Returning to the “City Upon A Hill” Covenant this Independence Day


By Michael Hernandez 

(Editor’s Note:  Michael Hernandez is starting a new Citizens Journal column that will be published on Sundays called “City Upon A Hill” in which he will write on how Americans today can become both “salt and light” of the world with the premise that we have lost our identify as a nation.  This first post celebrates this year’s Independence Day by going back in history and shares the story of how the first Puritans came to the New World with the idea that they had been given a covenant by God.  Future posts will suggest how citizens can reclaim America as a “City Upon A Hill.”)

The passengers of the Arbella—one of 11 ships carrying over a 1,000 Puritans to Massachussets (that year)—left England in 1630 with a new charter and a great vision. They were to be an example for the rest of the world in rightful living. Future governor John Winthrop stated their purpose quite clearly: “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us” (taken from Matthew 5:13; Jesus discourse on believers “are the salt and light of the world.”).

This was the largest venture ever attempted at that time to reach the English New World.  The passengers were determined to be a beacon for the rest of Europe, “A Modell of Christian Charity,” in the words of the governor. By the end of the 1630s, nearly 14,000 more Puritan settlers came to Massachusetts, and the colony began to spread.

A History of John Winthrop

John Winthrop

John Winthrop was born in Suffolk, England in 1587 and was his parents’ only son. His father, Adam Winthrop, was the lord of Groton Manor, a small estate in the English countryside, which had fields of wheat and rye as well as shallow ponds.  John who was educated by a private tutor, and at the age of 14, his father enrolled him in Trinity College in Cambridge. He studied there for two years and then returned to Groton to begin practical training in running his father’s estate. John was married at the age of 17. Some 10 months later, just after his 18th birthday, he became a father. John and his wife Mary worked hard and had six children in 10 years. Then Mary suddenly died. After six months John remarried, but on his first wedding anniversary his second wife died. One year later John married his third wife, Margaret, a woman of deep faith. 

In 1629, John Winthrop was a lawyer but he had joined the Massachusetts Bay Colony, unsatisfied with his life and future opportunities in England.  After joining, he was elected leader for the expedition and the fleet of ships acquired its name –the Winthrop Fleet.  The Captain of the Arbella was Peter Milburne and the crew was 52 sailors (about 15 officers) as well as and estimated 95 passengers which included three of John’s sons and eight servants.  Winthrop had also been deeded 400 acres of land in the New World.

A History of the Arbella and its Passengers

The Arbella was 350 tons in size, carried 10,000 gallons of beer (which kept the Puritans from scurry) and 3,500 gallons of water.   Each passenger traveled at his/her expense through various arrangements: those who paid directly; those who had a profession, art or trade, and were to receive remuneration either in cash or land; those who paid part of their passage and were to pay the balance after arrival at three shillings per day; and indentured servants.

Governor John Winthrop

John Winthrop’s reputation for integrity won his appointment by the London Company as the commander of the Puritan settlement fleet of 1630.   He became Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 and served in that capacity until May 1634.   He was elected to eight more annual terms (serving off and on) as Governor until his death in 1649.

Difference between Puritans and Pilgrims

Puritans chose to remain within the English church working for reform, and it was this group in the late 1620’s that established the Massachusetts Bay colony in Boston. 

The Boston and Plymouth colonies were distinct political and religious entities (at least until the English government combined them in the late 1680’s) and, while relations between them were generally friendly, members of both groups were crystal clear on the differences between them.

“Puritans” wanted to remain as part of the English establishment, working for biblical reform from within. Even as they came to New England, they affirmed their “Englishness” and saw the main purpose of their new colony as being that of a biblical witness, a “city on a hill” which would set an example of biblical righteousness in church and state for Old England and the entire world to see. As deeply committed covenant theologians, they emphasized especially strongly the corporate righteousness of their entire community before God.

“Pilgrims” wanted to achieve “reformation without tarrying,” even if it meant separating from their church and their nation. While they continued to think of themselves as English, their emphasis was on their new political identity and spiritual identity. Because of their passionate commitment to the necessity of reformation immediate and without compromise, they emphasized especially strongly individual righteousness before God.

What united Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth (both Puritans and Pilgrims) was far more significant than what distinguished them. All children of the Reformation, they knew that salvation was by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. And they knew this because they took, as their authority, Scripture alone. They all knew that to God alone must be the glory and, in their different ways, they sought to bring every thought and every action—religious, political, social—captive to the Lordship of Jesus.

Could there be any more important goal for America today?  It’s time for us to rise as a “City Upon A Hill” once again!

(Editor’s Note:  Mr. Hernandez is dedicating himself to advance the 13 spheres – as a “City Upon A Hill”; developing an interactive California citizens news platform as an alternative to mainstream media; while building local school-community partnerships.)


Michael Hernandez, Co-Founder of the Citizens Journal—Ventura County’s online news service, founder of History Makers International, is a former Southern California daily newspaper journalist and religion and news editor. Mr. Hernandez can be contacted by email:

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