep his Commandements and his Ordinance, and his laws, and the Articles of our Covenant with him that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land whither we go to possess it:

In closing (“to shut up this discourse”), Winthrop dramatically positions his group on the very edge of life and death, good and evil; they have never been more free to choose which way they will go. It’s all up for grabs. If Winthrop was sure that it would be easy for the Puritan to make the right choice, because they were so much better than everyone else in the world, he wouldn’t have hammered this point home. He wouldn’t have had to show them how high the stakes were, and he wouldn’t have supposed there was even a choice to be made. Since he was a realist, albeit a compassionate one, Winthrop reiterated the fact that the Puritans too, like everyone else, had to choose good over evil.

… But if our hearts shall turn away so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced and worship other Gods, our pleasures, and profits, and serve them, it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good Land whither we pass over this vast Sea to possess it:

Again, high stakes. The important thing to note here is what Winthrop considers to be the threat: “our pleasures and profits”. Colonies were founded to make money. Everyone knew that. And even the Puritans would have to repay their investors. They were business people, many of them London merchants, and they would set about creating industry in New England. They were also normal people who loved dancing, music, alcohol, sex, and love, and they would enjoy all those things in their new land. Being a Puritan was not about denial. It was about balance. Enjoy without attachment, enjoy without letting pleasure become your master—this was the Puritan ideal (it’s also very Buddhist—see The Bhagavad Gita).

Therefore let us choose life, that we, and our Seed, may live; by obeying his voice, and cleaving to him, for he is our life, and our prosperity:

Let us choose life: it’s a very positive, very idealistic, beatific closing to the excerpt and the sermon. Winthrop even wrote it out in verse (I didn’t do that here for space reasons). Choose life that we may live, choose God for God is life. This sermon must have truly inspired the Puritans who heard it, in part because it did not confirm their virtue but challenged it. It is an exhortation to do better than they normally would, to try harder, to aim higher. It is not a smug confirmation that they are the best people in the world and that whatever they do will be better than what anyone else does. It is a call to virtue and effort, love and compassion, sharing and helping that does Winthrop and his group credit. In that sense, it is the first of many other great American calls to idealism and justice, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation.

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18 Responses to ““The City upon a Hill” by John Winthrop: what is it about?”

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[…] Of course, New Englanders don’t like to think that they can learn from anyone.  We generally like to be a model for others – a way of thinking that has been around for many years. […]

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Live from Atlantic City – It is time for Offshore Wind ! | CLF Scoop
October 6, 2010


thanks great stuff here. Will bookmark so I can find it easy another time

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Jack Lerno
June 23, 2011


Thank you Lord Jesus Christ for my life

I am a Christian the son of Christians born of the Puritans descendent

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Roger H Frost
June 29, 2012


How do you know for sure you’re from the Puritans lineage?

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May 1, 2013


Hello Danilo; what do you mean?

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May 1, 2013

Short and informative. I liked.

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July 2, 2012


[…] “‘The City Upon a Hill,’ by John Winthrop: What’s It All About?,” The Historic Present, June 28, 2010.  Referenced at: […]

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Self-Governing Individuals Are Necessary for a Self-Governing Society | Forloveofgodandcountrys Blog
April 14, 2013


[…] can be no doubt: in the national spotlight, Boston is once again that City on a Hill, with the eyes of all people upon us. As we have been a leader in so many things, I know we can be […]

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Boston Still Runs | New England Rambler
April 17, 2013


[…] As well as here. […]

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Jimmy Carter’s new book ” ‘ A Call To Action’ Women, Religion, Violence, and Power” echoes John Winthrop’s phrase “A City Upon a Hill” for the 21st Century | Below Boston
March 28, 2014


Reblogged this on HillCities Blog and commented:
The Covenant People of God should hold in their hearts and efforts this vision of ” a city on a hill.”

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June 14, 2014


Way to long lol 😊😃😊😊😚😚😜😒😒😒😃😞😞😒😌😌😛😁📱💻🔦💣🔫💵💴💵💵💴📝📝📝📝📝📝📝📝📝📝📝📝📝📝📝📝📄📝📄📄📄📄📄📄📄📄📄📄📄📄📄📄📄📄📄📄📄📄📄📄📄📄📄📄📄📄📄📄📄📄📄📝📃📃📃📑📑📑📑📑📑📊📊📉📉📜✏️✏️📐📆📇📇📅📅📑📐📕📕✂️📏✏️✏️✏️✏️📂✏️📋📃📋📋📂📋📅📑

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John carter
November 13, 2014



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Kaylee Girl
October 22, 2015


[…] ( ) […]

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Examining American Exceptionalism | The Literary Fiction of Stephen J. Bergstrom
September 13, 2015


[…] colonists went to war against King George III and the Hanoverians. In 1630, the Puritan minister, John Winthrop proselytized about American uniqueness and its providential sanction through his storied elevation […]

