The historian and public intellectual Jill Lepore has recently been arguing for the importance of a US national story—a shared sense of Americans’ collective history—as a form of social cohesion sorely needed in a divided nation. She has attempted to tell that national story in These Truths: A History of the United States (2018). With City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism, Abram C. Van Engen has undertaken a similarly ambitious and synthesizing task: telling the story behind Americans’ national story, via the biography of one influential text, A Model of Christian Charity, a sermon by Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop best known for its invocation of the concept of a “city on a hill.”

Van Engen traces the meaning, material history, and reception of this sermon from its seventeenth-century creation to the present day....

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