cover image As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon

As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon

Daniel T. Rodgers. Princeton Univ., $29.95 (368p) ISBN 978-0-691-18159-2

Princeton historian Rodgers (Age of Fracture) argues that the comparison of America to a city on a hill that politicians often use, quoting from John Winthrop’s 1630 lay sermon “Model of Christian Charity,” is not true to the sermon’s original sentiment and distorts the historical legacy of the passage. In its 17th-century context, the text was a meditation on social obligation in an age of “holy experiments,” Rodgers writes, revealing Winthrop’s anxiety over the Puritan project. Far from a perennial cultural touchstone, the sermon remained out of print and largely uncited for centuries. Rodgers tracks the text in references across time, with highlights including the novels of Herman Melville, letters from the trenches of WWI, Liberian colonists’ writings, and finally a rejection of the sermon by 21st-century evangelical Protestants. He argues that its ideas mainly appear in 19th- and 20th-century literature as conversations about nation-building simply because those ideas were ubiquitous in American society at that time. It wasn’t until Cold War–era writers and thinkers revisited the “Model” in search of evidence of America’s universal nature (ignoring the text’s historical context) that it regained popularity. Through a winding, enthralling timeline, Rodgers successfully illuminates the strange history of “a text that we think we know so well that we barely know it at all.” (Nov.)