Winthrop, John Primary Source eText

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John Winthrop. His spiritual autobiography traced his religious development from childhood to middle age. Reproduced by permission of The Library of Congress. John Winthrop. His spiritual autobiography traced his religious development from childhood to middle age. Published by Gale Cengage Reproduced by permission of The Library of Congress.
Native Americans attacking a colonial settlement during the Pequot War. Reproduced by permission of Archive Photos, Inc. Native Americans attacking a colonial settlement during the Pequot War. Published by Gale Cengage Reproduced by permission of Archive Photos, Inc.

John Winthrop's Christian Experience

Reprinted in Early American Writing

Published in 1994

Edited by Giles Gunn

"I had also a great striveing in my heart to draw others to God."

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded in 1630 by a group of Puritans (Protestant Christians who advocated strict moral and religious codes). Like the Pilgrims who settled the nearby Plymouth Colony in 1620 (see "The Pilgrims' Landing and First Winter"), they were fleeing persecution (punishment or discrimination because of their beliefs) they had faced in England. The Massachusetts Bay Puritans saw their venture as an opportunity to enjoy religious freedom and to establish an "ideal" community that would serve as a model for Puritans in England. In the ideal community, inhabitants would form separate congregations (groups who worship together) devoted to strict adherence to Puritan doctrines. Guided by ministers and members of the "elect" (certain people who had been chosen by God for salvation, or forgiveness of sins), they would live in harmony and glorify God. Within fifteen years, however, the ideal community was beset by political and religious turmoil, and by the late 1600s the Massachusetts Bay experiment was a failure.

The Massachusetts Bay Puritans were led by John Winthrop (1588–1649), a wealthy Englishman and member of the elect, and the first governor of the colony. Winthrop was born into the aristocracy (upper or ruling class) in Suffolk, England. In 1603, at age fourteen, he entered Cambridge University. Although he left after two years without a degree, he was following the custom of most young gentlemen of the time. He also briefly attended Gray's Inn, where aristocrats studied law, but again he left without a degree. When Winthrop returned to the family estate, Groton Manor, in 1605, he had become a Puritan. Immediately he entered into an arranged marriage to Mary Forth of Great Stambridge, Essex. Over the next decade the couple had six children. Six months after Mary died in 1615, Winthrop wed Thomasine Clopton; unfortunately, she died within a year. He married for a third time in 1618, at the age of thirty. His new wife was Margaret Tyndal, a woman who shared his religious convictions, and they lived happily together for nearly thirty years.

By 1617 Winthrop had inherited Groton Manor. While serving as a justice of the peace (local judge who handles minor legal offenses), he began to study law more seriously. In 1627 Winthrop took a position as a government attorney. By this time, the Church of England (also known as the Anglican Church; the official state religion) began to promote good works as a means of salvation (forgiveness of sins). In other words, church members would perform good deeds and clergymen would then forgive their sins. Puritans were horrified at this new development, since they believed only God could determine who had earned salvation. Consequently, many Puritans felt so strongly about this issue that they left England for European countries such as the Netherlands. Others, including Winthrop, looked toward America.

In 1629 Winthrop joined the New England Company, a group of investors planning to start a settlement near the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. King Charles I (1600–1649) had granted the company a parcel (section) of land between the Charles and Merrimack rivers in Massachusetts, which was owned by the Council for New England (a private organization that promoted trade and settlement in New England). A small group of Puritans, under the leadership of John Endecott (1588 –1665), had already gone to Massachusetts to pave the way for a "great migration" of Puritans. Winthrop and his associates, who would be part of that migration (moving from one country to settle in another), received a royal charter (the right to found a colony that would be ruled by the king) under the new name of "Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England."

Although the Massachusetts Bay Company had initially planned to promote trade in the colony, their emphasis soon shifted to religion. Before leaving for America, Winthrop organized the signing of the Cambridge Agreement. It stated that, once they reached America, they would buy out the company, take over the charter, and govern the colony independently. Thus the Massachusetts Bay Company was the only colonizing venture that did not come under the control of governors in England—a situation that would lead to serious problems within only a few years. In 1629 Winthrop was chosen to head the company and he began assembling the fleet of eleven ships that would take the settlers to America. To help meet expenses he sold his estate. After arranging for his wife and children to join him in 1631, he set out with the first Massachusetts Bay settlers on the lead ship Arbella.

The Puritans arrived at Salem, Massachusetts, in 1630. As head of the Massachusetts Bay Company, Winthrop took over the position of governor from Endecott. The first order of business was to organize the Massachusetts Bay Colony on the basis of separate religious congregations that chose their own ministers. This decision led to diversity among congregations, which later became a severe problem in the colony. Winthrop also established a government, keeping power in his own hands with the aid of a few assistants. He gave some authority to freemen (men with the full rights of citizens; women had no rights), who served on a general assembly (law-making body). In 1634, when the freemen challenged Winthrop to show them the company's charter, they realized they were entitled to more power than he had allowed them. The freemen then formed a new assembly, elected members from each town, and voted Winthrop out of office in 1635. He was replaced by colonist John Haynes (1594–1654).

