John Winthrop Winthrop, John (Vol. 107) - Essay

Francis J. Bremer


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

“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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 11278 words.)

Robert Benton (essay date winter 1973)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 3859 words.)

Lee Schweninger (essay date 1990)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 21193 words.)

Scott Michaelsen (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 6759 words.)

James Moseley (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 4015 words.)

Richard S. Dunn (essay date 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 4107 words.)

Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


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....

(The entire section is 294 words.)