by Dr. Joseph Schafer (Penn State UBF)
Matthew 5:14 "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden."
John Winthrop was born in Suffolk, England in 1588. He was his parents' only son. His father, Adam Winthrop, was the lord of Groton Manor, a small estate in the English countryside. John grew up on his father's estate, amid gently rolling hills, fields of wheat and rye, and shallow ponds. In his childhood he as educated by a private tutor, and at the age of fourteen his father enrolled him in Trinity College in Cambridge. He studied there for two years and then returned to Groton to begin practical training in running his father's estate.
Soon Adam Winthrop saw his son's hidden marriage problem and introduced him to Mary Worth, the daughter of a distinguished Essex nobleman. (See the e-mail exchange at the end of this page regarding the accuracy of this name) Three weeks later John was married at the age of seventeen. Ten months later, just after his eighteenth birthday, he became a father. John and his wife Mary worked hard and had six children in ten years. Then Mary suddenly died. After six months John remarried, but on his first wedding anniversary his second wife died. One year later John married his third wife, Margaret. By all accounts, Margaret was one of the most appealing women in all of American history. She was beautiful and gracious. She was also a woman of faith. John Winthrop treasured her as his greatest possession. When he traveled away from home, he never failed to send her love letters. Here is one of his letters:
I am still detayned from thee, but it is by the Lord, who hath a greater interest in me than thy selfe, when his work is donne he will restore me to thee againe to or mutuall comfort: Amen...I hope to be wth thee to morrowe...So I kisse my sweet wife & rest. Thine, Jo: Winthrop.
In every letter, John expressed deep love for his wife Margaret. But he never failed to encourage her faith and to remind her that he was only a mortal man, and that their first and greatest love must be reserved for the Creator God. She was his spiritual coworker and his faithful companion as they journeyed through life to God's kingdom.
In his early thirties John began to study law. This would equip him with the legal expertise he needed to handle landlord-tenant disputes, collect rents, and deal with government authorities. In due time, John would follow in his father's footsteps as the next lord of Groton Manor. John's father did his best to establish John as an upper-middle class country gentleman. But John was not like his father. Sometime in his early years, either on the estate or when he was away at college, a change took place in John. His heart caught fire. It was the fire that they called Puritanism.
For the most part, historians of the twentieth century have portrayed the Puritan movement in a negative light. They say the Puritan was a stern-faced religious bigot who burned witches at the stake and never had any fun. Here is what one historian wrote:
[Puritanism] did great things for England and America, but only by creating in the men and women it affected a tension which was at best painful and at worst unbearable...Puritanism required that man refrain from sin but told him he would sin anyhow. Puritanism required that he reform the world in the image of God's holy kingdom but taught him that the evil of the world was incurable and inevitable. Puritanism required that he work to the best of his ability at whatever task was set before him and partake of the good things that God had filled the world with but told him he must enjoy his work and his pleasures only, as it were, absent-mindedly, with his attention fixed on God...All [Puritans] labored hard, some by so doing amassed great wealth or won fame among their fellow men--but never dared enjoy it. (Morgan, pp. 7-8)
We should not be quick to believe what modern secularists say about the Puritans. Puritanism had two sides. On the political side, Puritans were a group of Protestants who were opposed to the corruption and abuses of the Church of England. The Puritans wanted to purify their church, to make it holy and pleasing to God. On the spiritual side, Puritans were men and women with intense personal devotion to God. They believed that the chief goal of man was to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength" (Dt 6:5).
The Puritans' devotion manifested itself in three important ways. First, they believed that man should be in the world but not of the world. The believer's true home is not on earth but in heaven, so he must be careful not to lose his heart to the all the things that this world has to offer--pleasures, material wealth, achievement, human love, and so on. On the other hand, the goodness of the things that God created should not be denied. There is nothing wrong with enjoying good food, music, love for your spouse, sports or recreation--as long as you don't become frivolous and crowd God out your heart. Second, they believed that man has a duty to use to the fullest extent all of the talents and abilities that God has given him. They were strong supporters of education. They worked hard in their professions and became doctors, lawyers, scholars, businessmen, and statesmen. They didn't believe in doing anything halfheartedly. If something was worth doing, then the man should do it with his best effort for the glory of God.
The third conviction that made the Puritans unique was their belief that God's covenant promises in the Old Testament did not just apply to ancient Israel, but to every society and every generation. These promises are well summarized in Exodus 19:5-6: "Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." If any nation observed God's laws and commands, God would give protection, prosperity, and the spiritual blessings of knowing him and living as his people. On the other hand, if a people rejected God's decrees and turned to idolatry and sin, God would eventually reject them. The Puritans of seventeenth-century England were greatly concerned about the future of their nation; they saw the corruption of government and church officials, growing immorality, materialism, and lack of concern for the poor as signs that their nation would either have to repent or experience the cleansing fire of God's wrath.
