John Winthrop Winthrop, John (Vol. 31) - Essay

Francis J. Bremer


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

John Winthrop 1588–1649

English-born political thinker, historian, and journal writer.

The first and most influential governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Winthrop is primarily remembered for his A Journal of the Transactions and Occurrences in the Settlement of Massachusetts and the Other New-England Colonies, from the Year 1630 to 1644, in which he chronicled the daily life, tribulations, and important events in the colony. Along with his writings on theology, the Antinomian controversy, and treaties with Native Americans, Winthrop's Journal constitutes one of the seminal records of the everyday life of early settlers in America. Critics also consider Winthrop a primary architect of American Puritanism. In his sermon "A Modell of Christian Charitie," delivered on board the ship Arbella in 1630 while he was on his way to America, Winthrop introduced two concepts that proved extremely influential in shaping colonial thinking and policy: the "City on a Hill," or the idea that the righteousness and material success of the Puritan colony would serve as an example to others, and the concept of adivine covenant binding the community together through shared responsibility.


Winthrop was the son of the lord of the manor at Groton in Suffolk, England. He enrolled at Trinity College, Cambridge, when he was fourteen years old; while a student, he fell gravely ill and underwent a religious conversion, becoming identified with the Puritan group within the Church of England. Winthrop's essay entitled "Experiencia," written in 1607-13 and the only surviving record of this time of his life, deals with his religious experience and documents that he had made "a new Covenant with the Lorde." Winthrop soon left Trinity and in 1605 married Mary Forth. He studied law in London at the Inns of Court, and records identify him as a justice of the peace in Suffolk in 1617. Around this same period Winthrop assumed supervision of the manor from his father, and was also facing tragedy in his personal life: his wife had died in 1615, and Winthrop's second wife, Thomasine Clopton, died a year after they married, in 1617. Now married to his third wife, Margaret Tyndal, and finding it difficult to support his many children because

of a regional economic crisis, Winthrop received a government post as a common attorney in the Court of Wards and Liveries in London. It was also about this time that Winthrop officially joined the Puritans, a militant subgroup of the Church of England which was frequently in conflict with the high Anglicanism of King Charles I. Unwilling to continue to make the compromises needed to placate government and church authorities in England, some Puritans organized the New England Company in 1628, intending to relocate to America; they reorganized in 1629, became chartered as the Massachusetts Bay Company, and elected Winthrop governor. He served terms from 1629 to 1633, 1637 to 1640, 1642 to 1644, and from 1646 until his death in 1649. As governor, Winthrop was often summoned to mediate between warring parties, contend with conflicts relating to jurisdiction, settle conflicts with the Indians, and decide questions of economics. Along with other colonial leaders, Winthrop sought to apply Puritan philosophy to the practical affairs of the Bay Colony, advocating broad participation by members of the community, a mixture of democracy and aristocracy, the growth of churches, and experiments in wages and prices designed to keep citizens from preying upon each other. Anyone dissenting from their consensual orthodoxy was obliged to leave, for Winthrop and his magistrates were determined to shelter their model society from any civil or religious influence that might adversely affect it. Winthrop died in 1649, in the midst of his political career and still engaged in writing his journal.

Major Works

Winthrop's first and, as many scholars have asserted, most significant legacy to New England was the sermon "A Modell of Christian Charitie," in which he explained to his fellow immigrants the magnitude of the task they were undertaking. They were chosen by God to perform a role and would be watched by all other people, Winthrop maintained; as in the biblical City upon a Hill, everyone would be interpreting their success or failure in America as a sign of God's pleasure or displeasure with them. By virtue of sailing to New England they had entered into a covenant with God involving each person in the community. If they adhered strictly to the divine will, they would be rewarded with prosperity, security, and success; and those evidences of God's favor would inspire England and other nations to emulate the New England way. If they settled for less than perfection in themselves and in those around them, they would suffer God's wrath. Like "A Modell of Christian Charitie," Winthrop's Journal was an effort to discern the divine pattern in the events of daily life in the colony and to justify the role New Englanders believed themselves called to play. Written as a diary and never revised, the Journal remained unpublished long after Winthrop's death, though colonial historians drew upon the work as a source of information. In 1790 Jonathan Trumbull, Governor of Connecticut, copied the first two of the three Journal notebooks and submitted them to Noah Webster for printing. Critics agree that Winthrop's Journal provides the fullest eyewitness rendering of the first two decades of Massachusetts colonial history: Winthrop provides a rich record of events, explicates political and religious points of view held by the colonists, and presents anecdotes that illustrate the Puritans' notion of themselves as fulfilling a divine mission. He reported on all matters impersonally, usually only identifying himself as "the governour," and only occasionally stating his own opinions. Winthrop also wrote two other historical works, the only ones published during his lifetime. Antinomians and Familists condemned by the synod of elders in New-England: with the proceedings of the magistrates against them, and their apology for the same is a collection of materials related to the Anne Hutchinson controversy of the 1630s. Hutchinson and her followers dissented from the teachings of Puritan ministers who emphasized salvation through good works rather than through God's grace; following a trial in which Winthrop defended the right of the community to protect itself from dissenters, she was banished from the colony. Winthrop's A Declaration of Former Passages and Proceedings Betwixt the English and the Narrowgansets with Their Confederates, Wherein the Grounds of Justice of the Ensuing Warre are Opened and Cleared explores in pamphlet form the conflict between the colonists and the Rhode Island Indians and outlines Winthrop's fears concerning the future.

