City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism

Yale Univ. Feb. 2020. 392p. ISBN 9780300229752. $30. HIST
Van Engen (English, Washington Univ. in Saint Louis) has written an excellent treatise on how an idea can develop, spread, hide, and reemerge. The “City on a Hill” sermon by Puritan leader John Winthrop has been frequently quoted by American politicians to justify the historical roots of American exceptionalism. Van Engen reexamines the phrase “city on a hill” by tracing its origins: It was first used in a 1630 sermon by Winthrop, titled “A Model of Christian Charity.” The author maintains that the sermon was a call to action for communalism. Winthrop’s sermon stated that God did not grant the Puritans a new Garden of Eden to prosper; the only way they could prosper was by effectively working together. The author also shows how the sermon was nearly forgotten in history—and rediscovered in the 20th century. The final section examines how the original meaning of the sermon has been co-opted into a clarion call for American exceptionalism.
VERDICT Van Engen has created an engrossing, highly recommended intellectual history that counters one of America’s founding myths.

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