Papers from Hillsdale College
REL 319 -- Eighteenth Century Theology:
Jonathan Edwards and American Puritanism

John Winthrop

by Michelle Anderson

In the early colonial days of America many strong leadership figures emerged both politically and spiritually. Many who rose up to mold the new society have gone down in history as esteemed and influential men. John Winthrop was one of the first such men who led the Puritans and was a catalyst that pushed the colony to become the "city on a hill" they believed it had been called to be. History clearly evidences the strong leadership of John Winthrop from the Company's departure from England through his governorship in Boston; no matter what role he was called upon to play in the community, he was fully dedicated to his vision for New England as a holy community of God and did all he was able to ensure the vision became a reality even in the face of opposition.

Winthrop was the natural leader of the Massachusetts Bay Company from the outset and was quickly elected the first governor of the colony. It was Winthrop's leadership that turned the Company into a holy endeavor of the Puritans in which they would establish in America a "city on a hill"; as governor, he spiritually led them so the "will of God would be observed in every detail, a kingdom of God on earth" (Morgan 50, 69). He did not want the government to control the church but simply desired God's Word to rule in government. Due to his incredible qualities of leadership, he held almost sole jurisdiction over all areas of government and organization without the limitation of any set laws (MacPhail 105); he had free reign, and the people followed him. Winthrop had a heart for the vision God had given him and did his best to see it carried through.

In spite of his extraordinary leadership abilities, his personal view of governmental authority was a bit unique in his era and became the issue that caused his repeated loss of power. He believed that positions of power in government came from God, and thus these positions of power must be honored and respected. The authorities, then, must answer to God and not to the people for their actions. Lay people, according to Winthrop, had the power to elect their leaders but must subsequently submit to their absolute authority as they would to the authority of God himself (Morgan 94-95).

Winthrop's views of government eventually caused unrest in the hearts of the people. They had difficulty submitting unquestionably to a man who was unrestricted by law and would not concede to guaranteeing any rights in writing. The prime figure of opposition was Dudley the deputy who pointed out the large scope of Winthrop's authority. In the past Winthrop had always been able to use rhetoric to explain his actions to those who had questioned his authority, but the issue with Dudley did not fade away as easily. When questioned, Winthrop claimed the charter gave him and his assistants their power. At the annual election court of 1634 the men found the charter actually gave legislative power to all freemen. At the time the charter had been written in England, "freeman" referred to the stockholders of the Massachusetts Bay Company and only the governor and his assistants held any governmental power to speak of. As time progressed, however, Winthrop changed the meaning of "freemen" to include all church members, and, at the time, the laymen had agreed to allowing that not to change governmental organization. But now, being wary of the supreme executive power of the leaders, they read the charter and demanded the say in government that the charter gave them. Consequently, Winthrop had to follow the charter and thus conceded some power to a freeman committee for he was hesitant to let laymen completely govern themselves in a democratic type system. Subsequently, Dudley was elected governor in Winthrop's place for the people viewed Winthrop's political ideas as a possible threat; Winthrop's actions, however, imply that he had no evil, power-hungry intentions. He faithfully and gracefully let Dudley be governor and approached his new assistant role with the same quality of his governorship. The people still relied heavily upon him for advice in all areas of life and regarded him highly in the community (Morgan 107-113).

When Winthrop was asked again to be governor in 1637, he gladly took office in order to serve the colony in the capacity they desired. He led with firmness and flexibility, was always willing to explain why he had made the decisions he had based on Scripture, and change his decision if further search of the Word proved his decision unwise (Morgan 161-2). During this era of governorship, Anne Hutchinson was sent away to Rhode Island due to her unorthodox antinomian teachings; this evidences Winthrop's desire to keep the ever-changing church pure and theologically sound. Some still were wary of Winthrop's policy of government that demanded he hold virtually sole power; the people's discontent and uneasiness resurfaced in 1641, and Winthrop again was replaced as governor. He again stepped down graciously.

During that same year the Body of Liberties, a document of general governing principles, was drawn up and, among other issues, asserted the right of freemen to annually elect officers (Morgan 171). Winthrop disagreed with the writing of such a document, of course, but submitted himself to it in 1642 when he became governor once again. Some people argued that his previous emphasis on righteousness had evolved into a certain self-righteousness in these later years and that his former disciplined control had changed into harsher aggression (Dunn 21). Though he did face some political opposition due to his governmental power policies, the people generally felt safe under his leadership since the Body of Liberties, in effect, was limiting his control (Morgan 173).

Andrew MacPhail in his Essays in Puritanism paints a rather critical picture of Winthrop's leadership by asserting that he failed at his goal of establishing a system of Church and State that nurtured the covenant and abandoned his "guiding principle, which had once been so sufficient for him" (77). Winthrop did indeed have faults, and the colony did not turn out exactly as he had intended. However, Winthrop himself was dedicated to the "city on a hill" principles and did what he deemed best under the authority of God both as a man and as a governor to lead the people in the right direction without becoming a dictator. He was not attempting to put the church under human authority, as MacPhail claims (115), but was, on the contrary, attempting to build a government based on Scripture, his "guiding principle" throughout his life.

Winthrop's leadership was critical and vastly influential during the early days of Puritan settlement in Boston; he guided the people according to his Scriptural understanding toward establishing a society that would be a "city on a hill" for the rest of the world. Though he faced some political opposition, Winthrop led the people in any capacity his role allowed. Many other men rose up throughout history to lead people toward a vision, but Winthrop is especially noteworthy for his enduring influence upon Puritan settlement in America due to his strong leadership during its initial days.

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Last updated: 8 March 1998