Winthrop, John (Vol. 31)
John Winthrop 1588–1649
English-born political thinker, historian, and journal writer.
The first and most influential governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Winthrop is primarily remembered for his A Journal of the Transactions and Occurrences in the Settlement of Massachusetts and the Other New-England Colonies, from the Year 1630 to 1644, in which he chronicled the daily life, tribulations, and important events in the colony. Along with his writings on theology, the Antinomian controversy, and treaties with Native Americans, Winthrop's Journal constitutes one of the seminal records of the everyday life of early settlers in America. Critics also consider Winthrop a primary architect of American Puritanism. In his sermon "A Modell of Christian Charitie," delivered on board the ship Arbella in 1630 while he was on his way to America, Winthrop introduced two concepts that proved extremely influential in shaping colonial thinking and policy: the "City on a Hill," or the idea that the righteousness and material success of the Puritan colony would serve as an example to others, and the concept of adivine covenant binding the community together through shared responsibility.
Winthrop was the son of the lord of the manor at Groton in Suffolk, England. He enrolled at Trinity College, Cambridge, when he was fourteen years old; while a student, he fell gravely ill and underwent a religious conversion, becoming identified with the Puritan group within the Church of England. Winthrop's essay entitled "Experiencia," written in 1607-13 and the only surviving record of this time of his life, deals with his religious experience and documents that he had made "a new Covenant with the Lorde." Winthrop soon left Trinity and in 1605 married Mary Forth. He studied law in London at the Inns of Court, and records identify him as a justice of the peace in Suffolk in 1617. Around this same period Winthrop assumed supervision of the manor from his father, and was also facing tragedy in his personal life: his wife had died in 1615, and Winthrop's second wife, Thomasine Clopton, died a year after they married, in 1617. Now married to his third wife, Margaret Tyndal, and finding it difficult to support his many children because
of a regional economic crisis, Winthrop received a government post as a common attorney in the Court of Wards and Liveries in London. It was also about this time that Winthrop officially joined the Puritans, a militant subgroup of the Church of England which was frequently in conflict with the high Anglicanism of King Charles I. Unwilling to continue to make the compromises needed to placate government and church authorities in England, some Puritans organized the New England Company in 1628, intending to relocate to America; they reorganized in 1629, became chartered as the Massachusetts Bay Company, and elected Winthrop governor. He served terms from 1629 to 1633, 1637 to 1640, 1642 to 1644, and from 1646 until his death in 1649. As governor, Winthrop was often summoned to mediate between warring parties, contend with conflicts relating to jurisdiction, settle conflicts with the Indians, and decide questions of economics. Along with other colonial leaders, Winthrop sought to apply Puritan philosophy to the practical affairs of the Bay Colony, advocating broad participation by members of the community, a mixture of democracy and aristocracy, the growth of churches, and experiments in wages and prices designed to keep citizens from preying upon each other. Anyone dissenting from their consensual orthodoxy was obliged to leave, for Winthrop and his magistrates were determined to shelter their model society from any civil or religious influence that might adversely affect it. Winthrop died in 1649, in the midst of his political career and still engaged in writing his journal.
