Winthrop: Church and State
Can you imagine the outcry if the Boston Globe were to announce that the Governor of Massachusetts had preached one Sunday from the Bible, using as his text, Christ's "Sermon on the Mount?" Does the very idea sound ridiculous and impossible? Well, such an event did take place in 1630. Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony preached aboard ship to a great company of Puritans sailing with him.
John was born in Suffolk, England on this day, January l2, 1588-the same year the Spanish Armada attempted to invade England. The Winthrops were Puritans--that is, they wanted the Church of England to be purified of traditions, practices, and beliefs not specifically found in the Bible. They were also a people of means, owners of the manor at Groton who prospered by making and trading cloth.
Even as a boy, John was sincerely devoted to God and even considered becoming a minister. Instead, he trained in the law and received a court appointment. Although he followed his father in trade and succeeded him as lord of the family estate at Groton Manor, John never ceased to honor God in all his undertakings. The fact that he had not entered the ministry troubled him so much that he admitted, "...I think I am the rather bound to take the opportunity for spending the remainder of my time to the best service of the church which I may."
During the 1620s, there was religious and political turmoil in England as King Charles I battled for the absolute power of the monarchy. Persecution of Puritans increased because the king wanted everyone to follow the formulas of the national church. Many Puritans planned to emigrate. By 1629 a group of them had formed the Massachusetts Bay Company to settle America. John was elected governor of the company. Soon he had enlisted 700 colonists for the new settlement, and in l630, their fleet sailed for America. It was on this voyage of the Arbella that John preached on Christ's "Sermon on the Mount."
While aboard ship, John also issued a "Model of Christian Charity," ideas that would stamp the young Puritan colony. He called for brotherly love and a strong commitment to the Christian faith-- but moderation in just about everything else.
He devoted over 20 years of his life to building the Massachusetts Colony. A later Puritan called him an "American Nehemiah" because, like Nehemiah (who left an influential court position to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem), John cast aside a high position to unselfishly share the hardships of his fellow colonists in establishing a godly society.
Like all great men, John had his warts. Although he was a very practical administrator, his ideals were so strong that they allowed little room for tolerance. He presided over the trial of Anne Hutchinson who diverged from Puritan views and called for women's rights. But rather than execute her, which he might have done, he exiled her.
Pictured below: Stone Marker of John Winthrop's Mansion in Massachusetts
- Based on an earlier Christian History Institute story.
- Fitzhugh, Harriet Lloyd, and Percy K. Concise Biographical Dictionary. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1935.
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- Northrop, Henry Davenport. New Century History of Our Country and its Island Possessions. Chicago, Illinois: American Educational League, 1900. Source of the image.
- Vaughan, Alden T. "Winthrop, John." Encyclopedia of American Biography. Editor John Garraty. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.
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Last update June 2007.