John Winthrop

John Winthrop
Born 12 January 1587/8
Edwardstone, Suffolk, England
Died 26 March 1649 (aged 61)
Boston, Massachusetts Bay Colony
Spouse(s) Mary Forth, Thomasine Clopton, Magaret Tyndal, Martha Rainsborough
Profession Lawyer, governor
Religion Puritanism

Associated Locations:

  • Edwardstone, Suffolk, England – Birthplace
  • Boston, Massachusets

Associated Dates:

  • January 12, 1587-8 – Born
  • June 12, 1630 – John Winthrop arives in Salem, Massachusetts

“Let Greece boast of her patient Lycurgus, the lawgiver, by whom diligence, temperance, fortitude and wit were made the fashions of a therefore long-lasting and renowned commonwealth: let Rome tell of her devout Numa, the lawgiver, by whom the most famous commonwealth saw peace triumphing over extinguished war and cruel plunders; and murders giving place to the more mollifying exercises of his religion. Our New-England shall tell and boast of her WINTHROP, a lawgiver as patient as Lycurgus, but not admitting any of his criminal disorders; as devout as Numa, but not liable to any of his heathenish madnesses; a governour in whom the excellencies of Christianity made a most improving addition unto the virtues,”

Noble Ancestry

A stock of heroes by right should afford nothing but what is heroical; and nothing but an extream degeneracy would make any thing less to be expected from a stock of Winthrops. Mr. Adam Winthrop, the son of a worthy gentleman wearing the same name, was himself a worthy, a discreet, and a learned gentleman, particularly eminent for skill in the law, nor without remark for love to the gospel, under the reign of King Henry VIII., and brother to a memorable favourer of the reformed religion in the days of Queen Mary, into whose hands the famous martyr Philpot committed his papers, which afterwards made no inconsiderable part of our martyr-books. This Mr. Adam Winthrop had a son of the same name also, and of the same endowments and imployments with his father; and this third Adam Winthrop was the father of that renowned John Winthrop, who was the father of New-England, and the founder of a colony, which, upon many accounts, like him that founded it, may challenge the first place among the English glories of America.

Early Life & Character

John Winthrop, thus born at the mansion-house of his ancestors, at Groton in Suffolk, on June 12, 1587, enjoyed afterwards an agreeable education. But though he would rather have devoted himself unto the study of Mr. John Calvin, than of Sir Edward Cook; nevertheless, the accomplishments of a lawyer were those wherewith Heaven made his chief opportunities to be serviceable.

Being made, at the unusually early age of eighteen, a justice of peace, his virtues began to fall under a more general observation; and he not only so bound himself to the behaviour of a Christian, as to become exemplary for a conformity to the laws of Christianity in his own conversation, but also discovered a more than ordinary measure of those qualities which adorn an officer of humane society. His justice was impartial, and used the ballance to weigh not the cash, but the case of those who were before him: prosopolatria he reckoned as bad as idolatria. His wisdom did exquisitely temper things according to the art of governing, which is a business of more contrivance than the seven arts of the schools; oyer still went before terminer in all his administrations: his courage made him dare to do right, and fitted him to stand among the lions that have sometimes been the supporters of the throne: all which virtues he rendred the more illustrious, by emblazoning them with the constant liberality and hospitality of a gentleman. This made him the terror of the wicked, and the delight of the sober, the envy of the many, but the hope of those who had any hopeful design in hand for the common good of the nation and the interests of religion.

1629 Dissolving of Parliament

In 1629, Charles I dissolved parliament.  Winthrop wrote home to his wife about his concerns for the country, “I am very persuaded, God will bring some heavye Affliction upon this lande, and that speedyly; but be of good comfort.  If the Lord seeth it will be good for us, he will provide a shelter & hidinge place for us and others, as a Zoar for Lott, Saraphtath for his prophet; if not, yet he will not forsake us.” (Samuel Eliot Morison, Builders of the Bay Colony (1981), p. 64)

Migration to America

Accordingly when the noble design of carrying a colony of chosen people into an American wilderness, was by some eminent persons undertaken, this eminent person was, by the consent of all, chosen for the Moses, who must be the leader of so great an undertaking: and indeed nothing but a Mosaic spirit could have carried him through the temptations, to which either his farewel to his own land, or his travel in a strange land, must needs expose a gentleman of his education. Wherefore having sold a fair estate of six or seven hundred a year, he transported himself with the effects of it into New-England in the year 1630, where he spent it upon the service of a famous plantation, founded and formed for the seat of the most reformed Christianity: and continued there, conflicting with temptations of all sorts, as many years as the nodes of the moon take to dispatch a revolution.