Winthrop's first and, as many scholars have asserted, most significant legacy to New England was the sermon "A Modell of Christian Charitie," in which he explained to his fellow immigrants the magnitude of the task they were undertaking. They were chosen by God to perform a role and would be watched by all other people, Winthrop maintained; as in the biblical City upon a Hill, everyone would be interpreting their success or failure in America as a sign of God's pleasure or displeasure with them. By virtue of sailing to New England they had entered into a covenant with God involving each person in the community. If they adhered strictly to the divine will, they would be rewarded with prosperity, security, and success; and those evidences of God's favor would inspire England and other nations to emulate the New England way. If they settled for less than perfection in themselves and in those around them, they would suffer God's wrath. Like "A Modell of Christian Charitie," Winthrop's Journal was an effort to discern the divine pattern in the events of daily life in the colony and to justify the role New Englanders believed themselves called to play. Written as a diary and never revised, the Journal remained unpublished long after Winthrop's death, though colonial historians drew upon the work as a source of information. In 1790 Jonathan Trumbull, Governor of Connecticut, copied the first two of the three Journal notebooks and submitted them to Noah Webster for printing. Critics agree that Winthrop's Journal provides the fullest eyewitness rendering of the first two decades of Massachusetts colonial history: Winthrop provides a rich record of events, explicates political and religious points of view held by the colonists, and presents anecdotes that illustrate the Puritans' notion of themselves as fulfilling a divine mission. He reported on all matters impersonally, usually only identifying himself as "the governour," and only occasionally stating his own opinions. Winthrop also wrote two other historical works, the only ones published during his lifetime. Antinomians and Familists condemned by the synod of elders in New-England: with the proceedings of the magistrates against them, and their apology for the same is a collection of materials related to the Anne Hutchinson controversy of the 1630s. Hutchinson and her followers dissented from the teachings of Puritan ministers who emphasized salvation through good works rather than through God's grace; following a trial in which Winthrop defended the right of the community to protect itself from dissenters, she was banished from the colony. Winthrop's A Declaration of Former Passages and Proceedings Betwixt the English and the Narrowgansets with Their Confederates, Wherein the Grounds of Justice of the Ensuing Warre are Opened and Cleared explores in pamphlet form the conflict between the colonists and the Rhode Island Indians and outlines Winthrop's fears concerning the future.
Winthrop was revered by his contemporaries and later New Englanders as an inspired spiritual leader and wise politician. Cotton Mather, in his Magnalia Christi Americana; or, The Ecclesiastical History of New England (1702), extolled Winthrop's integrity and sa gacity, comparing him to the biblical Nehemiah. In the twentieth century, critics have explored various aspects of Winthrop's thought, for example his economic ideas, political philosophy (particularly his concept of the social covenant and the rights and responsibilities of individuals within it), and his complex role as both admirer and prosecutor in the trial of Anne Hutchinson. Some have criticized Winthrop as a narrow-minded and authoritarian leader who sought a homogenous society at the price of personal liberty. Winthrop's Journal continues to attract scholarly at tention, with commentators focusing on stylistic and structural elements, narrative tone and perspective, and the interplay between history and spiritual autobiography in the work. Lee Schweninger, summarizing Winthrop's overall contribution to American literature, has written, "He was able to preserve for future generations both the actual historical record of the building of Boston in New England and his vision of a city on a hill, not only as a model but as an emblem, a symbol of the potential of humanity."
Antinomians and Familists condemned by the synod of elders in New-England: with the proceedings of the magistrates against them, and their apology for the same (prose) 1644; also published as A Short Story of the rise, reign, and ruin of the Antinomians, Familist & libertines, 1644
A Declaration of Former Passages and Proceedings Betwixt the English and the Narrowgansets, with Their Confederates, Wherein the Grounds and Justice of the Ensuing Warre are Opened and Cleared (prose) 1645
A Journal of the Transactions and Occurrences in the Settlement of Massachusetts and the Other New-England Colonies, from the Year 1630 to 1644 (journal) 1790; also published as The History of New England from 1630 to 1649, 1825-26, rev. ed. 1853
Winthrop Papers. 5 vols. (prose, journal, history, letters) 1929-47
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SOURCE: A sermon delivered in 1630, in Life and Letters of John Winthrop, Vol. II, second edition, by Robert C. Winthrop, Little, Brown, and Company, 1866, pp. 18-20.
[In the following excerpt from his famous sermon "A Modell of Christian Charity, " delivered on board the ship Arbella in 1630, Winthrop outlines the nature of the covenant forged between the colonists and God.]
Thus stands the case between God and us. We are entered into a Covenant with Him for this work. We have taken out a commission. The Lord hath given us leave to draw our own articles. We have professed to enterprise these and those ends, upon these and those accounts. We have hereupon besought of Him favor and blessing. Now if the Lord shall please to hear us, and bring us in peace to the place we desire, then hath he ratified this Covenant and sealed our Commission, and will expect a strict performance of the articles contained in it, but if we shall neglect the observation of these articles which are the ends we have propounded, and, dissembling with our God, shall fall to embrace this present world and prosecute our carnal intentions, seeking great things for ourselves and our posterity, the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us; be revenged of such a (sinful) people, and make us know the price of the breach of such a Covenant.
Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity,...
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SOURCE: "Nehemias Americanus: The Life of John Winthrop, Esq., Governour of the Massachuset Colony," in Magnolia Christi Americana; or, The Ecclesiastical History of New-England, Vol. I, Silas Andrus and Son, 1855, pp. 118-31.
[Mather was a renowned American clergyman and scholar who was associated with the Salem witchcraft trials, but later repudiated them. His works include Wonders of the Invisible World (1693), Essays to Do Good (1710), and Ratio Disciplinae (1726). In the following excerpt from his best-known work, first published in 1702, Mather praises the wisdom, integrity, and sagacity Winthrop exhibited in his role as governor of "our American Jerusalem. "]
Let Greece boast of her patient Lycurgus, the lawgiver, by whom diligence, temperance, fortitude and wit were made the fashions of a therefore long-lasting and renowned commonwealth: let Rome tell of her devout Numa, the lawgiver, by whom the most famous commonwealth saw peace triumphing over extinguished war and cruel plunders; and murders giving place to the more mollifying exercises of his religion. Our New-England shall tell and boast of her Winthrop, a lawgiver as patient as Lycurgus, but not admitting any of his criminal disorders; as devout as Numa, but not liable to any of his heathenish madnesses; a governour in whom the excellencies of Christianity made a most improving addition unto the virtues, wherein...
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SOURCE: "Economic Ideas of John Winthrop," in The New England Quarterly, Vol. III, April, 1930, pp. 235-50.
[In the following essay, Johnson provides a detailed examination of Winthrop's ideas regarding wealth. He notes that Winthrop's ideas, though not original, are significant because they accurately reflect Puritan ideology.]
How important a role a philosophy plays in men's actions and lives can actually never be determined. A philosophy is never a prime mover, but often an influence so omnipresent and persistent that it becomes worth while to investigate the thoughts as well as the deeds of great men. For this reason, it seems worth while to examine the economic thoughts of John Winthrop. He held definite views about wealth, production, value, communism, colonization, and kindred subjects. He was well equipped in theory before he set out on one of the greatest economic missions of modern times.
There is indeed little that is original in Winthrop's economic thought. But originality is a gift which the gods give reluctantly; and to be great is not necessarily to be original. Winthrop reflected the current beliefs of his age reasonably well. He was not a political economist, but a political and religious leader; and as such, we would not expect him to have more than a reasonable acquaintance with economic speculation. As a devout Christian, economics to him was concerned with what...
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SOURCE: "The Political Thought of John Winthrop," in The New England Quarterly, Vol. III, October, 1930, pp. 681-705.
[Below, Gray presents an overview of Winthrop's political philosophy, stressing his reliance on the idea of the social convenant.]
God Almightie in his most holy and wise providence hath soe disposed of the Condicion of mankinde, as in all times some must be rich some poore, some highe and eminent in power and dignitie; others meane and in subieccion.
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SOURCE: "Seventeenth-Century Nihilism" and "The New England Way," in The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop, edited by Oscar Handlin, Little, Brown and Company, 1958, pp, 134-54, 155-73.
[A respected American historian, Morgan is the author of such studies as The Puritan Family (1944), Birth of the Republic, 1763-89 (1956), and Roger Williams: The Church and State (1967). In the following excerpt, from his monograph on Winthrop, Morgan gives an account of Winthrop's role in the trial of Anne Hutchinson and in the writing of the Body of Liberties document.]
On September 18, 1634, two hundred passengers disembarked at Boston's bustling, cluttered landing place and picked their way through the dirty streets. The squalor of the place was enough to make them quail, but they reminded themselves that it was holy ground, where they might worship God without bishops or kings or Romanizing ritual. Among the arrivals who strengthened their resolution with this thought were William Hutchinson and his wife Anne.
