Though rooted in a certain time and a certain place, elements of John Winthrop’s teachings are timeless, and, whether we agree with him completely or not, we should recognize him as an important and imaginative conservative of yesteryear.
Between 1629 and 1640, roughly 21,000 Puritans (and servants) immigrated from England (especially East Anglia) to New England. This was one of the four great free folk migrations of the colonial period, along with the Anglicans to Virginia and the Chesapeake, the Quakers to Pennsylvania and Delaware, and the Scotch-Irish to various parts of English colonies.
More than any other colonial group, the Puritans (formally known as Congregationalists) moved in familial groups, and the nuclear family stood as the most important social institution, outside of the Congregation itself.
The Puritans demanded great rigor from their church members, and most residents of New England belonged to some church, especially in the seventeenth century. Five ideas held the Congregationalists together: the depravity of man, the covenant that held all together in this fallen world, that God chose His elect, that all good comes from Grace, and that men and women must love one another.
Despite their migration to New England, the Puritans openly declared themselves members of the Church of England in good standing. That is, they claimed not to be “separating” from either church or state but rather to be establishing an ideal Christian commonwealth as a “city upon a hill.” As the Puritans saw it, the world “itself required discipline. Though a Puritan must live in it, he need not, must not, take it as he found it. The world, within limits, was plastic.”
Though not necessarily egalitarian in the modern sense, the Puritans practiced a form of town/Congregation democracy (and federalism), and the elect (men as well as women) had a great say in the running of a community. Women, for example, could own property and were “equally entitled to the physical protection of the law.” Overall, they believed in a form of “ordered liberty” as the ruling principle of society. The state, it should be noted, had the duty of intervening in church matters, especially when one Congregation differed significantly from another. “The state was responsible for suppressing heresy as well as drunkenness and theft and murder.”
John Winthrop, as governor of Massachusetts Bay, always tried to walk the middle ground between the separatist tendencies of the more radically Protestant settlers and the overly pious who wanted to establish a sort of dreadful non-conforming orthodoxy throughout New England. Winthrop’s governorship, to be certain, represented the high point of New England history.
Importantly, the New England Way, as it came to be known, deeply influenced cultural and political developments in American history, giving us federalism, the Yankee, the bulwark against slavery and the backbone of the Republican party, and, of course, the holiday of Thanksgiving.
So, as Puritan leader, what did John Winthrop believe? “A Modell of Christian Charity” (ca. 1630), his most significant sermon, is often cited by American politicians, and the tradition is that it was given on the deck of the Arbella as it was about to set sail for America in 1630. The documentary evidence, though, is far from conclusive, and it is safest to say that it probably was given on the deck of the Arbella at some point during the journey to America.
The most important point of the speech is that God shed His grace according to His will for three reasons: 1) to show us and share with us His incredible diversity and majesty, 2) to reveal the works of the Holy Spirit, and 3) to bring us together—through His grace—in community.
We are, however, regulated by two virtues—justice and mercy—and by two laws—the law of nature and the law of grace.
Winthrop then offers a sort of catechesis, breaking the next section down to questions and answers. In these, Winthrop reminds his listeners that all treasure in this world is fleeting; that we must always put the interest of God above our own; that we must treat our neighbor with dignity (mercy, if poor; justice, if of means); that we must forgive debts (literal and symbolic); and, especially, that “love is the fulfilling of the law.”
After the catechesis, Winthrop presents his views on community, noting that “true Christians are one body in Christ,” brought together through love to unify all diverse parts of the body. As such, one must see the progression from Adam to Christ, the progression, that is, from love of self to love of other. “Love is the fruit of the new birth, and none can have it but the new Creature.” Through Adam we were scattered like old bones, but through Christ we become a new Creature. When we love Christ, we see Christ’s reflection in ourselves and in our neighbor. “Each discerns, by the works of the Spirit, his own Image and resemblance in another and therefore cannot but love him as he loves himself.” We grow and are nurtured in the love provided by grace.
Famously, Winthrop ends his sermon with a reference to the Gospel of St. Matthew, noting that we covenant with one another and, thus, attempt to prevent the “embrace [of] this present world and prosecute our carnal intentions.” In our covenant, all individuals/members become one man. “We must delight in each other, make other’s conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.”
In the covenant, we become, in essence, the “city upon a hill,” a witness for the entirety of the world to see. In our community, we worship the one true God, not the gods of profit and pleasure. “Therefore let us choose life, that our seed may live by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him, for He is our life and our prosperity.”
After serving as governor of Massachusetts Bay repeatedly, Winthrop was accused of abusing his power as a magistrate in 1645. He had intervened in a militia dispute. When his opponents accused him of being authoritarian, he stepped down from the bench and offered testimony as a defendant.
In his speech to the General Court, he argued that there are two types of liberty: 1) natural liberty to choose good as well as evil and 2) moral (or civil or federal) liberty. “This liberty is the proper end and object of authority, and cannot subsist without it; and it is a liberty to [do] that only which is good, just, and honest.”
If we focus on our “natural corrupt liberties,” we will always despise authority, even legitimate authority, and we will be ceaselessly restless in this world.
Though rooted in a certain time and a certain place, elements of Winthrop’s teachings are timeless, and, whether we agree with him completely or not, we should recognize him as an important and imaginative conservative of yesteryear.
Author’s note: this essay comes from a conversation between Hugh Hewitt, Larry Arnn, and me on Friday, March 5, 2021. The two documents referenced are in Hillsdale College’s American Heritage: A Reader, edited by Mark Kalthoff and the Hillsdale College Department of History.
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 “Strong evidence appears in the fact that most adult settlers, in most Massachusetts towns, joined a Congregational church during the first generation.” See David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989), 21. Additionally, nearly 94% of adult women and 98% of adult men were married in New England. Interestingly, though, marriage was a social contract, not a covenant.
 Edmund Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop (2nd edition, 1999), 14.
 Fischer, Albion’s Seed, 84.
 Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma, 73.
 I am thankful to my colleague Richard Gamble for this caution.
The featured image is a portrait of Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop (17th century) by an unknown artist and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.