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Winthrop, John - Timeline Biography

Time Period

01-22-1588 - 03-26-1649


John Winthrop was influential in the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Not only did he lead a group of Puritan colonists from England to America in 1630, but he oversaw the prosperity of the colony while governor off and on from 1629 to his death in 1649 (he was elected governor prior to their emigration). He is famous for delivering his speech entitled "A Modell of Christian Charity," where he compared the flight of the Puritans to the Book of Exodus, and described their future colony as a "city on a hill," a place for others to observe an ideal Christian society. His also was involved in the banishment of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, although he still maintained a friendship with Williams until his death in 1649.

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John Winthrop was born in Edwardstone, England at Groton Manor on January 22, 1588. While at Trinity College, Cambridge, he embraced a Puritan understanding of theology. Winthrop left Cambridge to marry the first of his four wives, manage his family's estate, practice law, and serve as a justice of the peace. In the 1620s, tensions mounted between the Puritans and King Charles I when the Puritans accused Charles, who had married a Catholic French princess, of seeking to return the Church of England closer to Rome in theology and liturgy. As a result of a royal crackdown on religious dissenters, Winthrop lost his job and became increasingly involved in Puritan plans to leave England. Winthrop, along with other Puritans, obtained a charter from the king to plant the Massachusetts Bay Colony in New England. He was named governor of the colony in 1629 while the group prepared to set sail, finally leaving England on April 7, 1630.

While crossing the Atlantic Ocean aboard the Arbella, Winthrop delivered a renowned sermon entitled “A Modell of Christian Charity.” Winthrop compared the flight of the Puritans to the story of Exodus. He described the future colony as an ideal Puritan society, where colonists could uphold their obligations to God and one another. Winthrop believed that the world was watching this grand Puritan experiment and, in an echo of Jesus's words in Matthew chapter 5:14, he declared that Massachusetts "shall be as a city on a hill." Winthrop's words did not attract much attention at the time, but when the sermon was published in the 1830s, his message of American providential destiny fit the national mood as Americans celebrated the anniversaries of the American Revolution and its surviving veterans. Since then, Winthrop's borrowed imagery has become a staple in the rhetoric of politicians from both sides of the aisle, including John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

Of the roughly 400 people who landed with Winthrop in Massachusetts on June 12, 1630, only half would survive the first winter as starvation and disease wracked the colony. Winthrop's own son died that winter, but he thrived in the difficult conditions, writing his wife "I like so well to be heer, as I doe not repent my comminge: and if I were to come againe, I would not have altered my course, though I had foreseene all these Afflictions: I never fared better in my life, never slept better, never had more content of minde." Winthrop served as the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony and held office for intermittently twelve one-year terms between 1629 and his death in 1649. His strong rule--which helped the colony survive during that first terrible winter--ruffled feathers as the colony boomed in 1633-1634 when a "Great Migration" of between 15,000 and 20,000 settlers fled another royal crackdown in England.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was organized along loosely theocratic lines, with voting citizenship offered only to those white men in good standing with the colony's official church. A faction within the colony pushed for more democratic representation as well as a code of law restricting what they saw as arbitrary rulings from magistrates (the inciting incident involved possession of a runaway pig). Winthrop resented this intrusion onto his authority. He condemned democracy as "the meanest and worst of all forms of government," a violation of the fifth of the Ten Commandments which read, "Honor thy Father and thy Mother that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee." Despite the fact that Puritans were themselves dissident Anglicans, Winthrop, fueled by his conception of a watchful government that united church and state, would not brook dissent.

Winthrop's authoritarian rule had major consequences for the religious history of New England. In 1635, Winthrop expelled Roger Williams from the colony for proclaiming that colony's church had been corrupted because of its continued ties to the established Church of England. Winthrop and Williams remained friendly however, writing letters for years after Williams's banishment; indeed, despite playing a role in Williams's conviction, Winthrop warned him that he would soon be arrested, allowing the dissident to slip away from the colony and found a new colony at Providence, Rhode Island. Winthrop also banished Anne Hutchinson in 1637 for antinomianism, or denying the final authority of Scripture, when she accused the leadership of laboring under a "covenant of works," charged words that Puritans typically reserved for Catholics.

Religious Groups

Timeline Entries for the same religious group: Congregationalists (UCC)
Congregationalists (UCC): Other ARDA Links
Congregationalists (UCC): Religious Family Tree


Execution of Mary Dyer
Massachusetts Bay Colony
Roger Williams Founds Providence, Rhode Island
Trial of Anne Hutchinson


John Winthrop portrait- Internet Archive- from Appleton's Cyclopaedia of American Biography, vol 6 by James Grant Wilson and John Fiske
John Winthrop portrait- Internet Archive- from Appleton's Cyclopaedia of American Biography, vol 6 by James Grant Wilson and John Fiske

John Winthrop statue- Architect of the Capitol National Statuary Hall Collection
John Winthrop statue- Architect of the Capitol National Statuary Hall Collection

John Winthrop engraving with Indians- Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-120506
John Winthrop engraving with Indians- Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-120506

John Winthrop journal page- Wikimedia Commons
John Winthrop journal page- Wikimedia Commons

Book/Journal Source(s)

Queen, Edward, Stephen Prothero and Gardiner Shattuck, 1996. The Encyclopedia of American Religious History New York: Facts on File.
Larson, Timothy and David Bebbington and Mark Noll, 2003. Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois.

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