City on a Hill Project

The City on a Hill 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. It’s part of the WashU Humanities Digital Workshop, which is a research workshop comprised of Humanities professors applying computational tools and methods to traditional humanities research projects.

Professor Van Engen

Abram Van Engen is an Associate Professor in English focusing especially on seventeenth-century Puritans and the way they have been remembered and remade in American culture. He is the Project Director/ Principal Investigator for the City on a Hill Archive.


City on a Hill Archive

This site provides tools to allow researchers to trace the development of the phrase over time, as well as to explore the way the use of the phrase has fluctuated between narrow circumstances and broad purposes. These tools include static graphs and an interactive data page which can be manipulated to narrow and broaden the data set.

“City on a Hill” and Variants

Background and Relevance

Appearing in the Bible at Matthew 5:14 and notably put in an American context in the 17th century by John Winthrop, the phrase “city upon a hill” and its variants (“city on a hill,” “city set on a hill,” and “city set upon a hill”) have been used for a wide range of purposes. 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 Yet in its own day, Winthrop’s sermon went unrecorded, unpublished, and almost entirely unnoticed.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. The common use of the phrase today to denote the United States as a “city on a hill” is a key strain of American exceptionalism as it is manifested in contemporary American discourse.

American Exceptionalism

John Winthrop’s City on a Hill speech has recently become a foundation for American culture after being brought back into importance by John F. Kennedy. JFK set a precedent for the use of the phrase in American rhetoric. It then continued to be used by politicians as a way of expressing American exceptionalism and the idealization of American values and history. For more information on the history of the phrase and its uses from Professor Van Engen, watch the video below.

Where and when does America Begin?