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John Winthrop and the Puritans

Updated on September 2, 2010

The Puritans

In 1630, en route to the New World aboard a ship called the Arbella, future Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop gave an inspiring speech to his fellow travelers. It was actually more of a pep talk than an official statement of policy but this speech, including the famous metaphor "City on a hill', has become an iconic bit of our history.

What did Winthrop mean by "a City on a hill"? Basically, this was a metaphor indicating something that would serve as a shining example of an ideal society. It would be above and beyond anything that previously existed anywhere in the world. He stated that the "eyes of the world are upon us" and he wanted to set a good example. Naturally, being a deeply religious man, he used a religious image. The metaphor itself comes from the biblical book of Matthew, which states "A city on a hill cannot be hid". His hope, no doubt, was that the wayward world could not help but notice his new city and ultimately emulate it. The phrase is also quite reminiscent of the biblical story of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.

Although Winthrop quoted Jesus, perhaps Moses was a better comparison; a man leading his people across a great distance to the promised land. This new land, he believed, would be the place that everyone else would look up to; the moral template for better world. It would stand proudly as a beacon of grandiose ethics and effort. It would be, in every way, "a model of Christian charity".

A little background is required to elaborate on what this famed "city on a hill" really meant to Winthrop and why it was so important to him and to the flock of hopeful travelers who made the arduous journey from Europe with him. What drove them to attempt this daunting task?

Back in England, Winthrop had been one of the English Calvinists who became known as Puritans. The Puritans had broken away from the church and were looking for a place to practice their faith unhindered by religious oppression. But they had another issue as well. They were unhappy with the way society was going. In their eyes, things were becoming unholy, with self interest replacing pious fealty to the lord. England, they believed, was moving further and further away from God. The country and its people were violating a covenant with the almighty. They decided they had to leave and find a place where they could form a new pact with God, far from any corrupting influences. They wanted to make a firm commitment to God, just as the people of Israel had done. Thus came the journey to America. In his speech aboard the boat, Winthrop described their cause and their dreams. He spoke of their intention to create something better and brighter. Their "errand in the wilderness" was meant to result in the formation of utopia.

He talked of unity and of charity and of community. Every one of the settlers had a duty to all the others, as well as a duty to God. He focused his words on the communal nature of this undertaking. He said that people of the community should "Rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together". It was a classic example of living together or dying alone. Together, he felt, they could accomplish anything.

This colony in the New World was never meant to be the foundation of a whole new nation. It was merely planned as a small but important settlement where the Puritans would practice religious reforms and spiritual renewal. It was to be their special haven, built around the doctrine of Puritan faith and unwavering devotion to God. Planting the seed of the future United States was a totally unintentioned side effect.

The Puritan settlers were devout in their allegiance to God and in their reverence for the bible. They believed they had divine providence on their side as they set out to create their private paradise. They focused on community over individual goals, everyone chipping in for the good of all. To this end, they formed their diligent Puritan work ethic. This ethic was a new discipline that stressed hard work and industriousness as a way of serving God.

They'd had both religious and political motivations for setting out on their journey. They were unhappy with the crown of England as well as the social changes that were taking place when they left. The British system was failing and, in their view, there was no other option but to do what they did. This trek across the sea was not merely a choice to them. They viewed it as a complete necessity. They felt the need to glorify God and make him more present in their daily lives, something they couldn't do in England. The Puritans were filled with idealism and pragmatism, but they definitely felt a strong sense of purpose.

After the Puritans settled in the New World and began to create their utopia on the shores of what would later become New England, Winthrop worked hard to see that the values they came to practice and perfect were upheld. He was, for instance, very fair and honest in his dealing with the indigenous native tribes he bargained with in his efforts to gain more land for his growing colony. Christian charity would apply to non-Christians as well.

Winthrop and the Puritan settlers wanted to teach by example. They wanted to show the world how to look at things in a different way and to feel a divine presence in their lives at all times. They felt that people should view their life circumstances as a product of God's will.

In 1630, on board the Arbella, Winthrop laid out his overly optimistic expectations to his fellow travelers. He fully expected them to live out their lives according to the precepts of Christian love and justice, even after he was no longer with them. He had too much faith in them. Most would eventually disappoint him, especially in their interactions with the native tribes. Once he became too ill to intervene, his dream of a "City on a Hill" crumbled. The colony never became an example for the world. Winthrop died never having fulfilled his goal. The vaunted "City on a hill" died a quick death.


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    • profile image

      oompa loompa 

      6 years ago

      oh no

    • Robwrite profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      You're welcome.


    • profile image


      7 years ago


    • profile image


      7 years ago

      what aspect of us. history to 1877, how well it accords with winthrop's hopes and expectations for american society?

    • Robwrite profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Glad you liked it, lucieanne.

    • lucieanne profile image


      9 years ago from Rotherham United Kingdom

      I loved reading this hub. I've just been researching the 'Pilgrim Fathers' as I live in Boston UK. This is a fascinating sequel to everything I've learned.

      Thank you

    • Robwrite profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Glad you liked it. Thanks for reading.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      9 years ago from London, UK

      Why never the good one achieve their goal in this world? Thank you for a very educational hub. I enjoyed reading it.


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