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

The Life of a Model Christian

by Sarah Swafford

In 1620, the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. Ten years later, in 1630, Winthrop and one thousand others arrived in America setting up the Massachusetts Bay Colony. After ten more years passed, the immigration ceased with a total accumulation of around twenty thousand Englishmen. Winthrop, the twenty thousand Puritan Englishmen, and their descendents had a large affect on our Christian heritage as a Nation as well as the heritage of Old England. The New England Way began more and more to prevail over Old England (Hosmer 3). Winthrop's goal as the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was to lead them to be a 'Modell' to Old England of a colony based on Biblical principles. Yet we know from Winthrop's numerous and thorough journal entries that his goal as a student, a husband, a father, and a businessman was to be a model Christian. This short paper, however, could not encompass the complete life of anyone adequately, especially not someone as influential as John Winthrop. Therefore, the focus of this writing will be on John Winthrop's life as a model Christian from his youth, into his manhood, and through the events that led to his arrival in America.

John Winthrop's story begins on January 12, 1588, in Edwardston, a tiny village adjoining the city of Groton in the county of Suffolk, England. John was reared in a strict Puritan atmosphere at Groton Manor. Groton Manor was a relatively large estate that his father had inherited and John would acquire when he was of age. Although John had a strict Puritan upbringing, he describes himself in his many journal entries as a 'wild and dissolute' child, meaning he was indifferent to moral restraints or given to immoral or improper conduct. John did not seek to follow God and His ways until his youth (Morison 52)(Mayo 11).

John entered Trinity College in Cambridge, in 1602, at the age of fourteen, and shortly thereafter he became very ill with a bad fever. God used this time when John was alone, contemplative, and weak to draw Winthrop to Him. Though this experience was not what the Puritans view as his conversion, John's ideals were changed (Hosmer 6).

Although from that time on, John's ideal was to devote every waking moment to God, he was constantly struggling with his flesh. In his journal he records wrestling with animal desires, long periods of prayer, stern self-abasement, and joy at recovering the pathway of life. John was extremely cautious and deliberate about doing what was right. He would make lists of reasons why he should or should not do things, so that he could decide what was right and act upon these decisions. For example, once he even made a list of the reasons why he should not shoot birds out of season (Morison 59).

John felt lonely and out of place among the jovial students at Trinity, because he regarded mirth and jollity out of place in an earnest life. This was one of the reasons that he only stayed there for two years. Another reason was his strict beliefs. He viewed any further education a waste of time unless one desired to be a minister (Morison 54).

Several months after he left Trinity, in April 1605, John married Mary Forth. John and Mary lived at Groton for three years and then moved to Great Stambridge. Here Mr. Ezekiel Culverwell, the local minister, and his preaching were means to John's conversion. Winthrop's life was a perfect example of the Puritan way that conversion should occur. He grew up in the Church, and then gradually God drew John to Him through the local minister's Scriptural preaching. Winthrop writes about his conversion experience,

He still had struggles at times, just like we all do, but now he had an insatiable thirst after God and His word.

Even in an intensely religious age, Winthrop's zeal and convictions of social responsibility were notable: he poured all of his resources into Scriptural study and prayer. John's keen awareness of his own human inadequacy drove him to demand responsible action from himself and from all his fellow men. He had to learn to do right and encourage others to do right, in a world that does wrong. "Having taught himself to face corruption, he became a crusader, determined to remake the world as far as possible" (Dunn 4,5).

However, Winthrop did not spend all his time in meditation on God. He also read law, became a justice of the peace, and at twenty-one 'kept his first court at Groton Hall.' (Mayo 12) He also became the father of six children, two of which died in infancy. In 1615, his wife Mary of ten years also died. At this time John returned to Groton to help his father in the administration of their manor.

Less than six months after Mary's death, John married Thomasine Clopton. Yet, much to John's despair, she died about a year later following a hard labor and the death of their first daughter (Mayo 13). Thomasine was described as a wonderful woman whose thoughts were always for others rather than herself. In her sickness before her death, she assured John that whatever might happen God would sustain him and provide for him.

Winthrop explained his wonderful wife's death as a result of his loving her too much. He believed that God took her away because he "delighted too much in her to enjoy her long." (Mayo 14) For a normal man this hurt may have caused him to doubt God and His will, but Thomasine's death had the reverse affect upon Winthrop. He turned to God for correction and guidance. This resulted in an intimacy in his personal relationship to God. He was able to say, "O Lord thou has caused my joy to surmount my grief a hundred fold" (Mayo 14).

