On April 8, 1630, a fleet of four ships left the Isle of Wight, carrying seven hundred Puritan immigrants to the New World. Among them was John Winthrop, a noted English lawyer who was distressed by the persecution directed toward his fellow Puritans from King Charles I. Joining Winthrop aboard the flagship, Arabella, were two young sons; his wife, Margaret, wasn’t able to join him until the next year. John and Margaret, in an unusual act of devotion, forged a plan for keeping their love alive during their separation. They covenanted to think about each other for an hour every Monday and Friday afternoon.
At some point before, during, or just after the voyage, Winthrop prepared and preached one of the most influential sermons in American history, “A Model of Christian Charity,” also known as the “City Upon a Hill” sermon. In his sermon, Winthrop painted a compelling vision for the future of American society. Borrowing the words of Jesus from Matthew 5:14, he offered an image that has been repeated for nearly four hundred years by presidents and patriots—America is a shining city on a hill.
Winthrop preached to his fellow Puritans, saying,
The only way to . . . provide for our posterity is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. 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 ourselves of superfluities for the supply of other’s necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in this work, 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. So that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness, and truth than formerly we have been acquainted with.
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 [settlements], “The Lord make it like that of New England.” For we must consider that we shall be a City upon a Hill. The eyes of all people are upon us . . . .
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 commandments and His ordinance and His laws . . . that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land wither we go to possess it.
Winthrop’s vision of America was compelling, but it bears remembering that Jesus Christ coined this phrase in His Sermon on the Mount to refer not to America herself but to His followers, His church on earth. He told us:
“You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14–16)