Two Prominent Figures in 17th Century New England Puritanism

  1. Prominent Figures in the Movement
    1. John Winthrop

John Winthrop was born January 22, 1588 in Suffolk, England. He was part of the aristocracy and grew up on a 500 acre estate which his father had purchased from Henry VIII. John and his family were Puritans; which became increasingly difficult as King Charles I sought to enforce a high Anglicanism in England. After briefly attending Trinity College in Cambridge he studied law at Gray’s Inn.1 Winthrop enjoyed a successful legal career and also became an influential Puritan leader in England. He lost hope for reformation within the Church of England and it led him to reject Oliver Cromwell’s plea to join a rebellion against King Charles I. Instead, Winthrop chose to seek religious freedom in America. On August 26, 1629, John Winthrop, Thomas Dudley, Richard Saltonsall along with other men of wealth and influence agreed together to sail to America before the following March. This became known as the “Great Migration” which included 700 people sailing on eleven ships bound for Salem.2 An English historian described the crew of Puritans as follows,

“They were not broken men, adventurers, criminals, or simply poor men and artisans. They were, in great part, men of the professional and middle classes; some of them of large landed estates; some zealous clergymen, some shrewd London lawyers or young scholars from Oxford, driven forth from their fatherland not by earthly want, or by the greed of gold, or by the lust of adventure, but by the fear of God and the zeal for a godly worship.”3

This group of English Puritans organized themselves under the name Massachusetts Bay Company.4 Under this banner they hoped to establish themselves in America where they could live more faithfully under the principles of the New Testament. They felt they could not do so in England. Prior to setting sail, Winthrop was elected governor by his accompanying Puritans, a deputy governor and eighteen assistants were also elected.5 During his life he was elected governor of Massachusetts multiple times. On April 8, 1630, at age forty-two, Winthrop set sail from England on the Arabella and landed in Salem, Massachusetts on June 12.6 Upon landing in America they founded the Holy Commonwealth of Massachusetts.7 Over the next sixteen years there would be more than 20,000 Puritans who would sail from England to America.8

There were varying motivations among those migrating to America but Winthrop proposed a spiritual purpose for embarking on the voyage. He outlined this vision in his sermon entitled, “A Model of Christian Charity” which he composed on June 11, 1630 while sailing to America.910 In his sermon he likened the migrating Puritans to Israel’s exodus from Egypt. They were abandoning England and its church, which were controlled by a wicked government. This corruption resulted in the English people being unfaithful to God. Winthrop believed that their group of Puritans would establish a new England in America. He viewed America as the Promised Land. He even believed that their success in America would rest upon their faithfulness to God’s law. Governor Winthrop truly believed that they would live as God’s people living according to God’s commands. It appears that Winthrop viewed their new settlement as though it were truly the Kingdom of God. Here is an excerpt of his message,

“For we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world, we shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God and all professors for God’s sake; we shall shame the faces of many of God’s 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.”11

Winthrop was highly respected among his contemporaries. He firmly believed that he was divinely appointed to migrate to America and establish a Theocracy in New England. Here is a recollection of the man as,

“wise, conscientious, often honored by his fellow-citizens, always discharging his duties with dignity and scrupulous fidelity. Though never aggressive, he was resolute in maintaining his convictions of right. More than two hundred and fifty years have rolled by…and yet Winthrop is not forgotten, nor has any blemish been found upon his record.”

It is clear that Winthrop was a pious man who was unafraid of confrontation. He once reproved one of his deputies for furnishing his home too extravagantly.12 Much of this information is preserved in Winthrop’s journal entitled, History of New England. He began making daily recordings upon his departure from England in 1630 and ceased writing shortly before his death on April 5, 1649.13 Winthrop continually sought to uphold the principles of a Theocracy in the territory which led him to sacrifice his popularity among certain groups during his lifetime. He continually held to his principles.

One of the reasons the Puritans left England was government oppression of the church, which ironically came to plague them in Massachusetts. The civil government was the enforcer of morality and theology in the settlement. They had difficulty moving away from such a position. The leadership had painted such a vivid picture of governance that there was no option other than a Theocracy. The civil officials were viewed servants of God given to lead the people. This was in fact Winthrop’s vision for governance as evidenced here,

“The great questions that have troubled the country are about the authority of the magistrates and the liberty of the people. It is yourselves who have called us to this office, and, being called by you, we have our authority from God, in way of ordinance, such as hath the image of God eminently stamped upon it, the contempt and violation whereof hath been vindicated with examples of divine vengeance.”1415

The desire for theological conformity led to the civil leaders banishing non-conformers such as Roger Williams16 and Ann Hutchinson17 from the settlement.1819 In reality, Williams and Hutchinson were banished because they opposed the Theocracy as it was practiced. Winthrop’s vision of a Theocracy in Massachusetts eventually unraveled. Yet, the legacy of his belief that America has a divinely instituted moral and spiritual mission has endured throughout American history.202122