Winthrop described Hutchinson as "a man of a very mild temper and weak parts, and wholly guided by his wife." But a man with a wife like Anne Hutchinson could scarcely not have been guided by her. All we know about Anne Hutchinson was written by other hands than hers, for the most part by writers whose main purpose was to discredit her. Yet the force of...
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SOURCE: "Traditional Patterns of Puritan Autobiography: John Winthrop's 'Christian Experience'," in Spiritual Autobiography in Early America, Princeton University Press, 1968, pp. 100-10.
[In the essay below, Shea explores Winthrop's "Christian Experience" as an account of his spiritual progress.]
Any Puritan autobiography exhibits its author's awareness of the traditional stages through which a man passed as God brought him to grace. But some narratives serve as paradigms in their adherence to textbook descriptions of the order of grace. Edward Taylor's "Spiritual Relation" is one of these. Another, the "Christian Experience" of John Winthrop was written more than forty years before Taylor's "Relation," and yet there is little substantial difference between them. Taylor's diagram of his experience can be applied to Winthrop's relation with little difficulty. Taylor divides the whole process of conversion into two parts, conviction and repentance. As it relates to the understanding, conviction is more precisely termed illumination, "but as it affects the Conscience whereby it turns its Checks upon the Will, and affections its properly called Conviction … and is a Singular Spur unto Repentance." In turn Repentance divides neatly into Aversion, "whereby the heart is broken of[f] from Sin," and Conversion, "whereby the Soule is carried to God in Christ." Conversion then flowers triply into Love, Hope, and...
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SOURCE: "John Winthrop: The Statesman," in The Idea of Fraternity in America, University of California Press, 1973, pp. 133-49.
[Here, McWilliams discusses Winthrop's political ideas as a system of thought "guided by the fraternal imperative."]
John Winthrop was a political man by vocation, a reflective man by nature and faith. None defended more strenuously the prerogatives of a specifically political wisdom distinct from that of the church. Yet Winthrop never conceived of a political understanding which did not depend on religious teaching; he relied on scriptural and religious authority rather more, and secular classical writings rather less, than did his clerical contemporaries.
His thought consists of a series of reflections on practical politics. It does no violence to Winthrop's ideas, however, to see in them an order and consistency amounting to systematic theory. In fact, Winthrop merits the supreme accolade which can be given a theorist: his diagnosis of his own times is relevant to others. He is a permanent contemporary.
Man, for Winthrop, was above all a social animal. The "paradise" of his spirit was love, which could be found only where there was likeness. Akin to his fellows both in the flesh and in the image of God common to all men, man found his delight in their company. Love, however, was no longer easy for men. Adam's fall had destroyed the...
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SOURCE: "John Winthrop Writes His Journal," in The William and Mary Quarterly, third series, Vol. XLI, No. 2, April, 1984, pp. 185-212.
[In the following essay, Dunn examines the style, structure, and content of the journal Winthrop kept between 1630 and 1649.]
Stored in the manuscript vault of the Massachusetts Historical Society within a locked case of handsome Victorian design are two fragile vellum-covered notebooks in the distinctive and devilishly difficult handwriting of John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts. These are the first and third manuscript volumes of Winthrop's journal, the prime source for the history of the Bay Colony from 1630 to 1649. In the first of these notebooks, measuring 7 1/4" × 5 3/4" and containing 188 pages, Winthrop made 169 pages of entries, starting on March 29, 1630, and running to September 14, 1636. There was once a second notebook with 358 pages of entries running from October 1636 to December 8, 1644; this volume was accidentally destroyed in 1825. The third notebook, measuring 10" × 6 3/8" and containing 186 pages, was only two-thirds filled when Winthrop died; he made 128 pages of entries in it, running from September 17, 1644, to January 11, 1649. This set of texts is surely the most baffling of all major early American documents to decipher or to edit. The handwriting in the two surviving volumes is notoriously hard to read, the ink is faded, the...
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SOURCE: "'This Great Household upon the Earth'," in A House Divided: Domesticity and Community in American Literature, Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 8-39.
[In the following excerpt, Anderson traces Winthrop's idea of community as evidenced in his writings and compares it with those of Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor.]
