John Winthrop and the “City upon a Hill”

by based on a lesson plan by Jennifer R. Copley

Historical Background

In 1630, English attorney John Winthrop sat writing aboard the Arbella, bound for North America. As the ship pitched in the Atlantic waves, Winthrop penned a sermon for the 900 congregants he would provide spiritual guidance to in the Massachusetts Bay colony. Already chosen governor, Winthrop intended his words to focus, challenge, and inspire the little community. For following generations, Winthrop’s surviving words offer insight into the dreams and goals of the colony he led four times between that year and his death in 1649.

Significance of the Topic

The issue of survival was paramount to the concerns of those who risked the voyage from Europe to North America. Having faced the perils of the high seas, the transplanted souls brought with them deep religious convictions that would be reflected in the establishment of their governing body. Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” was meant to remind his flock of their roots, the importance of maintaining adherence to Biblical precepts, and working together as a community. Their ultimate survival and success would prove their devotion and obedience to God and would become a beacon to the world.

Essential Question

To what extent did John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” provide a powerful and workable founding vision?

Motivation, Do Now

  • Ask students to describe where references to God can be seen on public buildings, in documents, or through public events.
  • Review the settlements in English North America and note those established for religious reasons.
  • Ask students where they see religion as a “model” for America’s political, legal, and/or social behavior.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the process by which Puritan communities established order and solidarity.
  • Read the excerpts from “A Model of Christian Charity” (PDF). The full text of “A Model of Christian Charity” can be found online at the University of Virginia Library’s Religious Freedom page.
  • Work in groups to create an appropriate explanation of the selection.
  • Defend an argument about whether or not Winthrop’s sermon carried appropriate values for his Puritan community.
  • Explain the consequences of following or violating the precepts in his sermons.
  • Debate whether his phrase “We shall be as a city upon a hill” has become identified with American Exceptionalism.

Questions and Activities

The teacher will distribute copies of John Winthrop’s sermon and in responsive reading assist students where necessary with content and vocabulary issues.

The teacher will then ask the following questions:

  • Describe the meaning and importance of the covenant described by Winthrop.
  • What specific behaviors did Winthrop expect of the colonists who were part of the covenant?
  • What would be the consequences of failure to keep the covenant with God?
  • How did Winthrop hope to hold together his community?
  • How effective was Winthrop’s use of the “city upon a hill” analogy?


The students will be divided into groups identified as religious, legal, and secular scholars to debate on the following: Resolved — John Winthrop’s reference to his community as a “city upon a hill” has been incorporated into the idea of American Exceptionalism.

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History

Already have an account?

Please click here to login and access this page.

How to subscribe

Click here to get a free subscription if you are a K-12 educator or student, and here for more information on the Affiliate School Program, which provides even more benefits.

Otherwise, click here for information on a paid subscription for those who are not K-12 educators or students.

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History

Become an Affiliate School to have free access to the Gilder Lehrman site and all its features.

Click here to start your Affiliate School application today! You will have free access while your application is being processed.

Individual K-12 educators and students can also get a free subscription to the site by making a site account with a school-affiliated email address. Click here to do so now!

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History

Why Gilder Lehrman?

Your subscription grants you access to archives of rare historical documents, lectures by top historians, and a wealth of original historical material, while also helping to support history education in schools nationwide. Click here to see the kinds of historical resources to which you'll have access and here to read more about the Institute's educational programs.

Individual subscription: $25

Click here to sign up for an individual subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History

Upgrade your Account

We're sorry, but it looks as though you do not have access to the full Gilder Lehrman site.

All K-12 educators receive free subscriptions to the Gilder Lehrman site, and our Affiliate School members gain even more benefits!

How to Subscribe

K-12 educator or student? Click here to get free access, and here for more information on the Affiliate School Program.

Not a educator or student? Click here for more information on purchasing a subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.


What is would be the guiding instructions on explaining to students the differences between a secular and legal scholar?

Add comment

Login or register to post comments