    1. John Cotton

John Cotton was born December 1585 in England. Cotton was the eminent scholar and preacher of his time. So strong was his influence that those in England and America were seeking his services. He was sympathetic to Puritanism which resulted in him facing persecution. In fact, he preached a sermon to Winthrop and his crew of Puritans prior to their departure for America in 1630.23 At that time he addressed these Puritans, he had no intention of leaving England. The following observation gives a sense of the anti-Puritan atmosphere in England at the time,

“’We call you Puritans,’ wrote an English clergyman named Oliver Ormerod at the beginning of the seventeenth century, ‘not because you are purer than other men…but because you think yourselves to be purer.’ That sentence, contemptuous as it is, contains a fundamental insight into the phenomenon called Puritanism: Ormerod understood that the Puritans had received their name, and even their sense of who they were, from those who reviled them. Theirs was a movement invented, in some respects, by its enemies.”24

Rather than standing trial over accusations of being a Puritan, Cotton fled to America in June, 1633.25 Soon after his arrival he was appointed minister of the First Church of Boston where he served until 1652. His gift of teaching was so well known that upon learning of his arrival in America, John Winthrop wrote the following, “He was desired to diverse places.”26 In December 1634, he wrote a lengthy correspondence in which he detailed his reasons for leaving England. One of which was that he felt he no longer was able to be heard in his homeland.27 His departure from England left such a void that Thomas Shephard wrote the following, “I saw the Lord departed from England, when Mr. Hooker and Mr. Cotton were gone;…and I did think I should feel many miseries if I stayed behind.”28

This gifted man also composed a volume on church government which depicted the New England churches as a middle-ground between the Separatists and the Presbyterians. He became known as the preeminent teacher in the colonies and as a result became the target of criticism.29 Cotton had a lasting impact on the governance of the colonies through his teaching ministry. It is said that the principles which he declared were soon after employed by the civil authorities to govern the people.30 He also composed two works which were used to support and establish a congregational form of governance: The Keyes of the Kingdom of Heaven and the Power Thereof (1644), and The Way of the Churches of Christ in New–England (1645).31 Cotton was well aware of the potential for corruption among those in civil authority because he had experienced such unrestrained corruption of power in his homeland. This knowledge led him to write,

Let all the world learn to give mortal men no greater power than they are content they shall use, for use it they will: and unless they be better taught of God, they will use it ever and anon.…For whatever transcendent power is given, will certainly over-run those that give it, and those that receive it: there is a strain in a mans heart that will sometime or other run out to excess, unless the Lord restrain it, but it is not good to venture it: It is necessary therefore, that all power that is on earth be limited, Church-power or other …It is counted a matter of danger to the State to limit Prerogatives; but it is a further danger, not to have them limited: They will be like a Tempest, if they be not limited.”32

John Cotton’s grasp of the Scriptures also enabled him to deal with issues of practical conduct, such as whether women needed to wear head coverings. Cotton defended the view that women did not need to wear them and Roger Williams proposed that they were to do so. Each man is said to have provided an ample amount of biblical support for his position.33 Apparently, the women preferred Cotton’s view because they only wore head coverings when they desired.34 John Cotton was always ready and willing to address situations with an appropriate biblical answer. He even produced principles describing regulations for fair trade.35 His writing has been described as, “Vast tracts and jungles of Puritanic discourse – exposition, exhortation, logic-chopping, theological hair-splitting.”36

Cotton supported a theocratic form of governance and yet believed that churches should have the authority to choose its own leadership and practice its own discipline.37 This is likely why he was sympathetic to the teachings of Ann Hutchinson. In his later writings he is found to be deeply impressed by her teachings. Hutchinson was tried by the civil authorities and exiled because of her teachings, which were contrary to the governmental practices at the time. She was accused of being an Antinomian because she did not believe that progressive sanctification should be viewed as the evidence of conversion, rather the evidence is the presence of the indwelling Holy Spirit in the life of individuals.38 Her criticisms included praise for Cotton. She said that other ministers were unskilled and preached a gospel of works but she did not include Cotton in this criticism.39 She also claimed that the ministers were not sealed and were not able ministers.40 In the end John Cotton distanced himself from Hutchinson. He came to realize that if he did not distinguish himself from Hutchinson and her followers, he too would be banished from the colony. Therefore, he diligently sought to reacquire the standing he once enjoyed with his fellow ministers.41

As the colony began to develop individuals began neglecting to attend church and this greatly agitated Cotton. In this face of such apathy he remarked,

“But when men thus depart, God usually [afflicts] them with such restless agitations that they are driven to repent of their former rashness, and many times return to the church from which they had broken away.”42