Winthrop's political fortunes over the next several years reflected the chaos in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Although he was continually voted in and out of office during this time, he held his seat on the council (officials who administered the government) and continued to be a powerful force. Along with Endecott and others, Winthrop supported a strict theocracy (control of the government by the church) and bitterly opposed the activities of religious dissidents (those who disagree with church practices). The Massachusetts Bay charter, which organized the colony on the basis of separate congregations, had opened the way for religious diversity. Many colonists were now refusing to conform to Puritan doctrines (established opinions). The problem was that the traditional Puritans (those who shared the vision of the founding fathers of the colony) would not tolerate any views but their own. Therefore, they were greatly disturbed by the protests of such dissidents as the Anabaptists, Presbyterians, and Quakers. All of these groups had their own Puritan congregations, but they followed different versions of Puritanism.

The Anabaptists (later called Baptists) opposed the baptism of infants, believing this ritual should be reserved only for adults who understood the meaning of religious conversion. (Baptism is a Christian ceremony in which a person is admitted to the church by being immersed in water or having water sprinkled on the head.) They also demanded complete separation of church and state. The Presbyterians asserted that church membership should be open to all people who agreed to live according to God's commandments rather than those who claimed to have achieved salvation (being saved from sin). But most threatening to the traditional Puritans were the Quakers (Society of Friends), who challenged not only the Puritan beliefs practiced in the colony but also its society and government. They advocated direct communication between the individual Christian and God, without the aid of ministers or a formal church, a belief that was the basis of the Massachusetts Bay community.

In 1636 the colony faced yet another crisis: Native American resistance to English settlement. As a result of the "great migration," the New England population was rapidly rising (it was four thousand in 1634 and would reach eleven thousand in 1638). The Puritans began to move west onto land that was controlled by the Pequots, a neighboring Native American tribe. For instance, the Hartford settlement (in present-day Connecticut) was established by Baptist minister Thomas Hooker (1586–1647), and nearby Fort Saybrook was built by the English Saybrook Company near the Pequot village of Mystic.

The Puritans' main goal was to rid the area of all Native Americans. Even though the colonists had signed a treaty with the Pequots, they hoped to provoke the Native American group into breaking the agreement. Their opportunity came when Native Americans from an unknown tribe killed two English colonists, John Stone and John Oldham. The Puritans accused the Pequots of committing the murders, but the Pequots denied any involvement and even offered to negotiate with the colonists. The Puritans responded by demanding that the Pequots turn over the killers to prove they were not doing the work of the devil. (The Puritans believed that any disaster or misfortune was caused by the devil, or Satan, against whom they were constantly waging a battle.) The Pequots could not produce the killers. In September 1636, Endecott—now the military commander in Massachusetts—therefore led an attack on the Pequots and their allies on Block Island (off the coast of Rhode Island), thus beginning the Pequot War. After the Pequots retaliated by laying siege to Fort Saybrook, the conflict remained low-key for some time. When western settlers became worried that the Pequots would win the war, however, fighting soon escalated. The war finally ended at Mystic in 1637, after the settlers burned the village and exterminated nearly all the Pequots. The few survivors were either killed later by the Puritans or they fled to other parts of the country. (In 1638 the Treaty of Hartford declared the Pequot nation dissolved.)

Making matters even worse for Massachusetts Bay was the fact that the English government was trying to gain control of the colony. Fernando Gorges (1566–1647), head of the Council for New England, belatedly realized Charles I (1600–1649) had permitted the colonists to settle on land that was still in the possession of the council. Gorges did not approve of their independent charter and he wanted them to abide by the New England Council's plan of government. In 1634 William Laud (1573–1645), the Archbishop of Canterbury (the highest official in the Church of England), was appointed head of a committee to investigate the charter. Laud had been instrumental in removing Puritans from positions of power in England, so he was interested in keeping American congregations under the control of the English church. All Puritans, except the Nonconformists in the Plymouth Colony, had remained Anglicans, which ordained (officially appointed) Puritan ministers. (The Puritans were certain they could reform the church from within.)

When the committee discovered that the charter was not tied to any governing body in England, they began proceedings to terminate the Massachusetts Bay Company. In 1637 Charles I announced that he would rule Massachusetts through a royal governor and council, and Gorges would be his deputy (first representative). This was a victory for Gorges, who was supported by Massachusetts Bay trader and adventurer Thomas Morton (c. 1590–c. 1649; see "The Maypole of Merry-Mount"). The new royal government was never put in place, however, since England was also in turmoil at the time. Charles I had dismissed the Parliament in order to prevent Puritans from holding office and he was unsuccessfully trying to manage his empire alone. Gorges was left with wilderness territory in Maine, north of Massachusetts Bay.

