Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 960

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...

(The entire section contains 52597 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this John Winthrop study guide. You'll get access to all of the John Winthrop content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Critical Essays
  • Analysis
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 132

“A Modell of Christian Charity” (sermon) 1630; also published as Christian Charitie. A Modell Hereof

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 (history) 1644; also published as A Short Story of the rise, reign, and ruin of the Antinomians, Familists & libertines

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 (history) 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

Loren Baritz (essay date 1964)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11278

SOURCE: Baritz, Loren. “Political Theology: John Winthrop.” In City on a Hill: A History of Ideas and Myths in America, pp. 13-39. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1964.

[In the following excerpt, Baritz examines how “A Modell of Christian Charity” outlines not only Winthrop's argument for the journey to Massachusetts but also his thoughts about the meaning of the organic community.]

It is a mistake to think that Winthrop's view of politics was separate from his other views. His intellectual system was a political theology; its purpose was the Christianization of the state. The westward-moving Puritans thought that they had a special commission from God to establish a Zion in the wilderness, a commonwealth whose foundation and purpose was Christian. It was the intention to establish a community made up of persons whose behavior at least would appear to be Christian. But in order to acknowledge man's inability to tell whether mere behavior reflected the real condition of the soul, persons who acted as Christians were called “visible saints.” Such persons might not be saints in the all-seeing eyes of God, but because men were limited by their senses, they were compelled to acknowledge that no mortal could read the secrets of any soul. In terms of policy, however, appearance was sufficient. If men would act as Christians the purposes of the migration would be accomplished. Visible saints might never sit at God's right hand, but then they also would probably never seriously disturb the peace of Zion. In order to create a community where law and security would prevail, the visible saints covenanted themselves together so that God's will in civil as well as religious matters would be implemented. The idea of a unified political organism—a corporation—was the basis of Winthrop's political ideas, as it was also the basis of Congregational church polity. “It is,” he wrote, “of the nature and essence of every society to be knitt together by some Covenant, either expressed or implyed.”1

While in mid-ocean, on board the Arbella, Winthrop composed his single most important statement, “A Modell of Christian Charity,” a tract designed to show the unity of the civil state that was to be operative when God had allowed the passengers safe passage, when the business corporation called the Massachusetts Bay Company had become transformed into a political body. In order to prove the organic nature of the state, Winthrop was obliged to defend the various ranks men held in society, a class system. He had to show how political and economic differences among men were centripetal forces tending to the greater cohesion of the political body: “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 subjeccion.”2

There were three basic reasons for this supposedly necessary social stratification.

1. “The variety and difference of the Creatures” conformed to God's creation in general, and testified to His power and glory.

2. The heterogeneity of man's condition gave God “more occasion to manifest the worke of his Spirit: first, upon the wicked in moderateing and restraineing them: soe that the riche and mighty should not eate upp the poore, nor the poore, and dispised rise upp against theire superiours, and shake off theire yoake.” The simple existence of the saved and damned gave God a wider canvas on which to labor.

3. The fact of wealth and poverty meant “That every man might have need of other, and from hence they might be all knitt more nearly together in the Bond of brotherly affeccion: from hence it appeares plainely that noe man is made more honourable then another or more wealthy etc. out of any perticuler and singuler respect to himselfe but for the glory of his Creator and the Common good of the Creature, Man; Therefore God still reserves the propperty of these guifts to himselfe.”3

Variety, meaning economic and social stratification, was decreed by the Lord both for His own purposes and out of His love of man. Those who benefited from the inequality, those who were rich and powerful, as well as those who suffered, must be made to realize that life on earth required masters and servants, that both were creatures of God, and that each had obligations to the other. With such realization, the precondition of an organic community would be met.

Property and power were gifts of God to men, given in order to help them help others in a mutual social covenant. When the community was in danger men must act “with more enlargement towardes others and lesse respect towards our selves, and our owne right hence it was that in the primitive Churche they sold all [and] had all things in Common, neither did any man say that that which he possessed was his owne.”4 Since wealth and might were given to individuals for the sake of the political corporation, the needs of the corporation must take precedence over the needs or desires of any individual.

Love was the ligament which held the parts of this political and social body together. “The diffinition which the Scripture gives us of love is this [:] Love is the bond of perfection.” Every body consisted of parts, and whatever it was that held the parts together “gives the body its perfeccion, because it makes eache parte soe contiguous to other as thereby they doe mutually participate with eache other.”5 The inequality of men constituted the parts of the body politic, which parts were held together, from man's point of view, by love.

How was it, however, that depraved and sinful men could love their neighbors as themselves? How and why would the sinner turn the other cheek? After the Fall, “Adam Rent in himselfe from his Creator, rent all of his posterity allsoe one from another, whence it comes that every man is borne with this principle in him, to love and seeke himselfe onely and thus a man continueth till Christ comes and takes possession of the soule, and infuseth another principle [:] love to God and our brother.” Love of self stood between Adam and Christ, but with regeneration, the conversion of the “old man Adam” to “the new Creature,” the Holy Spirit “gathers together the scattered bones or perfect old man Adam and knitts them into one body againe in Christ.”6 Clearly, then, the love which was necessary for the creation and operation of the body politic could come only when that body was made up of the converted. Since the right kind of love was a result of regeneration, it was necessary, from Winthrop's viewpoint, to limit membership in the corporation to the visible saints, since that was as close as mere men could get to actual saints. A sinner in the body inevitably and naturally would tend to endanger the whole.

Winthrop applied this theory of the organic community to the migration in four different categories: persons, work, end, and means. The individual persons had become a single body in their professed membership in Christ. The immigrants as persons were hopefully actual as well as visible saints, members of Augustine's kind of City of God. “In which respect onely though wee were absent from eache other many miles, and had our imploymentes as farre distant, yet wee ought to account our selves knitt together by this bond of love, and live in the exercise of it if wee would have comforte of our being in Christ.”7 The work itself was the seeking of “a place of Cohabitation and Consorteshipp under a due forme of Government both civill and ecclesiasticall.” Such a work was based on “a mutual consent through a speciall overruleing providence,” and it assumed the primacy of public over private welfare: “In such cases as this the care of the publique must oversway all private respects, by which not only conscience, but meare Civill pollicy doth binde us; for it is a true rule that perticuler estates cannott subsist in the ruine of the publique.” The end, or purpose, of the migration was “to serve the Lord and worke out our Salvacion under the power and purity of his holy Ordinances.” And, finally, the means necessary for these persons, work, and purpose were extraordinary, because the work itself was. It was not enough to practice Christianity merely as it had been and was practiced in England: “the same must wee doe and more allsoe where wee goe: That which the most in theire Churches maineteine as a truthe in profession onely, wee must bring into familiar and constant practice.”8

The special commission which God had given to the immigrants obviously implied privileges. But any chosen people also had to face the consequences of their uniqueness, consequences which were awesome. God expected unique behavior from His unique people. He would forgive less because He rightfully expected more. By creating an organic community, Winthrop said, those frail humans could live up to the terms of their divine commission: “wee must be knitt together in this worke as one man … our Community as members of the same body.” Only when the persons realized that God had covenanted with the community and that the welfare of each therefore depended on the welfare of the body politic, would each member find it possible to feel that love of neighbor which was the cohesive of the corporation. If the persons could truly covenant with each other in the interest of forming a political body, then men would truly enjoy peace and plenty. In language which was to reverberate throughout American history, Winthrop explained that, as a result of a genuine social covenant, “wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when tenn of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when hee shall make us a prayse and glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantacions: the lord make it like that of New England: for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us.”9

Thus, according to Winthrop, his band of brethren was involved in a mission of cosmic significance. They were not merely fleeing from an anticipated persecution or searching for greener pastures. They were involved in a test case which would determine whether men could live on earth according to the will of the Lord. The Reformation in Europe had started the good work, but everywhere, including England, it had been frustrated. Winthrop believed that it had been given to these immigrants to find out whether they were of sufficient faith to carry that work on, to bring the Reformation to full fruition. Should they succeed, their outpost in the wilderness would “be as a Citty upon a Hill,” a moral example to all the world. Should they succeed, their example would help even Europe to begin the work anew, to try to rid itself of the Antichrist. Should they succeed, the place where they planted would become the hub of the universe, whose light and wisdom would radiate out in all directions for the utility and comfort of men and the glory of God.

It is necessary, in order to share their mood, to think of this Great Migration not as some merely human act, undertaken with whatever motives, but to think of it as a necessary step leading to nothing less than the redemption of the entire world. Should they fail, their failure too would radiate outward, and the human race would know that a divine opportunity had been lost, that a chance for progress toward God had been missed. Thus it was that Winthrop thought of this first wave of immigrants not as mere human beings, not as mere colonists of England, but as God's agents, a community with a unique and compelling commission from God to build that city on a hill. Whether they could build properly depended on whether their covenants with each other would be strong enough to support a political order that would be organically whole, a political body which was indeed one body, with one head, and all the member parts in their proper locations, performing their proper functions. Mankind's destiny was at stake.

Merely coming into Massachusetts constituted an implicit acceptance of the covenant, for it was clear that all who entered must obey the laws established by those whose consent had been more explicit. That Winthrop viewed the political corporation as an organic whole, as indissoluble, is proved by his refusal to admit the moral right of men to leave the colony. Of course there were many who left, and Winthrop, displaying an unfortunate and not uncharacteristic excess of righteousness, vindictively recounted the evils which had befallen those who had left and had spoken critically of the Bay saints: “One had a daughter that presently ran mad, and two other of his daughters, being under ten years of age, were discovered to have been often abused by divers lewd persons, and filthiness in his family.”10 Individuals had covenanted themselves and had agreed to migrate because, among other reasons, others had done so too. The Agreement at Cambridge had been such a covenant; it had specified that the signers agreed “that this whole adventure growes upon the joynt confidence we have in each others fidelity and resolucion herein, so as no man of us would have adventured it without assurance of the rest.”11 Each of the signers then pledged himself as a Christian to be ready to sail for the New World at a specified date, provided that the organic unity of the enterprise was protected by the unusual transplantation of the Charter and Company with the migrants. Was not the nature of each man's political covenant altered, and not by his own choice or act, whenever any man left the authority of the nation?

Much disputation there was about liberty of removing for outward advantages, and all ways were sought for an open door to get out at; but it is to be feared many crept out at a broken wall. For such as come together into a wilderness, where are nothing but wild beasts and beastlike men, and there confederate together in civil and church estate, whereby they do, implicitly at least, bind themselves to support each other, and all of them that society, whether civil or sacred, whereof they are members, how they can break from this without free consent, is hard to find, so as may satisfy a tender or good conscience in time of trial. Ask thy conscience, if thou wouldst have plucked up thy stakes, and brought thy family 3000 miles, if thou hadst expected that all, or most, would have forsaken thee there.12

In the internal affairs of the colony every effort was made to discourage notions about the primacy or independence of the individual, whether in theological, political, social, or economic matters. The law of the colony made it illegal for an individual to live alone; everyone had to be or to become a member of a household or family. The Daniel Boone type was considered as dangerous to the organic community as were mavericks like Roger Williams and mystics like Mistress Anne Hutchinson. The nation was made up of a series of covenants, ascending from the basic and essential covenant between a man and God, to the family, church, and state, and an uncovenanted or otherwise exotic individual would be a threat to the entire structure.

Winthrop's justification of authority in the state was determined by his views of the meaning of liberty. No man in society must be allowed that kind of natural liberty which “is common to man with beasts and other creatures.” This kind of liberty was possible only for an individual outside of society, beyond a covenant, and gave that individual “liberty to do what he lists; it is a liberty to evil as well as to good.” It was the kind of liberty that Winthrop thought to be “incompatible and inconsistent with authority, and [that] cannot endure the least restraint of the most just authority.” The exercise of this natural liberty had to place the individual outside of the properly constituted society, and made of the individual, as Aristotle had said, either more or less than human. God was at liberty, except insofar as He decided to limit Himself to the terms of a covenant, but when a man tried to step outside of the covenant he did not rise to godhood but became “worse than brute beasts.”13

The kind of liberty that was proper to men was available only in society and under a covenant. Winthrop called this civil, federal, or moral liberty, and said that it “is the proper end and object of authority, and cannot subsist without it; and it is a liberty to that only which is good, just and honest.” That kind of liberty was compatible with the dependence of man on man in the Christian corporation, and was consistent with the love necessary to political success. “This liberty is maintained and exercised in a way of subjection to authority; it is of the same kind of liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.”14 The members of the political body were free to do good, and would do so by obeying lawfully constituted authority. In other words, the individual as an individual could never have moral liberty, while the individual as a member of a body politic could have. As a member, the socialized individual would accept social restraints as necessary to peaceful life on earth: “if you stand for your natural corrupt liberties, and will do what is good in your own eyes, you will not endure the least weight of authority, but will murmur, and oppose, and be always striving to shake off that yoke; but if you will be satisfied to enjoy such civil and lawful liberties, such as Christ allows you, then will you quietly and cheerfully submit unto that authority which is set over you, in all the administrations of it, for your own good.”15

The lesser members of the political body had the liberty of counsel, and the magistrates had the duty to listen to reason: “If we [magistrates] fail at any time, we hope we shall be willing (by God's assistance) to hearken to good advice from any of you, or in any other way of God.”16 Moral liberty thus could only be maintained so long as the magisterial authority was protected. Both must stand or fall together, and the desire to limit authority was, perhaps unknowingly, a desire also to destroy moral liberty and return to that natural liberty in which welfare and safety were continually jeopardized. In the most extreme terms, Winthrop's argument reads like this: Any individual who attacked properly constituted authority sought a natural liberty whose reward must be danger and death. Thus banishment as punishment for those like Williams, Wheelwright, and Mistress Hutchinson who did not accept the constituted authority of Massachusetts was peculiarly fitting in that it drove them into the untamed wilderness, the most appropriate setting for the exercise of natural liberty.

As men did not have a moral right voluntarily to leave the colony, so Winthrop was convinced that the magistrates had the right to screen applicants for admission into the Bay. Implicit in his argument was the notion that the divisive Antinomian controversy might never have happened if Wheelwright and Mistress Hutchinson had been kept out in the first place, and that in the future such conflict could be avoided by an exercise of such magisterial power. “Antinomian” was the label placed on those who rejected the more legalistic Puritan criteria of sanctification in favor of a more direct and mystical inner light. The Antinomians, led by Mrs. Hutchinson and Wheelwright and assisted nervously by John Cotton, charged that several of the leading ministers of the Bay had themselves not been converted. The General Court brought the leaders to trial and maneuvered Mrs. Hutchinson to the point where she confessed to a direct communication from God. She was banished from the Bay, eventually made her way to New Netherland, and there was killed by Indians.

One of the consequences of the action against Wheelwright was an order of the General Court, in May, 1637, “to keep out all such persons as might be dangerous to the commonwealth, by imposing a penalty upon all such as should retain any [such dangerous persons], etc., above three weeks, which should not be allowed by some of the magistrates.”17 Those against whom this order was directed protested, and Winthrop wrote a defense of the Court's order. In so doing he found it necessary to explicate some of his basic political principles:

1. No common weale can be founded but by free consent.

2. The persons so incorporating have a public and relative interest each in other, and in the place of their co-habitation and goods, and laws, etc. and in all the means of their wellfare so as none other can claime priviledge with them but by free consent.

3. The nature of such incorporation tyes every member thereof to seeke out and entertaine all means that may conduce to the wellfare of the bodye, and to keepe off whatsoever doth appeare to tend to theire damage.

4. The wellfare of the whole is [not] to be put to apparent hazard for the advantage of any particular members.18

A group of people freely consented to form themselves into a political society “for their mutual safety and welfare.” This consent to subject himself to rule and law was granted by each individual in order that he might be more secure than he could be in that natural state which he shared with beasts and which would make him beastlike. The unified political body that was created by the consent of its citizens had a right to protect itself against the introduction of elements that would subvert the safety and welfare for the realization of which that body had been created in the first place. It was therefore just, according to Winthrop, that the political body of Massachusetts Bay inquire into the beliefs and convictions of all who desired to enter. If some righteous one who should have been admitted was denied entrance, the violation of justice could “not … be imputed to the law, but to those who are betrusted with the execution of it.”19 The entire argument was summed up by asserting that the exclusiveness of the Bay was justified by the desire for that political tranquillity which was thought essential for the practice of true reformed religion. In insisting on the authority of the magistrates to screen candidates for admission, Winthrop believed he was doing no more than defending a relatively harmless technique for keeping the Serpent out of the Garden.

To the objection that Massachusetts was a corporation created by the King, and that the colony had no right to exclude any of the King's subjects, Winthrop, probably in August, 1637, answered that “that which the King is pleased to bestow upon us, and we have accepted, is truly our owne.”20 Because the Bay Company accepted the Charter (and transferred it to the New World) the corporation was its own to do with as best suited its own purposes. “The King,” Winthrop reasoned, “haveing given all the land within certaine limitts to the patentees and their associates, cannot send others to possesse that which he hath granted before.”21 Had the implications of this position been drawn out at the time, charges of treason against Winthrop and his colony might have been made. Here, Winthrop drew back from logic just at that point where it might do damage to his cause.

Another objection to Winthrop's argument was that the magistrates' power to admit or reject an applicant was unregulated and therefore despotic. Of course he denied the charge, saying that the magistrates were not unregulated because they were church members and bound to live as Christians, because they were freemen and bound by their oath to contribute to the welfare of the state, and because they were also bound by the magisterial oath to do justice and seek the general welfare. The magistrate, in other words, did not have unlimited discretion because of the church covenant and civil oaths which he had taken, and because, as a man of conscience, he would surely honor his pledge. If that conscience proved somewhat deficient, the church or the state, or both, could force him back to the path of righteousness.

The explicit political covenant, or contract, was the instrument by which discrete persons came together and formed themselves into a corporation in order to secure their mutual safety and welfare. But the anterior covenant—that between the individual and God, the covenant of grace—was the necessary antecedent to the formation of a Christian commonwealth, as it was to the creation of individual churches. Government was an institution favored by God to help men live together, if not in absolute brotherhood, then at least without the constant fear of being murdered or, what was worse, being prevented from practicing true reformed religion. God had left the particular form of government for men to determine, because problems varied from time to time and place to place, but the institution itself was of divine origin.

There was no doubt that God stood behind the whole enterprise, or that its success depended upon the fidelity of the citizens to the covenants of grace and of society. Temporal success was the reward to the nation for heeding God's will. It seemed perfectly reasonable to the orthodox Puritans to protect the second covenant by limiting political liberties only to those who were presumably under the first, the covenant of grace. “The way of God,” Winthrop wrote, “hath alwayes beene to gather his churches out of the world; now, the world, or civill state, must be raised out of the churches.”22 Church membership became the prerequisite for freemanship, for full political rights and privileges, and since church membership was extended only to those who could demonstrate the validity of their conversion to the satisfaction of the congregation, political liberties could be similarly extended by the General Court. Only the visible saints could be full citizens of the wilderness Zion, though some of those saints chose not to obtain complete citizenship from the Court.

Granting freemanship to church members was not a restriction of the franchise; the Charter had defined a freeman as a stockholder, or one the stockholders themselves thought fit. In a short time there were only eight men who could qualify under this definition, and they were all magistrates. Extending freemanship to those of the visible saints who applied for it thus extended the terms of the Charter in ways probably never dreamed of in England, but in ways which supported Winthrop's ideas about an organic Christian corporation.

Initially Winthrop kept the Charter secret in a special box because, he said, in the beginning of the settlement, there was so much other and more urgent business that there was precious little concern with matters of government. Anyone, he thought, “would easyly allowe us pardon of that, or greater errors (which are incident to all Plantations, in their beginninges) especially seeinge our Readinesse to reforme them, and to conforme to the right Rules of our Government.”23 Extending freemanship to include those of the visible saints approved by the Court conformed nicely to Winthrop's ideas about the political necessity of that kind of love which only the regenerate could feel. But with one foot in the door, the freemen quickly requested—demanded—further rights and privileges. One of the ways they sought to increase their power was to call for a reduction of magisterial authority, and this eventually led to the establishment of a two-house legislature.

The events leading to the creation of America's first bicameral legislature were symptomatic of the growing dissatisfaction of the freemen with their largely passive role in the state. They concluded that power would have to be taken at the expense of the magistrates. The ruling elite, led by Winthrop, tried to resist in a number of different ways. The controversy finally centered around whether or not the magistrates should have a veto power over the actions of the deputies who were the representatives of the freemen. In an extended document that Winthrop wrote in 1643 he argued that the magistrates always had and should continue to have such a negative vote, that any other course would alter the nature of government in the Bay. He began the argument by asserting that the magistrates' right to the negative vote had been authorized by the Charter, and then typically used the occasion further to refine his ideas about the civil state of Massachusetts.

This conflict over the magisterial veto was no small matter, he thought, because it touched the nerve of the Bay's civil polity. The existence of the veto power helped to define the government of Massachusetts, and was therefore considered by Winthrop to be “essentiall and fundamentall.” “If the Neg: vo: were taken away,” he wrote, “our Government would be a meere Democratie, where as now it is mixt,”24 a form Calvin had earlier approved. There was general agreement that the deputies represented the democratic part of Massachusetts' government, and to allow them unchecked authority would result in the creation of an unmixed democracy for which, Winthrop argued, “we should have no warrant in scripture … : there was no such Government in Israell.” To establish a simple democracy would mean, he said, that “we should heerby voluntaryly abase our selves, and deprive our selves of that dignity, which the providence of God hath putt upon us: which is a manifest breach of the 5th Com[mandmen]t for a Democratie is, among most Civill nations, accounted the meanest and worst of all formes of Government: and therefore in writers, and Historyes doe recorde, that it hath been allwayes of least continuance and fullest of troubles.”25 To establish a political system based on notions of human equality would fly in the face of Winthrop's earlier defense of a class system designed by God for His glory and out of His love for mankind. God had made, Winthrop reiterated, “(not the disparitye onely but) even the contrarietye of parts, in many bodyes, to be the meanes of the upholding and usefullness thereof.”26 Such a political system would violate the pattern of authority explicit in the commandment to honor one's father and mother. The transfer of property and power that would be necessary to convert the Bay into a simple democracy would thus, according to Winthrop, be criminal, unnatural, and sinful.

His rejection of simple democracy did not lead Winthrop to reject what he considered to be the rightful democratic powers of the deputies, who, he wrote, “joyned with the magistrates in any generall Court have (together with them) all the power legislative, and the chiefe power Juditiall, of this body Politick.”27 Neither group had any power without the other, and it was simply wrong to assert, as some had, that the deputies were in reality magistrates themselves. The deputies had the same liberties as the body of freemen they represented, and the fact of their having only liberty, not authority, “makes them no otherwise subjecte, then accordinge to their will, and Covenant.”28 A disturbance in the arrangement of the various parts of the body politic would destroy the mutual consent of the parts to accept their disposition in the interest of the health of the organism. To put a foot in place of a head would produce an unsightly, not to say illegitimate, body.

One of the objections to Winthrop's position on the magisterial veto was made on the grounds that “the greatest power is in the people.” Winthrop agreed, but changed the terms: “originally and vertually it is: but when they [freemen] have chosen them Judges, etc: their Juditiary power is actually in those to whom they have committed it and those are their magistr[ate]s.” The freemen had the right to choose and having chosen had the obligation to obey. This was part of the fundamental law of the organic corporation, and as such could not be altered by the deputies: “thoughe all Lawes, that are superstructive, may be altered by the representative bodye of the Com[mon] w[ealth] yet they have not power to alter any thinge which is fundamentall.”29 Since he defined fundamental law as that which distinguished one government from another, he was obliged to view those constitutional arrangements which best characterized the mixed aristocracy of the Bay as fundamental. In this connection he believed that the magisterial veto was a necessary defense against the encroachments of the steadily more assertive freemen. Those assertions, if allowed to become policy, would destroy the political theology of the commonwealth by turning from rule by the wise to rule by the most. As Winthrop searched his Bible and his heart and, be it said, his self-interest, he could find no authority for such a transformation.

The oath taken by the specific magistrate, and accepted by those who had called him to office, was the explicit and renewable covenant between rulers and ruled. That oath, as Winthrop understood it, meant “that we shall govern you and judge your causes by the rules of God's laws and our own, according to our best skill.”30 A magistrate could be called to account for a failure of faith because that would be a violation of his oath; he was not accountable for failures of skill or ability because he was human and thus necessarily deficient, and the electors, knowing this beforehand, still elected him to office. Yet it was the superior skill of the magistrate which, presumably, had led to his election and which justified his authority. When it was clear that the magistrate's will was evil, the electors had the duty to turn him out of office, not even waiting for the annual election meeting of the General Court. Short of this failure of faith and will, the people must suffer his rule because they had chosen him, and once elected he ruled in God's name. Having exercised their liberty to choose the man, the freemen had given that man the divine authority inherent in the office. The magistrates, Winthrop announced to the General Court, “have our authority from God, in way of an ordinance, such as hath the image of God eminently stamped upon it, the contempt and violation whereof hath been vindicated with examples of divine vengeance.”31 He thought that the aristocratic form of government was justified by its existence in the Bible, and by the notion of the divinity of the office of magistracy, if not of each particular magistrate. That magistrates “are Gods upon earthe,”32 meant that any resistance to lawful authority which was exercised under a covenant could not be justified and would be punished by God in His heaven and by His magisterial agents on earth.

In 1644, when Winthrop was the Deputy Governor, the deputies once more called for abolition of the magistrates' veto power, and argued that the magistrates had no lawful power when the Court was not in session except that power which the full Court of deputies and magistrates had earlier and explicitly granted. Winthrop accurately viewed this as a revolutionary move designed to transfer authority from the magistrates to the people, a revolution which the deputies disguised by charging the magistrates with arbitrary government. Even though the church elders sided with the magistrates, Winthrop felt compelled to answer the charge, and he wrote and circulated a “Discourse on Arbitrary Government.” He defined an arbitrary government as one in which the governors assumed powers that properly belonged only to God. “Arbitrary Government,” he wrote, “is, where a people have men sett over them without their choyce, or allowance: who have power, to Governe them, and Judge their Causes without a Rule.” A governor who ruled without either popular consent or a published and known set of laws was not merely a tyrant, but was also a sinner. The government of Massachusetts, according to Winthrop, was not arbitrary for three reasons: “I: by the foundation of it: 2: by the positive Lawes thereof: 3: by the constant practice.”33

The royal charter was the foundation of Massachusetts' government. That charter created a body politic, a corporation, and arranged the “power and Motions” of the various members of the whole body “as might best conduce to the preservation, and good of the wholl bodye.” There were two political members created by the charter; the governor “not as a person, but as a State,” including the deputy governor and eighteen assistants, and the company or freemen. Authority was granted to the government and liberty was granted to the freemen. “The power of liberty” was “not a bare passive capacitye of freedome or immunity, but such a Libertye, as hath power to Acte upon the chiefe meanes of its owne wellfare.”34 The power of that liberty was made manifest in two ways, election and counsel. The freemen annually elected all governmental officials, and through their deputed agents were required to give their advice and consent to all legislative action.

Such liberties did not allow any intrusion upon the proper authority of the government. Winthrop made clear, immediately following his discussion of the liberties of the freemen, that “… if all were Governors, or magistrates, and none lefte, to be an objecte of Government … our state should be a meer Democratie.” He cited the charter as proof that the authority of “this Government is not Arbitrary in the foundation of it, but Regulated in all the partes of it.”35 The government was, he said, “a mixt Aristocratie,”36 was not arbitrary, and was regulated in all things.

He thought that the laws passed by the General Court in Massachusetts similarly proved that both the liberty of the freemen and the authority of the government had been respected. Winthrop recalled that in the spring of 1634 the powers of the Court were made explicit by the Court itself. In the annual election, to be held on the last Wednesday of the Easter Term, the freemen could reject any of the officers without showing cause; but any officer could be discharged at any session of the Court if the reasons for discharge were made explicit and proved.

Winthrop's final reason for insisting that the government of Massachusetts was not arbitrary was his opinion that the attempt to bring theory and practice into harmony had been usually successful. Since the Charter and the laws of the colony were just, and since “where any considerable obliquitye hathe been discerned, it hathe been soone brought to the Rule and redressed: for it is not possible in the infancye of a plantation, subjecte to so many and variable occurrents, to holde so exactly to Rules, as when a state is once setled.”37

Turning then to the basic question of the content of “a Rule to walk by,” the content of those laws which restrained or constrained the officers of the government, Winthrop declared that the “Rule is the Worde of God, and such conclusions and deductions, as are, or shalbe regularly drawne from thence.”38 It was of course not possible to legislate for every conceivable situation, but so long as the fundamental law or constitution had been carefully and piously drawn, the later necessary deductions from it might be similarly pious and therefore just. He noted that difficulties in old England were created “because they [English residents] shaped their Course too much by Politike and nationall prudence, and held not strictly to the Rules of Gods worde.”39 Massachusetts could escape the Lord's wrath if it would observe the Lord's word. The rewards of political expedience (which, in Massachusetts Bay, came increasingly to mean excessive religious toleration) seemed to be civil war. The rewards of political piety would surely—hopefully—be temporal success, measured by human standards and desires: peace and plenty and health.

It was clear that God could have outlined all the details of running a political economy had He chosen to do so. Instead of this detail, God “appointed Gov[ernmen]ts upon earthe, to be his vice-gerents.”40 Those governments, following the few but important hints that were included in the Bible, had the obligation to follow the divine precedents, to deduce wisely, with one eye on the Bible and the other on the particular society with which they were concerned. Just as the Lord did not prescribe all the prayers for the ministry, so He did not prescribe all legislation; total prescription in either case would have destroyed the ordinance of the office. “Judges are Gods upon earthe: therefore, in their Administrations, they are to holde forthe the wisdome and mercye of God (which are his Attributes) as well as his Justice: as occasion shall require, either in respecte of the qualitye of the person, or for a more generall good: or evident repentance, in some cases of less publ[ic] consequence, or avoydinge imminent danger to the state, and such like prevalent Considerations.”41

Let it be clear that Winthrop did not lead governors or magistrates beyond the pale of theology. Puny, vicious, and impotent man could govern well only with divine assistance. Aided only by his natural reason, man would and could only make evil worse. “But … when occation required, God promised, to be present in his owne Ordinance, to improve suche gifts as he should please to conferre upon suche as he should call to place of Government.”42 The road to divine salvation and political success was the same road, and each forward step on it could only be taken with God's help.

Given Winthrop's concept of the organic Christian corporation based on the consent of the members and limited to only the visible saints, it followed logically that he should argue that any man admitted into the corporation implicitly consented to abide by majority rule, so long, of course, as that rule violated neither religion nor the objective general welfare. No man who refused to give implicit or explicit consent could be allowed to walk in the saints' preserve. None should be allowed natural liberty; all would be subject to magisterial authority, under which moral liberty could flourish; and, in cases where numbers were relevant, majority rule should decide (excepting always the opposition of a majority to the magistrates). Any variation of these conditions would endanger the state and therefore the church and therefore the individual salvation of the saints themselves.

