John Winthrop 1588-1649
British-born American writer of sermons, diarist, speechwriter, chronicler and epistler.
The following entry presents criticism on John Winthrop from 1964 to 1996. See also John Winthrop Literary Criticism (1400-1800) (Volume 31).
As the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Winthrop is regarded as one of the most influential men in the colony's history. Despite his presence in the political arena, Winthrop is best remembered as a historian and writer whose work provides an insightful glimpse into the history of New England. His most significant work, A Journal of the Transactions and Occurrences in the Settlement of Massachusetts and the Other New-England Colonies, from the Year 1630 to 1644 (1790), is highly regarded for its detailed documentation of the events of the colony, from the mundane to the extraordinary, as well as for Winthrop's personal insight and evolution as a leader, Puritan, and writer.
Winthrop was born in Suffolk, England in 1588. His father served as auditor of the accounts at Trinity College at Cambridge, where Winthrop was enrolled at the age of fourteen. While at school, Winthrop became deathly ill and, as a result, underwent a religious conversion—he began to identify himself as a Puritan. Soon after his conversion, Winthrop left Trinity and married his first wife, Mary Forth, in 1605. The couple had six children in a ten-year period. Winthrop, despite his withdrawal from Trinity, went on to study law at Gray's Inn in London, and records indicate that he served as a justie of the peace in Suffolk. Winthrop's wife died in 1615, and his second wife, Thomasine Clopton, died a year after their marriage in 1617. By the time he was married to his third wife, Margaret Tyndal, in 1618, Winthrop was finding it difficult to support a large, growing household. He continued to practice law, often traveling to London for work, and in 1627 was appointed as attorney to His Majesty's Court of Wards and Liveries. This position gave Winthrop a firsthand view of the tensions between Charles I and Parliament, which Charles I dissolved in March of 1629. This act perpetuated Winthrop's dissatisfaction with his life in England, and he joined a group of Puritans determined to relocate to America. In 1629, Winthrop was elected governor of the royal chartered Massachusetts Bay Company, and in April of 1630 Winthrop and three of his sons traveled on the Arbella to America. During the journey, Winthrop delivered what was to be his most important sermon, “A Modell of Christian Charitie,” where he introduced several concepts which would become central in American Puritanism. Winthrop served four terms as governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony. He continuously sought to apply the Puritan philosophy not only in conflict resolution, but also to the practical necessities of governance. Winthrop was intent on making the colony a model of the perfect Puritan community. Until his death in 1649, Winthrop meticulously documented the daily life of the colony in his journal, which remains one of the foremost works on New England's history.
One of Winthrop's most significant pieces of writing is the sermon “A Modell of Christian Charitie,” which he delivered in 1630. In this sermon, Winthrop introduced two key concepts that would prove influential in shaping American Puritanism. The first is the concept of The City on a Hill. Winthrop maintained that if the colony practiced righteousness and enjoyed material success, it would serve as an example to other communities. The second idea Winthrop introduced was that of a divine covenant that would legally bind the community to work for the good of the whole and for spiritual glory. On another level, the sermon allowed Winthrop to address his plans for the community—he urged acceptance of social inequalities because they would encourage charity, therefore linking the community together according to God's divine plan. Winthrop sought to document this divine plan and the signs of the colonists' achievements in his most significant work, A Journal of the Transactions and Occurrences in the Settlement of Massachusetts and the Other New-England Colonies, from the Year 1630 to 1644. The Journal, which was originally comprised of three notebooks, was not published until 1790. The Journal consists of day-by-day journal entries and lacks literary structure; however, the flow of the text is maintained by Winthrop's writing style, thoughts and motivations. The Journal represents an eyewitness account of two decades of colonial history in Massachusetts. Winthrop documented everything from the everyday happenings of the colony to major events as well as weather patterns, flora, and fauna, all the while commenting on how these items fit into God's divine plan for the community. Of the historical works Winthrop published while he was alive, the most studied is Antinomians and Familists condemned by the synod elders in New-England: with the proceedings of the magistrates against them, and their apology for the same (1644). This work documents the controversy of the Antinomians, led by Anne Hutchinson, who believed in achieving salvation not through good deeds but through God's grace alone. The group's dissension resulted in Hutchinson’s banishment from the colony.
During his lifetime, Winthrop was highly respected by his fellow colonists and considered to be an excellent leader, both spiritually and politically. Some modern critics, such as Richard S. Dunn and Lee Schweninger, have examined Winthrop's writing as literature instead of as historical documentation by focusing on the narrative style and growth of the writer. The vast majority of Winthrop scholars, however, examine his works, especially the Journal, as historical documents that provide a unique insight into the day-to-day events of life in the Massachusetts Bay colony. In addition, Winthrop's works provide a record of the ideals and beliefs upon which the Puritans founded their colony, illustrating not only their organization, but their religious aims. These same ideals continue to shape American politics, ideology and literature to this day.