Coined by God: “City Set on a Hill”

CoinedbyGod-MallessFor our “Word Wednesday” feature today, we consider another entry in a new word book I recently received – Coined by God: Words and Phrases That First Appear in the English Translations of the Biblethe combined work of Stanley Malless and Jeffrey McQuain (W.W. Norton, 2003).

Our selection today is the expression “city set on a hill, about which Malless and McQuain have this to say:

     The Sermon on the Mount is perhaps the most famous of the teachings of Jesus. After listing the Beatitudes (‘Blessed are the poor in spirit…’), Jesus tells the listening multitudes: ‘Ye are the light of the world. A city set on a hill [set on a hil] may not be hid’ (Matthew 5:14). Wycliffe’s 1388 translation introduces this now politically nuanced phrase for the first time in the written record of English. The phrase, however, is a rendering of Jerome’s Latin, ‘non potest civitas abscondi supra montem posita,’ which would be in a rough word-for-word literal translation, ‘not able to be a citizenry [city] absconded [hidden] on a mount posited [put].’ (Wycliffe’s 1382 version reads ‘put on a hill.’)

More familiar today as a city upon a hill, William Safire’s New Political Dictionary defined the phrase as ‘the ideal or shining example; a paragon of civic success or virtue.’ He pointed to the use of the term in a 1630 sermon, ‘A Model of Christian Charity.” Delivered by John Winthrop aboard the Abrella, this sermon attempted to lift up the Massachusetts Bay Colony as the New World’s example of civic virtue. ‘We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill,’ Winthrop warned his followers. ‘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 byword through the world.’

…But Winthrop’s phraseology has long survived in American political rhetoric as well. John F. Kennedy, for example, used the city upon a hill reference, and more recently, in his 1989 farewell address, Ronald Reagan also lifted that image, adding a modifier to describe America as the ‘shining city upon a hill.‘ (pp.35-36)

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