At the center of Winthrop's political thinking was his conviction that some men were better than others—more pious, moral, and wise: The best part of a community, he said, “is always the least, and of the best part the wiser part is always the lesser,”43 an idea whose political implications can be traced backward to canon law and forward throughout most of the colonial period of New England's history. The first political requirement was to discover who those wise and pious men were, and the second was to devise ways by which they could wield sufficient but delimited power. He feared political decisions reached in passion instead of cool reflection, and he was convinced that reason and democracy were mutually exclusive, that mass participation in the political process necessarily elicited the kind of bias that must damage the commonwealth. Even assuming that one man was merely as good or bad as any other—an assumption Winthrop could never make—still that man would be unable to restrain his internal demons in a mass assembly, while he could do so in a quiet committee meeting: “It is easye to judge, that 30 or 40 distinct men, chosen out of all the countrye, and by all reason as free from partialitye or prejudice as any other, may give a more just sentence in any such cause upon deliberation and quiet discourse than a whole multitude upon the suddaine, when many may be thought not to heare what is proposed, and others not to understand it, and perchance the greater part in a heate and tumult, and when the weakest and worst member of the commonwealth adds as much weight to the sentence as the most godly and judicious.”44 His goal was to devise a government in which wisdom could assert itself over numbers.

Mere men could never do the job, he thought, as the entire history of the world and its calamities proved. It was a mistake to look for wisdom in the governments of the past, a mistake which had led even Nathaniel Ward, who, in 1641, had been selected without the permission of the magistrates to preach at a session of the Court, to separate politics and morality from religion. In his Journal Winthrop slapped Ward's wrist: “In his sermon he delivered many useful things, but in a moral and political discourse, grounding his propositions much upon the old Roman and Grecian governments, which sure is an error, for if religion and the word of God makes men wiser than their neighbors, and these times have the advantage of all that have gone before us in experience and observation, it is probable that by all these helps, we may better frame rules of government for ourselves than to receive others upon the bare authority of the wisdom, justice, etc. of those heathen commonwealths.”45 Political vice, like any other kind, came from man's hatred of God. The bloody record of paganism and of the Anti-christ would come to an end when the saints in Massachusetts constructed a Christian commonwealth whose essential basis was the word of God, when this new Chosen People legislated and administered God's sovereign will.

In his rejection of Ward's classicism, Winthrop claimed that the secular past was simply irrelevant to Massachusetts Bay, and thus expressed another idea which was to grow and thrive in later America. The entire history of the real world, as read by Winthrop and his fellow Puritans, had been merely the fits and starts leading up to the cosmic climax of Boston's founding. Because the Bay saints were supposedly more deeply and truly pious than any other people in the world's history, they could build a unique society with a unique government. As radically new men they occupied a new world and would fashion their lives on earth in a new way. Their piety had lifted them out of human history, out of time. They argued that they were God's agents and, as such, were freed from the disabilities that had limited the achievements of the past. Only the sovereign will of God could make them creatures of time and subject them to the human failings that had caused the rise and fall of earlier nations.

Sovereignty, for Winthrop, was an attribute of God, and not of men, and most certainly not of the mass of men. If the voice of the people were the voice of God, it would be as a result of God's mysterious will, and not because of inherent qualities in men or society. The function of government, then, was to allow men to rule men through God, to prevent the raising of obstacles between God and man for the sinful and futile purpose of trying to free man from his covenant with God. Men could raise such an obstacle, but it would not keep those godless men from the jurisdiction of the omnipotent and ubiquitous God.

Because political success depended upon the society's adherence to the word of God, it followed that in a Christian corporation the clergy would have an important role. God had revealed part of His will in the Bible, and both the preacher and the politician were enjoined to obey His word. This did not mean that the clergy had or should have control of the state. The political system of Massachusetts has frequently been described as a theocracy, by which the rule of the clergy, not that of God, is meant. From Winthrop's point of view this would be an inaccurate designation because the magistrates had the only authority in the state. The clergy could not hold office, but could and frequently did give advice on political matters. So, in fact, did the freemen and their deputies, but this did not make Massachusetts a democracy. It is true that only church members were eligible for freemanship, and the clergy might try to control the franchise by trying to control church membership, but the whole church controlled admission into its body, not the clergy alone. Whether a given church member would be granted political liberties was determined by the General Court, not by the clergy: not all church members were freemen. In time the General Court could veto the ordination of an objectionable minister, and in the Body of Liberties of 1641 it was said that the government had the authority to supervise church matters, including matters concerning doctrine. Many activities that were supervised by the church in England were directed by the state in Massachusetts Bay, including the disposition of estates, marriage and divorce, recording of vital statistics, superintending of cemeteries, and burial practice (which included no religious ceremony of any kind). No church holidays were observed and the thanksgiving and fast days were regulated by the state. A minister's status continued only while his congregation maintained him in office. Professor E. S. Morgan has concluded that “of all the governments in the Western world at the time, that of early Massachusetts gave the clergy least authority.”46 Winthrop's own concept of a mixed aristocracy is more accurate than the standard concept of a theocracy.

The trial and sentencing of Mistress Hutchinson occasioned much dissatisfaction, and Winthrop heard a rumor that many from the Boston church were trying to persuade their church elders to call him to account. In the interest of preventing a public quarrel, and with the intent of defining the proper relationship between the church and the state, Winthrop wrote an “Essay Against the Power of the Church To Sit In Judgment On the Civil Magistracy.” He began with the simple assertion that “The Scripture affords neither Rule nor example of any such power in the Church, but diverse against it.” If the church had the authority to try magistrates, the church would become “the supreame Court in the Jurisdiction, and capable of all Appeales, and so in trueth meerly Antichrist, by being exalted above all, that is called God.” The church could not act as a judge because it lacked the means to determine the facts of a case; it could not “call in forrein witnesses,” examine witnesses under oath, or have access to the records of the General Court. Simply to examine a civil case, even when no penalty or punishment was intended, was forbidden by Christ to His churches.

The crux of the matter was that “Christ [in] his kingdome, cannot Juditially enq[uir]e into affaires of this world.” Christ settled this jurisdictional dispute by dividing the authority of His officers between realms as distinct as heaven and earth. As King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Christ “hath sett up another kingdome in this worlde, wherein magistrates are his officers, and they are to be accountable to him, for their miscarriages in the waye and order of this kingdome.” Since the magistrate had his authority directly from Christ, he was accountable for his actions as magistrate to Christ, and not to the clergy. There was thought to be a profound difference between the office and its holder. As a man, the magistrate was as much in need of the clergy as any other man, but as an official, because his official actions came from the divine ordinance of his office, he was beyond either the competence or the reach of the church. Should the clergy excommunicate a magistrate, or a magistrate imprison a clergyman, “this would sett Christ against himselfe in his owne Ordinances … which cant be.”

The true Christian rule was submission “to the highest powers.” The church must win the support of kings by meekness, love, and charity. Luther's doctrine of submission to the state was cited, Calvin had for the most part agreed, and the evidence of Job was adduced to prove that “a man may not say to a Kinge, thou art wicked: nor call Princes ungodly.”47 The divinity of the offices of both priest and magistrate could not confront each other because their respective authority was limited to different realms. In temporal matters, including the protection of the organization and doctrine of the church, the magistrate was supreme. The magistrate as a man might not get to heaven, but when he spoke with the power and dignity of his office, he could be challenged by no power lower than God Himself.

An important part of the magistrate's duty was to protect the organization and the purity of the visible church. What was the New England church that the Governor was obliged to defend? It will be recalled that Winthrop had been careful to explain that emigration from England did not constitute a rejection of the Church of England. For a time, at least, one must take the word “Puritan” seriously when applied to Winthrop and his Company. It cannot be doubted that he was aware of the political difficulties that might ensue if complete separation of the churches were allowed, but it seems that his reluctance to separate was more a matter of conscience than of political policy. His early hesitancy even to accept the church autonomy explicit in Congregational church polity is illustrated by his nervousness over procedure; in the late summer of 1630, he reported, “we of the Congregation kept a fast, and chose mr. wilson our teacher … we used imposition of handes but with this protestation by all that it was onely as a signe of Election and confirmation, not of any intent that mr. wilson should renounce his ministrye he received in Englande.”48

His reluctance to admit that the physical act of separation was in fact also a spiritual separation continued at least through the spring of the next year. When Roger Williams refused to join the congregation at Boston because the members would not repent for having had communion with the Church of England, Winthrop seems to have taken the occasion to write his opinions on “Reformation Without Separation.” As a magistrate he had an obligation to be clear about ecclesiastical polity, which it was his duty to uphold. “The corruption of a thinge,” he reasoned, “dothe not nullifie a thinge so longe as the thinge hathe a beinge in the same nature, that it had, when it was in the best beinge: so it is with the particular Congregations.”49 The Church of England was corrupt, as Williams had said, but it was a church nonetheless, which Williams denied; it was a church which could be purified, unlike some others where the force of the Papacy and Antichrist had so corrupted the church that its essential nature had been utterly destroyed. The example of the Bay congregations, it was hoped, would encourage that purging in England.

By 1634, when Winthrop's ideas of the nature of the government were already well formulated, he was growing firmer in his defense not of the kinship between the parent church and its offspring in the wilderness, but of the basic differences between them. By then he had accepted Congregationalism, including the absolute theoretical autonomy of the individual congregations. In a letter to England, the Governor showed unmistakable signs of creeping separatism: “For your counsell of Conforminge ourselves to the Ch[urch] of E[ngland] though I doubt not but it proceeds out of your care of our wellfare: yet I dare not thanke you for it; because it is not conformable to Gods will revealed in his worde: what you may doe in E[ngland] where things are otherwise established, I will not dispute, but our case heere is otherwise: being come to clearer light and more Libertye.”50

Sometime in 1640, Winthrop wrote another letter to a correspondent in England, in which he made clear his commitment to a congregational autonomy so thoroughgoing that only the idea of the invisible church of all true believers could still be thought to bind the Bay congregations to those in England. At least by this time he was willing to insist on the individual church covenants as the very basis of the churches, as the covenant was the foundation of the state. The church covenant, as he reported it, was a dual pledge, including a renunciation of the past and a promise for the future: “I doe renounce all former corruptions and polutions. I doe promise to walke togither with this Church in all the ordinances of Religion according to the rule of the Gospell, and with all the members heerof in brotherly love.” He believed that every association required some sort of covenant, even though, as was the case with the churches in England, the covenant was only implicit. “Now to leave it uncertaine, where men have opportuntye to expresse and clear it, were a faylinge (at least).” It was the covenant that gave some permanence to each church, for without it the church would cease to exist when the uncovenanted persons left the assembly. Anyway, the controversy over the covenant was misplaced, because there were so many more weighty matters at hand, or rather in England, as, for example, “communicatinge with all parochiall members, whereof many are no Saints neither by callinge nor profession: submitting themselves to Canonicall obedience.”51 And what was most important, accepting the covenant was not the process by which one entered a church body in Massachusetts. Being given the opportunity to pledge oneself meant that the individual had already been admitted into the church:

There is a great mistake in the order of our Covenant, for it passeth for granted everywhere that none can be admitted heere before they enter into this Covenant, whereas in very truth they are tryed and admitted by the vote of the whole Churche before any Covenant be tendered or mentioned to them. Lastly it is sometymes tendered to them as a declaration of their purpose and intention only and not in the words of a Covenant or promise, so willinge are our Churches to please our brethren in all things to our mutuall accord and edification.52

Having accepted the covenant that supported congregational autonomy, Winthrop had simply extended his view of the nature of the political body to include also the church body. A number of discrete individuals came together and voluntarily gave their consent to exchange their natural liberty for moral liberty under lawful authority. The process for creating both the state and the visible church was identical, and included the liberty of the members to elect their own officials, either magistrate or minister. Both the state and the church were concerned with salvation, and only active members of the church could be active in the state. The minister's function was spiritual leadership and inspiration. It was the duty of the magistrate to see to it that the minister had a proper congregational body, well organized and obedient in outward behavior, to lead. It was the minister's function to teach, while the magistrate saw to it that the congregation was in attendance and that the lazy or stupid were given the opportunity to meditate on their sinfulness while taking their ease in Boston's stocks.

With congregational autonomy, the relationship between the state and the churches became more complicated. Should the state improperly interfere with a given church, it would violate the rights of the congregation. The clergy could pose small threat to the various churches since each minister held his post by the sufferance of the congregation. The General Court was more dangerous, from the viewpoint of the congregation, and it was usual for the deputies, who represented the towns, also to defend actions of the independent congregations, and all in opposition to magisterial authority.

One such case occurred in 1646 when some of the elders asked the General Court to authorize the calling of a synod. The magistrates complied, Winthrop recorded, but the deputies protested that the state had no proper authority to require the churches to send delegates to a civil convention, and that should the proposed synod agree on uniform church policy either the synod or its master, the state, would be guilty of subverting congregational autonomy.

The answer given to the first objection derived from Winthrop's definition of magistracy: “the civil magistrate had power upon just occasion to require the churches to send their messengers to advise in such ecclesiastical matters either of doctrine or discipline, as the magistrate was bound by God to maintain the churches in purity and truth.” The deputies agreed that magistracy could so command the churches. But the threat to Congregationalism required more delicate treatment. Any suggestion of an imposed uniform practice on the churches elicited the fear that the despised Presbyterianism would be raised in Massachusetts Bay out of the wreckage of congregational autonomy. When the magistrates were charged with threatening that autonomy, they had to walk gently: “Whereupon it was ordered, that howsoever the civil magistrate had authority to call a synod when they saw it needful, yet in tender respect of such as were not yet fully satisfied in that point, the ensuing synod should be convened by way of motion only to the churches, and not by any words of command.”53 The magistrates could not attack the congregational covenant which created the churches without weakening the covenant principle, without endangering the security of their own authority. Winthrop's own convictions, moreover, led him to defend the covenants of the churches for the same reasons that he bridled at any challenge to magisterial authority, including the rare challenges from the clergy (most of whom, most of the time, sided with the magistrates in the battles with the deputies). The covenant principle was the very basis of man's relationship with God, and with other men in both the state and church.

Winthrop's ideas about the organic Christian corporation also defined for him the proper relationship between Massachusetts Bay and England. How was one to reconcile the divinity of the magistracy in the Bay with the supremacy of the English King; how reconcile congregational autonomy with the fact that the King was the head of the Church of England? What, if any, was the authority of Parliament to direct the ways of God's agents in the wilderness? Some curious perversions of the theory and law of corporations allowed Winthrop and Massachusetts to wend their way along a very dangerous path. The consequence of missing a step on that path could be the destruction of Massachusetts and all that it stood for, including even mankind's new chance for redemption.

The traditional theory of the corporation defined it as an unnatural, artificial body which had legal status as a person, fictive but legally real. Only a sovereign power could create fictions, and the life of a corporation must be a result of a concession from the sovereign. The fiction theory led to the concession theory. As one distinguished legal historian put it: “The corporation is, and must be, the creature of the State. Into its nostrils the State must breathe the breath of a fictitious life, for otherwise it would be no animated body but individualistic dust.” English common law made it a crime for men “to presume to act as a corporation” without the appropriate concession from the state. “Ignorant men,” Maitland wrote, “on board the ‘Mayflower’ may have thought that, in the presence of God and one another, they could covenant and combine themselves together into ‘a civil body politic.’”54 The Puritans were not as ignorant as the Pilgrims.

The Charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company was a concession by the Crown which had breathed life into that legal fiction. This royal creature was defined as the “Governor and Company of the Mattachusetts Bay in Newe England [which is] one bodie politique and corporate in deede, fact, and name.”55 Massachusetts therefore owed its legal existence to its Charter, and Winthrop never lost sight of that sobering fact. The Crown giveth and the Crown taketh away.

It was obvious that a creature of the state could not be a state itself, that a corporation could not be an independent sovereign. The Bay held a franchise from the Crown; “‘a Corporation,’ Maitland said, ‘is a Franchise,’ and a franchise is a portion of the State's power in the hands of a subject.”56 Adhering strictly to the theory of the corporation, then, Massachusetts was a subject, a creature, a dependency, and had not the legal right to exercise the kind of sovereignty that had the power to create. But a community which was covenanted with God as well as with the King, had, to put it gently, a dual allegiance. Should the wills of the two sovereigns divide, the creature had the alternative of ignoring one and praying for the best, or becoming schizophrenic. Whenever the first option could be had with relative impunity, Winthrop gladly took it. The King, after all, was three thousand miles away, while God, it was clear, was immediately present. …


  1. John Winthrop, Papers, A. B. Forbes, ed. (Boston, 1929-1947), IV, 170.

  2. Ibid., II, 282.

  3. Ibid., II, 282-283.

  4. Ibid., II, 287.

  5. Ibid., II, 288.

  6. Ibid., II, 290.

  7. Ibid., II, 292.

  8. Ibid., II, 293.

  9. Ibid., II, 295.

  10. John Winthrop, Journal, 1630-1649, James K. Hosmer, ed. (New York, 1908), II, 83.

  11. Papers, II, 152.

  12. Journal, II, 83-84.

  13. Ibid., II, 238.

  14. Ibid., II, 239.

  15. Ibid.

  16. Ibid.

  17. Papers, III, 422 n.

  18. Ibid., III, 423.

  19. Ibid., III, 423, 424.

  20. Ibid., III, 465.

  21. Ibid., III, 475.

  22. Ibid., III, 467.

  23. Ibid., IV, 385.

  24. Ibid., IV, 382.

  25. Ibid., IV, 383.

  26. Ibid., IV, 386.

  27. Ibid., IV, 383.

  28. Ibid., IV, 385.

  29. Ibid., IV, 390, 391.

  30. Journal, II, 238.

  31. Ibid.

  32. Papers, IV, 476.

  33. Ibid., IV, 468.

  34. Ibid., IV, 468-469.

  35. Ibid., IV, 471.

  36. Ibid., IV, 482.

  37. Ibid., IV, 471.

  38. Ibid., IV, 472.

  39. Ibid., IV, 472 n.

  40. Ibid., IV, 473.

  41. Ibid., IV, 476.

  42. Ibid., IV, 473.

  43. Ibid., IV, 54.

  44. “Libertye,” Thomas Hutchinson (ed.), Collection of Original Papers Relative to the History of the Colony of Massachusetts-Bay (Albany, 1865), I, 78.

  45. Journal, II, 36-37.

  46. Edmund S. Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma (Boston, 1958), 96.

  47. Papers, III, 505-507.

  48. Ibid., II, 267.

  49. Ibid., III, 13.

  50. J W to Sir Simonds D'Ewes, July 21, 1634, ibid., III, 171.

  51. Ibid., IV, 169-171.

  52. Ibid., IV, 171.

  53. Ibid., II, 274.

  54. Frederic W. Maitland, “Introduction,” in Otto Gierke, Political Theories of the Middle Ages, tr. F. W. Maitland (Cambridge, Eng., 1900), xxx, xxi.

  55. Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England, N. B. Shurtleff, ed. (Boston, 1853-1854), I, 10.

  56. Maitland, op. cit., xxxi.

Select Bibliography

Champlin Burrage. The Church Covenant Idea. Philadelphia, 1904.

Julius Goebel, Jr., “King's Law and Local Custom in Seventeenth Century New England,” Columbia Law Review, XXXI, 3 (March, 1931), 416-448.

William Haller. The Rise of Puritanism. New York, 1938.

George L. Haskins. Law and Authority in Early Massachusetts. New York, 1960.

E. H. Kantorowicz. The King's Two Bodies. Princeton, 1957.

Charles H. McIlwain, “The Transfer of the Charter to New England and Its Significance in American Constitutional History,” Massachusetts Historical Society, Proceedings, LXIII (Boston, 1931), 53-64.

Perry Miller. The New England Mind. 2 vols., New York, 1939, 1953.

———Orthodoxy in Massachusetts. Cambridge, 1933.

Edmund S. Morgan. The Puritan Dilemma. Boston, 1958.

———Visible Saints. New York, 1963.

Samuel E. Morison. Builders of the Bay Colony. Cambridge, 1930, 51-104.

———The Puritan Pronaos. New York, 1936.

Albert Peel. The First Congregational Churches. Cambridge, Eng., 1920.

Aaron B. Seidman, “Church and State in the Early Years of the Massachusetts Bay Colony,” New England Quarterly, XVIII, 2 (June 1945), 211-233.

R. H. Tawney. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. New York, 1926.

Horace E. Ware, “Was the Government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony a Theocracy?” Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Transactions, X (Dec. 1905), 151-180.

Robert Benton (essay date winter 1973)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3859

SOURCE: Benton, Robert M. “The John Winthrops and Developing Scientific Thought in New England.” Early American Literature 7, no. 3 (winter 1973): 272-80.

[In this essay, Benton argues how the lives and practices of Winthrop and two of his descendents influenced the evolution of scientific thought in America, beginning with Winthrop's meticulous documentation of natural phenomena.]

Plantations in their beginnings have work ynough, & find difficulties sufficient to settle a comfortable way of subsistence, there beinge buildings, fencings, cleeringe and breakinge up of ground, lands to be attended, orchards to be planted, highways & bridges & fortifications to be made, & all thinges to doe, as in the beginninge of the world. Its not to be wondered if there have not yet beene itinera subterranea.

John Winthrop, Jr., to Sir Robert Moray1

A study of science or scientific thought should never be conducted along national lines as if there were something called French, German or American science. Scientific problems are international. As Professor George Sarton reminds us, “There is no American science, but there are American scientists, a good many of them, and some of them as great as may be met anywhere else in the world. The best way to explain American achievements is to focus the reader's attention upon a few of the leading scientists.”2 No better view can be obtained of the development of scientific thought in America than through a study of three John Winthrops.

The first New England John Winthrop (1587-1649) was the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. His son, John Winthrop, Jr. (1605-76) was the first governor of Connecticut. A later John Winthrop (1714-79), a great-grandnephew of John Winthrop, Jr., was a distinguished professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Harvard. There were other John Winthrops as well, but in these three one can see a development in scientific thinking which enabled it to escape the religious dominance which had impeded it.

Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts had grown up in a home characterized by intellectual opportunity, religious devotion, and superstition. His father, Adam, kept a diary in which he recorded natural phenomena. One of his earliest notations is his reference to the earthquake of 1580: “the 6 of April 1580 ther was a yearthe quacke” (Winthrop Papers, Vol. I, 41). In the same volume he makes several observations: in the year 1600 on “The xvth of Aug. fell a great Rayne which made a floud at Boxford” (68) and on “The 23 of Decembre I felt an Erthquake” (75). An editorial footnote at this point in the Papers states that the quake occasioned the usual warning in a December 31, 1601, publication called “The Tremblinge of the Earth, and the warninges of the world before the Judgement Daye.” Destructive natural phenomena were believed to be the result of God's displeasure.

In a reference to one of his tenants, Adam shows typical superstition: “Memorandum that John Raven the same day that he fell sicke went into his yarde and saw a wrenne strike down a Robin redbrest starke dedde which he tooke vp and shewed his wife thereof presently” (42). Adam Winthrop, an observer and recorder, was not a questioner, a characteristic he passed on to his son. The first New England John Winthrop did, however, believe in the validity of experience. Winthrop demonstrates this belief in a series of journal entries called “Experiencia” and is quite specific in a January 20, 1616, passage which reads like a prayer:

Thou assurest my heart that I am in a right course, even the narrowe waye that leads to heaven: Thou tellest me, and all experience tells me, that in this way there is least companie, and that those which doe walke openly in this way shalbe despised, pointed at, hated of the world, made a byworde, reviled, slandered, rebuked, made a gazinge stocke, called puritans, nice fooles, hipocrites, hairbrainde fellows, rashe, indiscreet, vain-glorious, and all that naught is. …

(Papers, I, 196)

This foreshadows the later course of Winthrop's life when he would be a leader of those “called puritans” and would continue to rely on what he heard God and experience tell him.

The selection of John Winthrop as the first governor of Massachusetts brought prominence to a man who in many respects was like William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Colony. In his record of the early Plymouth years, Bradford's primary interest is to show God's providence. Winthrop shares this concern, as noted in a 1620 passage from his “Experiencia”:

Many thinges which fall out by the ordinarye course of nature etc, are not easylye discerned to be guided by any speciall providence of God, as the Eclipses of the Sunne etc, thunders, tempests, etc, the effects whereof are ofte very strange; but God who had from the beginninge determined of suche effects, did withall appointe that the course of naturall causes should concurre at the same tyme: so that heerby his glory is the greater, in effectinge things extraordinary, and yet not changing the order of causes.

(Papers, I, 238)

Natural phenomena are first shown to be guided by a special providence of God and, although strange, are seen to have predetermined effects. The eclipses, storms, and tempests are precisely those items which Winthrop records in his various journal entries. He is quite conscious of his observations, but his scientific interest seems to stop with the recording. Since theological dogma placed all occurrences, no matter how unusual, under the special providence of God, one could only observe, record, and marvel.

John Winthrop's recording of natural phenomena seems to be used primarily in making comparisons with England. A typical example is contained in a July 23, 1630, letter to his son John:

For the Country it selfe I can discerne little difference betweene it and our owne. we have had only 2 daies which I have observed more hot then in England here is as good land as I have seene there but none so bad as there Here is sweet aire faire rivers and plenty of springes and the water better then in Eng(land) here can be noe want of any thinge to those who bring meane(s) to raise out of the earth and sea.

(Papers, II, 302)

After John Winthrop, Jr., had settled in New England and then returned to London on business, his father wrote him in December, 1634, saying, “I wish that in your return you would observe the winde and weather everye daye, that we may see how it agrees with our parts” (Papers, III, 177). The passage shows not only that John Winthrop was interested in comparative weather statistics but also that he was training his son to observe and record such phenomena as well.

A further example of John Winthrop's careful observation of the weather, the flora, and the fauna of New England is given in his September, 1644, letter to the Earl of Warwick (Papers, IV, 491-93). The letter is too long to quote here, but Winthrop's description of New England, including a short review of the government of the colony, is strikingly similar to the later work by Crèvecoeur in his Letters From An American Farmer. The major impression one receives is that of Winthrop's keen eye.

Although he was preoccupied with politics and religion, the range of John Winthrop's interests can be seen in his journal. In the first volume he notes the discovery in 1636 of whale bones sixty miles up the James River, a June, 1638, earthquake, a “tempest or hiracano” in August of the same year, and an appearance of a strange light the following March.3 Winthrop actually observed only the earthquake and the storm. While he often merely records events, his theological belief that all acts of nature are directly controlled by God is never hidden. For instance, he insists that a two-month drought in 1639 was ended as a direct result of a day of humiliation appointed by the court. “The very day after the fast was appointed there fell a good shower, and, within one week after the day of humiliation was past, we had such a store of rain, and so seasonably, as the corn revived and gave hope of a very plentiful harvest” (Journal, I, 307).

Unfortunately, Winthrop also believed that an unnatural birth was a sign of God's displeasure. In the first volume of his journals he reports one such birth by the wife of William Dyer who was “notoriously infected with Mrs. Hutchinson's errors” (266) and another by Anne Hutchinson herself which Winthrop believes demonstrates “her error in denying inherent righteousness” (277). Of much greater scientific interest is Winthrop's recording of the first ascent of the White Mountains by a European, Darby Field, which he accompanies with a transcription of Field's observations (Journal, II, 62-63, 85-86).

John Winthrop's papers show him to be a man with scientific interests who records his own observations and others' reports. He is not fully a part of the growing scientific movement of the seventeenth century, for he does not seem interested in testing or experimentation. Perhaps John Winthrop's most important scientific contribution was his instilling in his son the habit of observation and recording. There can be no doubt that John Winthrop, Jr., made the most significant scientific contributions of any New England colonist of the seventeenth century.

The second New England John Winthrop was a man of more diversified interests than his father. He has been characterized most significantly as one who “was ahead of his period in that his varied interests were scientific rather than theological.”4 Richard S. Dunn is even more specific:

Religion framed his life, but he did not experience his father's crusading zeal. He was energetic and public spirited, but preferred science to politics. Whereas the elder Winthrop wrote didactic tracts and diaries of religious meditations, the son kept medical and alchemical notebooks. One finds fugitive opinions of all sorts, but no systematic religious or political philosophy. … John Winthrop, Jr., was all things to all men, a highly receptive person, open to new ideas, adaptable to new situations.5

Such an obvious change in orientation between two successive generations is a sign of cultural change in progress.

The first indication of the scientific interest of John Winthrop, Jr., is found in his letter to his father of January, 1630. The elder John Winthrop was in London making final plans for his trip to New England which would begin two months later. His son had remained at home to negotiate the sale of his father's property and to clear up other matters of business, and in his letter he describes a new variety of windmill he had invented:

I have now made a rude modell (as only to shew, that it is feasable) of that wind motion, which I tould you of, then only imagining it speculatively but now have seene the experience of it, and doe affirme that an Instrument may be made to move with the wind horizontally to equall if not to exeed the ordinary verticall motion of the windmill sailes. … I conceive it may be aplied to many laborious vses as any kind of milles Corne milles saw miles etc. … And one spetiall property wilbe in them that they allwaies stand right for the wind whersoever it bloweth: If there may be made any vse of it, I desire New England should reape the benifit for whose sake it was invented.

(Papers, II, 193-94)

In addition to this being the first record of John Winthrop, Jr.'s scientific activity, it shows the practical nature of his mind and one of his many schemes to enhance the productivity of the New England colonists. A special characteristic of the passage is that rather than merely to speculate or simply record phenomena, as his father might do, John Winthrop, Jr., first imagined a particular design and then experimented to verify his hypothesis. He then reports the results of his findings. At twenty-four, John Winthrop, Jr., is a practitioner of the new science.

The second John Winthrop was much more than a New England colonist involved in the new science, however. His early travels had brought him in contact with many of the leading minds of Europe. It is logical that when a scientific society was organized to promote natural philosophy John Winthrop, Jr., was included. Proposed for membership in the newly formed Royal Society and officially elected on January 1, 1662, John Winthrop, Jr., the following year, was elected an Original Fellow of the Society under the Second Charter. Sir Henry Lyons notes in addition that the secretary of the Society was instructed in 1664 to “inform John Winthrop that he was invited in a particular manner to take upon him the charge of being the Chief Correspondent of the Royal Society in the West, as Sir Philberto Vernatti was in the East Indies.”6

The first American colonial member of the Royal Society was willing to become the Society's western correspondent. The records of Winthrop's communications to the Society and the specimens sent reveal a quite active scientific career for one who was also a colonial governor and was almost continually involved in plans for colonial industries. R. P. Stearns notes that Winthrop's first formal presentation to the Society, the first paper given by any colonial, was presented in 1662 and titled “A Description of ye Artifice and making of Tarr and Pitch in New England, and ye Materialle of wch it is made.”7 A more widely known paper, “Of Maiz,” was given by Winthrop on the last day of that year. Stearns calls this second work “undoubtedly the most complete description of Indian corn, its cultivation, and its uses that the English public had seen” (p. 128).

Throughout the years Winthrop wrote his numerous acquaintances in the Society and sent boxes of specimens. Although some of his communications were lost at sea, he shipped many items of note and the Society begged for more. One of the “Curiosities of Nature” Winthrop sent was apparently an unusual species of starfish. The fish provoked wide discussion and was shown to King Charles II. The Society wrote Winthrop immediately: “Wee wish very much, that you could procure a particular description of the said fish viz: whether it be common there, what is observable in it when alive; what colour it hath then; what kind of motion in water; what use it maketh of all that curious workmanship wch nature had adorned it with? &c.” (Quoted by Stearns, p. 135). Obviously, Winthrop had submitted a rarity, and the Society wanted more information. One can also note how the Society instructed Winthrop in the scientific method of proceeding with a study of a particular marine organism. Almost eight years passed before Winthrop replied, noting, “I asked all the questions I could thinke needful concerning it” (Stearns, p. 138).

