Segment from City Upon a Hill

Invisible Cities

Peter talks with historian Mark Peterson about John Winthrop’s oft-misunderstood sermon, “A Modell [sic] of Christian Charity,” in which the phrase “a city upon a hill” was first used to describe the New World.

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BRIAN: Well, Peter, when you put it that way, Ronald Reagan just springs to mind. He’s the person who I most associate with American exceptionalism, at least in the last 30 or 40 years. He was a master of doing exactly what you’re talking about– invoking history to bolster the idea of America’s God-given destiny. But Reagan didn’t just go back to the founders. He went all the way back to the Puritans.

RONALD REAGAN: The past few days, when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I 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. What he imagined was important because he was an early pilgrim, an early freedom man.

BRIAN: This is Reagan’s farewell speech in 1989.

RONALD REAGAN: 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 build on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds, living in harmony and peace.

PETER: The city upon a hill– it’s a favorite image of modern exceptionalists, and it was certainly one of Reagan’s favorites. And it dates back to 1630– specifically to a sermon delivered by this fellow John Winthrop on the boat ride over from England.

Winthrop was one of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the sermon is commonly understood as a kind of blueprint for the great, glorious nation that the United States would come to be. There’s only one problem. There’s no evidence that Winthrop delivered the sermon on board that ship– in fact, there’s no real evidence he delivered it at all. We do know that he wrote it, but if it was circulated, well, it certainly doesn’t seem to have made much of a splash.

MARK PETERSON: In all of the surviving material from colonial New England, there is no mention of Winthrop’s text. There’s no sign that this document played any kind of important role in this time period, at least to the colonists in America.

PETER: This is Mark Peterson, a historian at U Cal Berkeley. He’s done a lot of sleuthing around the origins of Winthrop’s text. And so I asked him to explain where he thought it was actually coming from.

MARK PETERSON: My own suspicion is that the document was written for and possibly spoken aloud to a combined group the actual colonists who were crossing the ocean along with the investors and their supporters, family, friends, et cetera, who were not going ahead, and that it was written in order to describe for them or lay out for them what the challenges ahead were going to be like.

And it should really be remembered that every English colonizing venture from the 1580s onward, up until this point, in the late 1620s, had been pretty much an unmitigated disaster. Death rates were enormously high. Most of the colonies failed entirely. So no one was under any illusion that this was not a risky thing to do.

And so that phrase, we shall be as a city upon a hill, is a phrase that is not about a kind of guaranteed exceptional future prophecy of wonderful success and a kind of glowing example for the rest of the world. It’s a phrase that describes the exposed position that the settlers are going to be in as they set out upon this venture. If things go badly or if they make poor choices or if they turn upon each other in internecine conflict or anything like that, then not only will it be a disaster, but it will be a disaster that everybody will know about– that a city upon a hill cannot be hid, as the line from the Sermon on the Mount goes that Winthrop was half-quoting when he wrote this phrase.

PETER: That’s historian Mark Peterson. In a minute, we’ll hear more from him about how the city upon a hill became a household term. But first, it’s time for quick break.

ED: If you have thoughts about American exceptionalism, this would be a good time to drop on over to our website and leave us a comment. You’ll find that at


BRIAN: You’re listening to BackStory, and we’ll be back in a minute.