John Winthrop’s “City on a hill”

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            John Winthrop’s 1630 speech not only contributed an enduring metaphor to American culture, but it also illustrated the Puritans’ sense of mission and world view.  Winthrop presents the Puritans’ desire to create a model Christian society, in which strong community cohesion and proper holy behavior reign, and stern consequences await them if they fail.  Also, he addresses an audience that shares both his vision and his familiarity with the Scriptures they used as a guide for their lives.

            Winthrop’s speech is an admonition to the Puritans (who had then been settled in New England for only a decade) to follow elevated ideals of humility, charity, and cohesion, and to thus set an example to the rest of the world.  He opens the passage by referring to “this shipwracke” (Ferraro, 2006), meaning the fallen world in which the Puritans find themselves a sort of island, as well as an England which they considered corrupt, and stresses the importance of community well-being above all else.  He stresses the importance of putting the common good ahead of individual gain or glorification, “always having before our eyes our Commission and Community in the worke, our Community as members of the same body” (Ferraro, 2006), with the common goals of peaceful coexistence, shared prosperity, and strict religious unity.

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Puritan society, he says, must be “a Citty upon a Hill” (to use the era’s archaic spelling), which is an effective metaphor for a model society.  The allusion to heights suggests being not only morally elevated but also highly visible to the rest of the world; while clearly part of the world, they would be also detached from it by virtue of their behavior.  Adding that “the eies of the people are upon us” (Ferraro, 2006), Winthrop reveals a degree of self-consciousness that helps drive Puritan society’s desire to attain moral and spiritual perfection, as well as no small measure of anxiety about the high stakes of their efforts.

If they fail, he claims, they fail not only themselves but also God and open themselves to universal scorn; he claims that “we shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of god and . . . cause theire prayers to be turned to Cursses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whether wee are going” (Ferraro, 2006).  The metaphor does not imply a high opinion of the Puritans themselves, though; Winthrop urges his congregation to practice patience, humility, and tolerance, and their elevated state is more God’s glory, not their own.

Winthrop also aimed to make New England (itself an allusion to the idea of improving their own society in new terrain) a “city on a hill” in order to create a model for England itself.  Driven from Anglican England by a church they harshly criticized, the Puritans left a society where economic competition and class inequities threatened the community-oriented village life the English were rapidly losing.  According to historian Paul Boyer, “The old England of self-sufficient farm families living for generations in tight-knit communities had vanished. . . . Community ties frayed and family life deteriorated [and] England’s people . . . became individualistic, acquisitive, and materialistic” (Boyer, 1998, p. 40).  The “New England” Winthrop and other Puritans sought to create was really a reversion to an older, village-based, pre-capitalist England, albeit guided by the strict Calvinist faith to which they adhered (and which they enforced rigorously).

            Winthrop’s writing style is well-suited to his audience, given the Puritans’ fervently religious outlook, relatively high levels of education and literacy, and God-fearing, often harsh and punitive world views.  New England’s early settlers were largely from central England’s rural areas and thus accustomed to communal ways of life quickly disappearing in the new economic order (Boyer, 1998, pp. 40-41).  His message about working for the common good without greed or selfishness would certainly have resonated among a population that had chafed at the new threats to their way of life.  This involved a degree of exclusivity as well, since Puritan society was by no means democratic.  According to bible scholar Joseph Schafer, the Puritans “had to organize a group of settlers who would live in the colony and support its purpose. There were many non-Puritans who were eager to go to the New World for purely economic reasons, and they had to be weeded out as much as possible” (Schafer).  Winthrop seems careful to make clear that his “city on a hill” could not simply be home to anyone.

More importantly, the speech addresses a highly literate audience.  Indeed, says Boyer, the Puritans placed much importance on literacy, since they believed it essential to conversion and necessary for receiving and comprehending God’s word.  Winthrop uses elegant but clear and vivid language to illustrate the Puritan mission, and he clearly speaks to a group well aware of the “shipwreck” he describes.  The tone is not emotional or fiery, but well-reasoned, literate, and logical.  Furthermore, he assumes that his audience shares a great deal of Biblical knowledge; his reference to the Old Testament’s Book of Israel assumes their familiarity with Moses’ words, as well as with their own situation as outsiders in English society.  The speech has the tone of a sermon, yet it is also a rallying cry for the Puritans to deal with English society by building a better version of it in the New World – and to succeed in this task, in order to better lead the world in their direction.

            Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” speech helped set the tone for the United States’ sense of exceptionalism and mission.  Writing in a context of crisis, Winthrop calls upon the Puritans to detach themselves from a corrupt, rapidly-changing English society, filter out those who cannot serve their aims, and essentially reinvent and rise above the rest of the world.  He demands that the Puritan settlement serve as a shining example of communal Christian society, and that their success was essential for both themselves and their vision of a better world.


Boyer, P. et al (1998).  The Enduring Vision.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Ferraro, V. (2006).  “John Winthrop’s City upon a Hill, 1630.”  Retrieved 25 September 2006 from

Schafer, J (n.d.).  “John Winthrop.”  Shippensburg UBF.  Retrieved 26 September 2006 from

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John Winthrop’s “City on a hill”. (2016, Aug 12). Retrieved from

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