“City Upon a Hill”

John Winthrop wrote and delivered the his famous sermon that would be called A Modell of Christian Charity either before the 1630 crossing to North America or while en route.  He prophesied that if the people kept their promises and lived worthy lives they would be a light to the world.

“we shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when he shall make us a praise and glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantations: the lord make it like that of New England: for we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us;” John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity, 1630 , spelling corrected

Conversely, Winthrop prophesied that if the people forgot the Lord and did not keep the covenant of this land:

“. . . we shall be made a story and a byword through the world, we shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of god and all professors for Gods sake; we shall shame the faces of many of Gods worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into Curses upon us ‘till we be consumed out of the good land whether we are going:” (John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity, 1630 , spelling corrected)

Read entire speech: “A Model of Christian Charity”

Patience and Fortitude as Governor

Those persons were never concerned in a new plantation, who know not that the unavoidable difficulties of such a thing will call for all the prudence and patience of a mortal man to encounter therewithal; and they must be very insensible of the influence, which the just wrath of Heaven has permitted the devils to have upon this world, if they do not think that the difficulties of a new plantation, devoted unto the evangelical worship of our Lord Jesus Christ, must be yet more than ordinary. How prudently, how patiently, and with how much resignation to our Lord Jesus Christ, our brave Winthrop waded through these difficulties, let posterity consider with admiration. And know, that as the picture of this their governour was, after his death, hung up with honour in the state-house of his country, so the wisdom, courage, and holy zeal of his life, were an example well-worthy to be copied by all that shall succeed him in government.


Personal Life

Were he now to be considered only as a Christian, we might therein propose him as greatly imitable. He was a very religious man; and as he strictly kept his heart, so he kept his house, under the laws of piety; there he was every day constant in holy duties, both morning and evening, and on the Lord’s days, and lectures; though he wrote not after the preacher, yet such was his attention, and such his retention in hearing, that he repeated unto his family the sermons which he had heard in the congregation.

As Governor

But it is chiefly as a governour that he is now to be considered. Being the governour over the considerablest part of New England, he maintained the figure and honour of his place with the spirit of a true gentleman; but yet with such obliging condescension to the circumstances of the colony, that when a certain troublesome and malicious calumniator, well known in-those times, printed his libellous nick-names upon the chief persons here, the worst nick-name he could find for the governour, was John Temper-well;

When the calumnies of that ill man caused the Arch-bishop to summon one Mr. Cleaves before the King, in hopes to get some accusation from him against the country, Mr. Cleaves gave such an account of the governour’s laudable carriage in all respects, and the serious devotion wherewith prayers were both publickly and privately made for his Majesty, that the King expressed himself most highly pleased therewithal, only sorry that so worthy a person should be no better accommodated than with the hardships of America.

True Justice and Mercy

He was, indeed, a governour, who had most exactly studied that book which, pretending to teach politicks, did only contain three leaves, and but one word in each of those leaves, which word was, MODERATION.

Hence, though he were a zealous enemy to all vice, yet his practice was according to his judgment thus expressed: “In the infancy of plantations, justice should be administered with more lenity than in a settled state; because people are more apt then to transgress; partly out of ignorance of new laws and orders, partly out of oppression of business, and other straits. [LENTO GRADU] was the old rule; and if the strings of a new instrument be wound up unto their heighth, they will quickly crack.”

But when some leading and learned men took offence at his conduct in this matter, and upon a conference gave it in as their opinion, ” That a stricter discipline was to be used in the beginning of a plantation, than after its being with more age established and confirmed,” the governour being readier to see his own errors than other men’s, professed his purpose to endeavor their satisfaction with less of lenity in his administrations. At that conference there were drawn up several other articles to be observed between the governour and the rest of the magistrates, which were of this import:

“That the magistrates, as far as might be, should aforehand ripen their consultations, to produce that unanimity in their publick votes, which might make them liker to the voice of God; that if differences fell among them in their publick meetings, they should speak only to the case, without any reflection, with all due modesty, and but by way of question; or desire the deferring of the cause to further time; and after sentence imitate privately no dislike; that they should be more familiar, friend and open unto each other, and more frequent in their visitations, and not any way expose each other’s infirmities, but seek the honour of each other and all the Court; that one magistrate shall not cross the proceedings of another, without first advising with him; and that they should in all their appearances abroad, be so circumstanced as to prevent all contempt of authority; and that they should support and strengthen all under officers.

All of which articles were observed by no man more than by the governour himself.

