City upon a Hill

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"A City upon a Hill" is a phrase from 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."

"A Model of Christian Charity"[edit]

The phrase entered the American lexicon early in its colonial history through the 1630 lay sermon "A Model of Christian Charity" preached on March 21 by Puritan John Winthrop at Holyrood Church in Southampton just before his first group of Massachusetts Bay colonists embarked on the ship Arbella to settle a Puritan colony in Massachusetts.[1][2] Winthrop admonished the future colonists that their new community would be "as a city upon a hill", watched by the world—which became the idea that the New England colonists placed upon their hilly capital city of Boston.[3] The Puritans' community in New England would set an example of communal charity, affection, and unity to the world or, if the Puritans failed to uphold their covenant of God, "we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world" of God's judgment. Winthrop's sermon is often cited as an early example of American exceptionalism.

Use in United States politics[edit]

In the twentieth century, the image was used a number of times in United States politics. On 9 January 1961, President-Elect John F. Kennedy returned the phrase to prominence during an address delivered to the General Court of Massachusetts:[4]

... 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. History will not judge our endeavors—and a government cannot be selected—merely on the basis of color or creed or even party affiliation. Neither will competence and loyalty and stature, while essential to the utmost, suffice in times such as these. For of those to whom much is given, much is required ...[5]

President Ronald Reagan referred to the same event and image in his Election Eve Address "A Vision for America"

November 3, 1980:

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.[6]

and 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.[7]

Gary Bauer used the same image during the contest for the Republican nomination in 1999, and presented himself as a Reagan admirer.[8] He used the phrase three times during his stump speech, borrowing them from Reagan, according to The New York Times.[9] President Reagan's adopted son Michael Reagan wrote a book entitled The City on a Hill: Fulfilling Ronald Reagan's Vision for America (1997).

In 2000, George W. Bush's speechwriter Marc A. Thiessen contended in a Weekly Standard article that there are two competing visions of internationalism in the 21st century: the "'global multilateralism' of the Clinton-Gore Democrats" vs. the "'American exceptionalism' of the Reagan-Bush Republicans".[10]

In 2004, President George W. Bush said:

Like generations before us, we have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom. This is the everlasting dream of America...[11]

U.S. Senator Barack Obama also made reference to the topic in his commencement address on June 2, 2006 at the University of Massachusetts Boston:[12]

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.

In 2016, 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney incorporated the idiom into a condemnation of Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign:

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.[13]

During the 2016 presidential race, Texas Senator Ted Cruz used the phrase during his speech announcing the suspension of his campaign.[14] President Barack Obama also alluded to President Ronald Reagan's use of the phrase during his speech at the Democratic National Convention the same year, as he proposed a vision of America in contrast to that of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.[15]

In 2017, former FBI Director James Comey used the phrase in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.[16]

Use in Australian politics[edit]

In Australian politics, the similar phrase "the light on the hill" was famously used in a 1949 conference speech by then Prime Minister Ben Chifley, and as a consequence this phrase is used to describe the objective of the Australian Labor Party. It has often been referenced by both journalists and political leaders in that context since this time.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bremer, Francis, J., John Winthrop: America's Forgotten Founding Father, Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 171. It is often stated that the sermon was written aboard the flagship Arabella and delivered in Boston harbor, an error introduced by a cover letter on an early manuscript not in Winthrop's hand when the sermon was first published.
  2. ^ Winthrop, John, The Journal of John Winthrop, 1630-1649, Harvard University Press, 1996, p.1 note 1
  3. ^ A Model of Christian Charity – Governor John Winthrop (1630 on board the Arbella)
  4. ^ "The President-Elect: City Upon a Hill". Time. 1961-01-20. ISSN 0040-781X. Retrieved 2015-09-16.
  5. ^ "Address of President-Elect John F. Kennedy Delivered to a Joint Convention of the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts".
  6. ^ "Election Eve Address "A Vision for America"". The American Presidency Project. UC Santa Barbara. Retrieved November 21, 2015.
  7. ^ "Farewell Address to the Nation".
  8. ^ Crabtree, Susan (8 November 1999). "The long shot Gary Bauer talks about why he's running for president". Retrieved 17 May 2011.
  9. ^ Bruni, Frank (17 August 1999). "Gary Bauer, No. 4 in Iowa Poll, Casts Himself as Heir to Reagan". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 May 2011.
  10. ^ "The Candidates' Foreign Policies". 12 June 2000.
  11. ^ "George W. Bush: Remarks Accepting the Presidential Nomination at the Republican National Convention in New York City".
  12. ^ "Obama Speech – University of Massachusetts at Boston Commencement Address".
  13. ^ "Romney: Trump playing Americans for suckers". March 3, 2016. Retrieved March 17, 2016.
  14. ^ Beckwith, Ryan Teague (3 May 2016). "Read Ted Cruz's Speech on Dropping Out of the Presidential Race". Time. Retrieved 2017-03-20.
  15. ^ "Full text: President Obama's DNC speech". Politico. 27 July 2016. Retrieved 2017-03-20.
  16. ^ "Full Transcript and Video: James Comey's Testimony on Capitol Hill". The New York Times. 8 June 2017. Retrieved 20 June 2017.