The Book of Deuteronomy, particularly its closing chapters, had an irresistible appeal for the first generation of New England Puritans because of the parallels they recognized between their own situation and that of the Children of Israel, poised upon the borders of the Promised Land. All of the Old Testament had typological significance, of course, and the New Testament was the source that the leaders of the emigrants would consult for guidance in shaping their communal institutions. But it was to Deuteronomy that John Winthrop turned when he sought a forceful conclusion for the discourse on Christian charity that he delivered at sea as the Arbella and her consort ships sailed west toward Massachusetts Bay.
The passage Winthrop chose partly to quote and partly to paraphrase was from Moses' "last farewell" to his people, after he had at length restored their laws and was preparing to die. This wonderfully dramatic moment was deservedly familiar to readers, playgoers, and congregations long before Winthrop singled it out. The medieval compilers of the...
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SOURCE: "Winthrop's Journal: Religion, Politics, and Narrative in Early America," in Religion and the Life of the Nation: American Recoveries, edited by Rowland A. Sherrill, University of Illinois Press, 1990, pp. 235-58.
[Here, Moseley discusses the ways in which the tone of Winthrop's journal changes from a mere recording of historical fact to a personal, self-conscious narrative.]
John Winthrop has often been portrayed as a self-righteous martinet, a Puritan dictator whose love for power was matched only by his unthinking Calvinist orthodoxy. Yet reading his three-volume Journal enables us to recover a more credible, if more complicated, image of the foremost founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Several years ago historian Edmund Morgan wisely eschewed the authoritarian caricature and, instead, cast Winthrop [in The Puritan Dilemma, 1958] as representative of "the Puritan dilemma," that characteristic tension between the transcendent exuberance of an awakened spiritual life and the mundane requirements of living responsibly in a fallen world. Because Morgan pictured Winthrop as quite thoroughly molded by his spiritual experiences as a young man in England, he tended to read Winthrop's Journal as a straightforward chronicle of how Puritan religious convictions were translated into political realities in early New England. Yet Winthrop did not simply reach his religious...
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SOURCE: "Ways of Making History in Early New England," in John Winthrop's World: History as a Story, The Story as History, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1992, pp. 130-47.
[In the following excerpt, Moseley focuses on Winthrop 's journal as a history, noting its exemplification of a Puritan point of view, and comparing it with other historical accounts.]
Winthrop's Journal was not only about Puritans; it was a Puritan history. This quality, so quickly lost by those who wrote about the early Puritans, comes clearly into focus when Winthrop's history is compared with the other great history of first-generation New England. Like the Puritans' Winthrop, the Pilgrims' William Bradford was both governor and historian, and the two men interacted as leaders of communities as close as Boston and Plimouth. For all their day-to-day cooperation, though, the theological differences between the Puritans and Separatists had important consequences for the ways the two men understood and wrote history.
William Bradford's Of Plimouth Plantation, 1620-1647 chronicles the endurance of a small group of English Protestants who shared many of the Puritans' beliefs about the degeneracy of their native land and its established church. Instead of hoping to reform the Church of England, though, Bradford's Pilgrims decided that purity of belief and practice could be achieved only through "removal to...
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Baritz, Loren. "Political Theology: John Winthrop." In his City on a Hill: A History of Ideas and Myths in America, pp, 3-45. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1964.
Overview of Winthrop's life and work, with emphasis on his ideology.
Bercovitch, Sacvan. The Puritan Origins of the American Self. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975, 250 p.
Takes Cotton Mather's biographical essay on Winthrop as a representative text and a starting point for a discussion about the "Puritan view of the self," "the individual in history," and "the idea of national election."
Bozeman, Theodore Dwight. To Live Ancient Lives: The Primitivist Dimension in Puritanism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988, 413 p.
Traces "the primitivist strands in English Puritan thought through the period of the Great Migration," with numerous refrences to Winthrop.
Dawson, Hugh J. "John Winthrop's Rite of Passage: The Origins of the 'Christian Charitie' Discourse." Early American Literature 26, No. 3 (1991): 219-31.
Argues that Winthrop's famous sermon was most likely composed in England prior to his departure, not aboard the Arabella, as is commonly assumed.
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