After the controversy of being associated with the condemned teachings of Ann Hutchinson, Cotton took every opportunity to prove his orthodoxy. The other ministers were very uncertain about his true stance. He had to prove himself through a time of questioning by fellow ministers, in which they closely interrogated him on sixteen points of orthodoxy.43 On one such occasion, he spoke vehemently against the Baptist practice of denying infant baptism, calling such a practice a capital offense.44

John Cotton leaves a strong legacy of teaching, writing, and influence. The colonies leaned heavily on his teachings for the establishment of their governance. He had been the most sought after teacher of his time and yet became swept up in the controversy surrounding Ann Hutchinson. It appears that as a result of Cotton being a diligent student of the Scriptures was seeking a most accurate understanding of them and application of them in the governance of the colonies. This led him to come dangerously close to stepping outside of the Theocracy as it was presently understood and practiced. Despite this controversy, he was still eminently respected among his contemporaries until his death (December 23, 1652).45

WORKS CITED

Douglas, J. D., Philip Wesley Comfort, and Donald Mitchell, Who’s Who in Christian History, (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1997).

This source provided some general information about both individuals. It is not a source to find in-depth specific information about the Puritans. Yet, it will provide general information about historically significant individuals from church history. It is a decent resource.

Federer, William J., Great Quotations : A Collection of Passages, Phrases, and Quotations Influencing Early and Modern World History Referenced According to Their Sources in Literature, Memoirs, Letters, Governmental Documents, Speeches, Charters, Court Decisions and Constitutions, (St. Louis: AmeriSearch, 2001).

This source contains sermons and writings done by John Winthrop and John Cotton. This is a useful resource to find original works of the these influential individuals. This is a secondary source which has which has compiled information from other secondary sources.

Gonzalez, Justo L., The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the Present Day, vol. 2, (New York: Harper Collins Publishing, 1985).

This is a useful textbook which provides information about different periods of church history detailing certain significant events and individuals involved in those events. It is well done and is beneficial for use outside of the present study.

Green, John, Short History of the English People, (London: MacMillan and Company, Limited, 1907).

This book is a history of the people of England and is helpful for background information on the Puritans who left England for freedom in the American colonies. There is not a wealth of information for the ongoing history of the New England Puritans.

Heimert, Alan and Andrew Delbanco, The Puritans in America: a narrative anthology, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985).

This was the most beneficial book that I used. It has a wealth of specific information about the background history of the Puritans in England, their reasons for migrating to America, their significant individuals, and their ongoing legacy. I highly recommend this book.

Howe, Daniel Wait, The Puritan Republic of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in New England, (Indianapolis: The Bowen-Merrill Company, 1879).

This book was also a very beneficial book. It had a significant amount of information and history about the New England Puritans and their leaders. It discussed specific details about the difficulties the Puritans faced and how they dealt with them. I would highly recommend this book.

1 Douglas, J. D., Philip Wesley Comfort and Donald Mitchell, Who’s Who in Christian History (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1997).

2Winthrop, John. Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1977), p. 148.

3Howe, Daniel Wait, The Puritan Republic of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in New England (Indianapolis, IN: The Bowen-Merrill Company, 1879), 19.

4Gonzalez, Justo L., The Story of Christianity, Vol. 2: The Reformation to the Present Day (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishing, 1985), p. 221.

5Green, John, Short History of the English People (London: MacMillan and Company, Limited, 1907), p.498.

6Howe, Daniel Wait, The Puritan Republic of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in New England (Indianapolis, IN: The Bowen-Merrill Company, 1879), 20.

7Douglas, J. D., Philip Wesley Comfort and Donald Mitchell, Who’s Who in Christian History (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1997).

8Winthrop, John. Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1977), p. 148.

9Ibid., p. 148.

10Douglas, J. D., Philip Wesley Comfort and Donald Mitchell, Who’s Who in Christian History (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1997).

11Federer, William J., Great Quotations : A Collection of Passages, Phrases, and Quotations Influencing Early and Modern World History Referenced According to Their Sources in Literature, Memoirs, Letters, Governmental Documents, Speeches, Charters, Court Decisions and Constitutions (St. Louis, MO: AmeriSearch, 2001).

12Howe, Daniel Wait, The Puritan Republic of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in New England (Indianapolis, IN: The Bowen-Merrill Company, 1879), pp. 96-97.

13Ibid., p. 180.

14 Hurd, Charles, ed., A Treasury of Great American Speeches (NY: Hawthorne Books, 1959), p. 17.

15 Federer, William J., Great Quotations : A Collection of Passages, Phrases, and Quotations Influencing Early and Modern World History Referenced According to Their Sources in Literature, Memoirs, Letters, Governmental Documents, Speeches, Charters, Court Decisions and Constitutions (St. Louis, MO: AmeriSearch, 2001).