Why do the Puritans have such a bad reputation in modern times? One reason is that the Puritans' ideas about the relationship between church and state are fundamentally different from that of modern-day Americans. In America, the government cannot pass laws to encourage people to worship God or practice the tenets of Christianity because our society contains a large number of non-Christians. But the situation of the Puritans was quite different. They had the unique opportunity to charter a new society. They came together as people of like mind and faith to create a new nation to honor God and to pass their Christian values to their children. They believed that church and government should work together to promote holiness and help people to succeed both materially and spiritually. Another reason why the Puritans have a bad reputation is that some of them were indeed intolerant, critical, and legalistic. They were human beings, subject to the same weaknesses as all men. Later generations of Puritans carried the name, but not the fiery faith and devotion, of their ancestors.
These things are true. But I believe the fundamental reason why the twentieth century looks down on the Puritans is that the secular mind cannot understand the satisfaction and joy that comes from serving God wholeheartedly. To many in our day, joy means nothing more than pleasure-seeking. What fun is life, they think, if you can't drink to excess, enjoy lustful thoughts, and lose yourself in recreational pursuits? What is the point of working hard and being successful if you can't take full credit for it and have to give glory to God? Or what is the point of love and marriage if you can't expect that your partner will satisfy your every dream and desire and make you happy apart from God? Much of the modern criticism of Puritans stems from the American appetite for over-indulgence. It also stems from the fact that to those who have no hope in heaven, this world is all there is. When modern-day people look at the Puritans, they conclude that Puritans must have been miserable, because Puritans did not over-indulge. The Puritans gave their hearts to God. They sacrificed the momentary pleasures of sin in this world for the eternal glory of the kingdom of heaven. But the Puritans did not practice self-denial for its own sake. They were free to enjoy the good things that God created. In fact, some religious groups of that day criticized the Puritans, calling them compromised and worldly.
In the personal life of John Winthrop, there is no evidence that he was stern, legalistic, or unhappy. As a young Christian he struggled from time to time with what seemed to be minor issues. He really liked his wife, and for a while he wondered if he loved his wife too much. He wondered if it was wrong to enjoy hunting with a gun. He had a habit of smoking a pipe, and he wondered if God wanted him to give up smoking. But these struggles grew out of a sincere desire to love and please God. As his faith grew, he became a more comfortable, confident, and mature Christian. He realized that the main focus of his faith should not be on what he was or was not allowed to do, but on finding God's purpose for him and serving God's world with responsibility and stewardship.
In seventeenth-century England there was no such thing as freedom of religion. There was only the Church of England. Sincere Christians had only two choices: either work to reform the Church from within, or break off from the Church and repudiate its authority. Those who wanted to break from the Church were called Separatists. The Puritans were not Separatists. They believed that breaking off was a very serious matter, and should only be considered as a last resort. They did not want to be disloyal to the Crown or show disrespect for the authorities that God had allowed to come to power. But as the Church grew more politicized and hostile to Puritan ideas, it became clear to John that there was little or nothing he could do to reform the Church from within. He did not want to start a war that he could never win. Also, his son Henry became somewhat rebellious, and John began to worry that he might lose his children to the godless popular culture. At the age of forty-two, after a painful struggle, John decided that the only real choice was for him to take his family and move away from England. Rather than fighting political battles with the authorities, he would quietly move away to a new land where he could worship God freely and raise his children in an environment of faith.
In 1629, John Winthrop heard about a new venture called the Massachusetts Bay Company. In those days, groups of investors would put their money together and establish trading companies. The company would send workers to the New World to obtain furs, spices, and other exotic goods and ship them back to England for a profit. Each company had to be specially chartered by the King to receive authority and land to establish a colony in the New World. The colony would have a governor, but the board of directors and chief executive officer would stay in England, overseeing the operation and collecting the profits. On paper, the Massachusetts Bay Company appeared to be just another trading company. But there was a small technical detail that made it different from the other companies: The board of directors was not required to meet in London. In fact, the charter did not mention where the Company would meet. The King of England didn't notice this fact when he signed the Company charter. But the implications of this small oversight were enormous. The whole company, including the board of directors and the governor, could move to the New World and effectively set up their own autonomous government. They could establish their own laws and operate without any direct supervision by the King's authorities in London. Most of the members of the Massachusetts Bay Company were Puritan. They had the full legal authority, if they so desired, to move to New England and build an independent society where they could govern themselves according to the dictates of their conscience.
When members of the Massachusetts Bay Company realized what a remarkable opportunity had come, they seized it and decided to go to the New World. But there were many obstacles to overcome. First of all, they needed leadership. They needed one man of faith and vision who could lead them to the New World and govern them once they arrived. John Winthrop was recognized by all as a man of ability, maturity, and faith, and the Company elected him as its governor. Next, they had to raise an enormous amount of money to transport themselves to the New World. They had to obtain funds from private investors, not all of whom were Puritan, to support them in this venture. Then they had to organize a group of settlers who would live in the colony and support its purpose. There were many non-Puritans who were eager to go to the New World for purely economic reasons, and they had to be weeded out as much as possible. At that time, John Winthrop wrote an essay that laid out the main reasons why sincere Christians should consider moving to the New World. The first four reasons were: 1. To carry the gospel to the New World, to bring the fullness of the Gentiles into the kingdom of God. 2. To escape God's judgement that was coming upon the corrupt churches of Europe. 3. To help solve the problems of overpopulation and poverty in England, where human life was being devalued and people were regarded as less valuable than horses and sheep. 4. To obey the Great Commission and Genesis 1:28, which says, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it."
