On January 11, 1989, Ronald Reagan delivered a famous farewell address to the nation. Near the end of the speech, he evoked the historic words of Puritan leader John Winthrop, giving his vision of what it means for the United States to be a “shining city upon a hill”:
In my mind, it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, 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.
Nearly 360 years before Reagan’s address, Winthrop delivered his famous “city on a hill” sermon — titled “A Model of Christian Charity” — to his fellow Puritans prior to even stepping foot in the New World. He did this so the Puritans would understand, from the very beginning, the standards and principles that they must live by to ensure the success of the colony.
Winthrop preached about the importance of Christian virtues — faith, charity, and love — as a foundational bedrock around which their new society would be built. The harsh conditions and difficult life the Puritans endured proved that Winthrop was prescient in making these virtues central, as they helped create a strong sense of community, cooperation, and order, which was essential to the survival of the colony in the New World.
Winthrop and the other Puritans fled England because of political unrest and religious persecution. A seriously devout Christian man, Winthrop believed the hardships his community endured had a higher purpose; that it was God’s will for him to lead his flock to the New World where they could start a new life and become a model of Christian charity for the world to see and, hopefully, emulate. He also understood that this Christian experiment in an unknown land could easily fail, costing many lives and challenging their faith.
An Extreme and Selfless Charity
Prior to the arrival of the Pilgrims to the New World, English settlements had experienced miserable failure and great difficulties. Jamestown had its share of problems, specifically with American Indian relations that had been tense and even deadly. The very first and most disastrous colony, Roanoke, settled 50 years prior, was abandoned, and to this day historians have no idea what became of its settlers.
Life in the wilderness of the New World would be undoubtedly hard, and for reasons that were as much religious as practical, Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts, established the behavior essential to the colony’s organization, harmony, and success.
The spirit of giving is vital to the Christian attitude Winthrop wished to create in the new Puritan society saying, “every man [should] afford his help to another in every want or distress.” In keeping with his Christian zeal, Winthrop preached it was not enough to simply give, but also, in times of dire need, a person must give beyond what he can afford.
Winthrop’s teachings on extreme and selfless charity were biblically based. Inspired by their faith and desire for salvation, his Puritan community aspired to always love one another as they do themselves, “By the first of these laws man as he was enabled so withall [is] commanded to love his neighbour as himself upon this ground stands all the precepts of the moral law, which concerns our dealings with men.”
A United Community
Winthrop knew that building a society from the ground up would require an immensely strong sense of community. Hardships require cooperation and dependence that extends beyond family ties. Alone in this inhospitable new land, love for one’s neighbor was essential.
It would also be necessary to create the conditions for peace and harmony among the classes. To achieve this important objective, Winthrop constantly reinforced Christ’s teaching that we are all equal in God’s love, that “Every man might have need of other and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the bond of brotherly affection.”
Winthrop further called on the Puritans to unify by comparing them to a body, and not just any body, but Christ’s own body with Himself and His church. Winthrop went on to say that even when part of the body is disproportionate or unequal, through Christ’s “spirit and love,” they will come together. He hoped and prayed this biblical teaching would unite the Puritan colony under Christ, and, if there was to be disharmony among them, Christ would be the solution.
Winthrop deeply desired for the Puritans to be a model — or witness — of Christian life. He believed all eyes were on them to prove that they could be that biblical “city upon a hill.” Indeed, the original line comes from Matthew 5: 14-16.
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.
The Puritan settlement was an experiment. If their colony failed, not only functionally, but especially morally, Winthrop feared they would lose the grace of God. It might also discourage others from attempting a similar noble and spiritual experiment. This failure could prove to do more damage than good for the spread of the gospel and the future of Christianity.
But, should they succeed, they would become a beautiful beacon of religious piety. The stakes were high. Failure would be catastrophic and deadly, but success would bring them eternal glory.
The City on a Hill Today
Winthrop’s inspiring words are still remembered and used by contemporary Americans who remain in awe of his courage, faith, and leadership under punishing conditions. Today, our country is wildly more multifaceted than the Puritan community of Massachusetts, and few Americans are as religiously devout as the Puritans were.
America has grown and evolved, but it remains very much the same experiment in self-government. Failure has always been a possibility and we are constantly, as a people, trying to, as Winthrop said, “avoid this shipwreck.”
After eight years in office, Reagan conveyed to the American people the state of their 400-year-old city upon a hill:
How stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure, and happier than it was eight years ago. But more than that: after 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the Pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.
2020 will likely go down in history as one of American’s toughest years. In many ways, we have lost the freedom and independence that the brave and rugged Puritans established for themselves in America 400 years ago. Indeed, many of us look back longingly at the Reagan days, defined by support for free enterprise, innovation, and a decisive victory over the Communist Soviet Union.
This doesn’t mean, however, that we should sit back, throw up our hands, and say “the country is lost, I give up.” It’s a challenge. As Reagan said:
Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people. Those who have known freedom and then lost it have never known it again.
We continue to face similar struggles of cooperation, yet our cohesion as a nation still depends on loving our neighbors and preserving our freedoms. Absent the Christian faith that united and guided the Pilgrims and Puritans, survival today is in some ways more complicated and difficult. Yet we continue to return to the principles of our foundational freedoms, religious and otherwise.
We all know that our dreams, as well as the hopes and dreams of our ancestors who first came to America, are dreams that could never be realized anywhere else. In the same way that the Puritans held fast to their creed, the “Model of Christian Charity,” if we continue to fight for and uphold truths and principles contained in the Declaration and the Constitution, we will prosper. Just as importantly, that success will ensure that we will become models and beacons of liberty and prosperity to others around the world who hope to also become a “shining city upon a hill.”