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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3 Responses to A City on A Hill Cannot be Hid

  1. Velska

    I agree that our claims to the restoration of the one and only true church bring closer scrutiny upon us. That’s why we should always be humble and not think ourselves better than others. For we are human and make mistakes.

    On a more touchy note, I thought of Winthrop’s words about dealing falsely with our God. One is the concern I have about the trend in our societies to condone the immoral. Just this morning I read in Mosiah the verse that says, ”…if the time comes that the voice of the people doth choose iniquity, then is the time that the judgments of God will come upon you” (Msh 29:27). I thought of the very common trend in the world to disregard morality and family values. And I thought of the Family – Proclamation to the World, that says that “disintegration of the family will bring upon [the world] the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets”. I am seeing that around me.

    On the other hand, I still cringe at the memory of pres. Bush’s claim that he was doing the will of God in invading Iraq (he may not have stated it as clearly as that, but certainly hinted enough). Especially outside U.S. that has added to the tendency to ridicule those who profess to want to do the will of God. The Inquisition also claimed to be doing the will of God (and I’m not addressing pres. Monson here!).

    That said, I don’t want to go to politics here, because you can very legitimately disagree on politics. I just want to say that we should be careful about claiming to know the will of God where it’s not unequivocally stated in Scripture (including official statements by the First Presidency & the 12, like the Proclamation).

    I wholeheartedly subscribe to the idea given in Proverbs 15:1 about “a soft answer” turning away wrath. I think that the faithful LDS should be especially careful not to vituperate or be overbearing and self-righteous. Remember what the Lord said to the early Saints: “I will fight your battles”. It is a human tendency to go out with blazing guns (metaphorically speaking) and then wonder why we are not received well.

  2. Paul Mouritsen

    For another interesting comment on Winthorp’s speech by J. Reuben Clark, you might want to see this site:


  3. Interesting… especially since so many of us get annoyed that if there’s ever anyone in the public eye that happens to be LDS – it’s always mentioned in the headline.

    I totally Velska about the humility part – it always irritates me sitting a RS lesson and hearing about the teacher talk about how we are so much better than “The World” because we have the gospel. The fact is – we are all just as imperfect … the only difference is we know better. That doesn’t make us better than anyone else. It bothers me that so many LDS are happy to insulate their company with only other LDS.

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