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Abram C. Van Engen
Washington University (St. Louis, MO 63130-4899)

Public Scholars
Research Programs

[Grant products][Media coverage][Prizes]

$25,200 (approved)
$25,200 (awarded)

Grant period:
1/1/2018 – 6/30/2018

The Meaning of America: How the United States Became the City on a Hill

Completion of a book project on the history and influence of John Winthrop’s “City Upon a Hill” sermon ("A Model of Christian Charity") from 1630 to the present.

This project is a biography of John Winthrop's "city on a hill" sermon from 1630 to the present day. Cited today by politicians and many others as the origin of American exceptionalism, this sermon has become foundational to American history and literature. Yet in its own day, it went unrecorded, unpublished, and completely unnoticed. Found in 1838, Winthrop's sermon only gradually became important, achieving status as an American classic in the mid-twentieth century. This study asks how it rose and with what effects. Ever since its rebirth, I show, competing interpretations of the text have offered contending visions of American community and purpose. Drawing on several methodologies, my biography of Winthrop's sermon becomes, finally, a history of exceptionalism and "the meaning of America" as it has emerged from--and been contested in--rediscoveries, reinventions, and reinterpretations of America's past.