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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Utopian Promise John Winthrop (1588-1649)

[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.

Teaching Tips

  • Review the “Core Context” segment on typologyin this unit. Divide students into groups and ask them to locate typologizing moments in Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity” or in his Journal. (The sermon is a particularly good source since Winthrop notes many parallels between the Puritans and the Old Testament Hebrews within it.) Ask students to consider the significance of the Puritans’ insistence on understanding their own history as prefigured by the Bible. What kinds of pressures might this tendency to read biblical and divine significance into everyday affairs put on individuals and on communities? How might it work to comfort and reassure people?
  • The theological issues at stake in Winthrop’s condemnation of Anne Hutchinson’s Antinomianism are quite complicated, but even students bored by a discussion of the distinction between a covenant of works and a covenant of grace will be interested in the political and social implications of this controversy. Ask them to think about the role gender plays in Winthrop’s attack on Hutchinson. Would her preaching be so threatening if she were not “a woman of a ready wit and bold spirit”?
  • In September 1638, Winthrop notes that Anne Hutchinson delivered a stillborn, misshapen child. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, stillborn children and children with birth defects were called “monstrous births” and understood to represent either God’s displeasure or the devil’s influence over the mother. How does Winthrop describe Hutchinson’s “monstrous birth” in his Journal? Why does her miscarriage seem so significant to him? Ask students to think about Winthrop’s attitude toward motherhood, women’s bodies, and childbirth. Keep in mind that Hutchinson served as a midwife within the Puritan community for many years prior to her banishment.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Winthrop’s Journal chronicles a number of the problems and controversies that challenged the early settlers at Massachusetts Bay. What kinds of external and internal threats undermined the unity of the group? What happened to people who deviated from orthodox religious tenets? What rhetorical strategies does Winthrop adopt when characterizing people whose beliefs were different from his own?
  2. Context: The “Model of Christian Charity” was composed before Winthrop and the Puritans disembarked in Massachusetts. How do the hopes and values the sermon espouses compare to the realities Winthrop later recorded in his Journal? Does Winthrop’s sense of the community’s mission and his own responsibility to further it change over time?
  3. Exploration: Why has Winthrop’s metaphor of the “City on a Hill” had so much influence on American culture? Do you see evidence of the endurance of this idea within contemporary public discourse?

Selected Archive Items

[1363] Anonymous, John Winthrop (17th cent.),
courtesy of American Antiquarian Society.
John Winthrop was the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony. His somber-colored clothing marks him as a Puritan, while his ornate neck ruff indicates his wealth and social status.

[6751] Richard S. Greenough, Statue of John Winthrop (1876),
courtesy of Architect of the Capitol.
This statue was given, along with one of Samuel Adams, by the state of Massachusetts in 1876 to the National Statuary Hall Collection in the United States Capitol. The choice of Winthrop indicates his status both as a prominent American and as an allegorical representative of the nation’s ideals.

[6942] Photo of a Statue of Roger Williams, Providence, Rhode Island (2002),
courtesy of Christopher Moses.
A Puritan whose unorthodox views alienated him from both the Massachusetts Bay and the Plymouth colonies, Roger Williams has been reclaimed by some contemporary scholars as a democratic and pluralist hero.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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