Richard M. Gamble: In Search of the City on a Hill

The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth

Bloomsbury Publications, 2012

Book Description:

GambleIn Search of the City on a Hill challenges the widespread assumption that Americans have always used this potent metaphor to define their national identity. It demonstrates that America’s ‘redeemer myth’ owes more to nineteenth- and twentieth-century reinventions of the Puritans than to the colonists’ own conceptions of divine election.

It reconstructs the complete story of ‘the city on a hill’ from its Puritan origins to the present day for the first time. From John Winthrop’s 1630 ‘Model of Christian Charity’ and the history books of the nineteenth century to the metaphor’s sudden prominence in the 1960s and Reagan’s skillful incorporation of it into his rhetoric in the 80s, ‘the city on a hill’ has had a complex history: this history reveals much about received notions of American exceptionalism, America’s identity as a Christian nation, and the impact of America’s civil religion.

The conclusion considers the current status of ‘the city on a hill’ and summarizes what this story of national myth eclipsing biblical metaphor teaches us about the evolution of America’s identity.


“A thought provoking analysis of how the biblical metaphor of ‘a city on a hill’ became a national myth. Gamble begins with a careful analysis of John Winthrop’s 1630 lay sermon in the context of its time and traces the ways in which the biblical image was employed by others to define American identity in the two hundred years that intervened between the time when Winthrop delivered his sermon and its recovery in the nineteenth century. The concluding chapters explore how politicians including John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Michael Dukakis, and Sarah Palin have appropriated Winthrop’s name and words to define American exceptionalism, and what this means for America as a nation and for Christians living within the nation.”  Francis J. Bremer, author of John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father (2003) and Building a New Jerusalem: John Davenport, A Puritan in Three Worlds (2012),

In Search of the City on a Hill is the most important study of the origins and of the evolution of a national myth. For the second time Richard Gamble took it upon himself to reveal and prove the insidious and particularly American historical tendency to employ religion for political purposes – indeed, to subordinate matters of faith to populist publicity, to enhance the latter by the former. This is a lone cry in the midst of a deafening wilderness, but one enriched with a most serious scholarly amassing of historical evidence.”  John Lukacs, author of Five Days in London: May 1940 and A New Republic

“’Civil religion is voracious and will gobble up anything it thinks useful’. That stark observation of Rowland Sherrill has never been more conclusively proven than by Richard M. Gamble’s In Search of the City on a Hill. His discovery of the recent and artificial provenance of a holy verse in the American Creed proves even more astounding for the evidence that doesn’t exist than for the evidence it unearths. This concise masterpiece of historical detection blew my mind. It will also blow the circuits of misguided conservatives, neoconservatives, and evangelicals who have been duped (or duped others) into an idolatrous interpretation of their nation, their history, themselves.”  Walter A. McDougall, University of Pennsylvania, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Historian, author of Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era

“Instead of arguing over how best to frame the American mission in terms of the city on a hill, Gamble suggests we ought to ask a different question. We ought to have a debate ‘between exceptionalists of all sorts on one side and skeptics on the other, that is, between those who believe that the United States is somehow exempt from human finitude, the lust for domination, and the limits of resources and power, and those who do not.’ Richard Gamble’s book is an important first step toward that long-overdue debate.”  Thomas E. Woods Jr., The American Conservative

About the Author:

Richard M. Gamble holds the Anna Margaret Ross Alexander Chair in History and Political Science at Hillsdale College, Michigan, USA. He taught at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Florida, USA from 1994 to 2006. His previous books include The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation and The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being. He also serves as a contributing editor for The American Conservative.

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"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
Ramana Maharshi