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. He begins by analyzing what Winthrop himself wanted to communicate to his fellow puritans as they emigrated. Van Engen then discusses the motives that drove antiquarians and historical societies of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to preserve and publish historical material such as A Model of Christian Charity, and how they functioned in concert with politicians and textbook writers to propagate a myth of the Pilgrim origins of the young United States. After thoroughly establishing the general disinterest in A Model of Christian Charity that prevailed through the nineteenth century (a key insight of the book), Van Engen reconstructs how it came to be canonized as the cornerstone of early American literature through the influence of thinkers such as Perry Miller, and subsequently taken up by a slew of twentieth- and twenty-first-century politicians. Most prominent among these was Ronald Reagan, who used the “shining city on a hill” as a running rhetorical trope throughout his political career.
The sermon's history, in Van Engen's argument, demonstrates the emergence and central contours of American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States has a special spiritual destiny as a global beacon of democracy and freedom—in other words, that it is a city on a hill. The sermon has fueled exceptionalist discourse despite that fact that a careful reading of A Model of Christian Charity and a deep understanding of Winthrop's culture and purposes contradict many aspects of this ideology. At the end of the book, as a capstone to his project's impressive chronological span, Van Engen contrasts American exceptionalism with Donald Trump's guiding ideology of America First, which disavows a global leadership role for the United States in favor of dedicated pursuit of national self-interest. Van Engen's persuasive analysis broadens his book's relevance and the audiences to which it might appeal. Careful historicist scholars such as Van Engen might be tempted to shy away from contemporary political commentary, rather than risk engaging in a form of argument that falls outside of their professional training. But that impulse, which the academy's current tentative efforts toward public-facing scholarship seek to combat, quarantines historical knowledge from contemporary political debate to the detriment of both. As Van Engen demonstrates, studying the history of American exceptionalism gives new purchase on today's pressing political questions.
Concomitantly, Van Engen's historical scholarship is thorough and reliable. His deep knowledge of puritan culture and religious history yields provocative conclusions, including the idea that A Model of Christian Charity as we have it reflects an incomplete text, and that Winthrop's sermon originally had a stronger scriptural foundation, in accordance with the conventions of Puritan sermonics. This possibility will change how I teach the sermon. Van Engen also conducted impressive archival research at a variety of institutions to flesh out the biography of A Model of Christian Charity. Some of his methodologies make unexpected bedfellows: close material analysis of particular archival objects (such as his astute observations about how shifts in handwriting on the title page of the surviving manuscript of the sermon suggest a process of post-hoc myth-making related to the puritans) and big-data mining (such as graphs indexing traditions of usage of the phrase “city on a hill” in the nineteenth to twenty-first centuries). But readers are left with the clear impression that Van Engen will use any tool at his disposal to recount a comprehensive history of Winthrop's sermon.
Nonetheless, there are stories that remain largely untold in this book, and fall to other scholars to cover. Van Engen jumps from Winthrop in the early seventeenth century to Jeremy Belknap, founder of the Massachusetts Historical Society, in the late eighteenth, because the sermon's reception history in the intervening period is largely dormant. But to the extent that the gradual emergence of an independent American identity forms a crucial backdrop to why Winthrop had no nationalist aspirations but Belknap most definitely did, those intervening years witness key developments. Jill Lepore, once again, offers a useful bridge with The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity (1998), in which she shows how American identity crystalized through Anglo-Americans’ violent othering of Native Americans. Belknap's anti-Indigenous sentiments, which Van Engen catalogs effectively, show him to be an inheritor of that racial history.
Furthermore, although Van Engen consistently attends to the racial politics of white Americans’ conceptions of the past, and the exclusions on which they rest, his project leaves him little space for the voices of Native American writers themselves, or other writers of color. The primary exception to this, a wonderfully illuminating section on the Pequot minister William Apess and his condemnation of the Pilgrims, shows the conceptual payoff of considering the perspectives of non-white writers. Van Engen's overall focus on US cultural memory related to puritan New England understandably limits his focus to those directly engaged with that project, who tend to self-identify as part of that intellectual and racial lineage. Other lineages approach history, memory, spiritual purpose, and nation differently, and thus reading a work like Maureen Konkle's Writing Indian Nations: Native Intellectuals and the Politics of Historiography, 1827–1863 (2004) in conjunction with Van Engen's study would be productive.
The fact that City on a Hill opens up questions about these other stories is a testament to the ambition of the book's historical scope, the compellingly broad stakes of its argument, and the thoroughness that Van Engen brings to what he sets out to cover. With this book, he successfully weds public history and meticulous scholarship.