No simple listing of John Winthrop, Jr.'s scientific accomplishments could sufficiently assess his contribution. He was an avid astronomer and reported an individual sighting of Jupiter's fifth satellite. Although his telescope was not powerful enough for such a sighting, a fifth satellite was confirmed more than 200 years later. In New England, Winthrop was known as a doctor and chemist. He was a self-trained physician whose medical practice was extensive. He made no reported contribution to medical science, but he did rely heavily on a red powder he compounded of miter and antimony and called rubila.

The second John Winthrop maintained a wide scientific correspondence. In his history of the Royal Society, Sir Henry Lyons reports that of the eighty persons with whom John Winthrop, Jr., corresponded in England and Europe, thirty either were or had been Fellows of the Royal Society. In 1641, Robert Child wrote that he was having difficulty securing the books Winthrop had requested and that he was sending him a list of his own chemical books (Papers, IV, 333-38). In 1648 Child sent Winthrop a report of how “they make Rozin and Turpentin in France out of those trees which you call pitch pine by a facile way” (Papers, V, 221). This is obviously an early interest in what was, some fourteen years later, to become Winthrop's first paper before the Royal Society. In the letter Child mentions books and inventions which he feels will interest Winthrop; he also writes, “Sir I desire you if you meet with any sorts of seeds or stones, which are not common to make me partakers of some of them, and I shall willingly doe you service in this or any other way” (Papers, V, 222).

Another of Winthrop's correspondents was Augustinus Petraeus, a Dutch chemist who with others had formed an early scientific society. Petraeus wrote to Winthrop in Dutch, but Paul Marquart Schlegel, a Hamburg physician and anatomist, wrote in Latin, as did Johannes Tanckmarus. Schlegel founded an academy for the training of young physicians and became famous for his lectures in anatomy. Tanckmarus, a doctor of medicine who had been associated with mystics and heretics and probably met John Winthrop in Hamburg, wrote Winthrop on several occasions. John Winthrop's willingness to maintain contact with men of such varied beliefs suggests that theological orthodoxy was less important in his life than in that of his father.

In addition to his governmental tasks, his medical practice, and his ample correspondence, Winthrop was something of an explorer. In 1644 he petitioned the Massachusetts General Court for the right to search for iron mines “in all places within this Jurisdiction, and the same being found, to digg and cary away and dispose thereof for the best advantage” (Papers, IV, 423). He also purchased from Webuckshan and Washcomo black lead (graphite) mines (Papers, V, 4). By the Fall of 1645, Winthrop was traveling throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut in search of productive areas for a settlement. He kept a journal during the trip, three-fourths of which he wrote in Latin. Unfortunately, the most interesting comments are the emendations and speculations of the translator.8 The following Winthrop comments, among the most expansive in the journal, are less revealing than one might expect from a Fellow of the Royal Society: “… I crossed the river and the stream Poquanuc, where Robin told me there was fruit-bearing land without rocks, arable with a goodly number of planting-fields.”9 Because of his varied interests and responsibilities, John Winthrop, Jr., does occasionally lapse from his scientific dedication.

By following the scientific career of John Winthrop, Jr., one can see a decided change in emphasis from that of his father. Although raised in a zealously religious household, the second John Winthrop was motivated by science and adventure, not theology and Puritan dogmatism. He maintained numerous contacts with non-Puritans, and from an early age he practiced testing an hypothesis by means of experimentation. In John Winthrop, Jr., one can see the beginning of the evolution of scientific thought in New England. Without rejecting the religion of his father, the second John Winthrop moved away from the darkness of Puritan restrictions into the light of free scientific inquiry.

Although John Winthrop, Jr., gave his sons scientific training, they failed to make significant scientific contributions. However, a later John Winthrop, the son of Chief Justice Adam Winthrop of Massachusetts Bay and the great-grandnephew of John Winthrop, Jr., achieved distinction in science which surpassed that of any in his illustrious family. Elected second Hollis professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Harvard in 1738 when he was only twenty-four, Professor John Winthrop is credited with establishing at that college the first institutional laboratory of experimental physics, introducing to the mathematical curriculum differential and integral calculus, and teaching the new science and its methods to four decades of Harvard students. The first colonial to record observations of sunspots and a member of the Royal Society as well as the American Philosophical Society, Professor Winthrop was the primary supporter of the theories and conclusions of Benjamin Franklin regarding electricity. Most significantly, Professor John Winthrop represents a culmination of that development in scientific thinking which had begun with the second John Winthrop. The Dictionary of American Biography records that “When he was examined for the professorship by the Overseers of the College the question of his theological adherence was not raised for fear it would prove too broad for Harvard at that time” (XX, 415).

One of the best views of that development in thought which Professor John Winthrop exemplifies is in his reaction to that natural phenomenon which had so interested the first John Winthrop—the earthquake. Governor Winthrop of Massachusetts believed that earthquakes were signs of God's displeasure with his people. Many still held to this belief in the middle of the eighteenth century. A devastating earthquake destroyed Lisbon, Portugal, in 1755, and a later earthquake terrified many persons in New England. Professor Winthrop taught that earthquakes resulted from purely physical causes, and he denied the contentions of those who sought to explain the quake as a direct intervention of the “Finger of God” in earthly affairs.

At the time of a New England earthquake in 1727, the Reverend Mr. Thomas Prince had published a sermon titled “Earthquakes the Works of God and Tokens of his just Displeasure.” The new concern over quakes caused the aging minister to reprint the earlier sermon with an appendix to suggest that a secondary cause of earthquakes might be electrical in nature, possibly a consequence of the installation of numerous lightning rods in New England. Professor Winthrop quickly published his own Lecture on Earthquakes for which he prepared a special appendix specifically denying Mr. Prince's contentions. Prince sent a letter of protest to the Boston Gazette, and Winthrop firmly maintained his original stand. He was content neither to attribute the quake solely to God's agency nor simply to describe it as John Jr. would have done, but instead relocated the phenomenon from the religious to the scientific realm of rationalization.

Professor Winthrop survived the confrontation. He received the first honorary Doctor of Laws conferred by Harvard, and his interest and influence contributed to the founding of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston. Moreover, he reveals fully that development in scientific thinking which had begun years earlier. Professor Winthrop was no longer willing, as had been Governor Winthrop of Massachusetts, to subordinate nature to divine power. Rather he wished to elevate natural phenomena to scientific status, liberating nature on the one hand and the potentialities of her observers on the other. Like the second John Winthrop, Professor Winthrop accepted an hypothesis only after it had been sufficiently tested through experimentation. By the end of the eighteenth century, and largely due to the work of Professor John Winthrop, a new age in scientific thought had arrived, an age characterized by its feeling of having freed itself from the restrictions of dogmatic Calvinism.


  1. Letter of November 12, 1668, in Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, 16 (1868), 236-37.

  2. In the foreword to Bernard Jaffee, Men of Science in America (New York, 1944), p. xiii.

  3. Winthrop, Journal, ed. James K. Hosmer (New York, 1908), I, 186, 270, 272, 294.

  4. James Truslow Adams, sv. “Winthrop, John, Jr.,” Dictionary of American Biography, XX, 413.

  5. Dunn, Puritans and Yankees: The Winthrop Dynasty of New England, 1630-1717 (Princeton, 1962), p. 59.

  6. Lyons, The Royal Society: 1660-1940 (New York, 1968), p. 28.

  7. Stearns, Science in the British Colonies of America (Urbana, 1970), p. 128. Stearns provides a full survey of Winthrop's scientific activities on pp. 120-39.

  8. See W. R. Carlton, “Overland to Connecticut in 1645: A Travel Diary of John Winthrop, Jr.,” New England Quarterly, 13 (1940), 494-510.

  9. Carlton, “Travel Diary,” p. 505.

Lee Schweninger (essay date 1990)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 21193

SOURCE: Schweninger, Lee. “In Response to the Antinomian Controversy,” “The Journal: A New Literature for a New World,” and “Cheerful Submission to Authority: Miscellaneous and Later Writings.” In John Winthrop, edited by Barbara Sutton, pp. 47-66; 87-98; 99-115. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.

[In the first essay that follows, Schweninger examines the Antinomian controversy, providing historical details to demonstrate the significance of Winthrop's writings on the subject. In the second, Schweninger considers Winthrop's Journal as a literary rather than historical document. In the third, Schweninger examines Winthrop's lesser‐known writings, their contributions to the history of Massachusetts, and their influence on Winthrop's reputation as a writer.]


One Mistris Hutchinson … a woman of a haughty and fierce carriage, of a nimble witt and active spirit, and a very voluble tongue, more bold then a man, though in understanding and judgement, inferiour to many women.

(Short Story [of the rise, reign and ruin of the Antinomians, Familists & libertines. …; SS], 262-63)

One of the greatest tests of John Winthrop's theory of a holy commonwealth knit together as one body came with the controversy over Anne Hutchinson and her right to differ with the authorities and to express those differences to the public. For this reason, of all the episodes of Winthrop's career, the Antinomian Controversy that raged in New England between 1636 and 1638 has received the most critical and historical attention. Critics, biographers, and historians are inevitably intrigued and troubled by the episode. Liberals judge Anne Hutchinson to be the governor's intellectual superior, and recognize a failure of justice in her banishment and excommunication. Edmund Morgan writes, for example, that “the force of her intelligence and character penetrate the libels and leave us angry with the writers and not with their intended victim.”1 Conservatives condemn Hutchinson as a contentious and proud troublemaker, a disrupter of the New Canaan.2 In the drama of the controversy, Winthrop's part is overshadowed by the colorful and outspoken Anne Hutchinson, yet his published record of the trial of Hutchinson and his related journal entries provide the most important literary/historical sources for the controversy between the patriarchal, authoritarian church-state and Anne Hutchinson.

Daughter of the freethinking, somewhat radical schoolteacher and preacher Francis Marbury, Anne Hutchinson was born in rural Alford, England, one hundred miles due north of London, in 1591. Alford was her home until she was fourteen, at which time her father moved the family to London. In 1612 Anne married William Hutchinson, a wealthy Alford merchant, with whom she returned to Alford to bear and raise several children. She made special trips to St. Botolph's Church in Boston, Lincolnshire, where John Cotton lectured before he left for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. She evidently became spiritually enamored of Cotton's preaching and theology, and by 1634 she and her family had decided to move to the Bay Colony; they arrived in September of that year.

What finally prompted the family to give up their financial and social comforts in England and decide to settle in a new struggling colony remains a matter of speculation, but certainly the political, religious, and economic concerns of so many migrating Puritans in the 1630s played an important role in the Hutchinson family's decision to move to America.3 According to Anne Hutchinson's testimony before the General Court in Massachusetts as Winthrop recorded it, however, she insisted that she came to New England in pursuit of her preacher and mentor, John Cotton: “The Lord carrying Mr. Cotton to New England (at which I was much troubled) it was revealed to me, that I must go thither also” (SS, 272).4

Anne Hutchinson's troubles with the church in New England began with her arrival in Boston Harbor in September 1634 on the Griffin. Her husband, William, was admitted at once into the Church at Boston; Anne's admission, however, was initially denied. Normally, husband and wife were admitted together, but in this case the authorities delayed the wife's admittance for a week because of certain comments she had been overheard to make before setting foot on New England soil. One of her shipmates, Reverend Zachariah Symmes, evidently reported his uneasiness with her beliefs and kept her from joining the church until she could show a group of elders that her theology was sound.5

Despite a troublesome beginning, once established in New England Anne Hutchinson found herself immediately useful not only as homemaker for her own family, but as community midwife and healer as well; she was one of a few who knew how to mix herbs for medicinal purposes. She also found herself within a few months hosting weekly discussions pertaining to John Cotton's sermons, first with groups of women, then with mixed groups of men and women. The ostensible purpose of the meetings was to give members of the community the opportunity to discuss the meaning of Cotton's lectures. The meetings soon grew beyond mere recitations, however, and became the vehicle for the rise of what Winthrop called “Antinomianism.” Hutchinson's group was by no means small or uninfluencial. Anne Hutchinson enjoyed the support of the young, newly elected governor, Henry Vane, and of the popular minister John Wheelwright, her brother-in-law. She and her supporters essentially divided Boston. In Winthrop's eyes that division threatened to disrupt the equilibrium and well-being of the entire colony.

By the time Winthrop makes his first journal entry concerning Hutchinson (21 October 1636), she had been in Boston just over two years and had become the leader of an active movement. As we can picture it, John Winthrop sat down at his desk not too long after beginning the second volume of his manuscript journal and wrote his first entry concerning Anne Hutchinson. He had known, or at least known of, Hutchinson since her arrival in September 1634. Indeed, she and her family built their house and settled literally across the street from the Winthrops. The governor begins his entry with characteristic understatement, but does carefully itemize the polity behind the dispute: “One Mrs. Hutchinson, a member of the church of Boston, a woman of ready wit and bold spirit, brought over with her two dangerous errors: 1. That the person of the Holy Ghost dwells in a justified person. 2. That no sanctification can help to evidence to us our justification.—From these two grew many branches; as, 1. Our union with the Holy Ghost, so as a Christian remains dead to every spiritual action, and hath no gifts nor graces, other than such as are in hypocrites, nor any other sanctification but the Holy Ghost himself” ([A Journal of the Transactions and Occurrences in the Settlement of Massachusetts and the Other New-England Colonies, from the Year 1630 to 1644,] J, 1:195-96). Winthrop's entry touches on crucial questions concerning the colonists' understanding of regeneration.6

Winthrop's literary outpouring in response to the Antinomian Controversy begins with this journal entry, but the governor's official account of the trials of Hutchinson and her disciples was published in London in 1644, several years after the controversy and trials of 1637 and 1638. Within the same year it was republished as A Short Story of the rise, reign, and ruine of the Antinomians, Familists and Libertines, that Infected the Churches of New England (London, 1644).

The original title of Winthrop's version of the Hutchinson episode indicates the thrust of his account: 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 (London, 1644). Winthrop loads the title with pejorative terms, each of which effectively deprecates his adversaries. Etymologically, antinomian means “outside or against the name or law.” Used by Winthrop, the term connotes those who stood opposed to the legalism of the Bible.

Understanding the intricacies of the Antinomian controversy depends on an acquaintance with several terms bandied about by the members of the religious community. Legalism, as Winthrop applied the concept, referred to strict conformity to the moral codes or law of the Bible. Justification was a term used to connote salvation or grace (in other words, a justified person was a visible saint, one preordained by God to grace). Antinomians maintained that because justification was free—that is, because it came as a gift of God that no one could otherwise acquire—ministers should not stress the performing of good works. Rather they should emphasize free justification, also referred to as the “Covenant of grace” as opposed to the “Covenant of works.” Indeed, the Antinomians accused the orthodox ministers of preaching a doctrine of works rather than a doctrine of grace. Winthrop applied the term sanctification or preparation to this notion of growing or earning divine grace as a result of commitment to the biblical law or moral code. According to Winthrop, as an orthodox Calvinist, of course, man did not earn justification, but could prepare to receive grace. Winthrop saw sanctification as a necessary or concomitant part of a visible saint's life in preparation to receive grace. If saved or “of the elect,” one would necessarily behave as a saint. The two notions, justification and sanctification in this sense, were in some ways so interdependent as to be indistinguishable.

To a large extent, the point of contention between the Antinomians and the orthodox New England Puritans rests on the distinction between free justification and sanctification (or grace and works). As evident in his conception of New England's covenant with God, Winthrop held that a person could not be justified and not show signs of sanctification; Anne Hutchinson is reputed to have held that because justification is free, sanctification is of no concern in the eyes of God. Antinomians, including Hutchinson, relied on the power of the Holy Spirit, rather than on a moral code, to govern actions.

Winthrop thus addresses those who believed that if justification were free then sanctification (that is, behaving oneself according to biblical law and rule) had nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with one's being saved. The obvious danger of such a belief, reasons Winthrop, is that because of man's corrupt nature, it will inevitably lead to widespread immorality, licentiousness, and unnameable sins.

As Winthrop used the term in the 1630s, familist was a general term referring to those who relied on their own spiritual experience to interpret the Bible; that is, they believed in a direct communication between the individual and God. Like an Antinomian, a familist did not necessarily feel bound to the legalism of the Bible. The Massachusetts Bay officials feared that any such sect threatened their whole community, which was inextricably bound to upholding conduct based on the scriptural word. Because the Familists had a bad reputation in England, Winthrop gained an advantage over his opponents by associating Antinomians with Familists. Similarly, a Libertine, originally one who opposed the rigors of Calvinism, came to be associated with all kinds of religious freethinkers. Certainly an establishment based on conformity and dutiful practice—as was Winthrop's—did not admire or encourage freethinking in this sense.

The Short Story consists of several documents, some obviously not written by the governor. In addition to a long preface supplied by the Reverend Thomas Weld (who was in New England from 1632 until 1641), the collection includes a list of “erroneous opinions”; the petition that John Wheelwright's adherents devised; and Winthrop's narrative of the court cases against Wheelwright, his adherents, and Anne Hutchinson. The collection also includes Winthrop's description of Mary Dyer's “monstrous birth”; the justification of Wheelwright's censure, and a summary of Hutchinson's excommunication trial before the church. In addition to the Short Story, much of the history of the Antinomian Controversy can be gleaned from Winthrop's journal account of his response to the Hutchinson episode.

Winthrop had strong misgivings about the theology of Anne Hutchinson, but in 1636, as deputy governor, he could not effectively oppose her actions or reduce her influence. When she and her followers attempted to invite their colleague John Wheelwright to become an assistant teacher (that is, to accept ministerial duties) at the First Church and thereby officially establish within the system a cleric sympathetic to their views, however, the former governor became assertive. As he describes the confrontation in his journal, he “stood up and said, he could not consent.” After all, he argued, the First Church already had two able ministers in John Wilson and John Cotton. Furthermore, the congregation did not know Wheelwright sufficiently well, and should not run the risk of inviting a disputatious teacher. Winthrop “thought it not fit (no necessity urging) to put the welfare of the church to the least hazard, as he feared they should do, by calling in one, whose spirit they knew not, and one who seemed to dissent in judgment.” So Wheelwright was denied a position in Boston; instead, he was offered a position at a “new church, to be gathered at Mount Woolaston, now Braintree,” ten miles south of Boston along a difficult road (J, 1:197). In other words, Winthrop had essentially disposed of Wheelwright as a threat to the community and had won a small skirmish. But the battles ahead promised to be more difficult.

In January 1637, John Cotton seems to have invited Wheelwright to speak to the congregation at the Boston church. His sermon occasioned further dissension among the churches of Massachusetts Bay and ultimately resulted in Wheelwright's banishment. In this fast-day sermon—delivered on January 1637, a day set aside to repent for dissensions in the New England churches—Wheelwright's doctrine is that “the only cause of the fasting of true beleevers is the absence of Christ”.7 (Public fast days were common in New England as a means of repentance for the entire population. Such days did not necessarily involve total abstinence.) To Winthrop and others of the establishment even the hint of Christ's absence must have seemed an affront. Did this man (Wheelwright) not scruple to say that Christ was absent from New England, the New Canaan, God's chosen land? The notion of God being displeased and departing from New England would eventually become a popular motif for the New England ministers, but in the 1630s this idea was unwelcome and certainly offended the leaders in the congregation.

What Winthrop and others actually took Wheelwright to task for was not his references to God's departure, however. Rather Wheelwright got in trouble because of his repeated use of the metaphor of combat. In the text he admits that he intends “spirituall combate,” but goes on at some length about warfare, fighting, and battle. Specifically, he argues that “if we would have the Lord Jesus Christ to be aboundantly present with us, we must all of us prepare for battell and come out against the enimyes of the Lord, and if we do not strive, those under a covenant of works will prevaile.”8 Wheelwright also seems to advocate “combustion in the Church and common wealth. … I must confesse and acknowledge it will do so, but what then? did not Christ come to send fire upon the earth”? He also argues that those who fight for Christ “must be willing to lay downe [their] lives.”9

Whether Wheelwright actually intended a literal battle must remain conjectural, but his rhetoric was powerful enough to frighten the establishment. As a result of his fiery sermon, the court banished Wheelwright, and the following November he left the jurisdiction of the colony. Winthrop and the others of the established authority had thus won another political battle. Nevertheless, the sermon epitomized the division among the members of the Boston congregation and made manifest the frail hold the establishment had on maintaining conformity and keeping a peaceful unity among colonists in the Puritan commonwealth.

Another major victory for the establishment was to come by way of the May elections. At the gathering for the election a group of Bostonians in support of Henry Vane demanded that before the election a petition relating to liberty and revoking Wheelwright's banishment be heard. As Winthrop records it, “There was great danger of tumult that day.” As deputy governor, Winthrop insisted that the business of a court for election is restricted to the elections themselves: “So soon as the court was set … a petition was preferred by those of Boston. The present governor [Vane] would have read it, but the deputy governor [Winthrop] said it was out of order. It was a court for elections.” After some debate, and evidently some fistfights, elections were held; Winthrop once again became governor and Henry Vane, as Winthrop notes glibly in his journal, was “left quite out” (J, 1:215).

As governor (reelected in May 1637), Winthrop had the authority he had earlier lacked to deal with the Antinomians. He took immediate steps to set the colony back on its feet, writing in his journal that the “Magistrates set forth an apology to justify the sentence of the court against Mr. Wheelwright.” In what is a sure sign of Winthrop's leniency and political savvy, the court granted Wheelwright a period until the following August (1637) to reform his error. Winthrop thereby hoped that the court's “moderation and desire for reconciliation might appear to all” (J, 1:216, 218).

Included in Winthrop's Short Story is the justification of the court's censure of Wheelwright. In it Winthrop summarizes the steps the court took and explains the court's reasons for those actions. The purpose was to clear the justice of the court and to satisfy those “to whom this case may be otherwise presented by fame or misreport.” The court's opinion was that Wheelwright “had run into sedition and contempt of the Civil authority.” (SS, 290, 289). The establishment ministers felt that they had been described as ones who advocated a covenant of works. As is characteristic of Winthrop's reporting, his account of the proceedings is detailed. He lists several reasons to demonstrate that the court was justified in banishing Wheelwright. Some of these reasons are that he knew he was inciting contention and that he went against Cotton's injunction about peace on a fast day. Uncharacteristically, Winthrop turns to classical authors such as Tully, Isidore, and Vergil (a turn which might suggest that Winthrop was not sole author of this tract) to define sedition, but he also refers to scripture to corroborate this definition. Returning to Wheelwright, Winthrop writes that “hee did intend to trouble our peace, and hee hath effected it; therefore it was a contempt of that authority which required every man to study Peace and Truth, and therefore it was a seditious contempt, in that hee stirred up others, to join in the disturbance of that peace, which he was bound by solemn oath to preserve” (SS, 294).

Because Winthrop governed and wrote in an age before the notion of freedom of speech was established, certainly before it was considered an inalienable right, he could simply respond to the objection that the court could not tell a minister what to preach by answering that it is the court's prerogative to “limit him what he may not teach” (SS, 295). Specifically, the court could forbid his preaching heresy or sedition. In response to the objection concerning the lack of a trial by jury, Winthrop answered according to his philosophy of the magistrates' authority: the court makes its law, is subject to no others, and has as its sole guiding principle truth and justice. A typical Puritan, Winthrop believed that a good ruler was virtually incorruptible; after all, magistrates received their authority from God and so governed by divine right. In Winthrop's mind there would be no question of the court not acting in a fair manner because it had the welfare of the state and church as its sole motive.10

In concluding his account of Wheelwright's banishment, Winthrop returned to his definition of sedition. Wheelwright did tend to the “great hinderance of public utility” and was therefore guilty of sedition (SS, 299). Such a judicial procedure might be difficult for a twentieth-century reader to accept without realizing that Winthrop was writing in the 1630s, an age when the Bill of Rights and free speech were still more than 150 years in the future. Judged in light of his contemporaries, Winthrop was in fact lenient in that he was more than willing to give Wheelwright the opportunity to reform and thereafter remain within the colony's jurisdiction. Nevertheless, in a community where all were to be bound together in one body, each limb and part helping the other, Winthrop could not allow the holding and spreading of doctrine so contrary to that of the establishment.

In September 1637 the ministers organized a synod in which they drew up the list of errors to be attributed to the Antinomians. In his preface to Winthrop's Short Story, Thomas Weld offers a description of the synod: “we had an Assembly of all the Ministers and learned men in the whole Countrey, which held for three weeks together, at Cambridge … the magistrates sitting present all that time, as hearers, and speakers also when they saw fit.” The populace at large was also given liberty to attend and participate as long as they observed “due order.” As Weld describes the synod, the members spent one week confuting “loose opinions” and two weeks “in a plaine Syllogisticall dispute” (SS, 212, 213).

The result or product of the synod was the drawing up of eighty-two, numbered, erroneous opinions with a confutation of each one. As should be expected, the refutation comes from scripture; in almost every case the erroneous opinion was found to be contrary to Scripture, and Scripture was used to point out the error. If, for example, the error concerned the belief that “those that bee in Christ are not under the Law, and commands of the word, as the rule of life,” the confutation would read that it “is contrary to the Scriptures, which direct us to the Law and to the Testimony” (SS, 220). The list is part of the Short Story and is, of course, not of Winthrop's sole authorship (although he most likely had a hand in establishing the various errors). According to Philip Gura, the errors can be arranged into three major classes. One class pertains specifically to one of the most immediate questions facing the rulers of the Bay Colony, questions about the Antinomian controversy itself: “beliefs in the primacy of the Spirit over the injunctions of Scripture.” The second concerns the ability of a justified person to know the condition of another. The third class covers that group of opinions that challenge the authority of the ministers.11

The synod met during September 1637; in November of that year the court brought Anne Hutchinson to trial. Winthrop and his fellow magistrates had already dealt with many of her group, banishing Wheelwright and dealing harshly with others. Her other most powerful ally, Henry Vane, had left the colony to return to England. Thus she stood alone on a November morning before the court, ready to face her accusers.

Winthrop's characterization of Hutchinson is fascinating both for its vigor and for what it tells us about the author and his times. The others disfranchised, banished, or disabled “were but young branches, sprung out of an old root”; that root was Mistress Hutchinson, “a woman of haughty and fierce carriage, of a nimble wit and active spirit, and a very voluble tongue, more bold then any man, though in understanding and judgment, inferiour to many women” (SS, 262-63). The description informs us of Winthrop's animosity toward her; it also suggests that he was subject to the sexism and biases of his time. Hutchinson's understanding of the fine differences of theological opinion was obviously acute, and if Winthrop is referring to them he is simply dissembling. In her understanding and judgment of a woman's role and proper place in seventeenth-century Puritan New England, certainly she was not deficient, but of that role she was undoubtedly defiant.

Winthrop adds that she “had learned her skil in England” (SS, 263). It is politically important for the governor of New England to intimate that her erroneous opinions did not, in fact could not, originate in the New Canaan. Rather, he suggests that she brought them with her, already hatched and nurtured in the corruption of old England. As proof he cites the opinions she expressed on the ship before even setting foot in New England. Alertly he adds that the Boston church was hesitant to admit her. To justify the church's ultimate admission of her, Winthrop explains that “shee cunningly dissembled and coloured her opinions.” Further, she “easily insinuated her selfe into the affections of many.” Winthrop's own insinuation is that much like a serpent she slid subtly through the Boston garden. Certainly the governor was aware of the seventeenth-century connotation of insinuate as “to introduce by subtle means,” implying the agent's subversion and infection. Through the tone and diction Winthrop further reprobates his adversary. Although he gives her credit for helping with the “publick ministery,” he turns it to his own advantage: “But when she had thus prepared the way by such wholesome truths, then she begins to set forth her own stuffe” (SS, 263). Winthrop does not mince words here; in seventeenth-century English, stuff commonly referred to a worthless idea or nonsense. Winthrop's diction is clearly pejorative in his opening description of the woman and her ideas.

In the course of his characterization of Hutchinson, Winthrop justifies his complaint by citing her teachings. Theologically the difference between her and the establishment lay in her insistence that “no sanctification was any evidence of a good estate, except their justification were first cleared up to them by the immediate wittnesse of the Spirit.” According to Winthrop, the negative consequence of this opinion is twofold. First, she was subverting the authority of the colony, church, and state. Second, she was inciting others: “many prophane persons became of her opinion, for it was a very easie and acceptable way to heaven.” Winthrop feared that her opinions would become manifest in the people's backsliding. Formerly godly people would fall under her persuasion, and “indeed most of her new tenents tended toward slothfulnesse” (SS, 263, 264).

The primary charges against Hutchinson were that she taught against the ministers of the commonwealth and that she argued for the primacy of the spirit over the Scripture. Winthrop also attributed to Hutchinson “the utter subversion both of Churches and civill state.” At the December 1636 session of the General Court, the Pastor John Wilson made “a very sad speech on the condition of our churches” (J, 1:204). This “free and faithfull speech in the Court,” as Winthrop called it, caused Wilson much consternation. He was called to answer publicly. Winthrop blames Hutchinson for occasioning the speech and for causing Wilson's embarrassment: “Thence sprang all that trouble to the Pastour of Boston.” In addition to causing problems for Wilson and the magistrates, Hutchinson received the blame for corrupting John Wheelwright, who before her influence “was wont to teach in a plaine and gentle style” (SS, 265).

Winthrop's ultimate argument against Hutchinson emerges as a political struggle for survival. According to the governor, the fate of the colony was at stake; Hutchinson threatened to destroy the principle of the state as one body knit together by love. She threatened to divide the state and church into factions that could not even coexist, much less develop into a model community, a holy commonwealth.

Twentieth-century students of the Antinomian Controversy generally find fault with Winthrop. Edmund Morgan, for example, who is generally sympathetic toward the governor, calls the trial “the least attractive episode of Winthrop's career.” The documents reveal “a proud, brilliant woman put down by men who had judged her in advance.” David D. Hall even maintains that “Mrs. Hutchinson parried the accusations of her examiners with a wit and verve that reduced them to confusion.”12 The consensus appears to be that the controversy stands as a prime indication of the authorities' total intolerance of any belief but their own. According to Philip Gura, however, “the magistrates' and ministers' responses to Anne Hutchinson and her sympathizers must be seen not as a stubborn defense of long-held principles but as the consequence of the colony's process of self-definition.”13

One of the major threats of Hutchinson, besides her inciting discontent or dissatisfaction with the New England ministers was—according to Winthrop—that if works played absolutely no part in justification, as Hutchinson argued, then godly living, modeling one's behavior on Christ's, obeying the commandments Moses brought down from Sinai, and even having faith, had no authority whatsoever. For the Puritan, the Scripture was the law; it proscribed life and death. The business of the Puritan ministers was to interpret those texts to the best of their ability for the lay congregation. Hutchinson threatened the whole evangelical principle with its emphasis on the authority of Scripture and the importance of preaching. She challenged the authority of both Scripture and ministers. The patriarchy in the seventeenth century would allow no person, and certainly no woman, to exercise that power.

