American Character: John Winthrop

John Winthrop, leader of the Puritan migration to Massachusetts, and that colony’s first governor, sometimes gets a bum rap from historians. Even one of my favorite historians, Paul Johnson, considers him too severe. A good corrective on that, however, is a fairly recent biography by Francis Bremer, John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father. Bremer shows rather conclusively, I think, that Winthrop was a man of great moderation fueled by his Christian faith.

Winthrop is known, if at all, primarily for the sermon he preached on his ship coming over to the New World. In that sermon, called “A Model of Christian Charity,” he instructs:

For we must consider that we shall be as a city on a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we 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.

Winthrop understood that God expects people to live up to the standards He has set. If we fail to do so, He will not help us. Christians need to maintain a consistent testimony before the watching world. If we don’t, we besmirch the reputation of the One who saved us.

During Winthrop’s first winter in Massachusetts, sickness overcame the new settlers. Many died; others were starving. Since he was one of the wealthiest of the settlers, he gave freely out of his plenty to help those who were less fortunate. One of the first settlers to die was his own son.

One might think that such an experience would sour a man on the mission. Not Winthrop. When the spring came, he wrote to his wife back in England about all the sorrows and tribulations, but stated clearly,

Yet for all these things (I praise my God) I am not discouraged, nor do I cause to repent, or despair of those good days here, which will make amends for all.

This is called faith. It is the testimony of John Winthrop.