16Williams had criticized the church in England which led to him fleeing to America in 1630. He did the same thing in New England and in 1635 it earned him a sentence of exile to return to England. He escaped and settled among Native Americans.

17Hutchinson criticized the majority of the ministers in Boston claiming they were preaching a gospel of works. She had gatherings at her home in which she discussed and criticized the sermons of the ministers. She also professed to receive new divine revelation. She was accused of antinomianism, which referred more to her political views than her theological. She supported a greater separation between church and state.

18Douglas, J. D., Philip Wesley Comfort and Donald Mitchell, Who’s Who in Christian History (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1997).

19Federer, William J., Great Quotations : A Collection of Passages, Phrases, and Quotations Influencing Early and Modern World History Referenced According to Their Sources in Literature, Memoirs, Letters, Governmental Documents, Speeches, Charters, Court Decisions and Constitutions (St. Louis, MO: AmeriSearch, 2001).

20This excerpt is from a speech by John F. Kennedy, “Keeping in mind that ‘when a man’s ways please the Lord, he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him,’ let us go forth to lead this land that we love, joining in the prayer of General George Washington in 1783, “that God would have you in His holy protection, that He would incline the hearts of the citizens … to entertain a brotherly love and affection one for another … and finally that He would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with … the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, without an humble imitation of whose example we can never hope to be a happy nation.”

21In his final Presidential radio address Ronald Reagan said, “I’ve often recalled one group of early settlers making a treacherous crossing of the Atlantic on a small ship when their leader, a minister, noted that perhaps their venture would fail and they would become a byword, a footnote to history. But perhaps, too, with God’s help, they might found a new world, a city upon a hill, a light unto nations.”

22Federer, William J., Great Quotations : A Collection of Passages, Phrases, and Quotations Influencing Early and Modern World History Referenced According to Their Sources in Literature, Memoirs, Letters, Governmental Documents, Speeches, Charters, Court Decisions and Constitutions (St. Louis, MO: AmeriSearch, 2001).

23Heimert, Alan and Andrew Delbanco, The Puritans in America: a narrative anthology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 75-6.

24Ibid., p. 1.

25Ibid., p. 94.

26Ibid., p. 27.

27Ibid., pp. 94-6.

28Ibid., p. 97.

29Ibid., p. 108.

30Federer, William J., Great Quotations : A Collection of Passages, Phrases, and Quotations Influencing Early and Modern World History Referenced According to Their Sources in Literature, Memoirs, Letters, Governmental Documents, Speeches, Charters, Court Decisions and Constitutions (St. Louis, MO: AmeriSearch, 2001).

31Douglas, J. D., Philip Wesley Comfort and Donald Mitchell, Who’s Who in Christian History (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1997).

32Federer, William J., Great Quotations : A Collection of Passages, Phrases, and Quotations Influencing Early and Modern World History Referenced According to Their Sources in Literature, Memoirs, Letters, Governmental Documents, Speeches, Charters, Court Decisions and Constitutions (St. Louis, MO: AmeriSearch, 2001).

33Howe, Daniel Wait, The Puritan Republic of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in New England (Indianapolis, IN: The Bowen-Merrill Company, 1879), p. 100.

34Ibid., p. 101.

35Ibid., pp. 142-43.

36Ibid., p. 190.

37Douglas, J. D., Philip Wesley Comfort and Donald Mitchell, Who’s Who in Christian History (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1997).

38Heimert, Alan and Andrew Delbanco, The Puritans in America: a narrative anthology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 155.

39Howe, Daniel Wait, The Puritan Republic of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in New England (Indianapolis, IN: The Bowen-Merrill Company, 1879), p. 215.

40Ibid., She described them as the apostles before the coming of the Holy Spirit.

41Howe, Daniel Wait, The Puritan Republic of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in New England (Indianapolis, IN: The Bowen-Merrill Company, 1879), p. 233-34.

42Federer, William J., Great Quotations : A Collection of Passages, Phrases, and Quotations Influencing Early and Modern World History Referenced According to Their Sources in Literature, Memoirs, Letters, Governmental Documents, Speeches, Charters, Court Decisions and Constitutions (St. Louis, MO: AmeriSearch, 2001).

43Howe, Daniel Wait, The Puritan Republic of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in New England (Indianapolis, IN: The Bowen-Merrill Company, 1879), p. 233

44Ibid., p. 236.

45Federer, William J., Great Quotations : A Collection of Passages, Phrases, and Quotations Influencing Early and Modern World History Referenced According to Their Sources in Literature, Memoirs, Letters, Governmental Documents, Speeches, Charters, Court Decisions and Constitutions (St. Louis, MO: AmeriSearch, 2001).

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