Winthrop's description of the trial itself constitutes a section of his Short Story. Whereas Winthrop briefly summarized the other cases, he gives specific detail of the Hutchinson case, even paraphrasing several of her statements. Winthrop's report is one of very few accounts that is supposed to record Hutchinson's actual words. In the absence of any of her own writing, this account is historically invaluable. Though the court may well have condemned Hutchinson before she entered the Cambridge meetinghouse where her trial was held, Winthrop began by pointing out that the purpose was for her either to acknowledge and reform her faults or to suffer the court's punishment: “that we may take such course with you as you may trouble us no further” (SS, 266). The court was trying her, after all, for causing public disturbances; for holding “erroneous opinions”; for broaching those opinions; for encouraging sedition; for “casting reproach upon the faithfull Ministers” and thereby weakening them and raising prejudice against them; and for maintaining public meetings even though the court had explicitly condemned them.

After Winthrop's introductory remark, the court seems to have proceeded in a somewhat unorganized, even haphazard, way. One of the charges brought against Hutchinson concerned her public meetings. The court accused her for teaching, an act reserved in Puritan society exclusively for men. According to Winthrop's account, Hutchinson defended herself by saying that she and her group did no more than “read the notes of our teachers Sermons, and then reason of them by searching the Scriptures.” She supported herself by reference to the “men of Berea [who] are commended for examining Pauls Doctrine” (SS, 268). The court's charge, according to Winthrop, was that she did not search Scriptures to confirm, rather she used Scriptures to declare the teacher's meaning or even to correct the teacher. Winthrop condemned the principle of independent thought by members of the congregation because such thought could be dangerous to the homogeneity of the community.

Hutchinson's “ready wit” is evident in her response to the court's challenge that she has no rule from the Bible for teaching as she does:

Yet you shew us not a rule.
I have given you two places of Scripture.
But neither of them will sute your practise.
Must I shew my name written therein?

(SS, 269)

Winthrop's record of the trial differs here somewhat from the anonymous account of her examination. The discussion, according to that anonymous report, concluded with Winthrop stating that the magistrates would not allow her to hold meetings. She responded that if “it please you by authority to put it down I will freely let you for I am subject to your authority.”14 The difference between the two accounts is significant because it suggests that Winthrop might have allowed his politics to interfere with his record of all the facts. Which account of the trial is closer to the truth remains a mystery because no one can ever know exactly what words were actually spoken in the court, but the comparison reveals that Winthrop might have deliberately decided to omit Hutchinson's submission to his and the court's authority. Winthrop's version does not conceal the fact that Hutchinson was witty, however. It makes clear her ability to argue intelligently with her prosecutors, an ability Winthrop seemed to deny her in his description of her character.

Besides charging her with inciting discontent by her teaching and questioning the doctrine of the Bay ministers, the court accused her of reviling several of the ministers. After excepting Cotton and Wheelwright, she maintained that the New England ministers “could not hold forth a Covenant of free Grace, because they had not the Seal of the Spirit, and that they were not able Ministers of the New Testament” (SS, 270). By “seal of the spirit,” Hutchinson meant that the new England ministers lacked the figurative mark or seal that signified the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Without such a seal they were not able ministers of the New Testament and therefore unfit to preach. Winthrop would not tolerate such a reproach of the ministers. According to Winthrop's version, she denied the charge, but the ministers, whom the court had asked to be present for that purpose, affirmed it. After their affirmation, Hutchinson confessed and, according to Winthrop's account, repeated her reproach.

Winthrop's account of the court's proceedings of the following morning portrays the defendant as the antagonist. Hutchinson requested that the ministers “might be sworne to what they had spoken” and declared that an“oath is the end of all controversy” (SS, 270). In other words, she simply requested that the ministers take an oath swearing to the truth of their previous testimony. Because they recognized the seriousness of taking such an oath, the ministers were extremely reluctant. If they could not be absolutely sure of what they had said months before, they ran the risk of committing blasphemy. Were they to take the oath and then be proven false, they would surely be liable to the charge of being unworthy ministers, and they would also have broken the third commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7). On this possibility of blasphemy rested Hutchinson's hope.

Whereas the anonymous account records in great detail the arguments over the oath-taking, Winthrop cleverly and politically pauses briefly on this aspect of the trial to state that “All this would not satisfie Mistris Hutchinson, but she still called to have them sworne, whereupon the Court being weary of the clamour, and that all mouths might be stopped, required three of the Ministers to take an oath” (SS, 271). The chronology of events as Winthrop records them differs significantly from that related in the anonymous account of the examination. According to Winthrop, the oath-taking preceded Hutchinson's confession about her receiving divine revelations. According to the “Examination” record, the ministers did not swear until the very end, that is, not before Hutchinson had already ruined any chance she might have had to obtain the court's leniency or forgiveness. According to Winthrop's chronology, the ministers took their oath just after Cotton's testimony. If this were the case, the ministers would have been taking a much greater risk, and their oaths would have carried more weight. If they did not swear until after Hutchinson described her revelations, the oaths would have been uncontested and therefore virtually meaningless; the defendant was by her own admission by then irremediably convicted.

The account of Cotton's testimony sheds further light on the governor's method of composition. Winthrop is vague on Cotton's actual testimony where it did not seem to fit the court's wishes and conclusions. For example, Cotton stated (according to the anonymous version) that as far as he could recollect, he “did not find her saying they were under a covenant of works, nor that she said they did preach a covenant of works.”15 In a sense Cotton here defended Hutchinson effectively, and any charge on this score would have to be dropped. Ultimately Hutchinson was to convict herself not on the grounds of causing sedition or of overstepping a woman's bounds in teaching and interpreting the scripture, but by revealing that she had a direct spiritual communion with God. Knowing this as he writes his own account of the trial, Winthrop blithely concludes the reference to Cotton's testimony by stating that “Mr. Cotton did in a manner agree with the testimony of the rest of the Elders” (SS, 271).

The irony of the case against Hutchinson is that even though the court could do little about her teaching, or her being a woman, or her disagreement with the ministers, the court could condemn her for her confession of immediate, divine revelation. Evidently on her own initiative she enumerated the various times she had experienced revelations. Her coming to New England “was revealed” to her as was her knowledge that the magistrates in New England would prosecute her. Of her prosecutors she knew “that for this you goe about to do to me, God will ruine you and your posterity, and this whole State” (SS, 273).

Winthrop seems to have been aware of this irony and to have delighted at the opportunity it provided the court to dispose of its arch-enemy with impunity: “Mistris Hutchinson having thus freely and fully discovered her selfe, the Court and all the rest of the Assembly (except those of her owne party) did observe a speciall providence of God, that … her owne mouth should deliver her into the power of the Court, as guilty of that which all suspected her for, but were not furnished with proofe sufficient to proceed against her” (SS, 274). According to Winthrop's account, the governor realized what she was saying when she began, foresaw the inevitable result of such a speech, and so he tried to cut her off: “The Governour perceiving whereabout she went [self-incrimination?] interrupted her … but seeing her very unwilling to be taken off, he permitted her to proceed” (SS, 271). According to the anonymous “Examination,” there is no clue as to when, where, or even if Winthrop tried to stop her from speaking about her immediate revelations.16

So speak she did. She spoke until Winthrop could say that “the revelation she brings forth is delusion,” and he could have the court cry out in agreement.17 She proceeded until, as Winthrop narrates it, “The Court saw now an inevitable necessity to rid her away, except wee would bee guilty, not only of our own ruine, but also of the Gospel, so in the end the sentence of banishment was pronounced against her, and shee was committed to the Marshall, till the Court should dispose of her” (SS, 276). As the court passed its sentence, Hutchinson—defeated but still proud and forthright—asked why she was banished. Winthrop replied: “Say no more, the court knows wherefore and is satisfied.”18 Here again Winthrop's version omits this apparent exchange, one that does not show the prosecutor in a very favorable light.

The court may well have been satisfied, for it had just rid itself of the greatest internal threat since the colony's inception in 1630. Whether or not the court was satisfied with Hutchinson's banishment, however, the community had still to deal with Hutchinson's constituency. So although Winthrop had passed the sentence of banishment in November, Hutchinson was allowed to remain, imprisoned in the home of Thomas Weld's brother, in the Boston area (Roxbury) until the season “might be fit, and safe for her departure” (SS, 300). In an effort to shame her even further than the court had done, the elders of the Boston church called her to an excommunication hearing in March 1638. This trial was to be her final humiliation in Boston and a lesson to any who might continue to support her beliefs. The final section of Winthrop's Short Story is his account of this church trial.19

Hutchinson's confinement through the winter of 1637-38 had not kept her ideas—heresies, according to Winthrop's report—from circulating among some members of the congregations. In vain, several orthodox ministers had visited her in what the ministers maintained were efforts to bring her from her errors. In March the elders of the church sent for her to stand an interrogation. On the Thursday lecture day, 15 March 1638, Anne Hutchinson began her last defense against the commonwealth and the church of Boston. Thursdays were generally set aside as days for public lectures by the clergy. In this sense, Hutchinson's excommunication trial would serve as a public lesson. As Winthrop writes, “she came not into the Assembly till the Sermon and Prayer were ended (pretending bodily infirmity) when she was come, one of the ruling Elders called her forth before the Assembly” (SS, 301).

Winthrop's Short Story includes a list of the twenty-nine errors that explain “why the Church had called her.” Few of the twenty-nine were ever actually brought up in the sessions preceding her excommunication, but Winthrop maintained the list to be correct, stating that she acknowledged she had spoken all of them. Many of the errors relate to Hutchinson's apparently recent concern with death and resurrection, beginning with the first which reads “That the soules of all men (in regard of generation) are mortall like the beasts” (SS, 301).20 Many of the errors concern body, soul, and spirit and questions about union with Christ at death. Several others in the list have to do more specifically with evidence of grace, and still others concern law and works. For example, in errors 13 and 23, Hutchinson was accused of holding that the laws of Scripture are not binding: “The Law is no rule of life to a Christian,” and “We are not bound to the Law, no not as a rule of Life” (SS, 302). The repetition suggests the haste with which the errors were drawn up, and the accusation itself hardly seems fair given what is known about Hutchinson's knowledge of and devotion to the Bible.

Winthrop summarizes the two days (the two lecture days the trial lasted), relating that Hutchinson was not entrapped by the ministers who visited her, as she claimed, but that they had come “in compassion to her soule, to helpe her out of those snares of the Devill.” The governor, who was in attendance at the trial but who played little part, drew a picture of the accused as stubborn and obstinate; despite the learned ministers' arguments against her opinions, “shee still persisted in her errour, giving forward speeches to some that spake to her” (SS, 303, 304).

After a week's recess, Hutchinson returned to the second and last session against her. In the intervening week John Cotton and John Davenport had evidently made some progress with her, for she acknowledged “her error in all the Articles (except the last)” (SS, 305). She wrote down her answers to them all. (Alas, that manuscript is lost.) According to Winthrop, she did so well in her responses that “the Assembly conceived hope of her repentance.” Such hope was short-lived, however, because many of her answers proved unsatisfactory. Further, writes Winthrop, she argued that she “had not been of that judgement, that there is no inherent reghteousnesse in the Saints.” John Cotton gave her over at this point, for despite his admonition the previous week and his long week's conference with her in his home between sessions, she was “maintaining of untruth” (SS, 306, 307). Cotton left the matter to her pastor. That pastor, John Wilson, perhaps Hutchinson's most bitter enemy, attacked her viciously. According to the anonymous report of the church trial, he spoke harshly: ‘I doe account you from this time forth to be a Hethen and a Publican and soe to be held of all the Brethren and Sisters of this Congregation, and of others. Therefore I command you in the name of Christ Jesus and of the Church as a Leper to withdraw your selfe out of the Congregation.21 So much for a community knit together in a mutual bond of affection. In his version of the church trial, Winthrop did not record Wilson's vituperative final words. The attack, according to Winthrop, was much less vindictive, in that the governor placed blame on Hutchinson herself. Even though she heard some argue on her behalf “that she might have a further respite, yet she herself never desired it” (SS, 307). Indeed, Winthrop seems to have been very insistent about having Hutchinson convict and sentence herself.

The governor did set down, without interpretive comment, Hutchinson's final words, however: “In her going forth, one standing at the dore, said, The Lord sanctifie this unto you, to whom she made answer, The Lord judgeth not as man judgeth, better to be cast out of the Church then to deny Christ” (SS, 307). Winthrop's motive in including this final outburst might have been to suggest that Hutchinson's former supporters in the Boston congregation had deserted her and turned against her, signifying the total victory of the state and church against such a major and potentially devastating threat as Hutchinson was. Perhaps, too, Winthrop included a description of Hutchinson's exit in this final scene to suggest just how misled the woman was. Certainly in Winthrop's and the church's sense of propriety, Hutchinson was cast out because she seemed to be denying Christ. In the context of Hutchinson's departure, Winthrop did not include the fact that one faithful adherent, Mary Dyer, did rise to join her teacher, nurse, and soul mate as she walked out of the meeting house for the last time.22

One can hardly read the history of Anne Hutchinson without the compulsion to feel sorry for her and to want to side with her against the combined forces of the establishments of church and state. The temptation is to see in Hutchinson's trials the noble attributes of a spirit of resistance, an independence of thought, and a pursuit of truth that characterize only a very few. Hutchinson traveled to the New World full of hope and excitement. She had a dream of a holy commonwealth in union with the church just as did the New England patriarchy. The problem was that Hutchinson's vision, conception, and interpretation of that holy commonwealth invited faction, dispute, and the questioning of authority. John Winthrop's vision did not. He rested his hopes on conformity and acceptance of authority. Thus, Hutchinson was to him and his community a dire threat. She had to be disposed of for the good of the colony. Hutchinson was a woman before her time.

With the spring weather in late March 1638, Hutchinson journeyed to Portsmouth—in what is now Rhode Island. There she rejoined her husband and others of her family and friends. Several months later she suffered the miscarriage of a hydatidiform mole,23 news of which further inspired Winthrop to point out the Lord's displeasure with his former neighbor. In 1642, shortly after her husband's death, Hutchinson and her six youngest children moved to the Dutch settlement on Long Island. The next year she and her family—except for one daughter—were killed by a group of Indians reclaiming the land that European settlers had previously taken from them.

Judging by subsequent journal entries, Winthrop's concern with Hutchinson and her adherents did not end with her banishment and excommunication. Several later journal entries, for example, indicate that the Hutchinson affair had deeply troubled him and his notion of a holy commonwealth. He spent much mental energy trying to justify his actions by recording the divine providences against his antagonist.

The Antinomian Controversy inspired Winthrop to write extensively in various genres. Besides the historical account that was subsequently published as the Short Story, he wrote two theological essays, which his friend and guide Reverend Thomas Shepard convinced him not to circulate and which he evidently destroyed. As we have seen, the episode might also have motivated him to write his “Christian Experience” in an effort to convince himself of his own trials, sanctification, and ultimate justification. He engaged in a manuscript debate with Henry Vane in the winter of 1636-37. In May he wrote a tract in defense of the court's order of limiting immigration depending on the immigrants' qualification, following it up with a further defense in response to comments by Vane. In response to many members of the Church of Boston “being highly offended with the governor” for the proceedings of the court against Hutchinson (J, 1:256), Winthrop wrote an “Essay Against the Power of the Church to Sit in Judgment on the Civil Magistracy” (November 1637). In the essay Winthrop argues that the “Church hath not power to Call any Civill Magistrate, to give Account of his Juditiall proceedinge in any Court of civill Justice” ([Winthrop Papers] WP, 3:505). Relying on biblical precedent, he outlines the reasons the church does not and should not have such a power. In his journal history of New England, Winthrop kept track of the developments of the Antinomian Controversy and even reported on Hutchinson's movements after she left the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The journal was to record the important events of the colony.



In the meantime most of our people went on shore upon the land of Cape Ann, which lay very near us, and gathered store of fine strawberries.

(Winthrop's Journal, 1:50)

As a history of the first twenty years of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in New England, Winthrop's journal is invaluable. Indeed, many historians have utilized Winthrop's journal extensively as one of the major sources for the early history of the colony. In the surge of attention to its merit as history, however, critics have paid surprisingly little attention to the work for its own sake. Richard Dunn, like other editors before him, has written about the composition of the journals and has compared Winthrop's journal with other, contemporary histories of settlements in the New World.24 Barbara McCrimmon has written briefly about the publication history and has discussed some of the topics of Winthrop's journal.25 In her study Before the Convention, M. Susan Power describes Winthrop's journal and discusses its symbolic content in relation to his sermon “A Modell of Christian Charity,” arguing that whereas the “Modell” theorizes about a preconceived system, the journal records Winthrop's actual, ultimately vain efforts to build the commonwealth the shipboard lay-sermon promised.26

Winthrop's journal does seem to have a purpose beyond the mere recording of the first twenty years of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Perry Miller formulated a definite purpose for Winthrop and his contemporary New England historians. According to Miller, “the entire purpose of the New England historians [was to] chronicle the providence of God in the settlement of New England.”27 Whether or not Miller is guilty of overgeneralization, the story Winthrop tells in his journal is undeniably permeated with ideas and the exposition of values reaching beyond the mere record of fact. Winthrop's journal both records the triumphs and calamities of an entire community and thematically reports one writer's hopes, trials, successes, and disappointments. Winthrop's “History of New England,” as he characterized the journal himself on the first page of the third volume, is one important marker on the path that leads to a distinct American literature.

If trials are to be a major subject and overcoming them a theme, Winthrop's opening entries are certainly appropriate. The first major trial the writer faced was to cross the Atlantic Ocean. The journal opens with a minute account of the sea crossing, so minute in fact that Charles Banks was able to use it to chart what he supposes to be the actual route the Arbella and the rest of the fleet took in the spring of 1630.28 As new as the sea venture was to the Puritans, Winthrop evidently did have a model for his description of an Atlantic crossing. After journeying to New England a year earlier, Francis Higginson had sent back to England his “True Relation of the Last Voyage to New England” (1629), and Winthrop seems to have had a copy of it sent to his wife at Groton.29 On 8 April 1630 after a week's delay in the waters off Southampton, the Arbella set sail.

As Banks's account demonstrates, part of Winthrop's purpose must have been to provide a document by which subsequent voyagers could navigate the Atlantic, but he also provided a help to later emigrants in understanding the perils and knowing what to expect in crossing the sea, such as attacks from enemy or pirate vessels, storms, and calms. Beyond these pragmatic functions, Winthrop's sea-journal provides a fascinating account of a landsman's concerns while at sea for the first time. Perhaps most striking is the landlubber's obsession with the wind. All but one of the seventy-eight entries in the sea-journal mention the wind—the lifeblood, as it were, of a seventeenth-century ocean-going ship. Not only did Winthrop's immediate physical safety depend upon the wind, but so did the future of his colony. Thus it is not surprising that of the entries Winthrop wrote at sea, all mention the wind, all but about five begin with a description of the wind, and many entries deal exclusively with the wind and weather.30

After threats from supposed enemy vessels, storms, and calms, the sea-weary Puritans sighted land on 6 June 1630. On 12 June, Winthrop fails to mention wind for the first time during the voyage: “About four in the morning we were near our port” (J, 1:49).31 Now that the wind had brought ship and passengers safely across the Atlantic to the New England garden, Winthrop must have felt that he was near his new home and that the wind was not the major concern it had been for the previous eleven weeks.

The wind was both friend and foe, friend as it carried the Arbella and other ships safely across the Atlantic, foe as it also brought with it deadly storms or withheld itself in equally threatening calms. From the shore, Winthrop characterizes the weather as another antagonist in his narrative of the colony. In the early years, he wrote repeatedly of the severe New England storms, heat waves, and cold spells. The first winter seems to have been particularly extreme. In February Winthrop recorded the freezing of the rivers, boating mishaps, deaths due to weather, and the severity of the wind: “this day the wind came N. W., very strong, and some snow withal, but so cold as some had their fingers frozen, and danger to be lost” (J, 1:55). In August 1632, Winthrop recorded a tempest that prevented sailing. The summer was “wet and cold” (J, 1:89). The summer and fall of 1634 were evidently hot and dry. The following winter is remembered by an “extraordinary tempest of wind and snow.” Indeed, “the weather was many times so tedious as people could not travel” (J, 1:143). Winthrop reports that hurricanes would occasionally threaten destruction as well. In one instance he records the uprooting of trees, overturning of houses, and the grounding of ships. Winthrop peppers his journal with such reports, indicating that one of the many obstacles the valiant colonists had to overcome was adverse weather. There is never any doubt, however, that with God's help overcome it they will. After one particularly vicious storm, for example, Winthrop writes that “there did appear a miraculous providence in their preservation” (J, 1:156).

Turning from the Atlantic crossing and the weather, Winthrop found room in his journal to record that “there came a smell off the shore like the smell of a garden.” Shortly after the passengers came within reach of the land they had been yearning for, Winthrop continued the garden imagery in a description of the passengers leaving ship: “most of our people went on shore upon the land of Cape Ann, which lay very near us, and gathered store of fine strawberries” (J, 1:47, 50).

As paradisaical as these entries are, Winthrop provided few descriptions of this newfound paradise in the following months. Shortly after arriving, he took up the business of beginning a city from scratch, an endeavor that seems to have taken all his time and energy; the journal is blank concerning the details about the settling of Boston, just as it had been blank concerning life aboard a ship. What the passengers did with their time or the governor with his must be projected from consideration of other accounts. Winthrop gave little space to the mundane projects of building houses, planting crops, and setting out gardens. He neglected the mundane because he intended to create a public record of the settling of a holy commonwealth, and he hoped to provide political propaganda for the enhancement of the colony. Certainly it was important to him to record the moral and religious aspects of the settlement, not the daily activities of mere mortal men and women. An implied theme of the journal seems to be that despite all the trials that the colonists were to face in coming years, Winthrop's opus would assert the colony's success. Each potentially cataclysmic threat would be introduced, overcome, and disposed of. Even though Satan is always at work, Winthrop would write, the commonwealth would pursue its course in becoming that city on a hill.

Consistent with the public-document nature of the journal, the governor's first entries after the arrival of the Arbella record the coming of the other ships, whose safe arrivals were certainly seen to be a positive omen for the establishment of the colony. Indeed, after listing the week's arrivals, Winthrop noted that the company “kept a day of thanksgiving in all the plantations” (J, 1:51). The list of arrivals also anticipated a matter that was to become crucial to the colony, that of emigration. The arrival of ships for the first few years meant more colonists, bringing money and buying the goods the New Englanders could provide them. The more the arrival of ships helped the community, the more important it was for Winthrop to record the fact. In this way the journal becomes a public statement of the colony's economic self-sufficiency.

In the first months Winthrop recorded arrivals, deaths, fires, boating mishaps, and severity of the weather. He did not create his first extended narrative until December 1630 when he tells of an accident at sea. The entry immortalizes Richard Garrett, a shoemaker, by recounting the story of his attempt to sail to Plymouth in midwinter. After shipwreck caused by ice and severe weather, Garrett and most of the boat's party died of exposure or frostbite. With this account, Winthrop ushered in what was to become one of the most distinctive characteristics of his journal, the narrative with an implied or merely insinuated moral. In this case since the shoemaker had attempted to make his journey “against the advice of his friends,” the narrative reiterates Winthrop's emphasis on the importance of people banding and staying together. The same might be said for the colony as a whole. Returning to Boston, Garrett's daughter's “boat was well-manned, the want whereof before was the cause of their loss” (J, 1:55, 56).

The notion of being well-manned in the New England wilderness is a theme Winthrop seemed to think he could not stress forcefully enough. One of the conditions of immigration, according to the Cambridge Agreement written and signed in England in 1629, was that the commitment to come to New England was binding because each member of the new community depended desperately on all the others. Therefore, Winthrop could not tolerate those who chose to return to England or leave the Bay Company's jurisdiction. To a large extent, Winthrop avoided even mentioning colonists' departures or their desire to depart, but in one instance he notes how even the thought of better times in old England could be dangerous: “It hath been always observed here, that such as fell into discontent, and lingered after their former conditions in England, fell into the scurvy and died” (J, 1:58).

If merely thinking about the comforts of a former home in England could result in scurvy or death, actually deserting by traveling back to the mother country could invite catastrophe: “Of those which went back in the ships this summer, for fear of death or famine, etc., many died by the way and after they were landed, and other fell very sick and low” (J, 1:58). Winthrop here early established a theme that would recur throughout the history. He lamented the departure of members of the colony. Since such departures did not speak well for the community, he rarely mentioned them except to note the misfortune that befell the deserters. The New England patriot must have been especially upset at the hastening away of John Humfrey, four ministers, and a schoolmaster in December 1641. In September 1642 he records the trials of their voyage back to England with this preface: “The sudden fall of land and cattle, and the scarcity of foreign commodities, and money, etc., with the thin access of people from England, put many into an unsettled frame of spirit, so as they concluded there would be no subsisting here, and accordingly they began to hasten away, some to the West Indies, others to the Dutch, at Long Island … and others back for England.” For those who abandoned the godly enterprise in New England, Winthrop had little sympathy. Indeed, he seems almost to have thrived on their misfortune, writing that although it “pleased the Lord to spare their lives … yet the Lord followed them on shore. Some were exposed to great straits and found no entertainment, their friends forsaking them. One had a daughter that presently ran mad, and two other of his daughters, being under ten years of age, were discovered to have been often abused by divers lewd persons, and filthiness in his family. The schoolmaster had no sooner hired an house, and gotten in some scholars, but the plague set in, and took away two of his own children” (J, 2:82-83).

Besides describing the dangers of defecting and returning to England, Winthrop also recorded information about other colonies in America, those both near and far. He reported each colony's shortcomings and presented each as altogether unappealing. Of Virginia, for instance, he writes that the custom was to be “usually drunken,” and even formerly godly ministers gave themselves up to “pride and sensuality” (J, 2:20-21). In incidents closer to home, Winthrop also seems to emphasize the negative aspects of a particular community, if it in any way threatens the unity, homogeneity, or progress of his own Bay Colony. His accounts of the Reverend Thomas Hooker's experiences in Connecticut are a case in point. As early as September 1634 Hooker and his company desired to resettle in Connecticut. Winthrop, deputy governor at the time, opposed their removal for the same reasons he regretted the departure of any group beneficial to the commonwealth: “in point of conscience, they ought not to depart from us, being knit to us in one body, and bound by oath to seek the welfare of this commonwealth” (J, 1:132). Although through his arguments he was able to thwart an immediate departure, he could not prevent Hooker and his congregation from eventually leaving and settling on the Connecticut River in what is now Hartford. Winthrop records Hooker's departure on 15 October 1635. At the very top of the manuscript page he writes that the sixty people went to Connecticut and, “after a tedious and difficult journey, arrived safe there” (J, 1:163). The journey may well have been as tedious as Winthrop reports, but the author's disgruntlement at their departure seems to have colored his report. Following this entry, Winthrop left almost half a page blank, suggesting he had more to say on the matter, but that he never got back to it.

Winthrop did get around to reporting the Connecticut colony's misfortunes, however. In the first winter those colonists lost two thousand pounds' worth of cattle and had to subsist on “acorns, and malt, and grains.” Later he added that “Things went not well at Connecticut.” (J, 1:178, 200). Even though he forgave Hooker completely and praised him sincerely at his death (J, 2:326-27), he still managed to point out the tribulations suffered by Hooker's community and to compare that community unfavorably with Boston. Winthrop's thematic implication is that those who leave the Bay Colony will be punished for their transgression. Such punishment is attributed to God who was most certainly, in the eyes of the colonists, watching carefully over Boston as a holy commonwealth.

Winthrop also turned to his journal to map the progress of Anne Hutchinson, a much more threatening transgressor. The beleaguered governor depended on his occasional entries to demonstrate that the Lord continued to be displeased with her after her banishment and excommunication. Winthrop reported that her miscarriage “might signify her errour in decrying inherent righteousness.”32 Winthrop's detailed account of the physician's report was his way of demonstrating how Anne Hutchinson was pertinaciously pursued for her troublemaking in Boston. In 1639 Winthrop mentioned that there were political troubles at Aquiday, Hutchinson's place of settlement (J, 1:299). In 1641 he reported that civil and ecclesiastical unrest was great, causing a great schism among them. In Boston Hutchinson's son and son-in-law were both troublemakers (J, 2:39-41). The implication is, of course, that any place where Hutchinson settled would suffer, as would anybody related to or in sympathy with her. In 1638 Winthrop exclaimed that those who went with Hutchinson “fell into new errors daily,” a falling that God-fearing Bostonians would want to avoid at all costs. Outsiders would know that Hutchinson was corrupt and corrupting. He also reported that she still suffered from delusions: “By these examples we may see how dangerous it is to slight the censures of the church; for it was apparent, that God had given them up to strange delusions” (J, 1:284, 297).

In reporting Hutchinson's death by Indians the journalist reminded his readers that these “people had cast off ordinances and churches” and noted that after the deaths of her and her family “a good providence of God” saved some of the others in her community (J, 2:138). Finally, as late as 1646, eight years after the Antinomian Controversy had passed, Winthrop suggested that Hutchinson's children continued to suffer punishment for their mother's transgressions. A daughter who escaped death at the hands of the Indians was eventually returned to the colonists, but she “had forgot her own language, and all her friends, and was loath to have come from the Indians” (J, 2:276-77). The description suggests that as a final punishment for the sins of her mother this daughter lost her language and very identity in New England, from Winthrop's perspective a grave punishment indeed.

Certainly one of the major functions of Winthrop's journal (as suggested in the previous chapter) was for Winthrop to write down for posterity a record of the history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. To this end he detailed not only his response to Hutchinson but also to other major threats to the community; he recorded the court sessions and the community's successes and failures. Depending on context, however, he related episodes emphasizing varying details. Indeed, one of the aspects of Winthrop's journal that makes it enjoyable reading as well as informative history is the inclusion of many brief accounts from the experiences of the colonists. His large history includes numerous small private histories, many of which Winthrop related with a special knack for the art of story-telling. There are, in fact, so many delightful vignettes that choosing from among them is itself difficult and any selection must be somewhat arbitrary. But any selection shows that Winthrop became a good storyteller.

Perhaps the most famous, certainly one of the most frequently anthologized, parables is his story of the battle between the snake and the mouse: “At Watertown there was (in view of divers witnesses) a great combat between a mouse and a snake; and, after a long fight, the mouse prevailed and killed the snake. The pastor of Boston, Mr. Wilson, a very sincere, holy man, hearing of it, gave this interpretation: That the snake was the devil; the mouse was a poor contemptible people, which God had brought hither, which should overcome Satan here, and dispossess him of his kingdom” (J, 1:83-84).

The account is indicative of Winthrop's story telling in several ways. As a historian, Winthrop recorded fact. Here he insured the reader's faith in this verity of the matter by noting the several witnesses. The episode has a meaning that a sincere and holy person could interpret according to God's intentions for New England or for the settlers in the new colony. This account differed from Winthrop's typical accounts in the length to which the narrator went (via Wilson's interpretation) to explain the moral. More often Winthrop only inferred the moral or stated it briefly as God's providence for New England.

A parable with a less obvious message is that of a poor Mr. Mansfield and a rich Mr. Marshall, a story which is “a witness of God's providence for this plantation.” As Winthrop narrates it, Mansfield wanted badly to come to New England but could not afford the passage for himself and his family. Since Marshall, the wealthy merchant, was troubled by bad dreams about the poor man, he gave him fifty pounds and lent him another one hundred, enabling Mansfield to sail to New England. Winthrop concludes by stating that this “Mansfield grew suddenly rich, and then lost his godliness, and his wealth after” (J, 1:141).

