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What does the saying " a city upon a hill" mean? Many politicians call America this...

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gary-student-09 | Student, Grade 9 | eNotes Newbie

Posted December 16, 2009 at 2:25 PM via web

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What does the saying " a city upon a hill" mean? Many politicians call America this phrase uttered by John Winthrop.

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted December 16, 2009 at 2:47 PM (Answer #2)

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When you say something is a "city on a hill" it means that it is out there in plain view for everyone to see.  The reason that that matters is because that thing in plain view will be an example to everyone else about how they should live.  So when politicians say that the US is a city on a hill they are saying that we are an example of how other people should be.

As you say, that goes back to the days of the Puritans.  They thought their society should be a city on a hill to show everyone else how to live in the way that God wanted.  We don't always mean it in a religious sense anymore.  Now it can just be an example of how to have a good government or something like that.

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted December 16, 2009 at 2:57 PM (Answer #3)

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Another interpretation of Winthrop's saying links to the belief of American Exceptionalism. In this line of thought, America and its history is placed in an "exceptional" light, suggesting that its narrative sets it apart from the rest of the world.  People who point out the notion of "a city upon a hill" might suggest that America's legacies to the world make it distinctive.  Its history of constitutionality, the longest running democracy, the presence of individual rights as part of its foundation, and its firm endorsement of capitalism and free market enterprise make it "exceptional" as opposed to other nations.  It is with this exceptional nature in mind that America and its values can be seen as a "city upon a hill."

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mkcapen1 | Middle School Teacher | Valedictorian

Posted December 16, 2009 at 2:58 PM (Answer #4)

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The saying "A City Upon a Hill" has its orgins in the new testament.  It is relative to when Jesus Christ held his sermon on the mount. It can be found in the Gospel of Matthew.  During the John Wintrop's sermon "A Model of Christian Charity, he used the phrase as a metaphor to demonstrate to the people that they would be like Jesus on the mount.  Their actions would be observed by the world.  Therefore, how they acted and behaved in their reflection of God would be evident to all others who were watching.

The people listening to Winthrop's sermon were the Puritans who were coming to America to establish the colonies.  Puritans were still loyal in faith to their Angelican ties to the Church of England and were not seeking out religious freedom.  The minister saw the need to remind the people that others will follow by their example which must be kept righteous.

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Lorraine Caplan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

Posted December 16, 2009 at 3:15 PM (Answer #5)

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The previous response included a good explanation of the term, but while we do not always use it with religious intent, the fact remains that it is from the Bible, the New Testament, to be precise, from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. 

Matthew 5:14 You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.

While not everyone makes a religious connection with the phrase, there is no question that every organization that uses the phrase as part of its title or promotional literature is going to be a Christian organization. Many people do see a religious connotation to the term, but people who do not know its origin might not. 

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted December 16, 2009 at 8:50 PM (Answer #6)

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For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.  So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world...

These words of John Winthrop are quoted by President Ronald Regan on January 25, 1974, at the first Conservative Political Action Conference shortly after the return of John McCain, Bill Lawrence, and Ed Martin, POWs from North Vietnam.

After praising America's achievements, Reagan castigates the increase in government's size, power, and cost.  He praises the conservative group, saying that their thinking is more in accord with the hope and aspirations of "our people than are those who would sacrifice freedom for some form of security." Reagan, then, cites the lines of Winthrop near the end of his speech, and declares,

Well, we have not dealt falsely with our God,....We cannot escape our destiny nor should we try to.  The leadership of the free world was thrust upon us two centuries ago in that little hall of Philadelphia. In the days following World War II, when the economic strength and power of America was all that stood between the world and the dark ages, Pope Pius XII said, 'The American people have a great genius for splendid and unselfish actions.  Into the hands of America, God has placed the destinies of an afflicted mankind.'

We are, indeed, and we are today, the last best hope of man on earth.

Reagan's last lines explicate the meaning of Winthrop's words in modern times:  America must help to maintain freedom in this world.

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tjen0721 | High School Teacher | eNotes Newbie

Posted December 17, 2009 at 6:16 PM (Answer #7)

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Winthrop opened his sermon talking about a city upon a hill “city was so large and the hill so small that they all fell off.” Winthrop used the metaphor not only to remind the colony that they served as an example to “non-believers,” but they risked failure if they became too full of themselves.

