Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and Obama All Cited One Puritan Sermon to Explain America

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How did a forgotten colonial text become a national origin story?

What is America? Is it a land mass, a nation, or a set of ideals established in founding documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution? The way we answer this question is closely tied to our origin stories, which often begin with the Pilgrims and Puritans.

Many have looked to one Puritan sermon in particular to identify the source of Americas identity and mission: John Winthrops “A Model of Christian Charity.” Winthrop’s famous phrase,we shall be set as a city upon a hill,” has seemed to many to perfectly capture Americas exceptional destiny as a model and light to the world.

Abram C. Van Engen, an English professor at Washington University in St. Louis, thinks the sermon has been misused and misunderstood. His new book, City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism, tells the story of how the sermon became a founding” national text and continues to shape America today

Why is John Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” important in United States history and to Americans today?

The extraordinary story of Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon cannot be understood without telling a second, equally fascinating tale about the shifting roles Pilgrims and Puritans have played in American culture.

In 1630, John Winthrop, the first Puritan governor of Massachusetts Bay, declared that “we shall be as a city upon a hill.” When President Ronald Reagan used Winthrop’s words to describe America, he helped transform “A Model of Christian Charity” into a foundational text of American culture. In its own day, Winthrop’s sermon went unrecorded, unpublished, and almost entirely …

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