This seemingly cryptic passage suggests the complexity of Winthrop's art. If the emphasis falls on the final sentence, God, through providence, appears to intend the immigrant Mansfield to lose his godliness and wealth after getting to New England. Another possibility, one that seems more likely in light of Winthrop's general purpose, is that God's providence for the colony is made evident through Mansfield's receipt of the means to travel to New England in the first place. Winthrop implies that God provides for the colony, and at the same time suggests that the snare of worldly wealth threatens even those sometimes shown God's favor. Because of God's high expectations for the New England colonists, their corruption is especially lamentable. So much for Mansfield. By God's providence he got to New England; by his own fault he let Mammon corrupt him; and he is punished for his corruption by losing his new wealth.

The moral of a story about a woman who attempted to drown her infant is much more obvious, yet the story seems equally complex. “A woman of Boston congregation, having been in much trouble of mind about her spiritual estate, at length grew into utter desperation, and could not endure to hear of any comfort, etc., so as one day she took her little infant and threw it into a well, and then came into the house and said, now she was sure she should be damned, for she had drowned her child; but some, stepping presently forth, saved the child” (J, 1:230). This short narrative demonstrates the power that concern about personal salvation had over the colonists. Writing it in the midst of the Antinomian Controversy (summer 1637), Winthrop demonstrates the problems that result from controversies about justification. The narrator implies that such church problems, which should never have existed to begin with, result in tragic actions. The moral is so obvious for Winthrop and his readers that he evidently felt no need to enunciate it. Mortals can never truly know their spiritual estate; therefore, it is pointless to challenge God in an attempt to determine that estate. Winthrop depicts, by means of this woman, a person's helplessness to establish or verify her own damnation. Winthrop's unstated lesson is that because men and women can not know their estate on earth they should not fail to live by the rules of God and the Bible, its being the only testament they have of God's workings. In another similar incident concerning a mother who unsuccessfully attempts to drown her child, Winthrop does conclude his tale with a moral: “Thus doth Satan work by the advantage of our infirmities, which should stir us up to cleave the more fast to Christ Jesus and to walk the more humbly and watchfully in all our conversation” (J, 2:61).

Winthrop did not always leave the moral of his parables up to his reader's interpretations. In a story about a godly woman who “set her heart too much upon” a “parcel of very fine linen of great value” and who consequently had to suffer its accidental loss, the historian states the obvious moral for his readers: “but it pleased God that the loss of this linen did her much good, both in taking off her heart from worldly comforts, and in preparing her for a far greater affliction by the untimely death of her husband, who was slain not long after” (J, 2:30-31).

Judging by the frequency of entries, perversion of the socially sanctioned sex drives of men and women was a subject that evidently fascinated Winthrop. Such perversion could manifest itself in adultery, licentiousness, incest, and even bestiality. To Winthrop all such perversions were obvious signs of Satan's continual work to corrupt the godly and undermine the sanctity of the holy commonwealth. In an episode that exemplifies the depths of the colonists' beliefs in what would now be considered superstition, Winthrop records the story of a “loose fellow in the town” who—because of some “human resemblances” between the man and a pig—is suspected of fathering a sow. When questioned, the suspect confessed and was subsequently put to death. Winthrop makes no interpretive comment.33

In one particular adultery case, Winthrop attributes a woman's fall to her father's negligence. The father departed for England, leaving his daughters behind, “but took no course for their safe bestowing in his absence, as the care and wisdom of a father should have done” (J, 2:317). The cause is clear: the result as Winthrop explains it is that a married man “was taken with [one of the daughters], and soliciting her chastity, obtained his desire.” The daughter, Mary Martin, having “committed sin” with this man in the house, became pregnant, killed the child after its birth, was found out, and condemned to death. In Boston the law forbade anyone from living alone; this narrative stresses the importance of membership with a legitimate family and a pious community. According to the colonial tradition, individuals by themselves faced a much greater risk of transgressing than those who were tightly bound into the community through family. Winthrop's prose style in this instance is especially terse and unembellished. He relates “a very sad occasion” in a most objective manner, leaving the condemnation of the woman to God: “she behaved herself very penitently while she was in prison. … Yet all the comfort God would afford her, was only trust (as she said) in his mercy through Christ” (J, 2:317). Such incidents are indicative of the terrible pressures on colonists to “move humbly and watchfully” in the New England community. Winthrop's report demands attention by its subject matter and must have been intended to compel readers to avoid the sins that would lead to such dire consequences. At the same time, it seems arguable that Winthrop himself laments the transgression and the tragic deaths of both mother and child.

When misfortune befell the unrighteous, Winthrop had no qualms about entering the episode into his journal. Despite his firm belief in justification by grace not works, he seems to suggest (as Hutchinson was banished for pointing out) sanctification (an honest, humble, industrious life-style according to the laws of the Bible and the model of Jesus) can help to evidence grace. Although God is free to strike down any one at any time for reasons beyond the understanding of man, that same God is somehow more likely to strike down the ungodly. After relating the shooting death of a Captain Patrick and describing his various transgressions, for example, Winthrop wrote that his death “was the fruit of his wicked course and breach of covenant with his wife, with the church, and with that state who had called him and maintained him, and he found his death from that hand where he sought protection” (J, 2:154). About a man who dies crossing the Atlantic, Winthrop writes “one of the seamen died—a most profane fellow, and one who was very injurious to the passengers” (J, 1:44).

With relative ease Winthrop discovers justice and the divine plan in these obvious cases. In reporting misfortunes that befell the godly without apparent logical or discernible cause, however, Winthrop has little explanation to offer other than to admit that any such incident was a sad accident. Often a moral can be implied either by context or by the circumstances of the narrative itself. Such is the case in the story about the accidental shooting death of a five-year-old whose father left him alone in the house. In their care and wisdom, Winthrop implies, fathers should know better than to leave children unattended in a room or house in which loaded guns are accessible.

Within the larger history of New England, many of these stories have as a common theme Satan's repeated-but-thwarted attempts to ruin the colonies. Winthrop noted that the “devil would never cease to disturb our peace, and to raise up instruments one after another” (J, 1:285). Whether referring to public goings-on or to private incidents and misfortunes, Winthrop believed that readers should be aware of the devil's work. In 1645 he wrote about the purpose of his journal: “It may be of use to leave a memorial of some of the most material, that our posterity and others may behold the workings of Satan to ruin the colonies and churches of Christ in New England, and into what distempers a wise and godly people may fall in times of temptation; and when such have entertained some false and plausible principles, what deformed superstructures they will raise thereupon, and with what unreasonable obstinacy they will maintain them” (J, 2:240).

Given the prevalence and the thematic importance of the stories that make up a large portion of the journal, it seems perfectly fitting that Winthrop's final entries (and perhaps his last surviving writing) would be stories of a private nature. The final entry, for example, tells of the drowning of a child of five whose father had worked into the Sabbath (Saturday night). Winthrop concludes by vindicating the parent to a degree: “But the father, freely in the open congregation, did acknowledge it the righteous hand of God for his profaning his holy day against the check of his own conscience” (J, 2:355).

In the nineteen years that Winthrop kept his journal, Massachusetts Bay changed from a small trading company to an established, virtually self-sufficient colony, part of a united federation of colonies. During these years Winthrop was always either at or near the head of the political and religious decision-making bodies. This proximity encouraged him to write many tracts concerning governmental and ecclesiastical decisions for which there was no room in the journal. The next chapter investigates many of these other writings.


Judges are Gods upon Earthe.

(Winthrop Papers, 4:476)

Although the journal history of New England that John Winthrop kept for almost twenty years is unquestionably his most significant contribution to American literature, it is by no means his only important work. As we have seen, he wrote a historically important sermon, a documentary history of the Hutchinson trial (published in 1644), and a record of his conversion experience (1637). Throughout his career, the governor also wrote several less well-known tracts concerning politics, theology, and the colony's relations with the Indians.


For the political and legal writing Winthrop would be called upon to do in New England, he had an apprenticeship in his native country. While he worked as an attorney from 1627 to 1628, for example, he prepared several bills evidently for presentation before Parliament. As Robert C. Winthrop describes them, they “are wholly in his own handwriting, on large paper, with ample margins, and prepared as if for the consideration of a Legislative Committee.”34 In one of these tracts he described the reasons for preventing drunkenness, arguing against the “loathsome vice of Drunkennesse”: “An Act for the preventing of drunkenness and of the great waste of corn.”35 His concern is that beer is brewed too strong and thus “an excessive wast of Barlye, which might be imployed to the great good of the poore, and good of the whole kingdom” (WP, 1:371-74). Winthrop records facts and figures to argue his case, concluding that this law, if passed, could enrich the kingdom by five million pounds a year. Contrary to the modern stereotypical notion of Puritans as teetotalers, Winthrop was not against drinking in itself; he favored beer as a wholesome drink, but abhorred it as an intoxicant.

The bill, which might have been presented to the House of Commons in 1627 or 1628, never became law, but it is representative of several such pieces Winthrop wrote during his tenure at the Court of Wards and Liveries. Another tract attributed to Winthrop and written near the same time is “An Acte to settle a Course in the Assessinge and Levienge of Common Charges in Townes and parishes” (WP, 1:418-19). The bill proposes to establish a law concerning taxation that would end dissension about rates and collections for common charges for such public benefits as maintaining soldiers, prisons, bridges, and churches. Winthrop recognized a need for such taxation, and he gained valuable experience in attempting to organize a fair and workable means of taxation. Such experience would serve him well in New England.

In addition to gaining ability as a framer of legal tracts, Winthrop prepared himself thoroughly for his command as governor of a holy commonwealth. In the late 1620s, he attended church services regularly and copied into a notebook brief outlines of each sermon. He kept track of the preachers, the texts, and the main points of the arguments.36 Certainly this minute record helped to prepare the governor for the composition of his own lay-sermon aboard the Arbella in 1630.


In an early New England document, Winthrop combined his two types of writing skills as he composed a tract on the reasons for reformation without separation: “Reasons to prove a necessitye of reformation from the Corruptions of Antechrist which hath defiled the Christian Churches, and yet without an absolute separation from them, as if they were no Churches of Christ” (1631). Winthrop probably composed the tract in response to Roger Williams's refusal to become temporary teacher at the Boston Church. (He was offered the position while John Wilson was in England trying to convince his wife to join him in New England.) Winthrop voices essentially the same sentiment in the Humble Request, insisting that the colonists were not separating from the Church of England; rather they were merely reforming it from within.

Although the manuscript exists only in a fragment, Winthrop's method and argument are clear.37 As he argued in his tract on the reasons for settling in New England in the first place, he admits that the churches in England are corrupt, but he maintains that they are not unsalvageable: “the Corruption of a thinge dothe not nullifie a thinge so long as the thinge hathe a beinge in the same nature, that it had, when it was in the beste beinge: so is it with the particular Congregations” (WP, 3:13). Referring to the Gospel of Matthew, Winthrop reminds his readers that the Bible prophesies that the visible church will stand until the end of the world. In response to the objection that the Church makes whores and drunkards of visible saints, he argues that “to terme the people in gen[era]l whores and drunkards is evill: for althoughe the most part are ignorant (the more is their sinne and our griefe) yet whores and drunkards they are not: weake Christians they are indeed, and the weaker for want of that tender Care, that should be had of them” (WP, 3:12). Because that church has become corrupt in England, transplanting, purifying, and caring for the visible church becomes the obligation and responsibility of the true Christians in New England. Winthrop thus takes a middle ground, arguing on the one hand that the Church of England needs reforming, while denying on the other hand that reformers have the right to separate from corrupt churches so long as they are “churches of Christ.”


Judging by surviving documents of Winthrop's writings, the Antinomian Controversy and the colony's troubles with Anne Hutchinson inspired one of Winthrop's greatest literary outpourings. In addition to the Short Story account, the journal entries, and his “Christian Experience,” Winthrop wrote several tracts on different subjects related to the controversy. He engaged in a manuscript debate with Henry Vane concerning restrictions on immigration; he wrote a document concerning the power of the church; he also wrote arguments concerning works and grace, tracts which unfortunately do not survive.

Just after the proceedings against Wheelwright for his supposed sedition in March 1636, the General Court passed an order “to keep out all such persons as might be dangerous to the commonwealth” (J, 1:219). The order immediately followed Winthrop's election to the governorship after three years absence, and the reelected governor lost no time in publishing an explanation of the General Court's order.

In this explanation, Winthrop essentially argues that because the welfare of the whole should not be put at hazard for advantage of any individual, the magistrates of the commonwealth have the right to “receive or reject at their discretion.” The document's full title is descriptive of its contents: “A Declaration of the Intent and Equitye of the Order made at the last Court, to this effect, that none should be received to inhabite within this Jurisdiction but such as should be allowed by some of the Magistrates” (WP, 3:423, 422).38 Besides explaining the court's order, the “Declaration” is emblematic of Winthrop's view of the commonwealth. In phrases that are reminiscent of his “Modell of Christian Charity,” the “Cambridge Agreement,” and “Arguments for Plantation,” Winthrop describes “the essentiall forme of a common weale or body politic” as he perceived it: “The consent of a certaine companie of people, to cohabite together, under one government for their mutual safety and welfare.” Given this view of the commonwealth, Winthrop's argument is indicative of the sincerity of his intentions. He wanted what he felt was best for the colony: “The intent of the law is to preserve the wellfare of the body; and for this ende to have none received into any fellowship with it who are likely to disturbe the same and this intent (I am sure) is lawful and good” (WP, 3:422-23, 424).

Winthrop premises his argument on the political ideology current at the time, brought with the Puritans from Jacobean England, namely that “no man hath lawfull power over another, but by birth or consent.” The commonwealth is founded by free consent of the members who “have a public and relative interest each in other.” Echoing specifically the metaphor he expounds in the “Modell of Christian Charity” of 1630, Winthrop argues that every member of a commonwealth such as the one in New England is obligated “to seeke out and entertaine all means that may conduce to the wellfare of the bodye” (WP, 3:423). In the “Modell,” we remember, he writes that “All the partes of this body being thus united are made soe contiguous in a speciall relation as they must needes partake of each others strength and infirmity, joy, and sorrowe, weale and woe” (WP, 2:289).

An objection that concerns the author of the defense is that the law may result in rejecting “good Christians and so consequently Christ himselfe” (WP, 3:425). The possibility of denying Christians a home in New England was a serious consideration for Winthrop, who earnestly desired and certainly recognized the need for immigration. He knew that not only religiously but also economically and politically the growth of the colony was imperative.

Because he sincerely believed that it would be wrong to deny a true Christian admittance into his holy commonwealth, Winthrop argues that the magistrates and elders have not yet, as far as they know, rejected a Christian. Moreover, he argues that rejecting the man would not necessarily be the same as rejecting Christ. Weak as it is, Winthrop's argument rests on that simple denial. He firmly believes that to admit those who threaten the peace and harmony of the commonwealth would be a sinful evil, and that he would be unfaithful to his duty as Puritan magistrate in receiving such. According to Perry Miller, Winthrop assumes “that man is a reasonable creature, and his statement of political theory in these papers owes more to logic than to the word of God.”39

Because Henry Vane was not convinced by Winthrop's “Defense,” he wrote an answer questioning both the author's logic and his authority as a magistrate. The young Henry Vane, who had recently been left out of the government altogether, was certainly bitter. As governor he had been the most important ally the Antinomians could have had. Unfortunately for Hutchinson, Wheelwright, and the others of their camp, his dethroning, as it were, cost them their stronghold in Boston, and ultimately their own rights to residence within the limits of the Bay Colony. In his response to Winthrop's “Defense,” the ex-governor makes one last vain effort to confront his adversaries, an effort that is cogent and perhaps appealing to democratic ears.40 Winthrop had written that “If we are bound to keepe off whatsoever appears to tend to our ruine or damage, then we may lawfully refuse to receive such whose dispositions suite not with ours and whose society (we know) will be hurtfull to us” (WP, 3:423). In response to this passage, Vane writes that “this kind of reasoning is very confused and fallacious … [the question is] whether persons may be rejected, or admitted, upon the illimited consent or dissent of magistrates.”41 According to Winthrop, Vane's answer cast “much reproach and slander … upon the Court.” In other words, the General Court approved Winthrop's stance; and when the whole “proceedings about the law” was read before the court, most parties were satisfied, even “some that were on the adverse party, and had taken offense at the law, did openly acknowledge themselves fully satisfied” (SS, 251-52).

In his “Reply to an Answer Made to a Declaration,” Winthrop essentially restates his former argument in the light of Vane's objections. (See WP, 3:463-76). The governor moves from point to point, methodically and patiently, showing in each case what his own argument is, what Vane's objection is, and how he refutes or answers Vane's objections. In this sense the “Reply” adds little new to the original “Defense.” In other ways, however, the “Reply” is worthy of comment. Winthrop begins by condemning “Contentions among brethren … [as] sad spectacles (WP, 3:463). But because “the cause of truth and justice” calls to him, Winthrop feels obliged to respond even though he thereby continues the contention; he is careful to place the blame, however, on Vane: “if I deale more sharply, than mine owne disposition leads me, the blame must fall upon him, who puts such occasions upon me, as I cannot otherwise shunne” (WP, 3:463). Risking further contention, Winthrop verges on attacking the man rather than his argument, stating for example, that “his zeale for the cause outrunes his judgment” (WP, 3:468). In other instances Winthrop submits that Vane's argument is simply fallacious and does not merit a reply. Winthrop also accuses the addresser of merely babbling: “Thus he runs on in a frivolous discourse, and in the end falls upon this false conclusion” (WP, 3:465).

Whether or not Winthrop is guilty of an ad hominem argument, he was careful to avoid ever naming his adversary (although certainly the author of the “Address” was known to all who heard the tract read at court). Instead Winthrop designates him as the “Answerer,” and generally refers to him with an anonymous third person pronoun. On occasion, however, Winthrop slips into the second person, under the pretense of a direct quote of a question Winthrop would ask him: “I must make bold to aske him this question, viz. Seeing you are bound by your oath” (WP, 3:472).

In justifying his position Winthrop emphasizes the duty of the magistrate. He states that the magistrates have made an oath both to the church and to the civil state, and that they also are under a sort of civil moral code that regulates their behavior: “As they are magistrates, they are sworne to doe right to all, and regulated by their relation to the people, to seeke their wellfare in all things” (WP, 3:466).

Winthrop felt that in the tight-knit, ideal holy commonwealth he advocated, such a system would be perfectly appropriate. The faith the members of a holy commonwealth needed to have in their magistrate would justify their belief in his righteousness. A magistrate was elected by the freemen, but once in office he was believed to have God's authority to perform his task. In a holy commonwealth, of course, the law of the Bible is the magistrate's guide, and the corruption of a magistrate, in this ideal circumstance, is out of the question. In setting up in Massachusetts the colonists agreed “to walke according to the rules of the gospell.” In Winthrop's terms, one thus would have “a christian common weale.”

According to the account in Winthrop's Short Story, the governor's reply to Vane's answer to the original defense was successful. Even some members of the opposing faction were convinced of the justice of the immigration law. Winthrop was successful here, as he would be again the next fall in banishing Wheelwright and Hutchinson. The established colony would survive the internal threats despite Satan's intention to distract or overthrow the churches in New England.


Besides the theological threats to the community, the colony was repeatedly beset with problems concerning the Indians, either as a result of the colonists' behavior toward them or the Indians' real or imagined threat to the Europeans' safety and welfare. In a seven-page pamphlet published by the commissioners for the United Colonies, Declaration of Former Passages and Proceedings betwixt the English and the Narragansetts [DFP] (1645), Winthrop recounts the colonists' dealings with the Narragansett Indians between 1636, when a treaty was signed, and 1645, when the commissioners were armed and ready to fight. To a certain extent, the tract was a declaration of war.

Despite protestations to the contrary, much of the English interaction with the Indians involved deceit, subterfuge, and murder. Having badly defeated the Pequots during the wars of the 1630s, the colonists diminished their threat and even arranged a treaty with them. The colonists then turned to the Narragansetts, another powerful New England tribe. Miantonomoh, one of the most powerful of the tribe's chieftains, had come to the English—as the treaty between English and Narragansetts prescribed—to ask for permission to attack the Pequots in an effort to avenge an earlier attack by the Pequots. The authorities did not refuse permission, and in the battle that ensued Miantonomoh was taken prisoner. Although the colony's leaders had led Miantonomoh to believe he was an ally, they were suspicious of his trustworthiness and thought him too powerful for the good of the colonies.

While the commissioners were considering what action to take against the sachem, their ally Uncas of the Pequots reported that he had captured him, and loyally, “craved the commissioners advice how to proceed with him” (DFP, 2).42 In a journal entry from August 1643, Winthrop describes the dilemma the commissioners had faced while they held Miantonomoh captive. Miantonomoh was rumored to have been the “head and contriver” of a conspiracy “to cut off all the English.” He was also “of a turbulent and proud spirit”—just the type of man the Puritans would not tolerate. Fearing, therefore, that it would “not be safe to set him at liberty, neither had we sufficient ground for us to put him to death.” The magistrates called upon the elders, letting them recommend that he be executed. Next the commissioners secretly informed Uncas that they had decided Miantonomoh should be put to death. Uncas obliged: “Onkus' brother, following after Miantunnomoh, clave his head with an hatchet, some English being present” (J, 2:135, 136).

The Declaration opens with Winthrop's reminder that the English “came into these parts of the world with desire to advance the kingdome of the Lord Jesus Christ and to injoye his precius Ordinances with peace” (DFP, 1). Despite these benevolent intentions on the part of the English, as Winthrop narrates it, the Indians were now forcing the settlers to war.

After narrating the circumstances surrounding Miantonomoh's murder—as if to justify the Bay Colony's action—Winthrop recounts the Indian's offenses against the state, dating back to 1637 when the chief signed a treaty and 1638 when he was reputed to have broken that treaty by attempting to murder Uncas and then actually killing a Pequot prisoner put in his charge. In relating Miantonomoh's execution Winthrop leaves out the details of the Indian's death. In fact, Winthrop describes it in the pamphlet in a jargon not unlike the political-military jargons of other ages: “Uncas hereupon slew an enemy, but not the enmity against him.” Because of this surviving enmity, the troubles with the Narragansetts continued. After describing them, Winthrop was forced to conclude that the “premises being duly weighed it clearly appeares that God calles the colonies to a war.” The governor concludes the declaration by insisting that Satan was again stirring up “many of his instruments against the Churches” (DFP, 4, 7).

As a defense of the English actions against the Indians, the Declaration of Former Passages stands in ironic contrast with the earlier writings about Indians in New England. The first ground of settling in Massachusetts, we remember, was for the propagation of the gospel to the Indians; the settlers would “come in with the good leave of the natives who finde benifight [benefit] allreaddy by our Neighbourhood” (WP, 2:141).43 In contrast to this hopeful beginning, the Declaration asserts that military measures would have to be taken against the Narragansetts despite the colonists' former intention to bring them to the word of God. The ideal of delivering them from the snares of the Devil by converting them seems to have been forgotten.

Historian Francis Jennings calls the Declaration a “bill of charges against the Narragansetts, which was concocted, as usual, of a great many highly misleading words.”44 The most damning evidence is Winthrop's rendition of a letter Roger Williams sent, explaining that despite nearby troubles the Rhode Island Indians sought peace not war.45 As Jennings demonstrates, the commissioners (Winthrop?) literally changed Williams's account to fit their need, which—according to the author—was to wage war against the Indians. This subterfuge by the colonists Jennings calls “mendacity extraordinary even among adepts.”46

Other passages in the Declaration suggest Winthrop's attempt to mislead. He repeats, for example, phrases concerning the colonists' efforts to maintain peace even though the English have suffered “many injuries and insolencies” at the Indians' hands. Several times he refers to the Indians' violation of treaties. Meanwhile, according to Winthrop, the commissioners “in care of the publick peace, sought to quench the fire kindled amongst the Indians, these children of strife.” The political nature of the Declaration is undeniable; Winthrop's method of twisting facts to suit his needs seems equally obvious. The tract shows Winthrop and his fellow commissioners at their manipulative, exploitative worst. As Jennings argues, this manipulation “shows a side of old John Winthrop's character that sorts badly with his reputation for integrity and gentleness.”47

In the Declaration, as with so many of his writings, the governor demonstrates that he saw behind the trouble of the moment Satan working against the colony. Although we cannot forgive Winthrop and his fellow colonists for their mistreatment of the native Americans, we can view him in the context of his age.48 We can acknowledge that his Declaration shows him to have had the perseverance necessary to build and maintain a city founded in and governed by the will of his God; to have had faith in the future of a holy commonwealth; and to have felt that the Indians, like the Antinomians, were threats to that future.


In addition to writing about the internal theological threats and the external military threats to the community, Winthrop repeatedly wrote about domestic political adversity, introducing, defending, or justifying his positions concerning various governmental regulations. The policy of a negative vote (right to veto) essentially divided the General Court into two groups, giving the magistrates the power to dissent from or override the other group's decision despite the magistrates' numerical minority. As such, the policy marks the beginning of bicameral government in the United States. The occasion for Winthrop's written defense of the theory of the negative vote in 1643 has a fascinating background.

Winthrop introduced the idea of negative vote shortly after he was succeeded in the governor's spot by Dudley in 1634. Winthrop had granted power to the deputies as they demanded as early as 1634, but he wished to maintain the magistrates' authority and power. As we have seen, the deputies were elected by the freemen of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Each township sent representatives to be a part of the General Court. Magistrates were also elected by popular vote, but Winthrop saw a distinction between the two groups. The deputies were simply intended to be representatives of the people; magistrates, once elected, had the power of divine sanction. The deputies, however, outnumbered the magistrates and therefore had the potential to carry any vote, a fact that gave them great political power. A simple majority, of deputies and magistrates, would give deputies an advantage Winthrop did not believe they deserved. So he established the principle of the negative vote: “No Lawe etc: shall passe, as an Acte of the Court, without the Consent of the greater parte of the magistr[ate]s of the one parte, and the greater number of the Dep[u]tyes on the other parte” (WP, 4:386). Thus neither group, deputies nor magistrates, could pass laws or make judgments in legal cases without procuring a favorable majority from the other group. In this way Winthrop avoided what he called a “mere democracy,” something abominable according to Winthrop's seventeenth-century outlook.

The law as Winthrop framed it remained silently on the books, as it were, until a legal battle about ten years after its inception brought it again to the forefront. The legal battle, Sherman vs. Keayne, arose over the rightful ownership of a pig. The General Court addressed the issue in June 1642, but the actual sow business, “a great business upon a very small occasion” (J, 2:64) began in 1636 when Captain Robert Keayne received a stray sow and evidently advertised it.49 After a year he claimed to kill his own sow, retaining the stray. At this point Mrs. Sherman came forward, arguing that Keayne took her sow, but because he had killed it she could not identify it. The court decided in Keayne's favor, giving him three pounds for costs and twenty for damages. Mrs. Sherman with the help of George Story gained popular support, and got a witness “to confess … that he had forsworn himself.” The case was reopened. The deputies tended to side with Sherman, and the magistrates with Keayne so that, as Winthrop writes in his journal, since the deputies far outnumber the magistrates (thirty to nine), “no sentence could by law pass without the greater number of both.” The deadlock occasioned the popular party's, the deputies', denigrating the principle of the negative vote, asserting that it “had hindered the course of justice” (J, 2:64, 65, 66).

In a journal entry for June 1643, Winthrop explains the occasion for his writing “a small treatise” on the negative vote, “wherein he laid down the original of it from the patent, and the establishing of it by order of the general court in 1634, showing thereby how it was fundamental to our government, which, if it were taken away, would be a mere democracy.” To this treatise “one of the magistrates as was conceived” made an answer, “undertaking to avoid all the arguments both from the patent and from the order” (J, 2:120). The surviving document is Winthrop's “Reply to the Answ[er] made to the Discourse about the Neg[ative] vote.”50

In a style similar to the one he used in his reply to Vane's arguments about immigration laws, Winthrop states his case point by point. In his response he answers questions about the legality of the negative vote, and shows that it subscribes to the letter of the patent, is fundamental to Massachusetts Bay government, and is lawful and expedient. He also has something to say about “the proper place and power of the Dep[u]ties” (WP, 4:380).

In defending the negative vote Winthrop refers to the two documents most important to the commonwealth, the Bible and the Charter. Though his use of the Scripture in this instance is slight, he does refer to the Old Testament to point out that the negative vote saved Jeremiah “against the minde of the Preists” (WP, 4:389). Winthrop makes detailed reference to the Charter, arguing that the first question will be “best cleared by the Patent it selfe, wherein I will set down the very words themselves (so far as concernes the state of the Question) and not leave out what may make against me, as the Answ[erer] often doth” (WP, 4:380). Winthrop uses the patent in two ways: one is to demonstrate that the negative vote is lawful according to the laws brought over from England initially; the other is to deprecate the answerer's method. In concluding his argument that the patent makes legitimate the negative vote, Winthrop becomes vehement: “I must Conclude, that either these words in our Patent doe give the magistrates a Neg[ative] vo[te] or els there was never any Neg[ative] vo[te] granted by any Patent or Comission by any kinge of England since Edw[ward] the 3ds time” (WP, 4:382).

Winthrop argues that the negative vote is fundamental to the commonwealth in that it marks a specific difference between one form of government and another. If the negative vote were taken away, Winthrop repeats, “our Government would be a meere Democratie” (WP, 4:382). As a seventeenth-century Puritan aristocrat, Winthrop had no sympathy with democracy. According to Winthrop, no precedent or warrant for a democracy existed in Scripture; “there was no such government in Israell.” Correspondingly, for a new Israel in New England there should be none. Besides the lack of biblical precedent, secular histories record democracies as monsters, “the meanest and worst of all formes of Government,” full of troubles, and short-lived (WP, 4:383). Democracy does not come highly recommended from Puritan New England. Ironically, of course, with the division of the General Court into two separate houses each with the power to veto, the modern bicameral aspect of government which is such an integral part of the democracy in the United States owes its genesis to Winthrop and Puritan New England.

Winthrop's mistrust of democracy lies in his doubts about the abilities of the common man to govern himself or others, a mistrust, incidentally, that was echoed by many of the framers of the Constitution some 150 years later. Winthrop did acknowledge that some deputies might boast accomplishments equal to those of a magistrate, but generally the magistrates were chosen specifically for their abilities in law and politics.

Finally, Winthrop addresses the objection that the negative vote gives undue power to the magistrates even if their judgment is unjust: “If the Court of Assist[ant]s should give an unjust sentence in any Cause, the partye injured can have no remedye in the generall Court if the magistr[ate]s (as they are like to doe) shall persist in their former Judgment” (WP, 4:390). It is more likely, argues Winthrop, that the jury errs than the judge. Were judges to err, however, given new evidence that magistrates would “have good ground” to change their judgment. Magistrates are sure to be open-minded and “ready to attende such further helpe and light, as the wisdome and counsell of the generall Court may seasonably afforde.” Furthermore, according to Winthrop, any unjust magistrate who persisted in error would be shamed into either correcting his error or leaving office.

We can only conclude that as Winthrop struggled to retain the power for the magistrates he had the benefit of the colony at heart. His ultimate motives may have been to some extent influenced by pride and human striving for fame, but regardless of what was personally best for the individual man, Winthrop sought what he thought and what the Bible taught was best for the commonwealth. Such thoughts guided him in devising and recording responses to the crises he and his colleagues faced.