In the meantime, Puritan leaders had been struggling to maintain harmony in Massachusetts Bay. They thought they might solve some of their problems by getting rid of religious dissidents (people who refuse to accept the beliefs or practices of an established religion). Their strategy involved trying to pressure the rebels into accepting traditional Puritan doctrine. If that method was a failure, they forced the trouble-makers to leave the colony. For instance, in 1635 Haynes banished Roger Williams (1603–1683), an advocate of the separation of church and state, who later founded the Rhode Island colony. In 1636 Massachusetts officials also confronted Anne Hutchinson (1591–1643), a prominent figure in the community, who was challenging basic Puritan teachings (see Exerpt From the Trial of Anne Hutchinson). Some of Hutchinson's supporters were working for political as well as religious change. Among them were merchants who opposed tax and trade policies of the council. They scored a victory in the election of 1636, replacing Haynes with a new governor, Henry Vane (1613–1662), a member of Hutchinson's congregation.

Winthrop was again elected governor in 1637, and he immediately convened the Massachusetts General Court (a panel of judges that decided the laws of the colony) to review dissident cases. When the court ruled in favor of the traditional Puritans, government leaders moved to put Hutchinson and others on trial for sedition (resistance against lawful authority). Winthrop was actively involved in the trials. In 1637, at the height of the religious and political chaos in the colony, he wrote "John Winthrop's Christian Experience."

Things to Remember While Reading John Winthrop's Christian Experience:

  • John Winthrop's Christian Experience is a famous spiritual autobiography (record of an individual soul's struggle between God and Satan). Puritan ministers encouraged church members to write about intense personal suffering, and Puritan leaders presented their own lives as models for the inspiration of others. By portraying himself as a flawed human being who struggled to resist the temptations of the world, Winthrop intended to help average Massachusetts Bay colonists overcome evil in their own lives. The goal was to achieve the Puritan ideal of moral and spiritual perfection.
  • In his spiritual autobiography Winthrop traced his religious development from childhood to 1637 (the year he wrote the essay), when he was forty-nine years old. The excerpts included here begin with his student days at Cambridge, when he converted to Puritanism, then move on to his early marriage, his first encounter with the covenant of grace, and other significant events. (The covenant of grace was a Puritan belief that those who were willing to strictly obey God's laws were granted the state of being protected or sanctified by the favor of God.) Throughout Christian Experience, Winthrop portrayed an unrelenting struggle with evil, which frequently threatened to overwhelm him. Although he made no direct mention of the recent political and religious crises in Massachusetts Bay, he remarked that he had "gone under continuall conflicts between the flesh and the spirit, and sometimes with Satan himself (which I have more discerned of late then I did formerly)."

John Winthrop's Christian Experience

About 14 years of age, being in Cambridge [University] I fell into a lingring feaver, which took away the comfort of my life. For being there neglected, and despised, I went up and down mourning with myself; and being deprived of my youthfull joyes, I betook my self to God whom I did believe to bee very good and mercifull, and would welcome any that would come to him, especially such a yongue soule, and so well qualifyed as I took my self to bee; so as I took pleasure in drawing neer to him. But how my heart was affected with my sins, or

what thoughts I had of Christ I remember not. But I was willing to love God, and therefore I thought hee loved mee. . . .

About 18 yeares of age (being a man in stature, and in understanding as my parents conceived mee) I married into a family under Mr. Culverwell his ministry in Essex; and living there sometimes I first found the ministry of the word [of God] to come to my heart with power (for in all before I found onely light) and after that I found the like in the ministry of many others. So as there began to bee some change which I perceived in my self, and others took notice of. Now I began to come under strong exercises of Conscience: (yet by fits only) I could no longer dally with Religion. God put my soule to sad tasks sometimes, which yet the flesh would shake off, and outweare still. . . .

Now came I to some peace and comfort in God and in his wayes, my chief delight was therein, I loved a Christian, and the very ground hee went upon. I honoured a faythful minister in my heart and could have kissed his feet: Now I grew full of zeal (which outranne my knowledge and carried mee sometimes beyond my calling) and very liberall to any good work. I had an unsatiable thirst after the word of God and could not misse a good sermon, though [even if it was] many miles off, especially of such as did search deep into the conscience. I had also a great striveing in my heart to draw others to God. It pittyed my heart to see men so little to regard their soules, and to despise that happines which I knew to bee better then all the world besides, which stirred mee up to take any opportunity to draw men to God, and by successe in my endeavors I took much encouragement hereunto. But those affections were not constant but very unsetled. . . .