Critical Reception

Winthrop was revered by his contemporaries and later New Englanders as an inspired spiritual leader and wise politician. Cotton Mather, in his Magnalia Christi Americana; or, The Ecclesiastical History of New England (1702), extolled Winthrop's integrity and sa gacity, comparing him to the biblical Nehemiah. In the twentieth century, critics have explored various aspects of Winthrop's thought, for example his economic ideas, political philosophy (particularly his concept of the social covenant and the rights and responsibilities of individuals within it), and his complex role as both admirer and prosecutor in the trial of Anne Hutchinson. Some have criticized Winthrop as a narrow-minded and authoritarian leader who sought a homogenous society at the price of personal liberty. Winthrop's Journal continues to attract scholarly at tention, with commentators focusing on stylistic and structural elements, narrative tone and perspective, and the interplay between history and spiritual autobiography in the work. Lee Schweninger, summarizing Winthrop's overall contribution to American literature, has written, "He was able to preserve for future generations both the actual historical record of the building of Boston in New England and his vision of a city on a hill, not only as a model but as an emblem, a symbol of the potential of humanity."

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Antinomians and Familists condemned by the synod of elders in New-England: with the proceedings of the magistrates against them, and their apology for the same (prose) 1644; also published as A Short Story of the rise, reign, and ruin of the Antinomians, Familist & libertines, 1644

A Declaration of Former Passages and Proceedings Betwixt the English and the Narrowgansets, with Their Confederates, Wherein the Grounds and Justice of the Ensuing Warre are Opened and Cleared (prose) 1645

A Journal of the Transactions and Occurrences in the Settlement of Massachusetts and the Other New-England Colonies, from the Year 1630 to 1644 (journal) 1790; also published as The History of New England from 1630 to 1649, 1825-26, rev. ed. 1853

Winthrop Papers. 5 vols. (prose, journal, history, letters) 1929-47

John Winthrop (sermon date 1630)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: A sermon delivered in 1630, in Life and Letters of John Winthrop, Vol. II, second edition, by Robert C. Winthrop, Little, Brown, and Company, 1866, pp. 18-20.

[In the following excerpt from his famous sermon "A Modell of Christian Charity, " delivered on board the ship Arbella in 1630, Winthrop outlines the nature of the covenant forged between the colonists and God.]

Thus stands the case between God and us. We are entered into a Covenant with Him for this work. We have taken out a commission. The Lord hath given us leave to draw our own articles. We have professed to enterprise these and those ends, upon these and those accounts. We have hereupon besought of...

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Cotton Mather (essay date 1702)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Nehemias Americanus: The Life of John Winthrop, Esq., Governour of the Massachuset Colony," in Magnolia Christi Americana; or, The Ecclesiastical History of New-England, Vol. I, Silas Andrus and Son, 1855, pp. 118-31.

[Mather was a renowned American clergyman and scholar who was associated with the Salem witchcraft trials, but later repudiated them. His works include Wonders of the Invisible World (1693), Essays to Do Good (1710), and Ratio Disciplinae (1726). In the following excerpt from his best-known work, first published in 1702, Mather praises the wisdom, integrity, and sagacity Winthrop exhibited in his role as governor of "our American Jerusalem....

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Edgar A. J. Johnson (essay date 1930)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Economic Ideas of John Winthrop," in The New England Quarterly, Vol. III, April, 1930, pp. 235-50.

[In the following essay, Johnson provides a detailed examination of Winthrop's ideas regarding wealth. He notes that Winthrop's ideas, though not original, are significant because they accurately reflect Puritan ideology.]

How important a role a philosophy plays in men's actions and lives can actually never be determined. A philosophy is never a prime mover, but often an influence so omnipresent and persistent that it becomes worth while to investigate the thoughts as well as the deeds of great men. For this reason, it seems worth while to examine the economic...

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Stanley Gray (essay date 1930)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Political Thought of John Winthrop," in The New England Quarterly, Vol. III, October, 1930, pp. 681-705.

[Below, Gray presents an overview of Winthrop's political philosophy, stressing his reliance on the idea of the social convenant.]

