Shine on you crazy city


It’s funny that Rachel revisited her Tuesday night exchange with Chris Matthews tonight. I’ve been stuck on that segment as well- though not exactly the same part. Rachel caught Matthews a little off guard as she introduced him for his reaction to the GOP response to the State of the Union Address. See the video above, but her complaint in short: “The city on the hill never shined. I don’t understand why it has to be shining.”

She’s talking about the closing line in Mitch Daniels’ reponse, “Republicans in 2012 welcome all our countrymen to a program of renewal that rebuilds the dream for all, and makes our ‘city on a hill’ shine once again.”

Matthews’ train of thought and the constraints of a live news broadcast were not up to accommodating her, but going into the next commercial break she offered a bit more:

“We are going to take a quick break. The city on the hill will not be shining when we come back. It doesn’t need to shine. John Winthrop just talked about it being up there, and the eyes of the world up on it. That was it. Shining thing was a late addition.

I’m sorry. Bugs me.”

The TV went to a break and I went to the google.

I had always thought “the shining city on a hill” was a Reaganism that had to do with American exceptionalism and winning the Cold War. Turns out, not so much.

This way to the rabbit hole…

The Ronald Reagan connection is kind of true. He seems to be the one who popularized the phrase for Republicans and he appears to be the one responsible for making the city shine.


Reagan’s “shining city” coinage comes from his official announcement of his candidacy for president in November of 1979. In some of his later uses, like his 1984 Republican nomination acceptance speech he’s referring to his own use of the phrase.

But of course, these uses are before the end of the Cold War, so I got that wrong. In fact, the first use I find of the “city on a hill” imagery by Ronald Reagan is in 1974, in a speech titled “We will be a city upon a hill,” and Rachel would be pleased to know, he didn’t make the city shine.

That’s probably because he was quoting John Winthrop directly, and, as Rachel pointed out on the way to commercial break, Winthrop’s city wasn’t shining.

John Winthrop wrote “A Model of Christian Charity” in 1630 while on board a ship called the Arabella, sailing from England to the New World. In it he explains that God created inequality because we’re all meant to rely on each other and because rich people should help poor people. Winthrop was made governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony while still in England, and this was a sort of pep talk to his fellow colonists. The city on a hill in this case is Massachusetts Bay, which he felt was in a spotlight to follow God’s model or else do real damage to God’s reputation on Earth (not to mention the colonists’ chances for survival).

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.

In the introduction to the version I found (and read most of), John Beardsley, then editor-in-chief of the Winthrop Society Quarterly, cautions against reading too much fatalism in Winthrop’s thesis.

He’d rather we not focus on the part where God made rich people rich and poor people poor, and instead focus on the loving, sharing parts. Still, it’s fatalistic enough that I claim half credit on the American exceptionalism part of my earlier (mostly incorrect) understanding of the meaning of “city on a hill.”

But wait, before we give this founding puritan all the credit, it should come as no surprise that the original city upon a hill is sourced to the Bible. Not only that, but it’s likely this Bible passage that is the real source for Reagan’s embellishing shine. Matthew 5:13-16:

You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Ah HA! Mostly about light, plus a little bit about a town on a hill and then next thing you know, 1500 years later (or however many since Matthew wrote his part) you’ve got a city shining on a hill.

Bonus: Is this passage also the source for “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine” and other light shining lyrics like the Grateful Dead song that’s been in my head for a day now?

Closing note: I’m interested to hear anyone else’s thoughts on Winthrop, the puritans, and the meaning of “city on a hill.” Even though this is a post about history, I suspect the religious content will make for some messy comment threads. Go easy.

Shine on you crazy city