Abram C. Van Engen’s City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism provides an in-depth examination of a key phrase in American rhetoric through the lens of our national myths. Many Americans associate “city on a hill” with Ronald Regan’s presidential vision, but its first use in the American context dates to a sermon from the 1600s by John Winthrop. Van Engen offers an in-depth textual history of Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” and connects itto the ideology of American exceptionalism. In analyzing the place of “city on a hill” within the national narrative, this book articulates a critical-historical approach to how and why stories are told about the US and “what a person means by America” (1). Van Engen’s archival work reveals the malleability of history and demonstrates the power of perceived origins in competing visions of the nation today.
Told in five sections, City on a Hill spans American history from the 17th to the 21st century. Van Engen exhaustively examines the original social context of Winthrop’s sermon and notes the absence of the phrase “city on a hill” in American texts until the 20th century. He also looks at the historical societies that developed the discipline of American history and how they gave the nation’s past social and political purpose. Van Engen narrates the story of “city on a hill” as an important cultural text in the formation of the nation’s self-understanding.
Van Engen’s monograph contributes to a paradigm shift in American religious history and American history broadly. It challenges long-held understandings of American history, purpose, and values by interrogating how stories of “the Pilgrims and Puritans have historically enabled Americans to define their nation not as the outcome of events but as the fruition of exceptional ideals” (3). The three chapters of Part 1 rely on archival work to place Winthrop’s sermon in its historical, theological, and literary contexts. Part 2 attends to the development of American history after the Revolutionary War and how the first historians “have shaped not only what we do say about America’s past but what we can say” (70). Van Engen begins to challenge understandings of the past by bringing to light how knowledge of Winthrop, the Pilgrims, the Puritans, and archived texts were influenced by the need to establish an American identity. Here, the author introduces his key theoretical argument about history: “Puritan origins did not invent the myth of America. Americans, much later, invented the myth of Puritan origins” (267).
Parts 3 and 4 expand on the preceding sections by focusing on the specific myths and methods that serve as the foundation of national narratives. In particular, Van Engen outlines how textbooks, education, and historical writing created and transmitted the story of an exceptional New England, which conflated all pilgrims with Puritans, and defined the latter as the forebears of America’s values and beliefs. The chapters in these sections highlight the endurance of education as a location for Americanization, drawing the reader to reflect on current school debates over critical race theory.
The final section of this volume ties the history of Winthrop’s sermon to scholarship and politics in the 20th century. In these final chapters, Van Engen outlines the use of “city on a hill” as a rhetorical summation of American exceptionalism in presidential speeches. He concludes with an examination of recent uses of “city on a hill” in presidential language, highlighting the absence of the phrase in Donald Trump’s speeches. This lack of reference to “city on a hill,” Van Engen suggests, may mean the death of Winthrop’s sermon as an “America First” model supplants the “American exceptionalism” narrative. However, the reader is left without any definitive conclusions about the future of “city on a hill” in American rhetoric.
The critical approach of City on a Hill asks readers to wrestle with conceptions of “true history” and the ideologies of key authors of US narratives such a Max Weber, Perry Miller, and Sacavan Bercovitch. Specifically, Part 2 and Part 4 outline how certain stories about religion and race were written into American origins. Van Engen uses his deep research into US archives to demonstrate how “cultural nationalism . . . was a function of religion” (83) and to highlight the importance of racial genealogies in “the belief that special traits descended from the precious blood of the Puritans to their various descendants and heirs” (171). This attention to questions of origins, religion, race, and meaning-making through stories places Van Engen’s research in the middle of current scholarly conversations about Indigenous histories and settler colonialism.
In fact, City on a Hill can be viewed as an interdisciplinary text that illuminates important historical context for scholars in religion, history, and English. The book would serve as a strong addition to a graduate seminar on religion and literature or in American religious history. Chapters of the book are written in such a manner that they can be used as stand-alone readings for undergraduates to provide historical context for broader conversations. I do not recommend the entire book be used in an undergraduate course given the depth with which Van Engen examines “city on a hill.” Students may be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information. General readers with an interest in US history may find this book a compelling read given its examination of lesser-known figures and moments in the country’s past.
City on a Hill goes beyond a textual and cultural history of Winthrop’s sermon to examine how national stories come to be. Van Engen’s research provides a timely intervention as it encourages readers to relate historical debates to current divisions over the meaning of America. The connections between past and present in Van Engen’s work are so strong that one cannot finish reading this volume without wondering: could this book be an intervention into past historical narratives that assists with confronting and revising the nation’s white, Protestant understanding of itself?
D. Ashley Campbell is a lecturer in media and religion at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
D. Ashley Campbell
Date Of Review:
February 1, 2022
Abram C. Van Engen is associate professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis, where he is also associate professor (by courtesy) at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics.
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