But as I grew into employment and credit thereby; so I grew also in pride of my guifts, and under temptations which sett mee on work to look to my evidence more narrowly then I had done before (for the great change which God had wrought in mee, and the generall approbation of good ministers and other Christians, kept mee from makeing any great question of my good estate, though my secrett corruptions, and some tremblings of heart (which was greatest when I was among the most Godly persons) put me to some plunges; but especially when I perceived a great decay in my zeale and love, etc.).

. . . I was ashamed to open my case to any minister that knew mee; I feared it would shame my self and religion also, that such an eminent professour as I was accounted, should discover such corruptions as I found in my selfe, and had in all this time attained no better evidence of salvation; and I should prove a hypocrite it was too late to begin anew. . . .

While I wandred up and downe in this sad and doubtful estate (wherein yet I had many intermissions, for the flesh would often shake off this yoake of the law, but was still forced to come under it again) wherein my greatest troubles were not the sense of Gods wrath or fear of damnation, but want of assurance of salvation, and want of strength against my corruptions; I knew that my greatest want was fayth in Christ, and faine would I have been united to Christ but I thought I was not holy enough. . . .

Being in this condition it pleased the Lord . . . to manifest unto mee the difference between the Covenant of grace, and the Covenant of workes (but I took the foundation of that of workes to have been with man in innocency, and onely held forth in the law of Moses to drive us to Christ). This Covenant of grace began to take great impression in mee and I thought I had now enough. . . .

I was now about 30 yeares of age, and now was the time come that the Lord would reveale Christ unto mee whom I had long desired, but not so earnestly as since I came to see more clearely into the covenant of free grace. First therefore hee laid a sore affliction upon mee wherein hee laid mee lower in myne owne eyes then at any time before, and showed mee the emptines of all my guifts, and parts; left mee neither power nor will, so as I became as a weaned child. I could now no more look at what I had been or what I had done nor bee discontented for want of strength or assurance mine eyes were onely upon his free mercy in Jesus Christ. I knew I was worthy of nothing for I knew I could doe nothing for him or for my selfe. I could only mourn, and weep to think of free mercy to such a vile wretch as I was. . . .

Since this time I have gone under continuall conflicts between the flesh and the spirit, and sometimes with Satan himself (which I have more discerned of late then I did formerly) many falls I have had, and have lyen long under some, yet never quite forsaken of the Lord. But still when I have been put to it by any suddaine danger or fearefull temptation, the good spirit of the Lord hath not fayled to beare witnesse to mee, giveing mee comfort, and courage in the very pinch, when of my self I have been very fearefull, and dismayed. My usuall falls have been through dead heartedness, and presumptuousnesse, by which Satan hath taken advantage to wind mee into other sinnes. When the flesh prevayles the spirit withdrawes, and is sometimes so greived as hee seemes not to acknowledge his owne work. . . . .

What happened next . . .

Winthrop was elected governor for the final time in 1646, and he was still in office when he died three years later. Challenges to Puritan control of New England gained momentum. By 1660 more people were settling on isolated farms, away from churches and the guardians of strict morality. Merchants and laborers were putting their own individual needs above the community good. Non-Puritans arrived in greater numbers, seeking economic opportunity rather than joining the religious community. Church membership was declining rapidly, and soon there were few people who could claim to be saved. In desperation, some Puritan churches adopted the Half-Way Covenant, whereby children of any baptized person could be admitted to the church regardless of whether their parents were church members. Others took the Presbyterian position that anyone who led a moral life could join the church.

Meanwhile, Puritan officials were still fighting English threats to place them under royal control. Finally, in 1686, King James II (1633–1701) united Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and New York into the Dominion of New England. He appointed Edmund Andros (1637–1714), an Anglican, as the royal governor. Andros was an unpopular leader who suppressed the rights of colonists. After James was overthrown in 1688 and the monarchs William III (1650–1702) and Mary II (1662–1694) took the throne in a transition called the Glorious Revolution. Now that Andros had no backing in England and could not defend himself against a rebellion, the colonists sent him and other officials to England as prisoners. Although the Dominion of New England had been dissolved, William and Mary did not restore the original charters to the colonies. Instead, in 1692, Massachusetts Bay was placed under a royal charter with Plymouth, forming the single colony of Massachusetts.

Did you know . . .

  • During the voyage to America, Winthrop delivered one of the most famous sermons in American history, "A Modell of Christian Charity." In his speech he compared the Puritans' new venture to "a Citty upon a Hill," and he proclaimed that the eyes of the world were upon them.

For more information

Dunn, Richard S. Puritans and Yankees: The Winthrop Dynasty of New England 1630–1717. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1962.

Gunn, Giles, ed. Early American Writing. New York: Penguin Books, 1994, pp. 113–18.

Middleton, Richard. Colonial America: A History, 1585–1776. Second edition. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1996, pp. 81–89.

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