By midsummer 1643, Winthrop had satisfied, or at least quieted, the opposition concerning the negative vote. For a time he and the deputies “let the cause fall” (J, 2:121). By the following summer (1644) Winthrop had been voted out of the governorship; as deputy governor he opposed the deputies' claim of judicial authority, and he thereby caused them to accuse him of maintaining an arbitrary government. Once again Winthrop was put on the defensive.

To defend himself, the other magistrates, and the system of government in the Bay Colony, Winthrop again wrote a small treatise. Like his other titles, the full title of this treatise is descriptive: “Arbitrary Goverment described and the Common mistakes about the same (both in the true nature thereof, and in the representation of the Goverment of the Massachusetts, under such a notion) fully cleared” (1644).51

Winthrop's challenge in this treatise was to demonstrate that the government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was not arbitrary. To this end he defines arbitrary government as that in which “a people have men sett over them without their choyce” who have power to govern them “without a Rule” (WP, 4:468). Where the people choose their own governors and require their own rules, in contrast, there is no arbitrary government. As he had done in defending the negative vote, Winthrop referred directly to the Charter to show how the government of Massachusetts allows those liberties that keep it from being arbitrary.

A rhetorical trick Winthrop uses to his advantage is to define arbitrary government by negation and thereby imply the positive characteristics of the government he defends. The foundation, laws, and constant practice for the common good insist that Massachusetts offers liberties unknown to an arbitrary government. The foundation is in the Charter that prescribes the election of officers; the rules are established by the Charter, and the magistrates have been liberal in issuing punishment for transgressors of the rules. The rule observed by the magistrates is the word of God. Because of his divergence from the Bible in exacting penalties, Winthrop got in trouble with the deputies. He maintained that except for certain capital crimes, the punishment should vary with the circumstances of the crime. According to biblical precedent, argued Winthrop, penalties other than for capital offenses are not prescribed. The individual crime is considered in each case. Winthrop seeks to avoid oppressing the people by unjust sentences yet to punish adequately those who transgress against holy or civil law. Laws are objective and fixed; penalties subjective and relative.

In exacting punishments, Winthrop admits, a government can appear to be arbitrary. In a statement that anticipates the dictum “innocent until proven guilty,” Winthrop writes that a human judge “cannot sentence another, before he hath offended, and the offence examined, proved, layd to the Rule, and weighed by all considerable Circumstances, and Libertye given to the partye to Answerer for himselfe” (WP, 4:474). By appealing to the accused's liberties, Winthrop argues that his government is not arbitrary, but liberal.

In contrast to this relatively liberal view, in perhaps the boldest statement he makes, Winthrop asserts that “Judges are Gods upon earthe.” This statement verbalizes the seventeenth-century understanding of the judge's role in New England, but it also provides further evidence of Winthrop's naïveté, innocence, and hope. Again exhibiting his faith in the justice of Scripture and in the basic goodness of the magistrates in a holy commonwealth, Winthrop argues that the judges in their judgments will “holde forthe the wisdom and mercy of God” (WP, 4:476). God gives men the ability to interpret God's own laws.

Winthrop concludes by arguing that although laws should be fixed, firmly established, penalties should not be rigid. After all, in infinite wisdom, “God foresaw, that there would be corrupt Judges in Israell, yet he lefte most penaltyes, to their determination” (WP, 4:481). In answering objections, Winthrop acknowledges that judges are fallible, subject to temptation and error, but that the consequences of their error is slight compared with the injury an unjust law could do.

In the ideal commonwealth Winthrop envisions, knowing the laws will be sufficient cause for obeying them; the virtuous need not know the penalty. The best humans can do, submits Winthrop, is to provide against “common and probable events” (WP, 4:481). For the rest, the members of a holy commonwealth must trust in God.


No sooner had Winthrop argued that the government was not arbitrary than a group from the town of Hingham accused him of again overstepping his rightful authority. As with the sow business, here too a story stands behind Winthrop's creation of what has come to be known as his “little speech on liberty.”52 A group of townspeople from Hingham, a community near Boston, accused Winthrop of overstepping his authority when he appointed a militia captain contrary to the people's choice. The people of Hingham refused to respond to the appointed captain's orders and called Winthrop to court. Winthrop considered the Hingham faction mutinous and argued that he was honored in being singled out to defend a just cause. After being cleared of any criminal charges and reinstated, as it were, Winthrop “desired leave for a little speech” (J, 2:237). The speech he gave, as much as any other single piece of his writing, helps to characterize the man and to explain his theory of government.

After a short preface asking for the court's indulgence, Winthrop introduces the matters that his speech addresses: “The great questions that have troubled the country are about the authority of the magistrates and the liberty of the people.” In his speech, then, he clarifies and expounds on the principle of authority and defines his notion of liberty. He acknowledges that even though he is a magistrate, he is also a person and, therefore, is subject to failings. Because he has been chosen by a godly people, however, he has his authority from God: “It is yourselves who have called us to this office, and being called by you, we have our authority from God.” Yet unlike gods, magistrates come from among the electors, “men subject to like passions.” Therefore, he cautions his audience, “when you see infirmities in us, you should reflect upon your own, and that would make you bear the more with us, and not be severe censurers of the failings of your magistrates, when you have continual experience of the like infirmities in yourselves and others” (WP, 4:238). If a judge's cases are clear, the magistrate—unless he “fail in faithfulness”—will be able to act appropriately. “But if the case be doubtful, or the rule doubtful, to men of such understanding and parts as your magistrates are, if your magistrates should err here, yourselves must bear it” (J, 2:238). In other words, Winthrop argues that unless a magistrate openly and obviously transgress the law of God, those who elect him must bear the consequences of his errors.

In discussing liberty, Winthrop again exhibits his belief in the ultimate goodness of God's covenanted people in the Bay Colony. He argues that there “is a twofold liberty, natural (I means as our nature is now corrupt) and civil or federal.” He defines natural liberty as that of a brute beast, a liberty that has no place in a holy commonwealth: “By this, man, as he stands in relation to man simply, hath liberty to do what he lists; it is a liberty to evil as well as to good. This liberty is incompatible and inconsistent with authority, and cannot endure the least restraint of the most just authority” (J, 2:238). A “civil or federal, it may also be termed moral” liberty, in contrast, has “reference to the covenant between God and man. … This liberty is the proper end and object of authority, and cannot subsist without it. … This liberty is maintained and exercised in a way of subjection to authority.” Such a liberty, argues Winthrop, is worth standing for with one's life. It is the liberty of being free and content to do God's will, to accept authority. Winthrop concludes by again contrasting natural and moral liberty: “If you stand for your natural corrupt liberties, and will do what is good in your own eyes, you will not endure the least weight of authority, but will murmur, and oppose, and be always striving to shake off that yoke; but if you will be satisfied to enjoy such civil and lawful liberties, such as Christ allows you, then will you quietly and cheerfully submit unto that authority which is set over you” (J, 2:238, 239). Winthrop's conception of liberty in this context epitomizes the belief of his age. Even though he was a judge, he also humbled himself in recognizing the interdependence of his fellow colonists. If he appeared happy in his harness, to paraphrase Robert Frost, it was only because he acknowledged that the success of the commonwealth depended on everyone being happy in harness. Winthrop's little speech delineates the accepted understanding of liberty in seventeenth-century Boston and is, if for no other reason, invaluable as a piece of literature.

Certainly Winthrop, like many of his colleagues in the government and the church, found his yoke “easy and sweet,” yet some of the colonists did not. Those malcontents strove continually against the authorities. Much of Winthrop's writings in his journal and separate treatises attest to this continual struggle. Winthrop attempted to establish a holy commonwealth in which all members were parts of the same body, each dependent on the other, and he wrought a government suitable for the colony set on the edge of a vast wilderness continent.

Differences of opinion were inevitable. Jealousies and power struggles were a matter of course. Frustration and fear were the natural human responses to a community that was envisioned as an ideal holy commonwealth but discovered to be as real and as challengingly problematic as any community in the world. Winthrop's various literary responses to the many problems that beset him and his community in his career as governor of the Bay Colony demonstrate his ability to govern despite a multitude of problems, and make manifest—as historians have long recognized—that politically, socially, and religiously he was clearly the most able governor in Puritan New England. As his manifold writings attest, he must also be considered one of the most important American Puritan writers.


  1. Morgan, [Edmund S. The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop Boston: Little, Brown, 1958] 134.

  2. Several works address the Antinomian Controversy. In The Puritan Dilemma, for example, Morgan discusses Hutchinson in a chapter entitled “Seventeenth-Century Nihilism” but argues that Winthrop was “one of the libelers” and writes that “Anne Hutchinson excelled him not only in nimbleness of wit but in the ability to extend a theological proposition into all its ramifications” (134, 136). See also Selma R. Williams, Divine Rebel: The Life of Anne Marbury Hutchinson (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1981); Emery Battis, Saints and Sectaries: Anne Hutchinson and the Antinomian Controversy in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962); and “Anne Hutchinson and the Antinomians,” a chapter in Philip Gura's A Glimpse of Sion's Glory, 237-75.

  3. See Williams, [Selma R. Divine Rebel: the life of Anne Marbury Hutchinson New York: Holt, and Rinehart and Winston, 1981] 63-76, for a detailed explanation of possible reasons for the family's decision to settle in New England.

  4. Reference is to Winthrop's A Short Story of the rise, reign, and ruine of the Antinomians, Familists & libertines, (London, 1644); reprinted in The Antinomian Controversy, 1636-1638: A Documentary History, ed. David D. Hall (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1968), 199-310. Subsequent references appear in the text as SS, followed by page number.

  5. See Williams, Divine Rebel, 73-74, 79-80.

  6. The account of the theological fine points of the Antinomian Controversy presented in this chapter are necessarily brief. An indispensable account of the theological aspects of the controversy is William K. B. Stoever, “A Faire and Easie Way to Heaven”: Covenant Theology and Antinomianism in Early Massachusetts (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1978). In the context of Winthrop's journal entry, see pp. 9-10.

  7. John Wheelwright, “A Fast-Day Sermon” (Boston: 1637); reprinted in Antinomian Controversy, 154.

  8. Ibid., 158.

  9. Ibid., 165, 166.

  10. See T. H. Breen, The Character of the Good Ruler: A Study of Puritan Political Ideas in New England, 1630-1730 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 3-7.

  11. Gura, A Glimpse of Sion's Glory, 254-55.

  12. Morgan, Puritan Dilemma, 147-48; “Examination of Mrs. Hutchinson,” in Antinomian Controversy, 311.

  13. Gura, Glimpse of Sion's Glory, 239.

  14. “Examination of Mrs. Hutchinson,” Antinomian Controversy, 316.

  15. Ibid., 334.

  16. Compare Winthrop's Short Story (271) with the anonymous version, “Examination of Mrs. Hutchinson,” in Antinomian Controversy, 336-38 and 341.

  17. “Examination of Mrs. Hutchinson,” in Antinomian Controversy, 343.

  18. Ibid., 348.

  19. For Winthrop's account of the trial, see Antinomian Controversy, 300-10; for the anonymous report, see “A Report of the Trial of Mrs. Anne Hutchinson before the Church of Boston,” in Antinomian Controversy, 349-88.

  20. See Battis, Saints and Sectarians, 233-35, for an explanation of Hutchinson's newfound interest in death and resurrection.

  21. “A Report of the Trial,” in Antinomian Controversy, 388.

  22. In the context of Mary Dyer's monstrous birth, of course, Winthrop has recorded Dyer's act of accompanying Hutchinson; see Antinomian Controversy, 281.

  23. See Margaret Richardson and Arthur Hertig, “New England's First Recorded Hydatidiform Mole,” New England Journal of Medicine 260 (1959):544-45. See also Anne Jacobson Schutte, “‘Such Monstrous Births’: A Neglected Aspect of the Antinomian Controversy,” Renaissance Quarterly 38 (Spring 1985): 85-106.

  24. Dunn's work on Winthrop and his journal is extensive. See “Experiments Holy and Unholy, 1630-31,” in K. R. Andrews et al., The Westward Enterprise: English Activities in Ireland, the Atlantic, and America, 1480-1650 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979), 271-89. See also “Seventeenth-Century English Historians of America,” in James Morton Smith, ed., Seventeenth-Century America: Essays in Colonial History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959), 195-225. Most recently Dunn has elaborated on the composition of the journal in “John Winthrop Writes His Journal,” 185-212.

  25. McCrimmon, “John Winthrop's Journal,” Manuscripts, 24, 2 (1972):87-96.

  26. Power, Before the Convention: Religion and the Founders, 65-106.

  27. Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (New York: Macmillan, 1939; reprint, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954), 360.

  28. See Charles E. Banks, [The Winthrop Fleet of 1630: An Account of the Vessels, the Voyage, the Passengers and Their English Homes from Original Authorities. Boston: Riverside Press, 1930] 33-45. In a letter dated 14 August 1630 Winthrop mentions a chart of the sea voyage that Peter Milbourne, captain of the Arbella, drew for him (see Winthrop Papers [5 vols. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1929-47.] 2:309).

  29. The best modern edition of Higginson's “True Relation” is in Letters from New England: The Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1629-1638, ed. Everett Emerson, 12-24. It is also reprinted in Hutchinson's Collection of Original Papers (Boston: Prince Society Publications), 32-47, and in Chronicles of the First Planters of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, 1623-1636, ed. Alexander Young (Boston: 1846), 215-238, 260-64. See Winthrop Papers, 2:157, for the letter in which Winthrop mentions Higginson's “booke.” See also Dunn, “Winthrop Writes His Journal,” 190-91.

  30. It is interesting to note that Winthrop's model, the Higginson account, also gives much space to descriptions of the wind (see Emerson, ed., [Letters from New England: The Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1629-1638. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1976] 12-24).

  31. Unless otherwise noted, subsequent references to Winthrop's journal, in this chapter are to Hosmer, [James Kendall] ed., [Winthrop's Journal “History of New England,” 1630-1649. 2 vols. New York: Scribner's Sons, 1908].

  32. History of New England [from 1630 to 1649. 2 vols. Vol. 1, Boston: Phelps and Farnham, 1825; vol. 2, Boston: T. B. Wait and Son, 1826] ed. James Savage (1825), 1:271. Hosmer felt obliged to omit Winthrop's account of the “monstrous birth” (J, 1:277, note 2). For the text of Winthrop's account, see the Savage edition, 1:271-73.

  33. This is another of the several passages Hosmer decided not to include in his edition of the journal. See The History of New England, ed. Savage (1825), 2:61.

  34. Robert C. Winthrop, Life and Letters of John Winthrop, [2 vols. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1864, 1867] 1:221.

  35. In this context, corn is meant in the British sense of grain in general, and specifically, as Winthrop makes clear in the paper, barley.

  36. See Robert C. Winthrop, Life and Letters, 1:262. The autograph volume of these sermon notes is housed in the Massachusetts Historical Society. A microfilm reprint is available in the Winthrop Family Papers, 1537-1905, reel 35.

  37. The fragment is reprinted in Winthrop Papers, 3:10-14.

  38. For the text of the “Declaration,” see Winthrop Papers, 3:422-26.

  39. Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956), 70.

  40. Winthrop summarizes the debate in his Short Story. See Antinomian Controversy, ed. Hall, 251.

  41. For Vane's answer to Winthrop's defense, see Thomas Hutchinson, Collection of Original Papers Relative to the History of Massachusetts Bay (Boston: Prince Society Publication, 1865), 1:74 and following.

  42. Subsequent references to Winthrop's A Declaration of Former Passages Betwixt the English and the Narrowgansets (Boston: By Order of the Commissioners for the United Colonies, 1645) appear in the text as DFP and page.

  43. Judging by historical evidence, one cannot be too sure of the Puritan settlers' sincerity concerning the conversion of the Indians. Besides the work of John Eliot, little was done to introduce the word of God to the native Americans. See Francis Jennings, [The Invasion of America: Indians, colonialism, and the cant of conquest. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1976.] especially 228-53.

  44. Jennings, The Invasion of America, 274.

  45. The text of Roger Williams's letter is reprinted in Winthrop Papers, 4:30-31.

  46. Jennings, Invasion, 275.

  47. Ibid, 274.

  48. In his biting appraisal, Jennings is not nearly so generous. See Jennings, Invasion, 265-76.

  49. For Winthrop's account of the episode, see Winthrop's Journal, 2:116.

  50. See Winthrop Papers, 4:380-91, for the text of Winthrop's “Reply to the Answ[er].”

  51. For the text of Winthrop's “Arbitrary Government,” see Winthrop Papers, 4:468-88.

  52. For Winthrop's account of events leading up to his writing of the little speech and for the text of the speech itself, see his Journal, 2:229-40.

Selected Bibliography

Primary Sources

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. … London: Printed for R. Smith, 1644. Republished as A Short Story of the rise, reign and ruin of the Antinomians, Familists & libertines. … London: Printed for Ralph Smith, 1644. Reprinted in The Antinomian Controversy, 1636-1638: A Documentary History, 199-310. Edited by David D. Hall. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1968.

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. Boston: Commissioners for the United Colonies, 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. Edited by Noah Webster. Hartford: Printed by Elisha Babcock, 1790. Reedited and published as The History of New England from 1630 to 1649. 2 vols. Edited by James Savage. Vol. 1, Boston: Phelps and Farnham, 1825; vol. 2, Boston, T. B. Wait and Son, 1826. Revised edition, Boston: Little, Brown, 1853. Republished as Winthrop's Journal “History of New England,” 1630-1649. 2 vols. Edited by James Kendall Hosmer. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1908. Reprint. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1966.

Winthrop Papers. 5 vols. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1929-47.

Scott Michaelsen (essay date 1992)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6759

SOURCE: Michaelsen, Scott. “John Winthrop's ‘Modell’ Covenant and the Company Way.” Early American Literature 27, no. 2 (1992): 85-100.

[In the following essay, Michaelsen proposes that “A Modell of Christian Charity” served two purposes, suggesting that Winthrop's aim was not only to instill a sense of pride in the participants but also to create a contractual agreement that would benefit both sides of the venture.]


As Andrew Delbanco has noted, first Massachusetts governor John Winthrop's departure sermon, “A Modell of Christian Charity” (1630), is “enshrined as a kind of Ur-text of American literature” (72).1 In his reading, “A Modell” becomes a text more important for what it says about old England than new; Delbanco sees it as a series of Puritan renunciations of former practice rather than a forward-looking definition of an “errand into the wilderness,” as Perry Miller's famous interpretation had it. Even so, Winthrop's sermon still stands for Delbanco as a kind of boundary line separating one horizon of thought from another. Its promises and warnings, its notions of community and awesome responsibility, become somehow typical of the American mind in general.

The sermon has been especially significant to scholars concerned with establishing an American Puritan belief in national or federal covenant: a special, legalistic relationship between God and the New Englanders as a whole regarding their emigration project. It has been said that “for all their talk about polity, the Puritans had no idea what a covenanted state really was … until John Winthrop and his company actually founded a state by contract” and that the “Modell” sermon is the place where “the doctrine of the national covenant [is] articulated most memorably” (Foster xii; Gura 216). One is tempted to go further, and suggest that the very idea of an early American Puritan belief in federal covenant is often premised on the existence of Winthrop's secular sermon.

The question of Winthrop's representativeness, which was debunked memorably by Darrett B. Rutman, becomes even more troublesome when one explores more deeply Winthrop's “Modell” covenant and communitarian cast of mind through a reestablishment of a specifically legal context for the sermon, both theoretical and practical. Winthrop's sermon not only bears a significant relation to newly emerging theories of contract law and interpretation, but it reveals a great deal about the actual legal conditions of the Puritan voyage to America. Winthrop emerges from such a reading as a figure of special rather than general significance.


While there is no doubt that the writing of Winthrop and other Puritan leaders was suffused with legal terminology, such terms are assumed to have been derived from either theology or political theory. A third, frequently overlooked, possibility involves looking to the law itself. The legal mind is everywhere in evidence in the “Modell,” and Winthrop, who studied at Gray's Inn, and practiced law in London and on the family estate for many years, developed his version of federal covenant from impulses in English law. In order to understand this, one must know that the concept of “covenant” has a rich history in the common law, the law that emerges from custom or court decision rather than statute. “Action of covenant,” for example, is an ancient form of pleading in the common law system, in effect as early as the 1200s. From that time onward, actions of covenant were slowly replaced in British law by more modern contract law (first by the pleading form “action of debt,” and later by the “action of assumpsit”); as late as the 1600s, however, lawyers were still regularly filing suit using the action “breach of covenant” for a number of ordinary purposes. Typically, such actions mandated written evidence (“expressed covenants”) in the form of deeds or charters and their seals. One legal definition of “covenant,” for example, is a “promise under seal.” Covenant law was quite strict: Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., said that “for a time, a man was bound by his seal, although it was affixed without his consent.”2

The legal concept of covenant belongs to medieval times, and brings with it a medieval sense of power relations. Holmes noted that the seals necessary for such covenants, for example, “were said by the Chief Justice of England to belong properly only to the kings and to very great men.” Puritan covenant theology is analogous. In John Cotton's “A Sermon Delivered at Salem, 1636,” the covenant is “made to me, and to my seed” rather than “with” the Puritans (Churches 42). God issues the covenant and, once accepted, he applies seals which he alone holds in the form of the sacraments (41). Only the most minimal sense of human agency figures into the typical covenant equation—individuals must give themselves up to the predetermined bargain. The covenant Cotton describes is in effect as a “perpetual covenant” because of God's still unbroken covenant with the nation of Israel (46). In other words, like legal covenant, once established, it cannot be broken. It binds for all time as long as the document and seals are intact. No later considerations are conceivable, nor is a renegotiation of any part of the perpetual covenant, such as, say, the Mosaic laws, a possibility (47). All that human beings can perform, according to Cotton, is a “renewing of this covenant” (56).3

Something very different happens in Winthrop's “A Modell of Christian Charity,” in a way unique to the Puritan literature but not to early seventeenth-century law and its still emerging notions of modern contract. When Winthrop describes the nature of the federal covenant with God, he says:

Thus stands the cause betweene God and vs, wee are entered into Covenant with him for this worke, wee haue taken out a Commission, the Lord hath giuen vs leaue to drawe our owne Articles we haue professed to enterprise these Accions vpon these and these ends, we haue herevpon besought him of favour and blessing: Now if the Lord shall please to heare vs, and bring vs in peace to the place wee desire, then hath hee ratified this Covenant and sealed our Commission, [and] will expect a strickt performance of the Articles contained in it. …

(Winthrop 294)

Rather than God making covenant “to” the Puritans, or even “with” them, Winthrop imagines the Puritans themselves as conceiving of this special, federal covenant, and beginning negotiations from their side of the table: “Wee haue taken out a Commission,” and then “professed to enterprise these Accions” and “besought him of favour and blessing.” Winthrop places the covenant on God's desk for ratification, and the Puritans will know “hee ratified” their deal when they have established themselves successfully in their new place.

These are remarkable words, and they speak to a number of post-“action of covenant” developments in the law. Perhaps most important are the contemporary beginnings of the “will” theory for interpretation of contracts, evident in a text such as Hugo Grotius' De Jure Belli ac Pacis Libri Tres [The Law of War and Peace] (1625). Such a new attitude presumes that obligations are always “acts of will” rather than mere formal responsibilities. As one recent historian of contracts writes: “The implication of the ascendancy of the will theory was that contract obligations were now viewed as mutual obligations voluntarily created by the parties and now expressed in the form of an offer and acceptance” (Teeven 181). This is the territory of the Winthropian covenant. Quite literally, Winthrop's Puritans will their bargain with the Creator in a way unprecedented in the writings of the ministers.4

Not surprisingly, this and other of Winthrop's theological pronouncements served as an embarrassment to some of the ministers, and struck them as classically Arminian, or tending toward a heretical, will theory of salvation.5 Several times, for example, that mild man, the reverend Thomas Shepard, found it necessary to reproach Winthrop by letter regarding ideas the latter was disseminating. In a 1636 missive that addresses Winthrop's Arminian leanings, Shepard explained:

I thought it fit to send vnto yow my thoughts by way of wrighting, vntill we speake together, if so yow think fit; when I read the question in your declaration, I did woonder & greaue that I should liue to see the liberty of mens spirits, not only to deny so playne a truth, but that they should abolish the very forme of wholsom woords of truth. …

(Shepard 258)

Eight pages of specific problems with Winthrop's latest declaration follow. Even when one accounts for the heterogeneous nature of American Puritan theology during the 1630s, Winthrop's views were atypical and out of step with the religious leadership, and he was in many ways more pointedly modern than his colleagues.


There also are practical reasons why Winthrop described his version of the federal covenant as an offer to God, for his acceptance. He was, after all, merely transposing into covenant theology the actual history, legal status and terms of the charter issued to the Puritans in 1629, including its provisions allowing the Company to hold Court and establish laws in the Plantation (“the Lord hath giuen vs leaue to drawe our owne Articles”).6 The formal identity of Puritan Massachusetts in its first half century is that of a company formed by special royal charter or commission—a joint-stock enterprise known as “The Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England.”7 Significantly, the actual charter for this enterprise most likely was written by John White, author of The Planter's Plea (1630), and the counsellor to Massachusetts Bay during the negotiations (Deane 178-9). In other words, the commission itself is of Puritan origin, just as Winthrop suggested in “A Modell of Christian Charity.” To the extent that “A Modell” is a spiritual document, only a monumental slippage should permit Winthrop to speak of covenants in the same language as that which describes an essentially secular proposition. And yet such a slippage occurs: the concepts of business and theology have been knit together in Winthrop's work, and the line between the secular and the sacred is in danger of vanishing altogether, as it is during the Puritan experiment generally.8

Winthrop's pre-voyage work of 1629, reorganizing and managing the Massachusetts Bay Company on short notice, deeply marked his thought concerning the Massachusetts community, as the following words from “A Modell” indicate:

[W]ee are a Company professing our selues fellow members of Christ. …


The choice of the word “Company” reveals a highly strained version of the federal theology. On the one hand, according to Winthrop, the Puritan “Company” as a community had agreed to covenant with God, and to become “fellow members of Christ.” On the other hand, the community literally exists as a “Company,” or joint stock venture, and Winthrop's sermon again conflates the spiritual and secular with his word choice. Indeed, Winthrop's notion of covenant is perhaps best understood through the law of commissions and charters—rules of incorporation. He urges his listeners to always have “before our eyes our Commission and Community in the worke …” (294), and it is significant that the term “Commission” comes before that of “Community,” and with reference to “worke.”

That words such as “Company” and “Commission” really reference the legal reality of the Puritan enterprise is relatively easy to demonstrate. These terms are duplicated in Cotton's departure sermon, “God's Promise to His Plantations” (1630), preached under similar circumstances. Even though the metaphors in the text primarily are organic, Cotton says that “a Colony” is “a company,” and that it can only proceed from “speciall Commission” or “grand Charter” from God (“Promise” 8, 6). In reverse, Thomas Hooker's famous federal sermons of the same period, “The Faithful Covenanter” (1629) and “The Danger of Desertion” (1631), which were preached before his involvement with the Massachusetts Bay colony, use a far less particular confederated vocabulary. The church or federal covenant is analogized in a highly overdetermined manner: the federal unit is alternately referred to as “city,” “Jerusalem,” “town,” “nation,” “England,” “church,” “Israel,” “family,” “congregation,” “tribe,” “country,” “kingdom,” and only once as “company.” And while legalisms abound in Hooker's texts, there are no references to special warrants, commissions and charters.9

But noting the conflation of the sacred and the secular in the Winthrop text is not enough. A problem remains, because it is impossible to square the Company's royal charter with the Puritan's divine commission. Perry Miller tried to do just that, in his own way, starting from the premise that “A Modell of Christian Charity” was a further extension or elaboration of “The Cambridge Agreement,” the August 1629 document that pledged Winthrop and eleven others to departure for New England by March 1630 (“Shaping” 6).10 But “The Cambridge Agreement” is a contract signed by a group of equals (all were either undertakers soon to be charged with the joint stock for the next seven years, or patentees, or gentlemen) while the “Modell” announces itself from the start as a document about the relation between the rich and the poor: “some must be rich some poore, some highe and eminent in power and dignitie; others meane and in subieccion” (282). In Winthrop's sermon, the “Community” presumably included all who were to voyage across the water, but the business of the “Company” belonged legally only to the ten undertakers, and to any other planter adventurers on board, but not to servants, hired artisans, or families that paid for passage but were not stockholders.11 Even after the celebrated general admission of settlers to the status of freemen, in October 1630, the stock and potential profits remained in the hands of the ten. The right to vote extended franchise, not ownership. At no time, and certainly not at the time of this sermon, could one legitimately have said that the Company was coextensive with the Community.

In other words, two bodies of individuals listened to Winthrop's sermon on the eve of departure.12 One is the potential body of rich and poor, the Community at large, who are being urged to form a whole for some mutual purpose. The other is the corporate body, and includes only a small portion of the Community. The body of the Community is being exhorted to function like a corporate body through a powerful gesture of incorporation. The very structure and thrust of “A Modell of Christian Charity” seeks to reduce the other to the status of the same by sleight of hand, subjecting it to a Company project.


“A Modell of Christian Charity” is a document that concerns Winthrop's company way for the Massachusetts Bay, laying out the “big picture” for a very specific, seventeenth-century, fledgling colonial corporation. The word “modell” in the title of the document might denote a simple proposal, or an outline of an agreement between groups in accordance with knowledge of a shared world. But the “modell” does not function like Winthrop's modern contract. It is not subject to a counter-proposal, for example. The “modell” is rather of a predetermined diagram of corporate structure and reporting relationships. It is an already established frame of reference for proper organization of the tasks of rich and poor.

Perhaps contradicting this is the sermon's language of love, which has secured its place in a canon of communitarian documents. Immediately after Winthrop informed his audience that they were a “Company,” he suggested that:

though wee were absent from eache other many miles, and had our imploymentes as farre distant, yet wee ought to account our selues knitt together by this bond of loue, and liue in the exercise of it, if wee would haue comforte of our being in Christ. …


Such language has inspired a number of commentators to conclude with Miller that the sermon resolves class distinctions in a radical way under a notion of shared covenant: “Ostensibly, then, he is propounding a European class structure; but when he comes to the exhortation, he does not so much demand that inferiors remain in pious subjection to superiors, but rather he calls upon all, gentlemen and commoners, to be knit together in this work as one man. …” (“Shaping” 6-7). Delbanco, taking an even more extreme position, says that “A Modell of Christian Charity” is a “communitarian statement” on pure “mutuality” (74). Theodore Dwight Bozeman also emphasizes the love that would allow the Puritans to “relive the selfless spirit of the early Christian communes” (300). Even a more moderate commentator such as Stephen Foster, attuned to Puritan social arrangements that emphasized “subordination, inequality, authority, unity, suppression of the individual will for the good of the whole,” concludes that Winthrop's sermon is about the Greek notion of agape: “In the “Model,” social distinctions rest exclusively on love” (6, 42).13

Each of these commentators has, in his own way, fallen into a reading of the “Modell” that merely reifies certain of the rhetorical effects built up in the last part of the sermon. Winthrop's strategies throughout, including the use of the first person plural, “wee,” hint that those already theorized as “in subieccion” are at least partners and perhaps near equals, though at every turn the text specifies the necessary inequalities built into social relations. What typically is missing from the radical communitarian readings of the sermon is a careful analysis of its quite confusing first sections, which constitute a rapid tour of Winthropian history, as well as of the “laws” and “rules” appropriate to the different phases of history, and to the different social classes.

