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July 11, 2022

A City Upon a Hill

In 1961, John F. Kennedy spoke these words just before assuming the office of the presidency: "We shall be as a city upon a hill — the eyes of all people are upon us. . . . For we are setting out upon a voyage in 1961 no less hazardous than that undertaken by the Arbella in 1630.” Kennedy was echoing a sermon given over 300 years earlier by John Winthrop on a ship called the Arbella during its transatlantic trip to America. Winthrop was one of a band of courageous colonists who set sail from England to find a new life and new freedom in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. But even Winthrop was not the author of this sentiment. He quoted Matthew chapter 5 verse 14 in his famous phrase, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” His message combined both hope and warning. Others would be watching the Puritans’ efforts to establish a community worth imitating. Ronald Reagan cited the “shining ‘city on a hill’” in his 1980 presidential campaign, and again in his farewell address to the nation in 1989. He explained that his vision was of an America “teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace.” Reagan and Kennedy alike used the biblical phrase to urge the American people to live in a manner worthy of being emulated.

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