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Wilson at Princeton: Acknowledging Racist History | The Clyde Fitch Report
December 11, 2015


[…] Rather, as independent historian and writer R.Sos puts it, […]

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This is Wolf Country now… Sort of in defense of Donald J. Trump – Veterans Today – Sarkari naukri Government jobs
March 13, 2016


[…] Rather, as independent historian and writer R.Sos puts it, […]

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This is Wolf Country now… Sort of in defense of Donald J. Trump – Veterans Today – Sarkari naukri Government jobs
March 13, 2016


[…] “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…for we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us…” ~ The Historic Present […]

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American Exceptionalism: Destructive Elitism Versus Constructive HumanityAlternative News Network | Alternative News Network
May 26, 2016


[…] ( ) […]

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Examining American Exceptionalism |  SHOAH
May 30, 2016


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    John Winthrop

    American colonial governor
    Written By:

    • Richard S. Dunn
    See Article History

    John Winthrop, (born January 22 [January 12, Old Style], 1588, Edwardstone, Suffolk , England—died April 5 [March 26], 1649, Boston , Massachusetts Bay Colony [U.S.]), first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the chief figure among the Puritan founders of New England.

    Background and early life

    Winthrop’s father was a newly risen country gentleman whose 500-acre (200-hectare) estate, Groton Manor, had been bought from Henry VIII at the time of the Reformation . Winthrop thus belonged to a class—the gentry—that became the dominant force in English society between 1540 and 1640, and he early assumed the habit of command appropriate to a member of the ruling class in a highly stratified society.

    At age 15 he entered Trinity College, Cambridge . At age 17 he married the first of his four wives—Mary Forth, daughter of an Essex squire—and the next year the first of his 16 children was born. Like many members of his class, Winthrop studied law, served as justice of the peace , and obtained a government office; from 1627 to 1629 he was an attorney at the Court of Wards and Liveries. For more than 20 years Winthrop was primarily a country squire at Groton, with no discernible interest in overseas colonization.

    He was an ardently religious person. From his early teens Winthrop threw himself into scriptural study and prayers, and gradually he trained himself into a full-fledged Puritan, convinced that God had elected him to salvation—or, in Puritan terms, to “sainthood.” His religious experience reinforced his elitist outlook, but it also made him a social activist. Like other prominent Puritans, Winthrop dedicated himself to remaking, as far as possible, the wicked world as he saw it, arguing that “the life which is most exercised with tryalls and temptations is the sweetest, and will prove the safeste.”

    During the late 1620s, Winthrop felt increasingly trapped by the economic slump that reduced his landed income and by Charles I ’s belligerent anti-Puritan policy, which cost him his court post in 1629. When, in 1629, the Massachusetts Bay Company obtained a royal charter to plant a colony in New England , Winthrop joined the company, pledging to sell his English estate and take his family to Massachusetts if the company government and charter were also transferred to America. The other members agreed to these terms and elected him governor (October 20).

    Journey to America

    As Winthrop sailed west on the Arbella in the spring of 1630, he composed a lay sermon, “A Modell of Christian Charity,” in which he pictured the Massachusetts colonists in covenant with God and with each other, divinely ordained to build “a Citty upon a Hill” in New England, with “the eyes of all people” on them:

    If we 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 byword throughout the world; we shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God and all believers in God; 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 are forced out of the new land where we are going.

    Some critics have seen Winthrop as a visionary utopian while others have seen him as a social reactionary, but most obviously he was urging his fellow colonists to adopt the combination of group discipline and individual responsibility that gave Massachusetts such immediate and lasting success as a social experiment.

    For the remaining 19 years of his life, Winthrop lived in the New England wilderness, a father figure among the colonists. In the annual Massachusetts elections he was chosen governor 12 times between 1631 and 1648, and during the intervening years he sat on the court of assistants or colony council. His American career passed through three distinct phases. On first arrival, in the early 1630s, he did his most creative work, guiding the colonists as they laid out a network of tightly organized towns, each with its church of self-professed saints. Winthrop himself settled at Boston, which quickly became the capital and chief port of Massachusetts. His new farm on the Mystic River was much inferior to his former estate at Groton, but Winthrop never regretted the move, because he was free at last to build a godly commonwealth.

    Opposition against him built up after a few years, however, as dissidents kept challenging Winthrop’s system in the mid- and late 1630s. He was nettled when the freemen (voters) insisted in 1634 on electing a representative assembly to share in decision making . He found Roger Williams ’s criticism of church-state relations intolerable, though he secretly helped Williams to flee to Rhode Island in 1636. And he took it as a personal affront when numerous colonists chose to migrate from Massachusetts to Connecticut .

    Conflict with Anne Hutchinson

    The greatest outrage to Winthrop by far, however, came when Anne Hutchinson , a mere woman, gained control of his Boston church in 1636 and endeavoured to convert the whole colony to a religious position that Winthrop considered blasphemous. It was he who led the counterattack against her. His victory was complete. Hutchinson was tried before the general court—chiefly for “traducing the ministers”—and was sentenced to banishment.

