City upon a hill is a phrase that is associated with John Winthrop's sermon "A Model of Christian Charity," given in 1630. The phrase is derived from the metaphor of Salt and Light in the Sermon on the Mount of Jesus given in the Gospel of Matthew. Verse fourteen of Matthew chapter five states that "you are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden." Winthrop warned the Puritan colonists of New England who were to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony that their new community would be a "city upon a hill," watched by the world:
The speech was given aboard the Arbella not long before landing.
Winthrop believed that all nations had a covenant with God, and that because England had violated its religious covenant, the Puritans must leave the country. This was an expression of the Puritan belief that the Church of England had fallen from grace by accepting Catholic rituals. John Winthrop claimed that the Puritans forged a new, special agreement with God, like that between God and the people of Israel. However, unlike the Separatists (such as the Pilgrims), the Puritans remained nominally a part of the Anglican church in hopes that it could be purified from within. Winthrop believed that by purifying Christianity in the New World, his followers would serve as an example to the Old World for building a model Protestant community.
The Puritan's,lead by Winthrop, believed their community was 'specially ordained by God' and this concept had a powerful effect on the Puritan society of New England. Of course, breaking a covenant with God has dire results: In order to avoid incurring God's wrath by breaking their promise, the Puritans sought to maintain perfect order in their society. There institutions and conventions attempted to molded an extremely ridged society in New England, in contrast with the other loosely-bound colonies in the new land of America.
Now the onely way to avoyde this shipwracke and to provide for our posterity is to followe the Counsell of Micah, to doe Justly, to love mercy, to walke humbly with our God, for this end, wee must be knitt together in this worke as one man, wee must entertaine each other in brotherly Affeccion, wee must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities, for the supply of others necessities, wee must uphold a familiar Commerce together in all meekenes, gentlenes, patience and liberallity, wee must delight in eache other, make others Condicions our owne rejoyce together, mourne together, labour, and suffer together, allwayes haveing before our eyes our Commission and Community in the worke, our Community as members of the same body, soe shall wee keepe the unitie of the spirit in the bond of peace, the Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us, as his owne people and will commaund a blessing upon us in all our wayes, soe that wee shall see much more of his wisdome power goodnes and truthe then formerly wee have beene acquainted with, wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when tenn of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when hee shall make us a prayse and glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantacions: the lord make it like that of New England: 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 have undertaken and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a byword through the world, wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of god and all professours for Gods sake; wee shall shame the faces of many of gods worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into Cursses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whether wee are going: And to shutt upp this discourse with that exhortacion of Moses that faithfull servant of the Lord in his last farewell to Israell Deut. 30. Beloved there is now sett before us life, and good, deathe and evill in that wee are Commaunded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another to walke in his wayes and to keepe his Commaundements and his Ordinance, and his lawes, and the Articles of our Covenant with him that wee may live and be multiplyed, and that the Lord our God may blesse us in the land whether wee goe to possesse it: But if our heartes shall turne away soe that wee will not obey, but shall be seduced and worshipp other Gods our pleasures, and proffitts, and serve them, it is propounded unto us this day, wee shall surely perishe out of the good Land whether wee passe over this vast Sea to possesse it; Therefore lett us choose life, that wee, and our Seede, may live; by obeyeing his voyce, and cleaveing to him, for hee is our life, and our prosperity.
The first modern usage was by President-Elect John F. Kennedy in a speech delivered to a 'Joint Convention of the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' on January 9, 1961. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library
Extract from Kennedy's speech:
President Ronald Reagan used the phrase on January 11th 1989, in his farewell speech to the nation:
After the phrase was used by Ronald Reagan, the fundamentalist Christian movement in America took up the phrase "city upon a hill" as a sort of code word to describe their vision of bringing 'Christian Values' into government.
In August 2007, Larry Witham, author and proponent of Intelligent Design, previously known for promoting fundamentalist Christian arguments in his books "By Design: Science and the Search for God Encounter Books" and "The Measure of God: Our Century-Long Struggle to Reconcile Science and Religion" released a new book called "City Upon a Hill: How Sermons Changed the Course of American History". His web site states his next book will be titled The Proof of God.
The phrase was referenced several times during the 2008 Republican National Convention by Rudy Giuliani and several others, during the nomination of the Republican candidate John McCain. Attributing it to Ronald Reagan, the phrase was again used by Sarah Palin during the 2008 vice-presidential debate.
You will find the full sermon "A Model for Christian Charity" in Alan Heimert and Andrew Delbaco, eds. The Puritans in America: A Narrative Anthology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985. p. 89-92.
Full text of President-Elect John F. Kennedy's speech delivered to the 'Joint Convention of the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' on January 9, 1961. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library