John Winthrop lived the last nineteen years of his life, from 1630 to 1649, in Massachusetts Bay Colony. He served as its first governor and always held an influential position in the young colony. Historians have tended to depict him as a typically intolerant Puritan magistrate, the man who banished the irrepressible religious radical Anne Hutchinson from the colony. However, he fell from the leadership only when his constituents found him too lenient generally with dissidents. To understand properly Winthrop’s character and his way of exercising authority, his latest biographer insists on the necessity of a careful study of Winthrop’s Puritan heritage. Thus Francis J. Bremer devotes nearly half of John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father to his ancestry and to the first forty-two years of his life, mostly spent in East Anglia, where he attained no position higher than that of local magistrate.
Bremer begins his account with Winthrop’s grandfather Adam, born in 1498. Adam prospered as a London clothier, married twice, and fathered seven children, the sixth of whom, also named Adam, would become the father of John. The younger Adam’s birth in 1548 made him the first of his line to be reared in Protestant England. He fell under the influence of his elder half-brother William, whose evangelizing bent led him to join the crusade against the priestly vestments, images, and symbols that religious reformers regarded as undesirable hangovers from Roman Catholicism. Another important influence was a regional one: the resettlement of the senior Adam in the Stour River valley, which divides the counties of Suffolk and Essex, where the cause of continuing religious reform flourished particularly.
The young man who would father John Winthrop spent some time at Cambridge, but his admission to the Inner Temple in London in 1574 led to the bar and a legal career. Consequently John, born to Adam and his wife, the former Anne Browne, in 1588, was destined also for a legal career. John’s father assumed in 1595 the role of steward of Groton Manor in Suffolk, which had been in the family for some time. John, six years old at the time, would grow up in what Protestant reformers referred to in a rather proprietary way as a “godly” atmosphere.
Winthrop’s admission to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1603 coincided with the death of Queen Elizabeth and the accession of her Scottish cousin James to the English throne. As king of Scotland, James had ruled a stoutly Calvinist nation, and English reformers now entertained high hopes of initiating religious changes that Elizabeth had resisted. At Cambridge Winthrop surely experienced the thrust of current debates and divisions over the future of the Church of England.
Although King James called together the committee that produced the great Bible translation named for him, he disappointed the reformers at a time of increasing dissatisfaction with the state of the clergy, especially those in the Groton area, where a survey proclaimed only a little more than a quarter of them to be “good and faithful preachers.” In 1605 Winthrop left Cambridge, married Mary Forth, and settled in Essex. Over the next six years four children were born to the couple. In 1613 Winthrop returned to Groton, where he had already begun to assume some of the duties of a local magistrate. Around this time his name appeared on a list of members of Gray’s Inn, but he did not complete his legal training and never gained admission to the bar. Both his study and practical legal experience, however, would ultimately prove valuable to him and to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. His first wife died in childbirth in 1615. He then married and was widowed again the following year. His next union, in 1618, with Margaret Tyndal, who shared his religious piety, resulted in four more children and persisted happily until her death in 1647.
Why did the leaders of the New England Company choose this obscure man to head the new colony? Winthrop’s selection had something to do with his perceived ability and integrity, but more to do with the fact that, compared to such enterprises as the Virginia Company and the East India Company, this one was failing to attract prospective leaders of any prominence. Winthrop accepted the nomination for several reasons, beginning with his ambition to “carry the Gospel in America.” He listed also overpopulation in England, inflation, the corruption of Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and a conviction that the emigration of godly and respectable people would give the enterprise a good name. Privately he felt that God must be contemplating the punishment of a morally drifting England and that America offered the opportunity of a fresh start to those willing to take the...
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