Sacrifice and Charity

he made himself still an exacter parallel unto that [Nehemiah] governour of Israel, by doing the part of a neighbour among the distressed people of the new plantation. To teach them the frugality necessary for those times, he abridged himself of a thousand comfortable things, which he had allowed himself elsewhere: his habit was not that soft raiment, which would have been disagreeable to a wilderness; his table was not covered with the superfluities that would have invited unto sensualities: water was commonly his own drink, though he gave wine to others.

But at the same time his liberality unto the needy was even beyond measure generous; and therein he was continually causing “the blessing of him that was ready to perish to come upon him, and the heart of the widow and the orphan to sing for joy:” but none more than those of deceased Ministers, whom he always treated with a very singular compassion; among the instances whereof we still enjoy with us the worthy and now aged son of that reverend Higginson, whose death left his family in a wide world soon after his arrival here, publickly acknowledging the charitable Winthrop for his foster-father.

It was oftentimes no small trial unto his faith, to think how a table for the people should be furnished when they first came into the wilderness! and for very many of the people his own good works were needful, and accordingly employed for the answering of his faith. Indeed, for a while the governour was the Joseph, unto whom the whole body of the people repaired when their corn failed them; and he continued relieving of them with his open-handed bounties, as long as he had any stock to do it with; and a lively faith to see the return of the “bread after many days,” and not starve in the days that were to pass till that return should be seen, carried him cheerfully through those expences.

Caring for Poor and Hungry

And having learned that lesson of our Lord, “that it is better to give than to receive,” he did, at the general court, when he was a third time chosen governour, make a speech unto this purpose: “That he had received gratuities from divers towns, which he accepted with much comfort and content; and he had likewise received civilities from particular persons, which he could not refuse without incivility in himself: nevertheless, he took them with a trembling heart, in regard of God’s word, and the conscience of his own infirmities; and therefore he desired them that they would not hereafter take it ill if he refused such presents for, the time to come.” ‘Twas his custom also to send some of his family upon errands unto the houses of the poor, about their meal time, on purpose to spy whether they wanted; and if it were found that they wanted, he would make that the opportunity of sending supplies unto them.

Abolishment of Drinking “Toasts”

Nevertheless, there was one civil custom used in (and in few but) the English nation, which this gentleman did endeavour to abolish in this country; and that was, the usage of drinking to one another. For although by drinking to one another, no more is meant than an act of courtesie, when one going to drink, does invite another to do so too, for the same ends with himself; nevertheless the governour  considered the impertinency and insignifcancy of this usage, as to any of those ends that are usually pretended for it ; and that indeed it ordinarily served for no ends at all, but only to provoke persons unto, unseasonable and perhaps unreasonable drinking, and at last produce that abominable health-drinking, which the fathers of old so severely rebuked in the Pagans, and which the Papists themselves do condemn, when their casuists pronounce it, Peccatum mortale, provocare ad aequales calices, et Nefas Respondere. Wherefore in his own most hospitable house he left it off; not out of any silly or stingy fancy, but meerly that by his example a greater temperance, with liberty of drinking, might be recommended, and sundry inconveniences in drinking avoided; and his example accordingly began to be much followed by the sober people in this country, as it now also begins among persons of the highest rank in the English nation it self; until an order of court came to be made against that ceremony in drinking, and then, the old wont violently returned, with a Nitimur in Vetitum.

Inspiring Stories

Gives away last handful of meal

Once it was observable that, on February 5, 1630, when he was distributing the last handful of the meal in the barrel unto a poor man distressed by the “wolf at the door,” at that instant they spied a ship arrived at the harbour’s mouth, laden with provisions for them all. Yea’ the governour sometimes made his own private purse to be the publick: not by sucking into it, but by squeezing out of it; for when the publick treasure had nothing in it, he did himself defray the charges of the publick.

Justice on wood-stealer

And there was one passage of his charity that was perhaps a little unusual: in an hard and long winter, when wood was very scarce at Boston, a man gave him a private information that a needy person in the neighbourhood stole wood sometimes from his pile; whereupon the governour in a seeming anger did reply, “Does he so? I’ll take a course with him; go, call that man to me; I’ll warrant you I’ll cure him of stealing.” When the man came, the governour considering that if he had stolen, it was more out of necessity than disposition, said unto him, “Friend, it is a severe winter, and I doubt you are but meanly provided for wood; wherefore I would have you supply your self at my wood-pile till this cold season be over.” And he then merrily asked his friends, ” Whether he had not effectually cured this man of stealing his wood?”

Severe Trials

Many were the afflictions of this righteous man!

He lost much of his estate in a ship, and in an house, quickly after his coming to New England, besides the prodigious expence of it in the difficulties of his first coming hither.

