At the time of John Winthrop’s birth in Groton, England, the Mayflower had not yet departed for the New World, but the economic and religious upheavals of the coming years would spawn a large emigration of people (not all Puritans) to New England. At the age of fourteen, Winthrop entered Trinity College, and within only two years he married the first of four wives. By eighteen, he was a justice of the peace and shortly thereafter a steward for the manor on which he had been raised – a job that provided him with the administration skills that would serve him well in New England. His “wild and dissolute” boyhood, as he would later describe it, soon gave way to austere self-abasement and “an insatiable thirst” to know God, a thirst that would shape not only his own private life but his conception of civil government. As governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for twelve of the nineteen years during which he lived there, Winthrop was integral in influencing – and recording – the social, political, and religious growth of the colony.
Although he was not personally oppressed by the economic hardships that had befallen England by the 1620’s (he was one of a few thousand wealthy men in England), he was nonetheless distressed at the economic and religious conditions around him. As early as 1622 Winthrop had referred to England as “this sinfull land,” plagued by poverty, unemployment, inequitable taxation, and a bureaucratic legal system. Later he would write that “this Land grows weary of her Inhabitants,” and continue with a blistering attack against the religious and educational systems of England. Furthermore, the monarchy in England was becoming increasingly hostile to Puritanism, favoring instead Catholicism, which resulted in the silencing of many ministers who refused to conform.
However, it seems as if Winthrop’s decision to depart for the New World was rather sudden. Only in Cambridge Agreement of 1692, made less than a year before the Arbella set sail, did the Congressionalist Puritans officially decide to plant a colony in New England. The charter, which granted the Massachusetts Bay Company the right to settle in New England, is unique in that no provision was made for a designated meeting place for the administration of the company, thus freeing it to establish a government in New England. The company was lucky to have been granted such a liberal charter, since only six days after it was officially granted, King Charles dissolved Parliament, Winthrop was elected governor of the company in 1629, and he left, with nearly four hundred other people, for New England aboard the Arbella the following year.
Winthrop envisioned “a city of God” as the Utopian foundation for the new society that he and his fellow Puritans would be building, and he fully expected that the hardships they would face in the wilderness would test their sainthood. This new land would be an opportunity for the Puritans, according to Winthrop, to practice what had only been professed in England. He longed for the transformation of abstract Christian ideals into concrete gestures that would pervade daily living. Yet this new land, however fertile for spiritual rejuvenation, was also a wellspring of new temptations. Although wealth was certainly one indicator of status in the Puritan community, it was also a source of conflict for the Puritans in New England, who struggled to reconcile God, commerce, and individualism. Although the new society would extol charity and a strong sense of community, Winthrop did not hesitate to note that God designated that “some must be rich some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignitie; others mean and in subjection.” This conflict between the physical and incorporeal reflects the paradoxical Puritan conception of freedom and authority. In 1645, responding to charges that he had exceeded the powers of his office, Winthrop delivered in his own defense a speech that epitomizes this struggle in Puritan religious and political thought. In it, he deftly distinguished between natural and civil liberties, designating the former as the ability to do evil as well as good – a trait he felt the colonists had in common with “the bests” – and the latter as the liberty to do what is “god, just, and honest.” He argued that this second form of liberty cannot exist without authority. Having chosen to live under this authority (of either Christ or the magistrates in the colony), the colonists must obey.
Perhaps the most formidable challenge that Winthrop, as well as the entire Puritan oligarchy, would face was the threat posed by Anne Hutchinson, whom Winthrop described in his journal as “a woman of ready wit and bold spirit.” In what would later become known as the Antinomian controversy, Hutchinson, who had been influenced by John Cotton, argued that good works were no indication of God’s favor. And since the elect were guaranteed salvation, the church’s mediating role between God and man was obsolete. In her home she held religious meetings, which were quite popular. Her interpretation of the Covenant of Grace threatened the religious and patriarchal hierarchy since it could have led to the collapse of distinctions of birth, education, and wealth. For a while little was done to stop Hutchinson, and a plurality of openly expressed ideas abounded in Boston. Along with her compatriots, she was soon censured, however, and banished from Boston.
A Modell of Christian Charity, a sermon probably delivered at Southampton before the departure of the fleet, is perhaps one of Winthrop’s more famous writings – important because it eloquently forwards a spiritual blueprint of sorts for the “city upon a Hill.” Written as a series of questions, answers, and objections, a rhetorical maneuver that reflects Winthrop’s legal training, the sermon was, in part, a plea for a real community in which “the care of the public must oversway all private respects” and in which its inhabitants must “bear one another’s burthens.” In a more immediate sense, however, it also served to assuage tensions among the tired, water-bound passengers of the Arbella.
Although Winthrop’s journal, which he began aboard the Arbella, is historically significant because it charts the Puritans’ progress in the New World, it is perhaps even more significant because it charts Puritan thought. Much of what we know about the colony’s social, political, and religious strata comes from Winthrop’s journal. And, American’s first flirtations with democracy, indeed America’s eventual conception of liberty itself, are rooted in the conflicts and contradictions of Puritan thinking, reflected in the writings of John Winthrop.