John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, crossed the ocean from England to New England aboard the Arabella in early 1630. While aboard, he penned a directive that he read to those traveling with him either while they were still on board the ship or shortly after they had disembarked that June in Salem. Most of them were Puritans, who were leaving England for religious freedom as well as to start afresh in a New World, as directed by God.
Winthrop's directive provided inspiration and caution to those creating a new community; ensuring success would require the settlers to "do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God." For the community to work, "we must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others' conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body."
Winthrop knew that events in New England would be watched not just by England, but by the world. It was in this context that Winthrop noted, "We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us." It was not that we were destined to be a shining example, only that we were destined to be an example -- shining or otherwise.
His warning was stern: "If our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it."
The city on the hill could be a beacon to inspire others or a pit of darkness to provide warning.
The same phrase was invoked by John F. Kennedy slightly more than a week before he was inaugurated as president. "Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us - and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill - constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities."
Kennedy took the path of assuming that our city would be bright, if we lived up to our responsibilities. He concluded his speech noting God's overarching role in affecting our fate. "Humbly I ask His help in that undertaking - but aware that on earth His will is worked by men."
President Ronald Reagan gave a clear picture of his version of a "city on a hill," in his farewell speech on Jan. 11, 1989. "A tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here."
Reagan understood that "as long as we remember our first principles and believe in ourselves, the future will always be ours."
In his view, common sense would prevail over intellectualism: To get producers to produce more, cut taxes; to create more international trade, knock down foreign walls of protectionism; to keep peace, be strong. "As government expands, liberty contracts," he said.
America is different from other countries because we start with "We the people." Rights flow from the people to the government; the government is designed to serve the people. God bestows rights to the people who loan their rights to the government. Reagan said what we should remember: "America is freedom - freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It's fragile; it needs protection."
Every generation gets to determine its legacy. Will we mark time, will we let others rewrite history and destroy America's freedom that is unparalleled in the world, or will we, like generations before us, rise up and remind those who want to control us, who think that they are better than us that we the people are in control?
It has been 382 years since Winthrop's reference to a city upon a hill. When our lives are done, will we have just been marking time, or will we have made a difference? What does your city on a hill look like? Will we make the city stronger, freer; will we leave her in good hands?
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