John Winthrop sold all his possessions and arranged to move his whole family from comfortable England to the rugged and dangerous New World. John's wife Margaret was expecting a baby, so he decided to leave her and his oldest son at home for the first year while he went with the first group of settlers. John could barely stand the thought of being separated from his beloved wife, so they made an agreement that they would think of each other every Monday and Friday, between 5 and 6 pm. On April 7, 1630, four ships with four hundred people set out from England across the stormy Atlantic.
On board the ship, John Winthrop began to keep a diary. This remarkable document was lost after his death, but it resurfaced one hundred years later. The contents of the diary are astounding. From the ship, Winthrop laid out the Puritan vision for the New World. America was to become a city on a hill. He wrote (paraphrase, in modern English):
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 byword throughout the world; we shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God and all believers 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, until we are consumed out of the good land to which we are going...
Then he wrote:
For this end we must be knit together. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to give up our superfluities to supply others' necessities...We must delight in each other; make others' conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together... So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and...make us a praise and a glory, that men shall say of later plantations, "May the Lord make it like that of New England."
Two months later they arrived in Salem, Massachusetts. The settlers could scarcely believe their eyes. It was a total wilderness; except for a few huts and clearings made by previous settlers, there was nothing but forest. How could they raise crops to supply themselves in the coming winter? Each family that came was supposed to be responsible for bringing their own supplies, but many jumped on board at the last minute with little or no food; they had to beg for food from others who had little to spare. Many of their provisions had spoiled on the way. When the settlers saw what the new land was like, scores of them refused to get off the ships and decided to sail back to England immediately. Others were so weakened by malnutrition that they were already dying. Within a few days of their arrival, John's son Henry drowned in a river. The situation was more than a mortal man could bear. But John Winthrop refused to give up. He seized control of the situation, confident that God was with them and would see them through. Rather than giving orders, he rolled up his sleeves and began to build shelters. He led by example and soon the whole company was working as hard as he.
Winthrop decided to move the colony away from Salem, someplace where they would have room to build houses and raise crops. After exploring the coast he led the colonists to what is now called Boston harbor. He ordered them to fan out, and they settled throughout the areas of Charlestown, Cambridge, Boston, Watertown, Roxbury and Dorchester. Realizing that they did not have enough provisions to last through the coming winter, he sent a ship back to England with one message for his son: Send food now! But the ship would take a long time to arrive. Governor Winthrop collected provisions while the settlers made shelters for the winter. They carved caves in the hillsides and dug holes in the ground. When autumn came, many began to fall sick and die. By November, Winthrop had lost eleven servants from his household. But he never wavered; he set the example in bravery. In his letters to his wife there was no hint of despair, and he never suggested that the rest of his family should stay in England. Fall turned to winter, and hundreds died. The whole company was tottering on the brink of starvation. In February, their supplies totally ran out. John Winthrop reached into a barrel to pull out their last handful of grain to give to a starving settler. Just as his hand was coming out of the barrel, someone shouted, "It's here!" At that very moment a ship arrived, bringing new supplies of food. John Winthrop distributed the food and proclaimed a day of thanksgiving to God.
Out of one thousand who had come to the New World, two hundred died the first winter. When spring came, another two hundred gave up and went back to England. Many of the British investors decided this was a losing business and pulled out, leaving the colonists without support or supplies. John Winthrop took his own money which he had acquired from the sale of his estate and used it to buy more provisions. In that first year, Winthrop almost singlehandedly fed the colony out of his own pocket. Later that year, his wife Margaret and the rest of his children arrived. Winthrop found that two more of his children had died that year, including the newborn baby daughter whom he never saw. But he praised God for bringing his family to the New World, and he never wavered in his conviction that the Lord was with them.
Over the next ten years, twenty thousand settlers poured into Massachusetts. Winthrop governed them as if they were his own children. He required that they treat the Indians with dignity and respect, so that they might be won over to Christ. A few settlers resented his power and influence. But no one could deny that the very existence of Massachusetts was due to the courage, faith, and sacrifice of their governor. Even secular historians marvel at his kindness, wisdom, and leadership, and agree that John Winthrop was one of the princes of our civilization.
Morgan, Edmund S. (1958), The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
Twichell, Joseph Hopkins (1891), John Winthrop: First Governor of the Massachusetts Colony. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company.
Winthrop, Robert C. (1867), Life and Letters of John Winthrop. Boston: Ticknor and Fields.