According to Winthrop, pure love or mutuality was only possible in Adam's world, before the fall (290). The world of the present day, on the other hand, presumes the division of humankind into classes, as well as the necessity of charity. Though Winthrop says that the “love” inherent to Adam and his world stands in some way as the ground for the operation of the present world, love must be supplemented in a way that makes it less important than the two “rules” of “Mercy” and “Justice” (283-4). “Mercy” is not the pure love of Adam; according to Winthrop it governs practices of giving, lending, and forgiving. “Justice,” on the other hand, governs strict lending arrangements, such as rules of collateral and repayment of loans. The shape of Winthrop's sermon is determined by the knowledge of the importance of Mercy and Justice, which are part of a modern world organized by commerce and exchange, contracts and debts. These two rules are explicated in the text before anything else, and certainly before the concept of love.

Winthrop weighs the relative merits of the rules of Mercy and Justice in an early part of the sermon. At first, Mercy appears more important. When Winthrop explains the operation of the Adamic world and the world of the Israelites, he states that he will “omitt” from discussion “the rule of Justice as not propperly belonging to this purpose otherwise then it may fall into consideracion in some perticuler Cases” (283). But the rule of Justice is paramount when discussing the present age. According to Winthrop, the very possibility of applying a rule of Mercy depends in the first place upon a test of the rule of Justice:

[I]f he hath present meanes of repayeing thee, thou art to looke at him, not as an Act of mercy, but by way of Commerce, wherein thou arte to walke by the rule of Justice. …


If the rule of Justice applies—that is, according to Winthrop, if the lendee can repay a loan, or if the lender obtained a “surety or a lawfull pleadge” (286)—then Justice rules in this world. Mercy matters only when the rule of Justice has been exhausted.

Winthrop explicitly links the rule of Justice to “Commerce,” which is the mode of operations for the present model or “body” of the world.14 While the metaphorical “body” of Adam consisted of a network of perfect “ligamentes” (289), the modern world “body” is economical at heart, and functions according to principles of efficiency:

the mouth is at all the paines to receiue, and mince the foode which serues for the nourishment of all the other partes of the body, yet it hath noe cause to complaine; for first, the other partes send back by secret passages a due proporcion of the same nourishment in a better form for the strengthening and comforteing of the mouthe.


In this somewhat confusing passage, the “mouth” of the body in the present world is figurative for the rich, and the “other partes” for the poor. The “love” between the two has been subsumed into Commerce, a system of exchanges apparently “equall” in value, though the “partes” return love to the “mouth” “in a better form” for the sake of their “strengthening and comfort.”15 Because the modern world functions according to such Commerce, superintended by rule of Justice, Mercy and even Love are thematized in the text in commercial terms. Even the most charitable, loving act described by Winthrop—giving to the poor—has economic implications on the spiritual plane: “for first he that giues to the poore lends to the lord, and he will repay him euen in this life an hundred fold to him or his” (285). And the love of the poor man can only be described or analogized in terms of the “worke” of Commerce. To love is “to sett all the faculties on worke in the outward exercise of this duty as when wee bid one make the clocke strike. …” (288). The commercial body, thematized as a mechanical instrument, is ready for loving operation and maintenance by Winthrop's listeners.

Delbanco believes that “A Modell of Christian Charity” attempts to lay down an “explicit prohibition against the rule of the market” (76), but this is a difficult proposition to accept. For example, even though the final line of the sermon warns that the Puritans will “surely perishe out of the good Land” should they treat New England as a property to “possesse” (295), it remains an open question as to which part of the community this is addressed. Coming from a man who, at the time, owned and operated one-tenth of an immense New England enterprise, supported and financed by a much larger number of men of business, one wonders whether this is merely an exhortation directed at the poorer class, seeking to set them in clockwork motion in order to blunt their acquisitive tendencies.


Examination of Winthrop's “Modell” covenant and the company way merely puts some new and perhaps better wrinkles in the picture, which in turn resonate with some of Winthrop's other writings. For example, the “Modell” now rings and rhymes with Winthrop's Vane debate writings of 1637, where he paternalistically speaks of the power of a “corporation” to shape and guide human beings for their own “wellfare” (Hutchinson 80), where he explains that the rule of justice is to be exercised before the rule of mercy when confronting strangers (81), and where, most dramatically, he suggests that the rule of love in itself cannot be the guide for an incorporated people, living according to law, property rights, clearly delineated privileges:

Thus he [Vane] runs on in a frivolous difcourfe. … So that if he need to borrow my horfe, and I ought by the rule of love to lend him to him, though I refufe to confent to his requeft herein, yet he may take him, becaufe my diffent is unlawfull; fo by this conclufion a wife, a childe, a fervant may doe any thinge that is lawfull, though the hufband, father, or maifter deny their confent. If this fpeed well, the next conclufion will be an anarchie.


Finally, if there are still doubts that the Winthropian concept of love must always be understood as operating under the legal strictures of Justice, one can examine Winthrop's “Address” to the Massachusetts Bay Company of December 1, 1629, which successfully sought the transfer of the joint stock to the ten undertakers. While he made a number of arguments for the arrangement, his conclusion places “the law of Contract” higher than “our natural relation,” or love, as a rationale for the vote (Winthrop 177).

Although it seems safe to conclude that Winthrop's thought evidences no radical communitarian values, he does harbor a progressive tendency with regard to “charity,” and it is akin to his contractual views. John Winthrop suggests that Justice belongs by right to the wealthy and powerful. He says that the charity of the rich involves altering or modifying the just rules of “some perticuler contract” (283), and he goes on to specify terms for modification. The very fact that the rules of contracts between debtors and creditors is flexible in Winthrop's text—in other words, that he can posit a scheme for the absolution of debts once the rule of Justice is exhausted—is a sign of legal modernity. Flexibility in contractual interpretation was introduced into the common law only as action of covenant gave way to actions of debt or assumpsit. As Kevin M. Teeven explains, it is when covenant begins to fade that notions of quid pro quo and consideration begin to enter the law—approximately 1400 for the former and the late 1500s for the latter (11, 39). But Winthrop goes further than mere consideration, which still holds to “the ancient truths that bargains should bind both parties and that the promisor should be held to promises relied on” (Teeven 44). Contextualizing him in a slighter more modern idiom than his own, Winthrop's theological vocabulary is close to legitimizing a kind of bankruptcy code or standard. His notion of mercy also is clearly related to contemporaneous developments in the law of equity, a kind of legal reasoning developed around the moral notion of “conscience” (Allen 406-10). Equity law, which emerged both as part of common law heritage and as part of the law of the King's Council, was described in Thomas Ashe's Epieikeia (1609) as “‘a ruled kind of justice.’ Though ‘ruled,’ it is ‘allayed with the sweetness of mercy …’” (qtd. in Allen 409-10).16

Winthrop's text puts the lie to the old saw that, for the Puritans, a bargain was a bargain that must be made good. But, on the other hand, he does not go so far as Portia's plea in The Merchant of Venice (c. 1595): “That in the course of justice, none of us / Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy. …” (IV.1.199-200). To take up this call would be to deny strict justice in the name of mercy or, even more radically, love, which Winthrop does not do. The company way described in John Winthrop's “A Modell of Christian Charity” is neither one of pure force nor pure love. While certainly not locked into the inflexible patterns of medieval law and its corporations, as Joseph Dorfman asserted, Winthrop's thought also is not proto-democratic, as Edmund Morgan believed. The sermon asserts his and the other business adventurers' right to contract according to their own wills and desires, and then seeks to subordinate and subject the rest of the company to the shape of these desires, while it also undeniably attempts to institute certain kinds of contractual flexibility or contingency on behalf of the stamped and shaped middle to lower classes.17 And that, for Winthrop, would be granting enough to both sides in order to bind the colony. Politically conservative, while legally modern and economically progressive, what can and should be stated with clarity about John Winthrop's “Modell” is that it is frankly and deeply contractual, thoughtful and wide awake for his era, and, to use two of his favorite words, filled with a sense of authority's “arbitrary” or “discretionary” promise.


  1. For example, the most famous piece of Puritan scholarship of this generation, Sacvan Bercovitch's The American Jeremiad (1978), opens with an examination of Winthrop's seemingly epochal sermon. Perry Miller in 1954 also read “A Modell” as “Ur-” in the sense of original and originating, radically separating the British experience from the American: “Winthrop stands at the beginning of our consciousness” (“Shaping” 6). “A Modell” has been of interest to many sorts of scholars, investigating either Winthrop or the Puritan experience in general. Others of recent note include Joseph Dorfman (1946), Edmund Morgan (1958), Darrett B. Rutman (1965), George L. Mosse (1968), Stephen Foster (1971), Theodore Dwight Bozeman (1988), and Delbanco (1989). In recent years Winthrop's importance in conversation about the Puritans has been accentuated because of the reassessment of the Puritan “errand” (the “Citty vpon a Hill”), addressed most recently and convincingly by Bozeman. Of course, fascination with Winthrop as a representative American dates back much further, to at least the time of John Adams's imaginary Winthrop texts (Papers 1:191-210; 2:380-7).

  2. See Teeven 7-11; Kiralfy 121, 180; Pound and Plucknett 406; Holmes on covenant qtd. from Pound and Plucknett 584-86.

  3. David D. Hall cites Puritan historians William K. B. Stoever and John S. Coolidge as the current last words on the problem of human will and works in relation to the normative covenant. As he summarizes Stoever: “The promise of free grace was conditional only insofar as God had arranged the order of salvation to include freely willed consent of the elect” (202). In other words, human willing is already under God's law. And citing Coolidge, Hall says “that the covenant of grace must contain ‘components of conditionality and absoluteness.’ Thus, too, he accentuates the paradox that grace is, and yet is not, conditional: ‘It is gratuitous but not inconsequential’” (210).

  4. Perry Miller found evidence for a minimally voluntaristic conception of covenant in theologian William Ames's writings, although Winthrop's sentiments are closer in spirit to the language which Miller cites from reverend Samuel Willard's A Compleat Body of Divinity, written one hundred years later, in 1726 (Mind 375). In general, however, my reading of Winthrop complements Miller's most general understanding of covenant theology: “That is to say that the federal theology was essentially part of a universal tendency in European thought to change social relationships from status to contract, that it was one expression of late Renaissance speculation, which was moving in general away from the ideas of feudalism, from the belief that society must be modeled upon an eternally fixed hierarchy to the theories of constitutional limitation and voluntary origins, to the protection of individual rights and the shattering of sumptuary economic regulations” (399).

  5. Arminius said that God's grace “depends on the will of man, in regard that by vertue of its native liberty, it may receive or reject this grace, use it or not use it, render it effectuall or vain. … [I]f we do what we can, and improve the natural abilities we have, and the means we do enjoy God wil not deny to give us the grace supernatural we want” (qtd. in Miller, Mind 368).

  6. The charter itself speaks with a different voice. From the outset the king's grant is described as “theis present” [this gift] “to HAVE and to houlde” (Shurtleff 3), and not as a bargain struck with the colonists.

  7. At the very least, the possibility of the Massachusetts experiment is premised upon: (1) a 1620 royal charter to an entity known as the Council for New England, a company without any religious motivation for settlement; (2) a 1628 patent granted from the Council to the New England Company, a small group of individuals who sought to leave England for religious reasons; and (3) a 1629 royal charter to the radically transformed Company that executed the Puritan voyage. The second charter is based on the first, and the third premised on the second. Massachusetts Bay is an hybrid entity that bears some resemblance to a trading company and some to a city, both of which were forms of incorporation.

    On some of the early, interesting efforts by the Council for New England, see Christy. For the Massachusetts Bay Company records from the period prior to colonization, see Young 39-128. For the text of the 1629 charter, see Shurtleff 3-20.

  8. During the Vane debate of 1637, Winthrop again elided the difference between the civil and the sacred entities:

    We A.B.C.&c. confented to cohabite in the Maffachufetts, and under the government fet up among us by his Majefty's patent or grant for our mutual fafety and wellfare, we agreed to walke according to the rules of the gofpell. And thus you have both a chriftian common weale and the fame founded upon the patent, and both included within my defcription [of the commonwealth in general].

    (Hutchinson 97)

  9. “The Faithful Covenanter” and “The Danger of Desertion” are reprinted in Hooker 190-220, and 228-52. The reference to a “company” occurs in the former:

    If the righteous, brethren, hardly get to heaven, but [one] loses an arm, another a right eye, as it were, and with many prayers and sighs and grapplings with God, and through many temptations hardly come to heaven in the end, and a poor humble soul beg for power against his corruptions, as if he would pluck mercy from the Lord by strong hand, and yet scarcely subdue sin and obtain salvation, what then will become of a company that are enemies to God and godliness?


  10. See Young 281-4 for a copy of the text with Young's helpful annotations.

  11. “Few freemen of the Massachusetts Bay Company came to Massachusetts. By the provisions of the charter these men alone could elect Officers of the Company and make laws. Legally and numerically they constituted a political minority among the mass of inhabitants who were not members of the company” (Simmons 7). Also, see Young 113-18 for the company's important decision on the joint stock on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, 1629, and the terms of the agreement with the ten undertakers.

  12. Hugh J. Dawson convincingly explains that Winthrop likely delivered the sermon to the entire group of voyagers at Southampton, before departure, and not simply to those who were later aboard the ship Arabella. It was “an occasion to address a body of the company's numbers gathered at the seacoast” (226).

  13. A modern commentator in the minority on this issue is Richard C. Simmons, who suggests of the Puritans:

    On the limited evidence available it seems likely that the leaders of the emigration expected to maintain their authority out of England for the same reasons which they had exercised it within; they were the social and religious elite, the clergy and gentry of their localities and persons to whom deference was given as a matter of course. There is nothing in their writings to suggest that they had radical ideas about social or political matters. Winthrop's “Model of Christian Charity” may be taken as typical of their thinking.


  14. The term “Commerce” can have more than one meaning here and elsewhere in the text. The word in the first place refers to large-scale trade by means of exchange, with reference in the seventeenth century to mercantile economics. Yet in the same period it also means general, non-economic dealings between men, and, thirdly, “intercourse or commerce with God” (OED). However, given Winthrop's linking of the term to practices of lending and to rules of justice regarding debts, the term, at the very least, resonates with economic implications, even though it may have other significations as well.

  15. While the human body has often served as a metaphor for communitarian societies, compare Winthrop's clearly hierarchical body to the one recently described by Hans Meier, a ninety-year-old man who has spent most of his adult life as part of the Bruderhof, a radically communitarian group residing in several locations in the United States:

    Community means common-unity. This is also true for any living body. Therefore common-unity represents life. A body is alive as long as all its members work together harmoniously under the guidance of one living soul. The respective soul in a community is the living spirit of God.

    Our body, which we carry visibly daily with us, is a continuous witness to us as a God-given fact. As long as all its cells and members are working together harmoniously the body remains healthy and alive. As soon as any of its organs goes its own way, the body becomes sick and in the end dies. If, for instance, one leg would go to Lancaster and the other to Elizabethtown, the body would be torn in two parts and die—including the two responsible legs. Or if the hands would say: We have worked for the bread (tilling the field, harvesting, milling, baking), therefore the bread belongs to us and we shall keep it—then the bread would not reach the mouth, the stomach, the intestines and the bloodstream, which distributes the nourishment to all the cells according to their need. The result would be the death of the whole body from hunger—including the two hands.

    (Meier 1)

    Here, although there is a division of labor, one does not find the Winthropian separation of head and body, nor the notion of the body's working for the benefit of the head. The Bruderhof, among other things, does not permit the ownership of property among its members, and this practice and others like it permit Meier to thematize a multiplicity of cells, organs, and limbs working for the good of the organism as a whole.

  16. Interestingly, the legal concept of the joint-stock company of limited liability would emerge out of these same traditions of equity law (Allen 415). Massachusetts Bay's final structural-financial arrangement included limited liability for the majority of the stockholders long before official recognition of this doctrine in American law in the early 1800s (Dodd 84-93).

  17. I am indebted to conversations with Puritan scholar Robert Daly for his understanding of the contingent character of Winthrop's notion of authority. Relevant to this, perhaps, is E. Brooks Holifield's notion of New England ministers as “ambidexterous theologians” who, according to David D. Hall, “sometimes spoke in different ways because they were responsive to so many different texts, ideas, and situations” (see Hall 213).

Works Cited

Adams, John. Papers of John Adams. Ed. Robert J. Taylor, et al. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard Univ. Press, 1977-.

Allen, Sir Carleton Kemp. Law in the Making. Seventh ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1964.

Bercovitch, Sacvan. The American Jeremiad. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1978.

Bozeman, Theodore Dwight. To Live Ancient Lives: The Primitivist Dimension in Puritanism. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Christy, Miller. “Attempts Toward Colonization: the Council for New England and the Merchant Venturers of Bristol, 1621-1623.” American Historical Review 4.1 (July 1899): 678-702.

Cotton, John. “God's Promise to His Plantations.” 1630. Old South Leaflets 3.53 ([1896]).

———. John Cotton on the Churches of New England. Ed. Larzer Ziff. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard Univ. Press, 1968.

Dawson, Hugh J. “John Winthrop's Rite of Passage: The Origins of the ‘Christian Charitie’ Discourse.” Early American Literature 26 (1991): 219-231.

Deane, Charles. “The Forms in Issuing Letters Patent by the Crown of England.” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 11 (Dec. 1869): 166-88.

Delbanco, Andrew. The Puritan Ordeal. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1989.

Dodd, Edwin Merrick. American Business Corporations Until 1860 with Special Reference to Massachusetts. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1954.

Dorfman, Joseph. The Economic Mind in American Civilization 1606-1865, Volume One. New York: Viking, 1946.

Foster, Stephen. Their Solitary Way: The Puritan Social Ethic in the First Century of Settlement in New England. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1971.

Grotius, Hugo. The Law of War and Peace [De Jure Belli ac Pacis Libri Tres]. 1625. Trans. Francis W. Kelsey. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, [1962].

Gura, Philip F. A Glimpse of Sion's Glory: Puritan Radicalism in New England, 1620-1660. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1984.

Hall, David D. “On Common Ground: The Coherence of American Puritan Studies.” William and Mary Quarterly 44 (April 1987): 193-229.

Hooker, Thomas. Writings in England and Holland, 1626-1633. Ed. George H. Williams, et al. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1975.

Hutchinson, Thomas, ed. A Collection of Original Papers Relative to the History of the Colony of Massachusetts-Bay. 1769. New York: Burt Franklin, 1967.

Kiralfy, A. K. R., ed. A Source Book of English Law. London: Sweet & Maxwell, 1957.

Meier, Hans. “Why We Live in Community.” Third Triennial Conference of the International Communal Studies Association. Elizabethtown, Pa., 26 July 1991.

Miller, Perry. The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century. 1939. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard Univ. Press, 1982.

———. “The Shaping of the American Character.” 1954. Nature's Nation. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard Univ. Press, 1967. 1-13.

Morgan, Edmund. The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop. Boston: Little, Brown, 1958.

Mosse, George L. The Holy Pretence: A Study in Christianity and Reason of State from William Perkins to John Winthrop. 1957. New York: Howard Fertig, 1968.

Pound, Roscoe, and Theodore J. Plucknett, eds. Readings on the History and System of the Common Law. 3rd ed. Rochester: Lawyers Co-operative, 1927.

Rutman, Darrett B. Winthrop's Boston: A Portrait of a Puritan Town, 1630-1649. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1965.

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Shepard, Thomas. “Letters of Thomas Shepard.” Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society 7.4 (1865): 257-272.

Shurtleff, Nathaniel B., ed. Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England, Vol. 1. Boston: Wm. White, 1853.

Simmons, Richard C. Studies in the Massachusetts Franchise, 1631-1691. New York: Garland, 1989.

Teeven, Kevin M. A History of the Anglo-American Common Law of Contract. New York: Greenwood, 1990.

Winthrop, John. Winthrop Papers, Vol. 2. Ed. Stewart Mitchell. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1931.

Young, Alexander, ed. Chronicles of the First Planters of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, from 1623 to 1636. 1846. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1975.

James Moseley (essay date 1992)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4015

SOURCE: Moseley, James G. “The Perils of the Text.” In John Winthrop's World: History as a Story, the Story as History, pp. 121-29. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

[In the essay which follows, Moseley proposes that the textual history of Winthrop's Journal has contributed a misunderstanding of the text's meaning, maintaining that the text should be read in the historical context of the various editing processes.]

John Winthrop learned to see and to write history as a story, but it is impossible for us simply to read his story straight. His actions as governor have so overshadowed his work as a historian, and his character and accomplishments have been so thoroughly incorporated into the pantheon of early New England, that we cannot find direct access to the history he made. Winthrop stood foremost among the first generation of American Puritans; hence whatever judgment one makes regarding the social institutions and the cultural tradition these people established stands between John Winthrop and us. The Puritans have been venerated, castigated, forgotten, resuscitated, misunderstood, reinterpreted, and quoted or misquoted by generations of American historians, social critics, and political orators. Because so many images of Puritanism are part of American cultural history, the only sure path to understanding the story of Winthrop's history is through coming to terms with the subsequent history of his story. Thus we move from reading history as a story to examining the story as history.

The history of misreadings of Winthrop's journal is matched—curiously, if not symbolically, as the Puritans might have believed—by the perils of the text itself. Winthrop wrote his history in three notebooks. The third volume was misplaced in 1755 and discovered sixty years later in the tower of Boston's Old South Church. Upon its recovery, this notebook, like the others, was given by the Winthrop family to the Massachusetts Historical Society, whereupon a new edition of the journal was undertaken. During this process, the second volume was accidentally destroyed by a fire in the office of the society's librarian. “Over the years many people have endeavored to read, transcribe, and edit Winthrop's notebooks,” observes historian Richard S. Dunn, the most recent scholar to work on a new edition of Winthrop's work. However, “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 paper is often stained, worn, or torn, and the text is studded with marginalia, insertions, cancellations, and underscorings. Since the middle volume (containing 52 percent of Winthrop's text) is lost, the reader has to use a modernized transcription for this section, published by James Savage in 1825-26, that obliterates many of the nuances in the original manuscript. It is safe to say that no one will ever publish a satisfactory edition of this remarkable document.” By correlating the varying lengths of Winthrop's entries in the notebooks with the increasing passage of time between them, Dunn concludes that by the 1640s “increasingly he wrote for several consecutive pages on the same topic, so that his narrative became less segmented and more continuous: in short, more of a history.”1 But Dunn notes that an interpretation of Winthrop's transition from record keeper to historian cannot be based on precise textual analysis, since the original copy of the entire second volume, containing most of the text and covering such crucial episodes as the Antinomian crisis, no longer exists. Hence Dunn's painstaking work with the text has to rely largely on the work done by Savage, a man of prodigious and volatile energy, as we shall see, and one with his own agenda to follow.

Dunn's conclusion about Winthrop and his notebooks is insightful and also suggests something of his own frustration: “Thanks to his narrative, it is very easy to recognize the lasting significance of events in early Massachusetts and very difficult to remain neutral on the subject of Winthrop's own leadership. For some, he is one of the great figures in American history. For others, he is the kind of man you love to hate.”2 The new edition of the text which Dunn's essay announced has yet to appear; even its eventual publication, however, will not provide an unambiguous image of Winthrop. No text could, for interpretation and action were inextricably linked in Winthrop's life and work. As if to underscore the impossibility, Winthrop's text itself is irretrievably tied to the history of its own production.

Convinced that Winthrop's journal “must always have an interest not only for New England but for America in general, and indeed for the world at large,” in 1908 James Kendall Hosmer published Winthrop's Journal, “History of New England,” 1630-1649 in a series devoted to original narratives of early American history. A member of the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, as well as the author of A Short History of Anglo-Saxon Freedom, Hosmer believed that “a stock so persistent, so virile, so widely eminent, claims attention in every period of its course, and naturally a special interest attaches to its earliest American memorials.” Since Hosmer frankly “adopted without change the transcript of the text made by Savage,” his editorial remarks are of interest chiefly for his discussion of the “young and zealous” James Savage, “a man most accurate and indefatigable,” whose edition of Winthrop's journal in 1825-26 “took its place at once in the minds of men as the foundation of Massachusetts history, and the importance of the services of Savage was universally recognized: he became henceforth a man of mark.” Observing that Savage “had peculiarities of character making him personally racy and interesting, but impairing the excellence of his commentary,” Hosmer notes that Savage's “successor in the presidency of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Mr. Charles Francis Adams, aptly compares him to Dr. Samuel Johnson. Like Johnson, Savage while most laborious, scrupulously honest, and always resolute and unshrinking, was testy, prejudiced and opinionated.” In Hosmer's view, “while possessed thus by the spirit of the county antiquary rather than by the broad temper of the proper historian, his hates and loves, equally undiscriminating, are curiously, often amusingly manifest”; hence Savage's extensive annotation of Winthrop's text “has much interest as a ‘human document,’ pleasantly tart from the individuality of a quaintly provincial but sincere and vigorous mind.”3 Evidently unaware of the ways his Anglo-Saxon prejudices narrowed his own focus, Hosmer appeals to “the broad temper of the proper historian,” highlighting the more argumentative nature of his predecessor. But so long as their editing is accurate, historians whose convictions are readily apparent may ultimately prove more reliable, and certainly more interesting, than those whose prejudices are blandly unconscious. James Savage, upon whose work so much of our knowledge of Winthrop necessarily depends, had reason to be as passionate about Winthrop as Winthrop was about New England.

Along with following Savage as president of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Charles Francis Adams found himself involved in sorting out Savage's complex connection to Winthrop. Adams was interested in the Antinomian crisis, and understanding this critical episode in the Bay Colony's history required explaining Savage's peculiar passion about Winthrop, for Savage had become embroiled in controversy regarding the Short Story Winthrop wrote about the Anne Hutchinson affair. After recording the judgments of the general court against Hutchinson and her followers, Winthrop noted in his journal on 1 November 1637 that “all the proceedings of this court against these persons were set down at large, with the reasons and other observations, and were sent into England to be published there, to the end that all our godly friends might not be discouraged from coming to us, &c.” Adams points out that “the harsh and intolerant policy pursued from the beginning in Massachusetts towards all intruders and dissentients had excited no little comment in England, and led to hostile proceedings, causing remonstrances from the friends of the enterprise.” Hence “in thus writing down and sending to England an account of these proceedings,” Adams says, Winthrop “wished, in his paternal care for the infant colony, to anticipate and forestall hostile criticism.”4 Winthrop's title made these intentions clear: A Short Story of the Rise, reign, and ruin of the Antinomians, Familists, & Libertines, that infected the Churches of New England: And how they were confuted by the Assembly of Ministers there: As also of the Magistrates proceedings in Court against them. Together with Gods strange and remarkable judgements from Heaven upon some of the chief fomenters of these Opinions; And the Lamentable death of Mrs. Hutchinson: Very fit for these times; here being the same errours amongst us, and acted by the same spirit. Yet although the title page notes that the work was “published at the instant request of sundry, by one that was an eye and eare-witnesse of the carriage of matters there,” its final words are “London, Printed for Ralph Smith at the signe of the Bible in Cornhill near the Royall Exchange. 1644.” Originally sent to England in 1637, the work was not published until 1644. Between these years a great deal happened that was important for English history, and this passage of time became significant, much later, for James Savage.

By 1644 Anne Hutchinson and most of her family had been massacred by Indians in New York. John Wheelwright, banished as one of the principal Antinomians, had been welcomed back into the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where the Hutchinson affair had long been replaced in the public mind by more immediate issues such as the final division of the legislature into two independent houses, the confederation of the United Colonies of New England, and volatile relations with the Narragansetts, the Dutch, and the feuding Frenchmen, La Tour and D'Aulnay. In old England, King Charles had left London, the Civil War was under way, and friends of the Bay Colony controlled Parliament. Indeed, by July 1643 the Westminster Assembly had launched a great debate over religious toleration, and Winthrop's Short Story was published the next year, in Adams's words, as “one of the pamphlet missiles which the participants in that battle freely hurled at each other.”5 The trajectory of this missile, though, proved most ironic.

With Anglicanism in retreat with the king, a new order of relations between church and state became possible in England. On one side of the debate was a party whose members were generally called Independents. Two of the chief spokesmen for this coalition on behalf of religious freedom and toleration were Roger Williams, in England attempting to secure a clear charter for Rhode Island, and Sir Henry Vane, the former governor of the Bay Colony who had left Massachusetts during the Antinomian crisis. On the other side were the Presbyterians, seeking a national church of their own design and pointing out that “the New England Way” had not led to paradise. As Adams explains, “at this juncture Winthrop's narrative, after resting six years in oblivion, went to the printer. It supplied the Presbyterian leaders with exactly the ammunition they wanted. In it was set forth not only the breaking down of the Toleration principle in the very land of its birth, but that breaking down had taken place under the magistracy of him who was now in England the Parliamentary mouthpiece of the Independents. Both Williams and Vane were to be confounded by an answer out of their own mouths.”6 It was apparently the Reverend Thomas Weld, an ardent supporter of John Wilson and John Winthrop now back in England to represent and obtain financial support for the Bay Colony, who brought the pamphlet forward as a weapon against his old enemy, the arch-Antinomian Vane. Although written originally to vindicate the New England Way, when published in the contentious political atmosphere of England in 1644, the booklet served the Presbyterian effort, in the words of a contemporary, “to tie Toleration round the neck of Independency, stuff the two struggling monsters into one sack, and sink them to the bottom of the sea.”7 Thus the writing of an ardent Congregationalist helped advance the Presbyterian cause by undercutting the efforts of Vane, whom Winthrop came to recognize as a friend and loyal supporter of the Puritan cause.

As historian David D. Hall notes, Winthrop's Short Story, “the official history of the Antinomian Controversy,” is “essentially a collection of documents.”8 These are linked together by Winthrop's narration, more leisurely in pace and more reflexive in tone but otherwise little different from the account of the events in his journal, and the text concludes the story of “this American Jesabel” with a dramatic rendering of “her entrance, her progresse, her downfall.” The booklet went through several editions, with Weld adding a brief introduction, some sharply worded prefatory matter, and a short postscript covering events subsequent to 1637. Adams aptly notes that while the body of the Short Story, apart from Weld's additions, is “an outspoken and earnest presentation in defence of one side of a political struggle, written at the time and with a view to prejudge the case in the minds of those for whom it was prepared, a careful reading reveals in it little that is vituperative, and nothing that can properly be called scurrilous. Indeed, tested by the standards of the time, if it is in any way unusual, it is in its moderation.”9 Weld simply sharpened Winthrop's ax and handed it to the English Presbyterians, who used it for their own purposes. Curiously enough, the text continued to cut in more than one direction when it was taken up by James Savage two centuries later.

