In the course of expounding his vision of a new social order, Winthrop spoke the following words: “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people will be upon us.”
Read: The ‘city on a hill’ as a fortress in a moat
As Van Engen notes, those words did not spark excitement at the time. In the 200 years from 1630 to the 1830s, nobody is recorded to have ever cited or even mentioned them. Then one of Van Engen’s antiquarians unearthed the sermon—mislabeled as having been delivered aboard the Arbella rather than (as Van Engen shows) before embarking. The sermon was published in 1838, then immediately forgotten again. In 1930, Winthrop’s two “city on a hill” sentences were quoted on a monument raised to the 300th anniversary of Boston’s founding. Oblivion followed once more—until, in the later 1930s, the most acclaimed modern scholar of Puritan New England, Harvard’s Perry Miller, began arguing for Winthrop’s text as America’s founding moment.
Thanks to Miller, the phrase abruptly entered American civic discussion. Van Engen posted a chart of use of the “city on a hill” phrase, from almost none before 1950 up, up, up a rocket ride of quotation after 1980. John F. Kennedy was the first president to quote it, but it was Reagan’s creative misquotation—he inserted the “shining”—that affixed Winthrop’s words to the American creed.
Modern Americans are used to interpreting the “city on a hill” phrase as a premonition of America’s greatness, an early statement of the new nation’s providential mission. But as Van Engen shows, that’s not what Winthrop meant at all. Winthrop was not talking about America to Europeans. He was talking about Protestantism to other Protestants—and, for good measure, refuting and taunting his Catholic adversaries and enemies.
It’s often pointed out that Winthrop’s language referenced a passage in the New Testament, verses 14 and 15 of the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus there says, as the King James Version renders it:
“Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.”
In Winthrop’s day, this passage was widely regarded as a devastating proof text for Catholics against Protestants.
Van Engen explains the Catholic view:
Jesus’s true followers were “set on a hill” to be seen by all. Since Protestants first appeared in the 1500s—since they had been effectively non-existent, invisible, unknown, or unseen for over a millennium—how could they argue that they were descended from the life and teachings of Christ? … The true church, Catholics proclaimed, was “hid from no man’s eyes.” … In Matthew 5:14, Jesus promised perpetual visibility to his true followers … and the only church perpetually visible since the time of Christ was theirs.
That polemical blow landed hard, and Protestants summoned all their ingenuity to refute it. They were obliged to develop a new idea of what was meant by “the city on a hill”—as not one place, but many; not an unchanging institution, but a human activity in time. Wherever true Christians congregated, that place would become the city on a hill imagined by the Book of Matthew.