What is America? Is it a land mass, a nation, or a set of ideals established in founding documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution? The way we answer this question is closely tied to our origin stories, which often begin with the Pilgrims and Puritans.
Many have looked to one Puritan sermon in particular to identify the source of America’s identity and mission: John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity.” Winthrop’s famous phrase, “we shall be set as a city upon a hill,” has seemed to many to perfectly capture America’s exceptional destiny as a model and light to the world.
Abram C. Van Engen, an English professor at Washington University in St. Louis, thinks the sermon has been misused and misunderstood. His new book, City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism, tells the story of how the sermon became a “founding” national text and continues to shape America today
Why is John Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” important in United States history and to Americans today?
The extraordinary story of Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon cannot be understood without telling a second, equally fascinating tale about the shifting roles Pilgrims and Puritans have played in American culture.
In 1630, John Winthrop, the first Puritan governor of Massachusetts Bay, declared that “we shall be as a city upon a hill.” When President Ronald Reagan used Winthrop’s words to describe America, he helped transform “A Model of Christian Charity” into a foundational text of American culture. In its own day, Winthrop’s sermon went unrecorded, unpublished, and almost entirely unnoticed. It was found and first published in 1838—at which point it continued to be ignored for another century.
A text cannot become famous without the right conditions in place. Only a great deal of prior cultural work could make a Puritan sermon relevant to Cold War America. That is largely what my book is about. Reagan and others were able to make Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon a classic during the Cold War because a host of Americans had already turned Pilgrims and Puritans into the origin and explanation of all things American. My book tells how and why that happened. It follows the Pilgrims and Puritans into and through American culture, showing the way they were remembered and remade from one generation to the next.
What was “A Model of Christian Charity” about? What did Winthrop mean by the phrase “city on a hill”?
Winthrop’s sermon is a communal statement of love—a “model of Christian charity,” exactly as it is called. The question behind his sermon is simple: What do we owe each other? And Winthrop’s answer is the same as Paul’s: whatever redemptive love requires.
To make his case, Winthrop drew a good deal on the Bible, of course. But not just any Bible. One of my favorite chapters to write tells the story of the Geneva Bible, the translation he used. The Geneva Bible preceded the KJV. It was wildly popular, widely used (the Bible of Shakespeare), and loaded with explanatory notes in the margins. Today, those notes help make sense both of Puritan culture more broadly and of Winthrop’s sermon in particular.
The phrase “city on a hill” also has a fascinating and largely unknown 17th century context. The phrase comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (specifically Matthew 5:14), and in the 1600s, it was Roman Catholics, not Puritans, who loved it most. They used Matthew 5:14 to prove Protestantism false and Catholicism true. The Catholic Church, they said, was the only one visible church since the time of Christ (Jesus “set it on a hill”). Protestants, in contrast, described the true church as small or hidden, turning to Luke 12:32 and Revelation 12. When it came to Matthew 5:14, they had to reinterpret this verse to pry it from Catholic hands. Instead of the universal church being a “city on a hill,” Protestants like Winthrop claimed that “city on a hill” applied locally, to this place or that, wherever the true light of the gospel shone. Because the phrase did not refer to one universal church, it could be reapplied to individual congregations, towns, cities, and eventually—as we have come to see—a nation.
How did later generations come to use Winthrop’s sermon—and especially the phrase “city on a hill”—as a founding text for America’s national story?
My book moves from the 1600s through the American Revolution and the making of the first national history textbooks in the 1800s to the claims and impact of the influential German sociologist Max Weber in the early 1900s. But for me, the most enjoyable chapters to write were on Perry Miller, a Harvard scholar who had a giant influence on the way we understand the Pilgrims and Puritans today. It was Perry Miller, an atheist, who above all made John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon central to the American story. He did so not just to set the US apart from the USSR, but also to challenge American society, which he saw as having fallen from its Puritan origins. Just a few years before Miller died, the Harvard-educated John F. Kennedy became the first president to use Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon in a speech. When Reagan picked it up, it became famous—a linchpin in larger narratives of American exceptionalism.
How does your research challenge us to rethink some of America’s origin story?
Most broadly, my book tries to show how consequential and influential origin stories have been to the histories we tell of this nation.
The Pilgrim story, for example, enabled early Americans to downplay the role of slavery in our national history. Jamestown came before Plymouth. Enslaved Africans landed before the Pilgrims. Yet if the Pilgrims came for freedom, then these other beginnings could be ignored. To make the story stick, Pilgrims and Puritans—who had slaves themselves and participated in the slave trade—were washed clean of the sin altogether.
Just as importantly, American exceptionalism has never had a place for Native Americans. Early Anglo-American historians often reimagined Native Americans as the setting against which the “true history” of America takes place. They were part and parcel of the wilderness, the stage for the story that began when Europeans first set foot on a savage and silent shore. For American exceptionalism to cohere, Native Americans had to be removed.
American exceptionalism is the belief that the United States has been singled out from all other nations and granted a special purpose in human history. We are to be a model of freedom and democracy, endowed with the mission to bring liberty to all. Such a view depends above all on origin stories—which is why it so often intersects with the Pilgrims.
Any origin story used to explain American history will be insufficient. All of them are flawed. But each of them entails significant consequences for America today.
You end your book by talking about American exceptionalism and “America First.” Are these terms related?
The rhetoric of “America First” can sometimes sound like American exceptionalism, but it offers a radically different vision of the nation.
America First largely dispenses with origin stories. Donald Trump is the first president since JFK to not use the phrase “city on a hill,” for example. In fact, in the 2016 election, the vast majority of the time this phrase appeared, it was used against Trump—including by the right.
Instead of a history of the nation, America First offers a philosophy. It claims that all countries, including the US, share basically the same goal: to win. “Greatness” is not about values; it is primarily about sovereignty, power, and wealth. The hazards of America First, therefore, come not from a misguided sense of national election, but from the absence of any higher moral good. As I show at the end of my book, America First urges self-interest in a world seen as a survival of the fittest.
Whether it is American exceptionalism or America First, these ways of thinking about our nation have long histories with large consequences still today.
Ryan Hoselton is a postdoctoral instructor and research associate in church history at the Univeristy of Heidelberg, in Heidelberg, Germany.