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It is a fact that God has been a vital component of American life since the country’s early beginnings. Puritans and Pilgrims have significantly influenced the America society in the past (Finley 1). The Puritans desired and dreamed of an impartial and godly country that is successful and prosperous. An example of early Puritan minister who desired for godliness in America was John Winthrop, who was also the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s initial governor. Just like the early Puritans, numerous Christians in America today have continued to be concerned of the moral decay in America evidenced by the nation’s drift to secular humanism and paganism. The call for a godly and just America has been witnessed both in American politics and churches (Finley 1). This paper explains John Winthrop’s metaphor, a “city upon a hill”, discusses its legacy in relation to American exceptionalism, and explains its relevance to later speeches.

Before we look into the above issues, here is some background information on the Puritans and the reason for their journey to America. The Puritan settlers had unwavering commitment to not only studying the Bible and worshipping God, but also working hard as a means of serving the Lord. According to Robwrite (1), the Puritans focused on communal rather than individual goals; they believed in every person contributing for the good of the entire community. While, in England, the Puritans had separated from the church due to their discontentment on the way things were happening in the society. According to Puritans, England and its people were moving away from God, since they had embraced self interest and ungodliness instead of fear for the Lord (Robwrite 1). To Puritans, this was a violation of the covenant with God, which they did not want to be apart of, so they decided to move away to enable them practice their faith unconstrained by religious oppression. They wanted to commit firmly to true service to their God, and that is why they decided to move to America. In 1630, over 20,000 Puritans set on a journey from Europe to the new land, America, and among them was John Winthrop. While, on ship Arbella, Winthrop gave an inspiring sermon to his fellow Puritans regarding the future he envisioned. He said, “For we must consider that we shall be 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” (Signorelli 1).

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Meaning of the quote a “city upon a hill”

It is vital to state that the metaphor, “city upon a hill” originates from the bible, particularly from the parable of Salt and Light used by Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount (Vaughn 1). Jesus told His listeners that “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5: 14). Through this parable, Jesus stressed on the importance of Christians setting examples to the whole world through their actions. In “a model of Christian charity”, Winthrop used the quote, “a city upon a hill”, as a metaphor to symbolize the Puritan community. Since the Puritan community had left England in order to find a place to worship God truthfully, failure on their part to set up a godly and just society  would become known to the entire world, making them a laughing stock to their enemies (Signorelli 1). Therefore, Winthrop wanted the Puritans to set a shinning example for others to follow especially on how an ideal Godly society ought to be. Winthrop envisaged a colony that would be built around God, and whose actions would be seen by the whole world. Since everybody else would be watching the Puritan community, Winthrop expected their behaviors and actions to be a reflection of God. In addition, Winthrop, together with the Puritans wanted the world to feel the divine presence of God in their lives, and view things from a different perspective. Other than setting a good example to others, Winthrop stressed on the Puritans remaining humble in order to attain their purpose. To ensure the Puritans remained focused on the work ahead, he warned them of the impending destruction should they fail to obey God and instead be lured into worldly pleasures. This is evident in his speech when he said, “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 we pass over this vast sea to possess it” (Signorelli 1). Therefore, Winthrop expected the Puritan community to live a Godly life that would be seen and emulated by the entire world.

A discussion of Winthrop’s quote in relation to American exceptionalism

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McCrisken (1) defines American exceptionalism as the belief that America is a unique, superior and special country that is charged with a special role in human history. Exceptionalism forms one of the key elements of the cultural identity and nationalism of America. When looking at Winthrop’s quote in the context of American exceptionalism, it can be said that the history of the United States sets the nation above  all other world nations, thus placing it in an exceptional light. The legacy of America is distinctive to the whole world because it enjoys an undeniable superiority in military and wealth power, which has made it the most powerful nation globally. Additionally, America’s history of constitutionality and fight for freedom for all Americans, its solid endorsement of free market enterprise and capitalism, its longest running democracy, as well as, the rooting of respect for individual rights in its foundation, all have made it an exceptional and shining nation to other nations in the world (McCrisken 1). Thus, America has been an ideal nation and a perfect example from which the other world countries learn from, making it “a city upon a hill.”

All through American history, there have been recurring declarations that America is the Promised Land that is divinely ordained to direct the whole world to betterment, thus making it a special nation. It is believed that God charged America with the responsibility of being a redeemer nation i.e. reforming themselves plus the rest of the world. Another issue is the exceptionalist belief that America is different from other nations with regards to its governance style. While some European nations have invariably corrupt political systems, and exploit poor people in order to accumulate and retain wealth and power, the United States, on the other hand, is committed to morality, freedom and the betterment of mankind (McCrisken, 1). These values have set America above the other world nations. In addition, America believes that it is the leading nation of progress in the entire world. Almost everything that it does be it in technology, warfare, sports, politics, art or industry is regarded as a step forward in human achievement. Though they have made numerous mistakes along the way, they learn from them and strive forward to make themselves even better than before, and this has contributed to their exceptionalism.

The relevance of Winthrop’s quote to later speeches

Winthrop’s quote was used severally during the 20th century in American politics. In 1961, President John Kennedy referred to Winthrop’s quote in his address to the General Court of Massachusetts. He admitted having been directed by standards set by Winthrop on the ship while on their way to starting a new government. President Kennedy told them to consider themselves as “a city upon the hill” and that the eyes of everybody were on them; therefore, they had to be aware of the great responsibilities and trust bestowed on them by the world. Consequently, they had to be committed to establishing a government that would serve as an example to the entire world. Another instance was in 1989 when President Ronald Reagan employed Winthrop’s quote in his farewell speech. While bidding farewell to America, President Reagan said,

“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” (Noble 1).

Reagan hoped for a Godly and free America with a booming economy, and working together and living in peace and with everybody, just like Winthrop’s dream. Considering how Winthrop’s quote has been used throughout the history of America by various politicians, it is clear that Winthrop’s sermon left a positive legacy to Americans. The metaphor set a standard for Americans on what their country symbolize and consequently, they will always remember that they are exceptional and strive to be the best in everything they do, knowing that other nations look up to them.


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