    Hutchinson, Anne
    Hutchinson, AnneAnne Hutchinson.Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Reformers Memorial Edition by Elbert Hubbard, 1916

    Winthrop wrote about the event in his journal in 1637:

    The Court…charged her with diverse matters, as her keeping two public lectures every week in her house…and for reproaching most of the ministers (viz., all except Mr. Cotton) for not preaching a covenant of free grace, and that they had not the seal of the Spirit, nor were able ministers of the New Testament; which were clearly proved against her….And, after many speeches to and fro, at last she…vented her revelations; among which…that she had it revealed to her that she should come into New England, and should here be persecuted [presented], and that God would ruin us and our posterity , and the whole state, for the same. So the Court proceeded and banished her.

    Later Hutchinson was tried before the Boston church and formally excommunicated. She established a settlement on Aquidneck Island (now Rhode Island) in 1638 and four years later, after the death of her husband, settled on Long Island Sound . Winthrop sanctimoniously noted her tragic misfortunes—her deformed stillborn baby and her murder by Indians—as proof of God’s judgment against heretics.

    By 1640 Winthrop had become the custodian of Massachusetts orthodoxy, suspicious of new ideas and influences and convinced that God favoured his community above all others. In 1641 Winthrop went against the recent trend of accepting Native Americans and Africans into the church (an outgrowth of the Great Awakening ) and helped write the Massachusetts Body of Liberties, the first legal sanctioning of slavery in North America . Indeed, Winthrop owned at least one Native American slave, taken during the Pequot War (1636–37). (As slavery grew in New England, it was more typical for Native American slaves to be sent to the West Indies , where they were exchanged for enslaved Africans.) With the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, many New Englanders returned home to fight against Charles I. Winthrop, however, stayed in America, and he criticized the course of the Puritan Revolution. His own political philosophy was best summed up in a speech of 1645, in which he defined the magistrates’ authority very broadly and the people’s liberty very narrowly.

    But Winthrop was never a petty tyrant, and the colonists respected and loved him to the end. His tender side is best revealed by the loving letters he exchanged with his third wife, Margaret, who was his helpmate from 1618 to 1647. The most notable of his sons, John Winthrop the Younger (1606–76), was a talented scientist and governor of Connecticut. Later descendants have figured prominently in American politics, science, and business.

    After struggling six weeks with “a feverish distemper,” he died, age 61, in the spring of 1649. By force of character Winthrop had persuaded the colonists to adopt many—though by no means all—of his pet social and political ideas. The detailed journal that he kept during his years in America is a prime source for the early history of Massachusetts, and his copious file of correspondence and memoranda gives an exceptionally full impression of his activities and personality.

    Richard S. Dunn

    Learn More in these related Britannica articles:

    • United States

      United States: The New England colonies
      Men such as John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay, believed that it was the duty of the governors of society not to act as the direct representatives of their constituents but rather to decide, independently, what measures were in the best interests of the total society.…
    • Foxe, John: The Book of Martyrs

      Protestantism: Massachusetts Bay
      Governor John Winthrop stated the case in his lay sermon on board the Arbella:…
    • Smith, John: Virginia

      American literature: The 17th century
      John Winthrop’s Journal (written 1630–49) told sympathetically of the attempt of Massachusetts Bay Colony to form a theocracy—a state with God at its head and with its laws based upon the Bible. Later defenders of the theocratic ideal were Increase Mather and his son Cotton.…
    • Boston

      Boston: Settlement and growth
      …Bay Company, under its governor, John Winthrop, brought its charter—which it regarded as authorization to set up a self-governing settlement in the New England wilderness—along to the New World. The new town was named for Boston in Lincolnshire, the former home of many of the immigrants.…
    • Massachusetts state flag

      Massachusetts: European settlement
      …new settlement by its governor, John Winthrop. The exhortation by Winthrop, “For wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty uppon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us,” underlines the strength of conviction of the Puritan mission.…

    More About John Winthrop

    8 references found in Britannica articles

    Assorted References

      • association with Endecott
        • In John Endecott
      • opposition to Hutchinson
        • In Anne Hutchinson
      • relation to Kerry
        • In John Kerry

      Massachusetts Bay Colony

        • administration
          • In Boston: Settlement and growth
          • In United States: The New England colonies
          • In Massachusetts: European settlement
        • depiction in “Journal”
          • In American literature: The 17th century
        • religious basis of rule
          • In Protestantism: Massachusetts Bay

        Additional Reading


        External Websites

        • Spartacus Educational – Biography of John Winthrop
        • Architect of the Capitol – Biography of John Winthrop
        Britannica Websites
        Articles from Britannica Encyclopedias for elementary and high school students.
        • Winthrop, John – Children’s Encyclopedia (Ages 8-11)
        • John Winthrop – Student Encyclopedia (Ages 11 and up)

        Article History

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