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."