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John Winthrop, leader of the Great Migration to New England, was one of the most important first-generation chroniclers of New England’s evolution. Repeatedly serving as governor of Massachusetts, he stood out among those responsible for the shaping of the events recorded in the journal that was first published as A Journal of the Transactions and Occurrences in the Settlement of Massachusetts and the Other New-England Colonies (1790). However, he is best known for a sermon he gave prior to the Puritan arrival in the New World. That sermon, A Model of Christian Charity (1630), has served as a fundamental statement of the philosophy of America for nearly four centuries. Its vision of the new Puritan colony as ”a city on a hill” has been adopted by many political figures, including Ronald Reagan, as a vision for the United States as a whole, and it confirms the special place of leadership the country holds even among the world’s greatest powers.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Birth and Tragedy in England
Winthrop was born in 1588, the year of the defeat of the Spanish Armada by English naval forces. His grandfather, Adam Winthrop, had raised the family to the level of the gentry in Suffolk and had established it at Groton Manor, an estate formed from lands confiscated from church holdings in the reign of Henry VIII. Winthrop’s father, also named Adam, was an auditor of the accounts of Trinity College in nearby Cambridge, and in 1602 he enrolled his son in that college. After less than two years at Trinity— a typical stay for a young gentleman—Winthrop returned to Groton and wed Mary Forth in 1605. He then assumed more responsibilities on the family estate, became a father, and spent time in London studying law at the Inns of Court. In 1617 he was serving as a justice of the peace in Suffolk. About the same time his father transferred supervision of the manor to him.
Life was not without disappointments for Winthrop. His wife Mary died in 1615 after having borne six children. Winthrop’s second wife, Thomasine Clopton, died a year after their 1616 wedding. In 1618, at the age of thirty, Winthrop took a third wife, Margaret Tyndal. Paralleling these family upheavals was the growth of a regional economic crisis that, by 1627, made it increasingly difficult for Winthrop to support his growing family adequately.
Winthrop’s Puritanism Brings Conflict with the King
At some point during these years of challenge and growth, John Winthrop became a Puritan—one of a group of men and women who felt lifted above their base human nature by God’s aid. The Protestant Reformation, begun in 1517 when Martin Luther criticized the Catholic Church and the Pope, had spread throughout Europe to reformers intent on changing the organization, liturgy, and theology of the established Church of England. These reformers avoided excess in the use of worldly things and dedicated themselves to soldiering on behalf of the God’s providential design. Such militancy brought them into conflict with the established authorities after Charles I, a devout supporter of the Church of England, assumed the English throne in 1625.
Winthrop was but one of many who became increasingly uncomfortable with the compromises necessary to stay in favor with England’s civil and religious authorities. Some Puritans, looking for a chance to demonstrate the wisdom of their way, organized the New England Company in 1628, with the notion of establishing their own colony in America, far from the reach of the Church of England, where they could worship as they wished. The following year the group was reorganized and chartered as the Massachusetts Bay Company, and Winthrop was chosen governor.
Writing the Famous “Blueprint” for Massachusetts
During the Puritans’ crossing of the Atlantic, Winthrop delivered a lay sermon, A Model of Christian Charity (1630), which explained to his fellow passengers the nature of the task before them. He told them that they had been specially called by God to be an example to all mankind.
They were to be ”as a City upon a Hill; the eyes of all people” would be upon them. By virtue of sailing to New England they had entered into a covenant with God. 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 residing among them, then they would suffer God’s wrath.
The physical challenges encountered in the new colony necessitated treaties with some Native American tribes and protection from others. In 1636, the Massachusetts Bay Colony organized three militia regiments to defend the colony against the Pequot Indians. This organization is recognized today as the founding of the United States National Guard.
Religious Dissenters Challenge Winthrop
In addition to external forces, the colonists faced social and ideological challenges within their communities. Anne Hutchinson—pushing a familiar Puritan doctrine to its logical conclusion—exceeded the acceptable limits of thought in the colony. All Puritans agreed that people were saved by the free gift of grace bestowed on them by God, and that they could not earn salvation by performing good works (as Catholics believed). Hutchinson argued that this doctrine was being deserted in Massachusetts as many ministers placed undue emphasis on the necessity of obedience to law. This stress on behavior, she continued, suggested that the ministers believed in salvation through works. Even more intolerable was her belief that obedience to the law was irrelevant because God’s grace exempted the saved from the demands of the law, a view that Winthrop regarded as a direct challenge to the structure of authority in the colony. (The leaders called her an ”antinomian,” a Greek word meaning ”opposed to law.”)
Quite aside from her arguments, however, there were other reasons to silence her. First, she was a woman challenging a male hierarchy; her actions, as Winthrop said, were not considered ”fitting for… [her] sex.” Second, her challenge—unlike that of another dissenter, Roger Williams—began to draw substantial support. And third, that support came largely from merchants who were already challenging Winthrop’s orthodoxy and would gladly have seen it overturned because of its hostility to trade. In 1637, Hutchinson was tried before the magistrates and, after two grueling days of questioning, was banished to Rhode Island. Six years later, she was killed in a raid by Native Americans. Her death, said Winthrop, was ”a special manifestation of divine justice.”
