A City Upon a Hill, A Sermon and a Too-Good Speech

Journals of John Winthrop

Portrait of John Winthrop, American Antiquarian Society.

John Winthrop was not a minister, but he preached a sermon to his Puritan followers on July 2, 1630 that became known as the City Upon a Hill speech.

He called it ‘A Model of Christian Charity.’ He had no idea his words would be repeated centuries later by another 43-year-old – a U.S. senator about to become president of the United States.

It was July 2, 1630. Winthrop had been in the New World 18 days. His second son, Henry, had just drowned, and another Puritan ship, the Talbot, had arrived after 14 passengers died during the voyage.

Winthrop was still aboard the Arbella when he delivered his sermon, in which he listed the qualities he hoped the Puritan colonists would show to the world: communal charity, affection, and unity.

City Upon a Hill

“For we must consider that we shall be as a City Upon a Hill,” Winthrop said. “The eyes of all people are upon us.”

Kennedy delivers the City Upon a Hill speech

Kennedy delivers the City Upon a Hill speech

Three hundred thirty one years would pass before President-elect John F. Kennedy climbed the Massachusetts Statehouse steps on top of a hill -- Beacon Hill -- to deliver his farewell speech to the General Court.

He had flown into Boston the day before and spent the night in the small Beacon Hill apartment that had been his official home since 1946.

In 11 days he would be inaugurated as president of the United States. He had already orchestrated the ceremony: Robert Frost would read a poem and Marian Anderson would sing the Star-Spangled Banner. He chose formalwear for men and the Fitzgerald family Bible for swearing the oath.

January 9, 1961 was a cold, windy day, but Kennedy didn't wear a hat or coat on his way to Cambridge that morning to meet with the Harvard Board of Overseers and banter with students. He met with advisers at lunch, then drove back to Boston to deliver his first speech since the election.

He entered the Massachusetts House of Representatives chamber to thunderous applause. And then he delivered his famous City Upon a Hill speech.

Too Good?

Kennedy said Massachusetts had always been his home, whether he’d been in Washington, London or the South Pacific (carefully omitting the years his family lived in New York). It wasn’t provincial pride, he said, that caused him to hope his grandchildren would be born in the state. It was the contribution Massachusetts made to the nation’s greatness.

“The enduring qualities of Massachusetts—the common threads woven by the Pilgrim and the Puritan, the fisherman and the farmer, the Yankee and the immigrant—will not be and could not be forgotten in this nation's executive mansion,” he said.

“They are an indelible part of my life, my convictions, my view of the past, and my hopes for the future.”

Kennedy reminded his audience that history would judge public servants on their courage, judgment, integrity and dedication.

"We must always consider," he said, "that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us."

Afterward, the speech was compared to Abraham Lincoln’s farewell to the citizens of Springfield, Ill. Kennedy fretted that it was too good, that it would overshadow his inaugural address.

It didn’t.

To read the whole speech, click here. To hear the speech, click here. To watch part of the speech on youtube, click here.

With thanks to Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America By Thurston Clarke and John Winthrop: Colonial Governor of Massachusetts, by Michael Burgan.




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  1. Pingback: Hannah Cranna, the Connecticut Witch Who Didn’t Stand Trial - New England Historical Society

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