John Winthrop (1588-1649)

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John Winthrop (1588-1649)

statue of john winthrop
[6751] Richard S. Greenough, Statue of John Winthrop (1876), courtesy of Architect of the Capitol.

Born into a wealthy landholding family in southern England in 1588, John Winthrop entered Trinity College, Cambridge, at the age of fourteen. At Trinity he considered studying to be a minister before ultimately deciding to become a lawyer. Although he did not choose to make the church his profession, Winthrop's faith and his commitment to Puritan ideals were nonetheless the dominant force in his life. While he and his fellow congregants shared many values and beliefs with the Separatist Puritans who had settled at Plymouth, they did not accept the doctrine of Separation. Rather than breaking entirely with the established Church of England, Winthrop and his group sought to reform it from within.

In 1629, uneasy about the English government's hostility toward Puritanism and disgusted by what he perceived as the corruption of English society, Winthrop helped negotiate a charter forming the Massachusetts Bay Company and establishing the Puritans' right to found a colony in New England. The stockholders of the Company elected Winthrop governor, and, in 1630, he and nearly four hundred other Puritans set sail for the New World aboard the Arbella. In "A Model of Christian Charity," the lay sermon he delivered on the ship, Winthrop presented his vision of the ideal Christian community he hoped the Puritans would form when they arrived in Massachusetts. Premised on the belief that the Puritans were party to a covenant, or contract, with God, Winthrop's sermon uses this legal term to remind his followers of their spiritual and earthly duties as the "chosen people" of God. In "A Model of Christian Charity," he extols the virtues of a clear social and spiritual hierarchy, encourages the congregants to maintain an exemplary piety, and interprets the Puritan mission in typological terms (that is, as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy). Winthrop's famous proclamation that the new colony must be "as a City on a Hill" truly a "model" society, unassailable in its virtue so that its enemies would have nothing to criticize and its admirers would have something to emulate continues to resonate as an enduring myth of America.

Winthrop served as the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for twelve of the nineteen years he lived there. His was a powerful voice in the shaping of Puritan social, religious, and political policies, and his Journal remains the most complete contemporary account of the first two decades of the Bay Colony's history. Composed during his busy career as a public servant, the Journal reflects Winthrop's often militant commitment to firmly establishing orthodoxy within his community. He chronicles both the external challenges the Puritans faced and the internal divisions such as the religious controversies sparked by Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson that threatened to fracture the group's unity. Throughout, the Journal interprets events in Massachusetts as acts of providential significance, reading everyday occurrences as evidence of either God's favor or God's displeasure.


covenant theology - The Puritans believed that they had formed a "covenant," or contract with God. Like the Old Testament Hebrews, they felt themselves to be a "chosen nation," the people through whom God would fulfill his divine plan on earth. Their covenant, however, was not the same as the Old Testament covenant God had formed with the Israelites. The coming of Christ had changed the terms of the contract, enabling them to live under a "covenant of grace." Right behavior would follow from their acceptance of and faith in the covenant. On an individual level, Puritans agonized over the status of their covenant with God, but as a group they were more confident. Having entered into voluntary church covenants, and thus into a kind of national covenant with God, they were assured of the centrality of their role in God's cosmic plan.

typology - A Puritan method of both reading scripture and using it to understand the significance of historical and current events. In its strictest sense, typology refers to the practice of explicating signs in the Old Testament as foreshadowing events, personages, ceremonies, and objects in the New Testament. According to typological logic, Old Testament signs, or "types," prefigure their fulfillment or "antitype" in Christ. Applied more broadly, typology enabled Puritans to read biblical types as forecasting not just the events of the New Testament but also their own historical situation and experiences. In this way, individual Puritans could make sense of their own spiritual struggles and achievements by identifying with biblical personages like Adam, Noah, or Job. But this broad understanding of typology was not restricted to individual typing; the Puritans also interpreted their group identity as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, identifying their community as the "New Israel."

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