In his last years, Winthrop continued to deal with a long line of religious and political dissenters, whom he consistently outmaneuvered. Personal tragedy struck again when Margaret, his wife of twenty-nine years, died in the summer of 1647. Never one to wait, he had remarried by the spring of 1648 and Martha Coytmore, his new wife, was expecting a child. Winthrop lived to see his last son born, but not by much: he died at home in Boston on March 26, 1649, two months after King Charles I was executed and the Puritans seized control of the government in England.
Works in Literary Context
The journal tradition of literature encompasses day-to-day accounts of events, along with a record of personal impressions. John Winthrop was the great political leader of early New England, and his writing furnishes valuable information on that colonization period. He has never been treated as a literary figure, though influential nineteenth-century educator Moses Coit Tyler provided his readers with selections from Winthrop’s journal and from A Model of Christian Charity, along with admiring comments, in History of American Literature during the Colonial Time, 16071765 (1878). More recently, this sermon has become the most quoted document for describing Puritan aspirations. What Winthrop’s record of his New World experiences is to be called has yet to be decided; the journal is clearly one of the two most important sources of information about early New England. Winthrop himself called his work a history; that is, while he gave no name to the first volume of his manuscript, he called each of the other two A Continuation of the History of New England.
Remaining in manuscript form for over a century, Winthrop’s observations formed the basis for important histories by Thomas Prince (A Chronological History of New-England, 1736) and William Hubbard (A General History of New England, 1815) and a valuable source for Cotton Mather and all subsequent students of the period. Winthrop’s journal, more than any other document, succeeds in revealing extensive details of state and domestic affairs in early America.
Winthrop acted as historian as well as governor to the Bay Colony. Implicit in A Model of Christian Charity was a view of history as a process evolving from beginnings in the Garden of Eden and progressing toward the climactic millennium and the second coming of Christ. This Christian theory of history has its roots in the four gospels and the Book of Revelation. As a philosophy of history it received its most famous statement in Saint Augustine’s City of God (413—426). The Magdeburg Centuries (1559-1574) represented an effort to use this approach to develop the first comprehensive history of the Christian church from a Protestant viewpoint.
Works in Critical Context
Although Winthrop’s works have been subject to critical debate over their status as literature, there remains no doubt that they have a historical significance matched by few others in the early decades of American settlement. Winthrop’s sermon A Model of Christian Charity continues to be quoted by modern political figures, and his idea of the early American colony at Massachusetts as ”a city upon a hill” is one of the most enduring metaphors in American literature.
Incidents in the Journal
Written the years 1630— 1649, the Journal detailed people and events of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s formation of a theocracy— a form of civil government based on the Bible with God at its head. Moses Coit Tyler (1835—1900), critiqued the import of Winthrop’s writings
As John Winthrop, while upon the voyage, wrote this discourse to prepare the spirits of himself and his associates for the toils and frets and depressions of their pioneer life, so also immediately upon going on board ship he began another piece of writing, which he continued to work at not only during the rest of the voyage but during the rest of his life, and which is a treasure beyond price among our early historic memorials.
Despite the inspirational voice and pen of Winthrop, there was an increasing support in colonial America for the separation of church and the tolerance of different religious beliefs. Winthrop assiduously battled these ideas and was succeeded in this effort by defenders of the theocratic ideal such as Increase Mather and his son Cotton.
A Model of Christian Charity
Hailed one of the most famous and influential speeches in United States history, Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity inspired the settlers as he envisioned the colony a beacon of godliness for the world. Moses Coit Tyler characterizes it accordingly: ”It is an elaborate exposition of the Christian doctrine of unselfishness, and bears especially upon the condition awaiting the colonists in the new, perilous, and struggling life toward that they were going.” Winthrop’s proclamation, ”We must consider that we shall be a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us” gave voice to the potential magnitude of what awaited them in the New World.
- Aronson, Marc. John Winthrop, Oliver Cromwell, and the Land of Promise. New York: Clarion Books, 2004.
- Dunn, Richard S. Puritans and Yankees: The Winthrop Dynasty of New England, 1630-1717. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1962.
- Lawrence Shaw Mayo. The Winthrop Family in America. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1948.
- Dunn, Richard S. ”John Winthrop Writes His Journal.” William and Mary Quarterly 41 (April 1984): 185-212.
- Gray, Stanley. ”The Political Thought of John Winthrop.” New England Quarterly 3 (October 1930): 681-705.
- Johnson, E. A. J. ”The Economic Ideas of John Winthrop.” New England Quarterly 3 (April 1930): 234-250.
- Today in Massachusetts. Retrieved November 25, 2008, from www.historyorb.com/countries/usa/massachusetts.
- The National Women’s Hall of Fame. Anne Hutchinson. Retrieved November 25, 2008, from http:// greatwomen.org/women.php?action=viewone&id=84.
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