If Savage's editorial tempest was less important than the Antinomian crisis or the politics of religion during the English Civil War, it nevertheless revealed something of great significance to him, suggesting why his devotion to editing Winthrop's journal was such a complicated passion. Indeed, without the intensely personal connection between Savage and Winthrop that an otherwise comical dispute between Massachusetts historians highlights, the immensely difficult work of transcribing, annotating, and publishing the journal might never have been done. In the early 1850s James Savage began to argue with increasing bitterness that Thomas Weld, not John Winthrop, was responsible for virtually the whole of the Short Story and hence to imply that Winthrop's opposition to the Antinomians had been a matter more of political necessity than of deep spiritual conviction. Yet Savage's arguments were as convoluted as they were circumstantial. Together with his strong will and hot temper, Savage's prejudice against Weld, and by implication his veneration of Winthrop, became, in Adams's words, “a byword and a jest among his associates.”10 The roots of such impetuous tenacity, appropriately, were historical. Charles Francis Adams explains:

Among the names of the men of Boston, “chief stirrers,” as Winthrop expresses it, “in these [Antinomian] contentions,” and for that reason ordered by the General Court of November, 1637, to be disarmed, was Thomas Savage, who had recently married Faith, the daughter of William and Anne Hutchinson. And at the church trial of the mother of his young wife in March, 1638, this Thomas Savage did himself infinite credit by rising and courageously protesting against the admonition about to be bestowed; and, as a result of so doing, he had the honor of being himself admonished together with her he so manfully sought to protect. James Savage traced his lineal descent in the fifth generation from Thomas and Faith (Hutchinson) Savage. He was, therefore, one of the offspring of Anne Hutchinson, to whom indeed in a characteristic note to Winthrop he refers as “his great, great, great, great grandmother.” Conscious of a bias due to this remote relationship by descent, Savage throughout his notes to Winthrop endeavored to hold himself under strict control while dealing with events of the Antinomian controversy, and he succeeded in so doing to a, for him, considerable extent; but the Short Story he looked upon as a discreditable literary production, the scurrilous product of a mind at once narrow, vindictive, virulent, and malignant.11

Trapped within history by history, James Savage was caught between a sense of genealogical propriety and a stronger, more meaningful sense of cultural inheritance.

Despite his lineal descent from Anne Hutchinson, Savage regarded Winthrop “with a warmth of admiration almost devout,” in Adams's words, looking “upon the first Boston governor as the incomparable Father of Massachusetts.” Writing the exhaustive notes in his editions of Winthrop's journal may have been James Savage's way of working out this complex inheritance. Savage's extensive notes, Adams writes, afford “a not unpleasant contrast with the text,—the latter calm, self-restrained and inclined to the prosaic; the former intense, outspoken, replete with pith, individuality, learning and prejudice. These notes are, and will always remain, delightful as well as instructive reading; and to the student of New England history it is almost as difficult to think of Winthrop apart from Savage as it is for one learned in the English common law to separate Littleton from Coke.”12 Indeed, given the fiery loss—in Savage's library—of the notebook containing over half of the original manuscript, there is no way back to a pristine Winthrop “behind” Savage. Just as Savage was trapped within history by history, so Winthrop's history is irretrievably enmeshed in Savage's complex inheritance.

To characterize James Savage as a compulsively industrious New Englander is almost an understatement. Son of a Boston merchant who went insane after the young boy's mother died, Savage was raised by a maternal uncle, educated in private schools, and, despite involvement in at least one serious prank, graduated from Harvard College as valedictorian of the class of 1803. By the time he began to work on the Winthrop notebooks, Savage had studied law and passed the bar, started one of the nation's first savings banks, served on the committee that implemented the law he had supported to provide public elementary schools, and been a member of the Massachusetts constitutional convention of 1820. During his life he served as both a representative and a senator in the state legislature, edited one of the nation's earliest literary periodicals, helped to found the Boston Athenaeum, and served for fifteen years on the Board of Overseers of Harvard University. But the real center of his life was his work as a historian. He served the Massachusetts Historical Society in many capacities, including as president from 1841 to 1855, and published several books and collections of documents, most notably, in addition to Winthrop's journal, a four-volume Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England.

Surveying such a life helps one appreciate Savage's statement, when the lost third notebook of Winthrop was discovered, that “the difficulty of transcribing it for the press seemed to appal several of the most competent members” of the Massachusetts Historical society, yet “the task appeared inviting to me.” Likewise, he remarks that, “called abroad in 1822, I so carefully disposed of my copy of the third volume, as to leave it in a forgotten place, which afforded me the gratification of making a new one, begun 8 December 1823, and finished 30 March 1824.” The high value that Savage assigned to primary texts, honoring the founders of New England far more than their often too respectful descendants, resounds in his criticism of Cotton Mather's failure to read Winthrop's actual writings when he wrote his “life”: “Nor can I forgive the slight use of these invaluable documents, which is evinced by Mather, the unhappy author of Magnalia Christi Americana, who, in the hurry of composing that endless work, seems to have preferred useless quotations of worthless books, two or three centuries older, or popular and corrupt traditions, to the full matter and precise statement of facts, dates, principles and motives, furnished by authentick history.”13 Yet for Winthrop himself, Savage had respect that amounted to the awe reserved for the founders of a tribe, the great ones who establish traditions, whose works preserve the historical origins of a new world.

Thus on the title page of the 1825 and the 1853 editions of Winthrop's journal, across from a copy of Winthrop's portrait, Savage reveals his own purpose by quoting the Roman historian Sallust: “Often have I heard that Quintus Maximus and Publius Scipio, as well as the most renowned men of our state, were accustomed to say that when they contemplated the images of their ancestors, their minds were most vehemently inspired toward courage.” In the face of the various images of Winthrop that have been constructed to inspire courage throughout American history, one has to wish that there were at least a remaining original text, through which one could, with however much or little sophistication, gain access to the beginnings of an important dimension of American culture by reading “the man himself.” But Savage makes it clear that no such privileged access exists. How ironic that the Puritan movement, which came to life as a protest against the deadening influence of tradition on the life of the spirit, is itself locked in a tradition it helped so largely to make. Yet learning to live within such contradictions was what made it possible for Winthrop to make and to write history.

If the work of Winthrop as a historian is recoverable only insofar as it was edited and interpreted by later historians, we can establish and sustain connection with the story he told only through the history of its interpretation. Once the necessity of interpretation is recognized, the history of his story becomes a link, perhaps the only sure one, with the actual man who made and wrote history. For however much Winthrop's character was assailed during the political infighting of the Bay Colony's early years, almost immediately upon his death the real man was translated into a myth. Percival Lowell's “A Funeral Elegie on the Death of the Memorable and Truly Honourable John Winthrop Esq.” decreed:

With Lines of gold in Marble stone
          With pens of steel engrave his name
O let the Muses every one
          In prose and Verse extol his Fame,
Exceeding far those ancient Sages
That ruled Greeks in former Ages.(14)

After comparing the departed governor favorably with the great leaders of ancient Israel and Greece, this ancestor of better poets moved his hero beyond the mortal realm:

Such gifts of grace from God had he,
That more than man he seem'd to be.
But now hee's gone and clad in clay,
Grim Death hath taken him away.
Death like a murth'ring Jesuite
Hath rob'd us of our hearts delight.(15)

Such flowery sentiments are far removed from the earthly Winthrop, who could write of himself in a letter to Thomas Hooker, “Truly Sir you have my naked thoughts of this matter, so farre as the Lord letteth me see mine owne heart, which I find very deceitful when it is at best.”16 Winthrop's honesty about the ongoing self-deception even within the hearts of the saints, himself included, made his story of the Bay Colony a history of men and women of mixed motives, a community of sinning saints. The perils of his text itself and the difficulty of our access to it seem oddly in keeping with the story he wrote, suggesting the distinctive character of Winthrop's way of making history in early New England.


  1. Richard S. Dunn, “John Winthrop Writes His Journal,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser. 41, no. 2 (April 1984): 186, 185, 204.

  2. Ibid., 212.

  3. James Kendall Hosmer, ed., Winthrop's Journal,“History of New England,” 1630-1649 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1908; New York: Barnes and Noble, 1966), 1:3, 5, 17, 16, 17, 18.

  4. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Antinomianism in the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, 1636-1638; including “The Short Story” and Other Documents (Boston: Prince Society, 1894), 17.

  5. Ibid., 26.

  6. Ibid., 31.

  7. Ibid., 31n, quoting Masson's Life of Milton.

  8. Hall, [David D., ed.] Antinomian Controversy, [1636-1638: A Documentary History. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1968.] 199. Adams's reprinting of the third edition of the text is reprinted again by Hall, pp. 201-310.

  9. Adams, [Charles Francis, Ed.] Antinomianism [in the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, 1636-1638; including “The Short Story” and Other Documents. Boston: Prince Society, 1894] 40.

  10. Ibid., 42.

  11. Ibid., 39-40.

  12. Ibid., 42, 39.

  13. James Savage, Preface to The History of New England, from 1630 to 1649, by John Winthrop (Boston: Phelps and Farnham, 1825), 1:iii, iv.

  14. LL [Winthrop, Robert C. The Life and Letters of John Winthrop. 2 vols. Boston: Ticknoor and Fields, 1864-67] 2:465.

  15. Ibid., 466.

  16. Ibid., 422.

Richard S. Dunn (essay date 1996)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4107

SOURCE: Dunn, Richard S. Introduction to The Journal of John Winthrop, 1630-1649, edited by Richard S. Dunn and Laetitia Yeandle, pp. viii-xx. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996.

[In the essay below, Dunn examines Winthrop as a writer, focusing on his narrative style the author uses in the Journal.]

For 350 years Governor John Winthrop's journal has been recognized as the central source for the history of Massachusetts in the 1630s and 1640s. Winthrop was both the chief actor and the chief recorder in New England for two crucial decades. He reported events—especially religious and political events—more fully and more candidly than any other contemporaneous observer, and his account of the founding of the colony has greatly influenced all subsequent interpretations of Puritan Massachusetts. The governor's journal has been edited and published three times previously—in 1790, in 1825-1826, and in 1908—but all of these editions have long been outmoded.1 The present editors have prepared two new versions of the journal: a full-scale, unabridged, old-spelling edition,2 and this abridged, modernized edition, which incorporates about 40 percent of the governor's text. We have added to the abridged edition Winthrop's celebrated statement of religious purpose, “A Model of Christian Charity,” that articulates his hopes and fears as he set forth for America. The governor wrote his “Model” in 1630 just as he was beginning his journal, and the two texts are closely related.

Winthrop's journal is a challenging document to decipher and to edit. He recorded it in three notebooks, only two of which survive. The first notebook (spanning the dates 29 March 1630 to 14 September 1636) and the third notebook (spanning the dates 17 September 1644 to 11 January 1649)—both preserved at the Massachusetts Historical Society—are extremely hard to read because of the author's difficult handwriting and the worn condition of the volumes. The middle notebook (spanning the dates October 1636 to 8 December 1644) was accidentally destroyed by fire in 1825, and the only reliable transcription of its contents is a modernized version by James Savage, who was editing Winthrop's journal at the time of the fire. The present editors offer the reader two quite different modes of transcription. Our unabridged edition keeps the governor's seventeenth-century spelling, punctuation, and capitalization in the first and third volumes as closely as practicable, in combination with Savage's modernized text for the lost middle volume. This abridged edition modernizes the text throughout, combining Yeandle's 1990s-style modernization of the first and last parts with Savage's 1820s-style modernization of the middle part.

John Winthrop was born on 12 January 1588 in Edwardston, Suffolk, the son of a local lawyer. He attended Trinity College, Cambridge, for two years and then studied the law at Gray's Inn in London. In 1610 he bought the manor of Groton from his uncle, and he subsequently served as justice of the peace in Suffolk while also presiding over the manorial court at Groton. In 1627 he was appointed an attorney of the Court of Wards and Liveries in London. Thus he was a member of the English ruling elite, and had the habit of command—as is evident to any reader of his journal. Another fundamental feature of Winthrop's life is that he became a dedicated convert to Puritanism in his youth, and over the years formed a wide network of alliances with fellow Puritans. By 1630 he had a considerable family to provide for: he was married to his third wife, Margaret Tyndal, and had eight living children—seven sons and one daughter. Although he was a relatively wealthy man, he had fallen into debt in the late 1620s, and was disgusted by the corruption (as he saw it) of English life and by Charles I's religious and political policies. When the king broke with his critics in Parliament in March 1629, Winthrop decided to sell his English estate and emigrate to America. He joined the Massachusetts Bay Company, which had just received a royal charter granting broad powers of self-government. On 26 August 1629 he pledged with eleven other Puritan gentlemen to move with his family to Massachusetts if the seat of the Company's government and its charter were also transferred to America. The Company shareholders agreed to this, and on 20 October 1629 they chose Winthrop as their new governor. He was then forty-one years old. In the winter of 1629-1630 under his leadership the Company organized a migration of about a thousand persons who sailed to Massachusetts in seventeen ships during the following spring and summer.3

In March 1630, Winthrop came to Southampton and boarded the ship Arbella to sail for America; while still in port—on 29 March—he started to write his journal. It was very likely at just about this date that he composed his eloquent “Model of Christian Charity,” in which he called upon his fellow migrants to join together in building a Christian commonwealth in America (see pp. 1-11 below). But his initial reason for keeping a journal was more prosaic: he wanted to record the day-to-day experience of crossing the ocean for the information of family and friends still in England who would be sailing in 1631 or after to join him in America. During the sea voyage he systematically reported the events of every single day until the Arbella anchored at Salem on 14 June 1630.

After reaching Massachusetts, Winthrop sent an account of the Atlantic crossing based on his journal back to England. And he made the crucial decision to continue keeping his journal, so that when he had the leisure he could write a fuller account of the founding of the colony. Winthrop had a fully developed conceptual framework within which to work. As he explained in “A Model of Christian Charity,” the Massachusetts colonists had a special vocation to love and support one another and to obey the Lord's commandments as they followed His injunction to build “a City upon a Hill.” Should they serve the Lord faithfully, He would bless their efforts; should they deal falsely, He would destroy their plantation. However grand his sense of divine mission, Winthrop was so busy trying to keep the colony going during his initial months in Massachusetts—when many people died or returned to England—that his journal entries were exceedingly brief and irregular. By the winter of 1630-1631 he had a little more time to write. Surprised by the bitterly cold weather, he composed his first extended anecdote, about the harrowing adventures of six Bostonians shipwrecked and frozen on Cape Cod. Winthrop saw this episode as evidence that God was testing the colonists' corrupt hearts, and he became openly jubilant in February 1631 when the Lyon returned from England with emergency provisions, because he sensed that the survival crisis was ending. During 1631 and 1632 he settled into a new form of record keeping, in which he took up his notebook several times a month, and wrote at greater length than in 1630. By the mid-1630s he was averaging nearly a full page every time he put pen to paper. There is almost no evidence in the first notebook that he wrote retrospectively. At most, he discussed incidents a month or two after they occurred.

Having filled up his first notebook in September 1636, Winthrop continued his journal in a (lost) second notebook. And he gradually changed his format, until by the early 1640s his narrative became less segmented and more continuous. His journal was turning into a history. Furthermore, during the course of his second notebook Winthrop began to write lengthy sections of his narrative well after the events described had taken place. This point cannot be proved incontrovertibly, since the original manuscript is destroyed, but close examination of his wording discloses solid evidence of a change from frequent writing sessions and contemporaneous reporting in 1636-1637 to irregular writing sessions and retrospective reporting by 1643-1644. Sometime in mid-1644, Winthrop seems to have stopped keeping his journal altogether for three or four years, and then finished the second notebook in 1647 or 1648.4

Winthrop probably took up his third notebook, which carries the narrative from 17 September 1644 to 11 January 1649, no earlier than mid-1648, and so he wrote most of the entries in this volume well after the events described. Inspection of Winthrop's handwriting indicates that he was working fast. He appears to have written twenty pages at one stretch, and fifteen pages on three other occasions. He made many more slips and errors than previously, writing up ten entries twice over and sometimes getting his dates wrong. His style also betrays haste; he has lost the compact precision characteristic of the entries from the 1630s. He seems to have composed most if not all of his final volume during the last few months of his life, between May 1648 and early March 1649, when he became too ill to write. He died on 26 March 1649.5

As he gradually changed his mode of composition between 1630 and 1649, Winthrop also gradually altered his perception of his own role as author-actor. At first he narrated as anonymously as possible, presenting the Arbella passengers and the Massachusetts colonists collectively as “we,” while seldom referring to his own leadership role as governor and rarely disclosing his personal opinions. But after he landed in Massachusetts, Winthrop could no longer keep himself out of the story, and soon he was reporting controversial matters that are not mentioned in the official colony records. Only through his journal do we learn that in April 1631 the magistrates reprimanded the Salem church for choosing Roger Williams as its minister, or that in 1632 Winthrop had a series of ugly confrontations with the deputy governor, Thomas Dudley. The portrait that Winthrop sketched of Dudley as a jealous, irascible colleague is bound to linger in the reader's consciousness. It is the first of a long series of unflattering vignettes. Winthrop was not a real portraitist; he never described people in three-dimensional detail. But like Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography, he was adept at thrusting a few barbs into most of the personages who figure prominently in his story. Naturally he found little good to say about such outright adversaries as Thomas Morton, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Mary Dyer, John Underhill, Samuel Gorton, Peter Hobart, and Robert Child. But he was seldom unequivocally positive about his fellow magistrates. John Endecott was rash and blundering, Henry Vane was a spoiled youth, Richard Saltonstall was a dangerous incendiary, John Humfrey was a deserter. Likewise among the clergy, John Cotton was unsound, John Eliot was naive, Thomas Hooker was aggressive, Nathaniel Ward was meddlesome. To be sure, Winthrop freely admitted his own defects on occasion. Yet the reader who accepts his presentation will certainly conclude that the author of the journal was much the best and wisest public man in early Massachusetts.

Winthrop was the governor of his colony for twelve of the nineteen years he kept the journal: he was in charge in 1630-1634, 1637-1640, 1642-1644, and 1646-1649, and was continuously a magistrate. Once his administration came under attack, he began to explain and defend his actions. For example, on 17 February 1632 he tells how he convinced the people of Watertown—who had refused to pay taxes levied by the magistrates because they had no representatives at the General Court—that they were in error, “so their submission was accepted and their offence pardoned” (p. 45). But actually the Watertowners were the winners in this dispute. The May 1632 General Court voted that two representatives from every town should advise the magistrates on taxation, and in the spring of 1634 the freemen agitated for a larger share of power. Winthrop tells us that when the town representatives read the company charter, they discovered that the freemen were authorized to meet four times a year to make laws. Winthrop explained to them that the freemen were too numerous to legislate, nor were they qualified to establish a representative assembly. Nevertheless, on 14 May 1634 the General Court voted that deputies from each town were henceforth to meet with the magistrates four times a year to tax and legislate. Voting by secret ballot for the first time, the freemen in May 1634 chose Dudley as governor in place of Winthrop.

The General Court of May 1634 was Winthrop's worst defeat. The constitutional change was a greater blow than the electoral change, because he never could accept the new deputies from the towns as in any way equal to the magistrates; for the rest of his life he fought to restore the magistrates' independence and supremacy. But the electoral rebuff was also hard. For three years, from 1634 to 1637, other men took over the governorship and Winthrop was not always in agreement with their policy. This section of his journal is especially informative and interesting, because he supplies some inside details about the controversial issues of the day. These were difficult years for the Bay Colony. In England, Archbishop Laud was attacking the Massachusetts Bay Company, and in America, many of the Massachusetts colonists moved to Connecticut, Roger Williams was banished and fled to Narragansett Bay, the colonists plunged into a bloody war with the Pequot Indians, and in October 1636 the Antinomian controversy exploded in Boston. Winthrop hints (and sometimes openly states) that matters in 1634-1637 could have been much better handled.

Yet Winthrop at this time was neither as full nor as frank a writer as he later became. For example, his reports on Roger Williams from 1631 to 1636 raise questions about what really happened and why. Winthrop presents Williams's rebellion against the Massachusetts church-state system as the work of a rigid and isolated fanatic who enjoyed no support outside of Salem. In January 1636 Winthrop seems to have been quite as eager as any of his fellow magistrates to ship the banished man back to England. Yet Williams later claimed that Winthrop encouraged him to flee to Narragansett Bay, and the Bay magistrates and clergy charged Winthrop with “overmuch lenity and remissness” immediately after Williams's flight, very likely because they suspected him of giving covert aid to the Salem rebel (pp. 87-89).

The journal reaches its most dramatic point in 1636-1637 with the Pequot War and the Antinomian controversy (pp. 96-135). Winthrop's interpretation of the Pequot War is somewhat equivocal. He hints, without quite saying so, that the Bay government blundered into the war, then briskly describes the virtual extermination of the Pequots in May-August 1637. But he was in no way equivocal about Anne Hutchinson. He saw this “woman of a ready wit and bold spirit” as a very dangerous adversary, since her stronghold was Winthrop's own Boston church, and her supporters included John Cotton and Governor Vane. Winthrop presents himself in the journal as the Antinomians' chief opponent. And at the May 1637 General Court, he scored the most satisfying triumph of his career when the freemen in a tense and stormy meeting elected him governor and dropped Vane and two other Antinomian magistrates from office (p. 119). In November 1637 the General Court consolidated this victory by banishing Hutchinson and Wheelwright and disarming or disenfranchising seventy-five of their supporters (pp. 132-133). In March 1638 the Boston church was finally persuaded to excommunicate Anne Hutchinson (pp. 139).

Once restored to power, Winthrop used his journal more aggressively than in the early 1630s to denigrate his opponents. In January 1638 he made a list of the “foul errors” and “secret opinions” of the Antinomians. In March 1638 he discovered that Mary Dyer, one of Hutchinson's supporters, had been delivered of a deformed stillborn fetus, and in September 1638 he heard that Hutchinson herself had a somewhat similar stillbirth after she was exiled to Rhode Island, whereupon Winthrop entered full descriptions of both “monstrous births” into his journal as proof positive that God had turned against the Antinomians (pp. 141-142, 146-147). By this time, Winthrop was clearly drafting the official history of his administration. He began to make notes on where to add further documentation when he got around to expanding his narrative, and he sometimes pointed out controversial issues, as when in 1641 he wrote: “Query, whether the following be fit to be published”—and then reported how Governor Bellingham improperly pursued and married a young lady who was pledged to another man (p. 192). Winthrop consulted with Thomas Shepard about how to present topics such as this, and Shepard—who told Winthrop that “you will have the hearts and prayers of many in the compiling of the History”—urged him to be completely candid: “Surely Sir,” he wrote, “the work is of God.”6

As Winthrop composed his narrative, he not only changed his mode of composition, and his perception of his personal role as author-actor, but also revised his understanding of God's design in bringing His chosen people to New England. Initially, he believed—as he stated in “A Model of Christian Charity”—that God intended the colonists to build a united covenanted community in Massachusetts, knitted together by bonds of brotherly affection. Through the first two years of his journal he played up the external challenges that the colonists faced, and played down the internal divisions among them. But by the mid-1630s he was focusing on Puritan troublemakers like Roger Williams, and when the Pequot War and the Antinomian controversy broke out simultaneously in 1636-1637, he saw that Satan was trying hard to destroy Christ's kingdom in New England. The Pequot War sharpened his hostility toward the Indians, and led him to conclude that the English could never live in settled peace with the natives unless they expunged their aboriginal culture. Much more important to Winthrop, the emergence of Puritan fanatics such as Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson forced him to abandon his hope that the English colonists could live together in loving harmony. Williams and Hutchinson (in his view) were so utterly self-deluded that they not only rebelled against sound Christian policy but entered into active alliance with Satan. From 1638 onward, Winthrop viewed developments in Rhode Island (where most of the banished Puritan fanatics had gone) or in New Hampshire and Maine (where most of the anti-Puritan colonists were clustered) with the deepest suspicion. His reports on events from beyond the Massachusetts borders became news bulletins of abominable crimes and miserable disorders. Even within Massachusetts, “the devil would never cease to disturb our peace, and to raise up instruments one after another” (p. 149).

This sense of perpetual contest between the forces of good and evil was sharpened after 1640 when Charles I was forced to summon Parliament. Naturally Winthrop sided with the king's parliamentary critics, but he was greatly distressed when the expectation of reform at home stopped the Puritan migration to New England and persuaded many colonists to return to old England. And as civil war broke out between Parliament and the king, Winthrop discovered to his horror that the Puritans in London were entertaining radical ideas that had been banned in Boston in the 1630s, and that Parliament in 1644 and 1646 actually protected his Rhode Island adversaries Roger Williams and Samuel Gorton when they went to England and complained of being harassed by Massachusetts. Thus the revolutionary crisis at home deepened his conviction that Massachusetts must be ever vigilant in dealing with so-called friends as well as enemies. And as he interpreted the troublesome events of the 1640s, he found a powerful model in the historical books of the Old Testament, most particularly Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Judges. Here Winthrop could find a story line exactly to his purpose, recounting how God's chosen people—despite plentiful evidence of human backsliding and divine wrath—escaped from captivity and came to the promised land.

As Winthrop changed from a journalist to a historian, he not only wrote more belligerently but more voluminously: his treatment of the years 1643-1646 is more than twice the length of his treatment of the years 1633-1636. He explained his support for the wily French commander La Tour and for the grasping Boston merchant Robert Keayne in 1643 very fully (pp. 224-231), because he was criticized for mishandling both situations. And in his third volume, he deliberately magnified the Hingham mutiny of 1645 (pp. 274-284) and the Remonstrants' protest of 1646 (pp. 306-318) in order to demonstrate the baseness of his critics. He wrote up his impeachment trial of 1645 as a personal ordeal and vindication, and included the full text of his masterful “little speech” in which he lectured the court on the meaning of liberty and authority. Winthrop's electoral defeat in 1634 had been at least as important, both to him and to the colony, as his victory over the Hingham petitioners in 1645, yet he wrote up the 1634 episode in two pages and the 1645 episode in seventeen. And he was even more circumstantial in denouncing Dr. Robert Child and his fellow Remonstrants, who tried to subvert the colony government by appealing to Parliament.

Winthrop devoted much attention in his second and third volumes to sexual scandal—to cases of rape, fornication, adultery, sodomy, and buggery—but of course his purpose was not to titillate. When he reported that William Hatchet was executed for copulating with a cow or that George Spencer of New Haven was executed for siring a piglet with human resemblances, he was exhibiting these specimens of human depravity as proof that even in godly New England the Devil was continually at work. He dwelt as much on the penitential scaffold scenes as on the crimes, for God always searched out these sex offenders and punished them justly. Winthrop also reported on the punishments that God meted out to the political and religious rebels who rejected the Massachusetts church-state system. Anne Hutchinson, the greatest rebel, received the harshest judgment: first her monstrous childbirth in 1638 and then her murder by Indians in 1643. John Humfrey, who deserted Massachusetts for the West Indies and took many colonists with him, was punished by a fire that destroyed his barn and his stored crops, while his little daughter was raped by child molesters. Dr. Child was publicly humiliated on the streets of London, “and besides God had so blasted his estate as he was quite broken, etc.” (p. 338). Winthrop might have observed that his own estate had also been blasted; in 1639 his bailiff contracted debts in his name totaling £2,500, forcing Winthrop to sell much of his property. The Massachusetts freemen dropped him from the governorship for two years after this happened, and in 1641 one of the deputies wanted to drop him from office altogether because he was “grown poor.” Yet Winthrop barely mentioned his financial troubles, and then mainly to grumble that the colonists only raised £500 in a voluntary contribution to help him, for he categorically refused to interpret his own property loss as a providential sign.

It is striking to follow our author, who had been silent or evasive on controversial issues in the early 1630s, as he pursued such topics with special zest during the later 1640s. One of the great features of his journal/history, especially in the second and third volumes, is that Winthrop reveals so many of the friction points in his society. Surely few writers have adopted a more pugilistic mode of conflict resolution. Taking pains to identify the issues causing conflict, and to report the public debate over these issues, Winthrop argued for the correctness of his own position and then showed how his adversaries were deservedly punished for their sins. Writing in this aggressive fashion, he built lasting significance into the seemingly small-scale actions of a few thousand colonists in early New England. Which is why his journal will always remain the central source for the history of Massachusetts in the 1630s and 1640s. And why readers of today, as in past generations, will find themselves engaged—and sometimes repelled—by John Winthrop's militant view of his world.


  1. The 1790 edition, published by Noah Webster, is incomplete and full of textual errors. The 1825-1826 edition, prepared by James Savage and reissued in 1853, has a much sounder text but eccentric and outdated annotations. The 1908 edition, prepared by James Hosmer, reproduces Savage's text with a few expurgations, and has minimal annotations. The Massachusetts Historical Society began to publish an old-spelling fourth edition in 1931, but abandoned this project after printing the first year of the journal.

  2. The Journal of John Winthrop, 1630-1649, ed. Richard S. Dunn, James Savage, and Laetitia Yeandle (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996).

  3. For further background, see Edmund S. Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop (Boston: Little, Brown, 1958), ch. 1-4; Lee Schweninger, John Winthrop (Boston: Twayne, 1990), ch. 1-3; and James G. Moseley, John Winthrop's World: History as a Story; the Story as History (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992), ch. 1.

  4. For a fuller discussion of Winthrop's changing method of composition, see the Introduction to the unabridged edition.

  5. Winthrop's terminal date of composition cannot be established, except that the final entry is dated 11 Jan. 1649. Winthrop became bedridden in early Feb., and by 14 Mar. he was too weak to write. See [Winthrop Papers] WP, 5:311-312, 319, 325.

  6. Shepard to Winthrop, 27 Jan. 1640, WP, 4:182-183.

Further Reading

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 294


Bush, Sargent. “A Text for All Seasons: Winthrop's Journal Redivivus.” Early American Literature 33, no. 1 (1998): 97-107.

Reviews the publication of a new edition of Winthrop's Journal and discusses the work's importance.

Bremer, Francis J. “The Heritage of John Winthrop: Religion along the Stour Valley, 1548-1630.” New England Quarterly: A Historical Review of New England Life and Letters 70, no. 4 (December 1997): 15-47.

Offers a detailed biography of the Winthrop family to aid in the understanding of Winthrop's motivations and beliefs.

Dawson, Hugh J. “Christian Charitie as Colonial Discourse: Rereading Winthrop's Sermon in its English Context.” Early American Literature 33, no. 2 (spring 1998): 117-48.

Analyzes “A Modell of Christian Charitie” in a historical context.

———. “John Winthrop's Rite of Passage: The Origins of the Christian Charitie Discourse.” Early American Literature 26, no. 3 (1991): 219-31.

Examines the origins of the speech, providing evidence to prove Winthrop's authorship.

Power, M. Susan. “John Winthrop: A Model and The Journal.” In Before the Convention: Religion and the Founders, pp. 65-84. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1984.

Analyzes the symbols used in Winthrop's works, maintaining that Winthrop possessed original ideas that greatly contributed to the political order of the time.

Twichell, Joseph Hopkins. “Chapter One: The Little Speech.” In John Winthrop, First Governor of the Massachusetts Colony, pp. 1-11. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1891.

Provides a detailed account of the occurrences surrounding Winthrop's 1645 speech concerning the freedom of the people from the magistrates' authority.

Warner, Michael. “New English Sodom.” American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography 64, no. 1 (March 1992): 19-48.

Examines the importance of the story of Sodom to Winthrop and fellow Puritans.

Additional coverage of Winthrop's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 24, 30; Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vol. 31; and Literature Resource Center.

Illustration of PDF document

Download John Winthrop Study Guide

Subscribe Now

John Winthrop


Winthrop, John (Vol. 31)