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City Upon a Hill: Colonists as Reformers Content Session Material

Theme: Social Changes and Social Reform
City Upon a Hill: Colonists as Reformers
March 29, 2004
Emerson Baker, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of History, Salem State College

Overview | Required Reading | Reading Questions

Materials selected and syllabus created by Emerson Baker, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Chair, Department of History, Salem State College (


When John Winthrop penned his sermon aboard the Arbella, calling upon his fellow Massachusetts Bay colonists to imagine their future home "as a city upon a hill," he set forth a blueprint for a society that, in theory, was to be communal in nature and free from the corrupt influences of the Church of England. The early Separatists of Plymouth colony also set out to craft a society different--and better--than the one they had left. However, the reality of life in colonial New England, while in some ways reflecting the utopian spirit of the founding fathers, contained many contradictions. After all, the earliest Anglo settlers in New England imported an English world-view that coexisted with their efforts to reform certain aspects of the society they had left behind. In this session we will dive deeply into the reasons behind the early Anglo settling of New England and explore the ideals and realities of life in Puritan New England as we try to make sense of the complexities and incongruities of colonial life.

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Required Reading

Secondary Source

Lockridge, Kenneth. A New England Town: The First Hundred Years. 2nd edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1985.

Primary Sources:

Available at http://personal.pitnet/primarysources/covenants.html

1. "The Salem Covenant of 1629"
2. "The Enlarged Salem Covenant of 1636"
3. "The Dedham Covenant, 1636"
4. "Covenant of Exeter, New Hampshire, July 5, 1639"

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Reading Questions

1. Compare and contrast the covenants for Salem, Dedham, and Exeter. Can you detect any differences in these compacts, or do they all seem to represent the typical Puritan town?

2. Why do you think Salem revised their covenant in 1636?

3. You have read Dedham's Compact, and read about Dedham. How well did the Covenant work in practice?

4. From 1636 to 1736, a utopian experiment named "Contentment" became the Yankee town of Dedham. What were the key factors that led to the decline of the utopian dream?

5. Puritan New England was supposed to be a "City Upon a Hill." Was this a utopia for everyone?

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