City on a Hill

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"CITY ON A HILL." The term "city on a hill" was initially invoked by English-born Puritan leader John Winthrop. The concept became central to the United States' conception of itself as an exceptional and exemplary nation.

In 1630, aboard the Arbella before the ship's departure for the New World, Winthrop recited a sermon to his fellow travelers. Drawing upon Matthew 5:14–15, Winthrop articulated his vision of the prospective Puritan colony in New England as "a city upon a hill": an example to England and the world of a truly godly society. According to historian Perry Miller, Winthrop believed that this religious utopia would be acclaimed and imitated across the Old World, precipitating the Puritans' glorious return to England. This never happened; instead, as settlements like Boston became prosperous, material success and demographic change undermined the religious imperative.

Nonetheless, throughout American history a secularized variation on Winthrop's theme has expressed the United States' more general and ongoing sense of exceptionalism—the nation's sociopolitical separation from, and supposed superiority to, the Old World. During the 1980s, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, President Ronald Reagan attempted to recover the image of America as "a shining city on a hill."


Kiewe, Amos, and Davis W. Houck. A Shining City on a Hill: Ronald Reagan's Economic Rhetoric. New York: Praeger, 1991.

Morgan, Edmund S. The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop. Boston: Little, Brown, 1958.

Winthrop, John. "A Model of Christian Charity." In The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Edited by Nina Baym et al. Shorter 5th ed. New York: Norton, 1999.


See alsoBoston ; Massachusetts ; Nationalism ; Puritans and Puritanism .