Afterwards his assiduous application unto the publick affairs, made him so much to neglect his own private interests, that an unjust steward ran him 2,500 in debt before.he was aware; for the payment whereof he was forced, many years before his decease, to sell the most of what he had left unto him in the country.

Albeit, by the observable blessings of God upon the posterity of this liberal man, his children all of them came to fair estates, and lived in good fashion and credit. Moreover, he successively buried three wives; the first of which was the daughter and heiress of Mr. Forth; of Much-Stambridge in Essex, by whom he had “wisdom with an inheritance;” and an excellent son. The second was the daughter of Mr. William Clopton, of London, who died with her child, within a very little while. The third was the daughter of the truly worshipful Sir John Tyndal, who made it her whole care to please, first God, and then her husband ; and by whom he had four sons, which survived and honoured their father.

And unto all these, the addition of the distempers, ever now and then raised in the country, procured unto him a very singular share of trouble; yea, so hard was the measure which he found even among pious men, in the temptations of a wilderness, that when the thunder and lightning had smitten a wind-mill whereof he was owner, some had such things in their heads as publickly to reproach this charitablest of men as if the voice of the Almighty had rebuked,

I know not what oppression, which they judged him guilty of; which things I would not have mentioned, but that the instances may fortifie the expectations of my best readers for such afflictions.

Near-death sickness

While he was yet seven years off of that which we call “the grandl climacterical,” he felt the approaches of his dissolution ; he then wrote this account of himself: “Age now comes upon me, and infirmities therewithal, which makes me apprehend, that the time of my departure out of this world is not far off. However, our times are all in the Lord’s hand, so as we need not trouble our thoughts how long or short they may be, but how we may be found faithful when we are called for.” But at last when that year came, he took a cold which turned into a fever, whereof he lay sick about a month, and in that sickness, as it hath been observed, that there was allowed unto the serpent the “bruising of the heel;” and accordingly at the heel or the close of our lives the old serpent will be nibbling more than ever in our lives before; and when the devil sees that we shall shortly be “where the wicked cease from troubling,” that wicked one will trouble us more than ever; so this eminent saint now underwent sharp conflicts with the tempter, whose wrath grew great, as the time to exert it grew short; and he was buffeted with the disconsolate thoughts of black and sore desertions,

But it was not long before those clouds were dispelled, and he enjoyed in his holy soul the great consolations of God! While he thus lay ripening for heaven, he did out of obedience unto the ordinance of our Lord, send for the elders of the church to pray with him; yea, they and the whole church fasted as well as prayed for him; and in that fast the venerable Cotton preached on Psal. xxxv. 13,14: “When they were sick, I humbled my self with fasting; I behaved my self as though he had been my friend or brother; I bowed down heavily as one that mourned for his mother:” from whence I find him raising that observation, “The sickness of one that is to us as a friend, a brother, a mother, is a just occasion of deep humbling our souls with fasting and prayer;” and making this application.


Such a governour, after he had been more than ten several times by the people chosen their governour, was New-England now to lose ; who having, like Jacob, first left his council and blessing with his children gathered about his bed-side; and, like David, “served his generation by the will of God,” he “gave up the ghost,” and fell asleep on March 26, 1649. Having, like the dying Emperour Valentinian, this above all his other victories for his triumphs, His overcoming of himself.


The words of Josephus about Nehemiah, the governour of Israel, we will now use upon this governour of New-England, as his:

EPITAPH. (greek)


The American Nehemiah.

Whatever winds may blow, this art of ours can never be lost.

Face-worship, or respect of persons.


By slow degrees.

A man in authority is a target, at which Satan and the world launch all their darts.

He is prudent who is patient.

Rack and land and sky with mingled wrath, In wild tumult of their stormy path.

To silence sunk the thunder of the wave.

He speaks–but ere the word is said, Each mounting billow droops its  head,  And brightening clouds one moment stay to pioneer returning day.

We are all the worse for it.

By yielding the point.

If we come into collision, we break.

Never urged the reluctant to drink.

It is a deadly sin to challenge another to a drinking match, and it is impious to

accept such challenges.

A bias towards the forbidden indulgence.

He no longer belonged to himself, after the Republic had once made him her Chief


I am not what I was in form or face In healthful color or in vigorous pace.

I once judged others, but now trembling stand Before a dread tribunal, to be judged.

He was by nature a man, at once benevolent and just:

most zealous for the honour of

his countrymen; and to them he left an

imperishable monument–the walls of

Jerusalem. [The Latin paraphrase substitutes New England for Jerusalem.]


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