John Winthrop – American Nehemiah

winthropI’ve just finished drafting a short biography of John Winthrop for my next book, Famous Men of the 16th & 17th Century. The biographies begin with Queen Elizabeth and will end with the death of Louis XIV in 1715.

This has been a difficult chapter for me to write, and taken longer than I expected. I have developed an admiration for Winthrop, even if I have not been able to muster a great deal of affection. If I had known him, I might have liked him – but on the whole he seems to have had a very serious bent. Luther did too, but Luther had a playful, mischievous side to him that I greatly appreciate. I can find no hint of mischief in all of Winthrop’s writings.

Still, he is a man to be admired.

Part of the difficulty in writing about him is having to explain the culture and institutions within whose bounds he operated. He is an Englishman of the 1600s. Further, he is Puritan in his religious convictions. Further, he is from a moderately well-off, connected family from the Stour Valley in Suffolk. And he was a lawyer. I hope you get my drift.

Reasons to admire him? There are many.

His family – when he died, he had six surviving sons. The oldest was 48, the youngest barely a year old. Winthrop was widowed three times, twice before he was 30. He and his third wife were married for 29 years and had raised four sons together when she died. Winthrop, a widower at 59, married for a fourth time, and had a son who was just a year old when he died.

His leadership / perseverance – He joined the Puritan company who were planning to plant a colony in the new world in 1629 and was almost immediately elected governor. He organized a fleet of 11 ships and 700 colonists who sailed for Massachusetts just six months later.

His moderation – As governor he sought to reconcile embittered parties who came before him with legal disputes. He knew what a great freedom the Puritans had achieved by being granted a charter that allowed the colony to govern itself – without a royal, appointed governor.

His resolve – The life of the colonists was harsh, and challenging. Mortality was quite high – over 50% for many years. Threatened by disease, starvation, Indian attacks, and on occasion by internal quarrels, Winthrop persevered in seeing the colony grow and prosper. It had a population of over 15,000 when he died in 1649 – nineteen years after the first 700 had crossed the Atlantic in the Winthrop fleet.

Some may think the cases of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson are damaging to Winthrop’s reputation, but the original sources do not reflect badly on him. I would argue that Williams’ banishment from Massachusetts was not so harsh as later historians wish to portray it. In fact, after settling in Rhode Island, Williams and Winthrop maintained a friendly correspondence and sent each other gifts from time to time.

Anne Hutchinson is another matter altogether. I believe that the popular story of Hutchinson as an early feminist and a martyr for toleration and religious freedom can only be described as a great historical fraud. She has been adopted by those pursuing modern ideologies for their own reasons. In the record, it is clear that she was as intolerant (if not more so) as the Puritans of Boston. She was, in fact, agitating and organizing a faction in the church at Boston in an attempt to have one of the ministers dismissed and her brother-in-law appointed in his place. She claimed to know “by direct revelation of the Holy Spirit” who were truly elect and who were not. She charged that only Rev. Cotton and Rev. Wheelwright (her brother-in-law) were true ministers of the gospel and that all the other ministers of Massachusetts were preaching a false “covenant of works.” Had she succeeded, she would have gladly seen Winthrop banished from the colony.

Well.. chapter 18 is now drafted. The page count stands at 163. I have to finnish finding illustrations for these last few chapters. I have seven more to draft myself, and three to edit from the original Famous Men of Modern Times. Time to push on. . .

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