City on a Hill Archive

Principal Investigator: Abram Van Engen, Washington University in St. Louis.

In 1630, Governor John Winthrop proclaimed to fellow Puritan settlers: “we shall be as a city upon a hill.”  Nearly four centuries later, his words have become foundational to American history, their importance amplified by President Reagan’s “shining city on a hill.”  Yet in its own day, Winthrop’s sermon went unrecorded, unpublished, and almost entirely unnoticed.  The manuscript circulated briefly, then disappeared for over two hundred years.  First published in 1838, A Model of Christian Charity gradually worked its way into national consciousness, achieving status as an American classic only in the mid-twentieth century.  This project tracks every use of the phrase “city on a hill” and its variants from 1600 to the present in order to find out what this phrase means, in what context it most often appears, when it begins referring to America, and what kind of America it identifies.