Puritans Who Changed the World: John Winthrop 1588-1649

Posted on December 9, 2008. Filed under: Church History |

Puritans Who Changed the World: John Winthrop 1588-1649

Overview: An English gentleman, a lawyer, and Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony for over 12 years, Winthrop was a fervent Puritan layman who tried to bring his faith into practice and establish a “City Upon a Hill” in the New World.

Biography: Born in 1588 at Edwardstone, Suffolk (the same part of East Anglia that William Ames came from) to Adam Winthrop, lord of Groton Manor, and his wife Anne Brown. John was the only son and thus the heir. Homeschooled, he went to Trinity College, Cambridge at age 14 and came home after two years to learn how to run his father’s estate.

  • He married Mary Forth when he was 17; Mary died after bearing 6 children in ten years. Winthrop married again in about 6 months, but his second wife, Thomasine Clopton of Groton, died after their first year. He married a third time, to Margaret Tyndal, in 1618. She was a woman of great faith and many of Winthrop’s letters to her have been preserved.
  • Winthrop studied law as a young man and became an influential lawyer, drafting many petitions to parliament.
  • In a letter to his wife in 1629 we have the first evidence that Winthrop wanted to leave England for the New World. Frustrated with the political oppression from King Charles (the King dismissed Parliament in 1629 for the next 11 years) and the religious persecution of Bishop Laud, Winthrop and thousands of other Puritans began to look at the New World as an opportunity to avoid the judgment God was going to visit upon England.
  • 1629 Winthrop is recruited by the Massachusetts Company to be Governor of a new plantation. In April of 1630 Winthrop set sail in the Arbella with several other ships and about 700 colonists to New England, thus beginning the Great Migration. A Model of Christian Charity was the sermon Winthrop gave before the Arbella landed in the New World that set forth the idea of America being A City upon a Hill, establishing the concept of American Exceptionalism. Winthrop and the colonists set about establishing a society that would do the will of God in every detail, establishing the kingdom of God on earth.
  • In the winter of 1630/31 the colonists lost over half their number to malnutrition, disease and those who gave up and returned to England. Time and again Winthrop donated out of his own account money and food to help the struggling colony.
  • Oct. 19, 1630 Winthrop summoned a meeting at Charlestown which was the first revolution in New England. Winthrop took the original charter which was loosely worded, and established a government that allowed all Freemen (adult males above the status of servants, who were church members) to elect the assistants of the executive council, who would then elect the governor and assistant governor, and make the laws. This idea came from Winthrop’s covenantal theology.
  • From 1629 to the end of his life, Winthrop was a friend of Roger Williams, a separatist minister in Massachusetts who caused so much turmoil and strife that he was banished from the colony in the cold and snowy January of 1636. Though opposed to Williams’ radical view of separatism, Winthrop was gracious to the man and recommended him to the Indians of the Narragansett Bay.
  • 1634 Anne Hutchinson lands at Boston. Taught by her pastor, John Cotton (the highest regarded minister in New England), Hutchinson had a brilliant theological mind. Leading home Bible studies based upon the sermons of John Cotton, Hutchinson’s views very quickly strayed, so that by Oct. 1636 Winthrop was gravely concerned, though not currently serving as governor. The Hutchinson problem was so divisive the colony voted Winthrop back into office to handle the situation. Winthrop managed to bring her to trial and she, her husband, and a few close followers were banished from the colony and went to Rhode Island and settled near Roger William’s Providence Plantation.
  • 1647 his beloved wife of 29 years, Margaret, died. He marries Martha Coytmore and they have one son.
  • 1649 John Winthrop dies.

Impact: Winthrop was “The indispensable Man” for his generation in the founding of Massachusetts Bay Colony. His patient and godly leadership allowed the colony to thrive.

  • His sermon onboard the Arbella, A Model of Christian Charity, otherwise known as A City upon a Hill, is the forerunner of American Exceptionalism and was famously quoted by President Ronald Reagan.
  • Winthrop’s boldness in loosely interpreting the colony’s charter allowed for representative government to take hold in New England but his cautious conservatism preserved the unity of the colony during the controversies caused by Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson.
  • His personal godly conduct and generosity made him famous in his day among the poor. He exemplified the Puritan Ideal of bringing theology into his daily life and in establishing a state according to the teachings of the Bible.

Quotes: From A Model of Christian Charity: We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “may the Lord make it like that of New England.” For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.

Resources: 1) The Puritan Dilemma: the Story of John Winthrop by Edmund S. Morgan, HarperCollins: New York, 1958 (224 pages). One of the best biographies ever!

2) Magnalia Christi Americana,vol.1, by Cotton Mather. See the second book, Chapter IV, pp.118-131. Banner of Truth Trust; Carlisle, PA 1979. Originally published in London, 1702.

3) Meet the Puritans, Joel R. Beeke & Randall J. Pederson, Reformation Heritage Books: Grand Rapids, 2006 (pp.621-625).

4) John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father, Francis J. Bremer. Oxford University Press: New York, 2003 (478 pages).

5) http://www.virtualology.com/johnwinthrop.com/


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