The core of the Winthrop message had to do with humility and setting a good example for others to follow. Winthrop and his followers saw the Church of England as an example of a church steeped in politics that had lost its way.

Winthrop also told his followers to follow the laws of God and warned them not to be selfish and if they did God would bless the nation and it would multiply in size.   To justify the taking of territory settlers used this Old Testament concept of being a “chosen people”.

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enotechris | College Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

Posted January 16, 2010 at 5:28 PM (Answer #8)

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Winthrop, as one of the early governors of Massachusetts, was referring to the establishment of the city of Boston, which in early colonial times was geologically comprised of 3 hills.  The tallest of these, although now one third shorter, remains known as Beacon Hill, where the earliest colonists settled.  The top of this hill actually served as a beacon; a bucket of pitch was ignited and hoisted upon a pole as an alarm signal to the Puritan Community, similarly as the continual ringing of church bells became a century later. Being a theocracy, Winthrop was alluding to the Sermon on the Mount passages in the New Testament as previously mentioned; however, he was also alluding to the Holy City of God's chosen, or the New Jerusalem, described in Revelation, where the city was illuminated only by the presence of the Almighty for the rest of the world to see.

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fourtimesayear | eNotes Newbie

Posted August 19, 2010 at 9:04 PM (Answer #9)

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The saying "A City Upon a Hill" has its orgins in the new testament.  It is relative to when Jesus Christ held his sermon on the mount. It can be found in the Gospel of Matthew.  During the John Wintrop's sermon "A Model of Christian Charity, he used the phrase as a metaphor to demonstrate to the people that they would be like Jesus on the mount.  Their actions would be observed by the world.  Therefore, how they acted and behaved in their reflection of God would be evident to all others who were watching.

The people listening to Winthrop's sermon were the Puritans who were coming to America to establish the colonies.  Puritans were still loyal in faith to their Angelican ties to the Church of England and were not seeking out religious freedom.  The minister saw the need to remind the people that others will follow by their example which must be kept righteous.

You are absolutely right about the origin:D

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fourtimesayear | eNotes Newbie

Posted August 19, 2010 at 9:08 PM (Answer #10)

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The previous response included a good explanation of the term, but while we do not always use it with religious intent, the fact remains that it is from the Bible, the New Testament, to be precise, from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. 

Matthew 5:14 You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.

While not everyone makes a religious connection with the phrase, there is no question that every organization that uses the phrase as part of its title or promotional literature is going to be a Christian organization. Many people do see a religious connotation to the term, but people who do not know its origin might not. 

"there is no question that every organization that uses the phrase as part of its title or promotional literature is going to be a Christian organization"

No, it's not. You will have secular organizations misapplying it to suit their materialistic purposes. The city I live in is using it to apply to pavement of all things.

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Yojana_Thapa | Student, Grade 10 | Valedictorian

Posted January 25, 2014 at 9:17 PM (Answer #11)

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"City upon hill", this phrase is pretty self-explanatory. It was written in 1630 by the Puritan leader John Winthrop while the first group of Puritan emigrants. That everyone should be like them. They are the perfect model.

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parama9000 | Student, Grade 11 | Valedictorian

Posted January 30, 2014 at 2:32 PM (Answer #12)

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It is to signify that they are the model to be looked up to and that is why they are atop a hill.

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Chantelm | Student, Grade 10 | Salutatorian

Posted February 21, 2014 at 1:16 PM (Answer #13)

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the “City upon a Hill” section of the sermon called “A Model of Christian Charity” was written in 1630 by the Puritan leader John Winthrop while the first group of Puritan emigrants was still onboard their ship, the Arbella, waiting to disembark and create their first settlement in what would become New England. The “City” section of this sermon was pulled out by later readers as a crystallization of the Puritan mission in the New World.

Of course, as with any topic touching on the Puritans, there’s some myth-busting to be done. By now, the “City upon a Hill” excerpt has come to represent irritating Puritan pridefulness—they thought they were perfect, a city on a hill that everyone else would admire and want to emulate. In reality, the excerpt is far from a back-patting exercise. It is a gauntlet laid down to the already weary would-be settlers.

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