God Almightie in his most holy and wise providence hath soe disposed of the Condicion of mankinde, as in all times some must be rich some poore, some highe and eminent in power and dignitie; others meane and in subieccion.

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Edmund S. Morgan (essay date 1958)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Seventeenth-Century Nihilism" and "The New England Way," in The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop, edited by Oscar Handlin, Little, Brown and Company, 1958, pp, 134-54, 155-73.

[A respected American historian, Morgan is the author of such studies as The Puritan Family (1944), Birth of the Republic, 1763-89 (1956), and Roger Williams: The Church and State (1967). In the following excerpt, from his monograph on Winthrop, Morgan gives an account of Winthrop's role in the trial of Anne Hutchinson and in the writing of the Body of Liberties document.]

On September 18, 1634, two hundred passengers disembarked at Boston's...

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Daniel B. Shea, Jr. (essay date 1968)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Traditional Patterns of Puritan Autobiography: John Winthrop's 'Christian Experience'," in Spiritual Autobiography in Early America, Princeton University Press, 1968, pp. 100-10.

[In the essay below, Shea explores Winthrop's "Christian Experience" as an account of his spiritual progress.]

Any Puritan autobiography exhibits its author's awareness of the traditional stages through which a man passed as God brought him to grace. But some narratives serve as paradigms in their adherence to textbook descriptions of the order of grace. Edward Taylor's "Spiritual Relation" is one of these. Another, the "Christian Experience" of John Winthrop was written more than...

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Wilson Carey McWilliams (essay date 1973)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "John Winthrop: The Statesman," in The Idea of Fraternity in America, University of California Press, 1973, pp. 133-49.

[Here, McWilliams discusses Winthrop's political ideas as a system of thought "guided by the fraternal imperative."]

John Winthrop was a political man by vocation, a reflective man by nature and faith. None defended more strenuously the prerogatives of a specifically political wisdom distinct from that of the church. Yet Winthrop never conceived of a political understanding which did not depend on religious teaching; he relied on scriptural and religious authority rather more, and secular classical writings rather less, than did his...

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Richard S. Dunn (essay date 1984)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "John Winthrop Writes His Journal," in The William and Mary Quarterly, third series, Vol. XLI, No. 2, April, 1984, pp. 185-212.

[In the following essay, Dunn examines the style, structure, and content of the journal Winthrop kept between 1630 and 1649.]

Stored in the manuscript vault of the Massachusetts Historical Society within a locked case of handsome Victorian design are two fragile vellum-covered notebooks in the distinctive and devilishly difficult handwriting of John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts. These are the first and third manuscript volumes of Winthrop's journal, the prime source for the history of the Bay Colony from 1630 to 1649. In...

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Douglas Anderson (essay date 1990)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "'This Great Household upon the Earth'," in A House Divided: Domesticity and Community in American Literature, Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 8-39.

[In the following excerpt, Anderson traces Winthrop's idea of community as evidenced in his writings and compares it with those of Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor.]

The Book of Deuteronomy, particularly its closing chapters, had an irresistible appeal for the first generation of New England Puritans because of the parallels they recognized between their own situation and that of the Children of Israel, poised upon the borders of the Promised Land. All of the Old Testament had typological significance, of...

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James G. Moseley (essay date 1990)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Winthrop's Journal: Religion, Politics, and Narrative in Early America," in Religion and the Life of the Nation: American Recoveries, edited by Rowland A. Sherrill, University of Illinois Press, 1990, pp. 235-58.

[Here, Moseley discusses the ways in which the tone of Winthrop's journal changes from a mere recording of historical fact to a personal, self-conscious narrative.]

John Winthrop has often been portrayed as a self-righteous martinet, a Puritan dictator whose love for power was matched only by his unthinking Calvinist orthodoxy. Yet reading his three-volume Journal enables us to recover a more credible, if more complicated, image of the...

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James G. Moseley (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Ways of Making History in Early New England," in John Winthrop's World: History as a Story, The Story as History, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1992, pp. 130-47.

[In the following excerpt, Moseley focuses on Winthrop 's journal as a history, noting its exemplification of a Puritan point of view, and comparing it with other historical accounts.]

Winthrop's Journal was not only about Puritans; it was a Puritan history. This quality, so quickly lost by those who wrote about the early Puritans, comes clearly into focus when Winthrop's history is compared with the other great history of first-generation New England. Like the Puritans' Winthrop, the Pilgrims'...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Baritz, Loren. "Political Theology: John Winthrop." In his City on a Hill: A History of Ideas and Myths in America, pp, 3-45. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1964.

Overview of Winthrop's life and work, with emphasis on his ideology.

Bercovitch, Sacvan. The Puritan Origins of the American Self. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975, 250 p.

Takes Cotton Mather's biographical essay on Winthrop as a representative text and a starting point for a discussion about the "Puritan view of the self," "the individual in history," and "the idea of national election."


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