In April 1618, Winthrop married again. Margaret Tyndale became his loving helpmate for nearly thirty years (Dunn 4). She was truly a loving Christian woman who Winthrop adored.

About the time of his marriage to Margaret, John became the lord of the Groton estate. Thus at the age of thirty, Winthrop was very well established in every way. He had a lucrative law profession, a good income from the tenants on his estate, a wonderful wife, and many blessed children. From a worldly perspective, Winthrop should have been more than happy with his life as an English gentleman, and he was for several years; yet his heart gradually became saddened by the world around him (Hosmer 15).

Winthrop became troubled by the extravagant and loose life of the English, who focused only on money and frivolity. Also, the English government was unstable and in disarray. "The England he loved was turning into an England he neither enjoyed nor understood" (Rutman 5). John continually asked God, "Lord! What wilt thou have me to do?" His answer came in 1629.

In March, of that year, King Charles decided to govern without Parliament, so the Puritan leaders were carried off to the Tower. In June, Winthrop's commission as an attorney of the Court of Ward and Liveries in London was taken away from him. We do not know the reason for this dismissal, but assume that it was due to the fact that he was known to be a Puritan (Dunn 5). During these times, he writes to his wife,

The Lord's hiding place was to be New England; His shelter was to be the royal charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company. Winthrop was not involved in the beginnings of this company. In 1628, a diversified group of men of wealth and provision organized a company in order to plant a colony on the New England coast. Their common goals were to convert and trade with the Indians, to establish a colony in which they might worship God in accordance with the dictates of their own consciences, and to explore other avenues of profit (Northend 43, 54). Since about half of the charter members intended to emigrate to New England, Governor Matthew Craddock proposed to the Company General Court in July, 1629, that the colonists in Massachusetts should be self-governing and not subordinate to the company in England. After this proposal passed, John joined the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Only three months after Winthrop joined this group, he was elected to be their and leader and governor of the colony to be formed in New England. Winthrop's election was rather remarkable. He was neither the most socially prominent nor the wealthiest, but the people elected him for his outstanding leadership qualities. They recognized his grave, authoritative demeanor, his ability to grasp issues and formulate policy, and his driving morals (Dunn 8).

Winthrop, as usual, weighed the pros and cons of going to America as their governor with great care and deliberation - writing them down in a list (as he was prone to do), reading them over and over, and seeking guidance. Unquestionably, Winthrop's personal relationship to God was his prime incentive for his emigration to America. Ultimately his decision came down to his continually asked question, "Lord what wilt thou have me to do?" This opportunity to lead a colony and shape it according to the word of God, was not one to be lost (Morison 68). After He accepted the position of governor, he wrote to his wife, "The only thing I have comfort of in it is, that hereby I have assurance that my charge is of the Lord and that he hath called me to this work" (Mayo 17).

The central fact in Winthrop's universe obviously was not his personal glory as governor, but was the sovereignty of God. He knew that his success in this world and salvation in the next turned entirely upon God's regenerative grace. Winthrop describes how his actions were bound by his covenant to God to spend "the small remainder of my tyme, to the best service of the Church which I may." (Dunn 52) For all his self-discipline and sober shrewd realism, John Winthrop was first and foremost a fanatic for righteousness. It was this devotion to God's purpose, which made him such a strong leader.

As governor, there was much to do in preparation for the departure to America; yet with John's leadership these preparations did not take long. Winthrop sailed on the Arbella, the first of sixteen ships, a short nine months later in February of, 1630. These sixteen ships held a total of one thousand colonists prepared in mind, body, and estate for a fresh start in the New World (Rutman 3).

Winthrop further prepared these colonists by giving his lay sermon, "A Modell of Christian Charity", in which he explained to his fellow passengers the nature of their collective covenant with God. Winthrop's "Modell" is the clearest statement we have of the principles that guided the Bay Colony, and their conception of the sort of commonwealth they set out to found. (Morison 74). Their immediate object was to seek out a new home 'under a due form of Government both civill and ecclesiasticall' (Morison 73). In this sermon, Winthrop described the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a company of Christ, bound together by love, set up as a city on a hill to be a model of the kind of state they hoped to see soon in England (Dunn 11).

John Winthrop and the other passengers aboard the Arbella arrived in America in June of 1630, yet the story of John Winthrop by no means ends at this arrival. Winthrop's goal of a colony that was a 'Modell of Christian Charity' may not have come true, but his personal goal was accomplished. John Winthrop continued to be a leader and a model Christian in the Massachusetts Bay Colony until his death.

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Last updated: 11 March 1998