A City on A Hill Cannot be Hid

Earlier this year I was reading John Winthrop’s famous 1630 sermon, A Modell of Christian Charity which is more popularly known as “The City on A Hill” sermon.

According to tradition the sermon was given aboard the Pilgrim ship Arbella before landing at what would become the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but recent scholarship suggests that it was more likely given in England before the pilgrims set sail.

The image of the City on a Hill that Winthrop envisioned has become a common American theme. U.S. President Ronald Reagan famously cited Winthrop’s imagery in his 1988 farewell address, and it is Reagan’s reformulation that is most often recognized:

The past few days when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the “shining city upon a hill.” The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined…. 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.

Reagan’s formulation of the city on a hill as an example and guide to all nations is, in my experience, what most people now associate with the phrase “city on a hill.”

I admire President Reagan a great deal. But reading Winthrop’s original sermon, it is clear to me that Reagan’s Shining City on a Hill was different from that of Winthrop. Winthrop never described a “Shining” city on a hill at all. The word shining does not occur in the text.

“Shining” in Reagan’s speech was likely adapted from the 14th verse of Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus declares, “Ye are the light of the word. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.”

But Winthrop’s focus was on the fact that a city on a hill cannot be hidden. Winthrop says:

For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. Wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of God, and all professors for God’s sake. Wee shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into curses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whither wee are a goeing.

For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Winthrop’s message is well worth considering. Because of the nature of their endeavor and the claims that they made to be God’s people, the Puritan Pilgrims were as a city on a hill. As Jesus mentioned, and Winthrop emphasized, such a city cannot be hidden from the eyes of the world. Their actions would be subject to elevated scrutiny.

Like the Puritans, as we Latter-day Saint’s strive to establish Zion, the nature of our claims to be the Restoration of God’s church on the Earth make us a city on a hill and, for good or for ill, all the eyes of the world are upon us. Mistakes easily forgiven in those of less lofty endeavors will be held against us and, as Winthrop warned, “open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God.” We should have ever present in our minds that grave fact and we should be ever circumspect in our words and our actions.

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