Abram Van Engen is Associate Professor of English at Washington University of St. Louis. Daniel T. Rodgers is Emeritus Professor of History at Princeton University. Richard M. Gamble is the Anna Margaret Ross Alexander Chair of History and Politics at Hillsdale College. Each has a recent book on the image of the “city on a hill” in American history.
About two thousand years ago, in Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth delivered his famous “Sermon on the Mount.” As part of that discourse, he encouraged the audience to set a godly example in public, styling his followers “the light of the world,” their virtue radiating as though from “a city that is set on a hill.”
Sixteen centuries later, the Puritan John Winthrop employed this image in his A Model of Christian Charity, drafted aboard the flagship Arbella as it approached Massachusetts Bay. “We shall be as a city upon a hill,” Winthrop wrote of the colonists, “the eyes of all people are upon us.” His words went unpublished for 200 years after that, then languished in obscurity for 100 years more, before achieving 20th century prominence first in the work of select New England historians and later in the campaign speeches of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. Suddenly ubiquitous, Winthrop was retroactively lauded as author of the American mission statement, his address canonized as an essential founding document with standing somewhere between the Mayflower Compact and the Declaration of Independence. It was cited routinely in schools, revered in churches, and for a time awarded primacy of place in the Norton Anthology of American Literature. Winthrop, it now seemed, had been progenitor of it all; the intellectual grandfather of the American experiment.
But he wasn’t really, and so finally, in the second decade of the 21st century, three serious scholars wrote three excellent books recounting the singular story of his remarkable comeback. Each is a compelling piece of American historiography; all demonstrate the rhetorical value of past discourses to present purposes—even when the connections are tenuous between.