As governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and arguably its leading citizen from the colony’s founding in 1630 to his death in 1649, John Winthrop, Sr., received and wrote a great deal of correspondence. People great and common wrote him asking for help, favors, advice, and news. Many letters to him have been preserved over the centuries, thanks in large part to the work of the Massachusetts Historical Society. One in particular excites our notice: an anonymous letter written in May 1637 from England.
Winthrop, like most MBC colonists, had a steady correspondence with friends, family, and colleagues who remained in England. As Puritans, Winthrop and his correspondents practiced mutual watch, which meant they alerted each other constantly to potential pitfalls along the way to seeking God’s righteousness, pointing out errors they felt their friends were committing and gladly receiving correction, as they would have called it, for their own mistakes. Puritans remaining in England were particularly watchful of the state of the fledgling Puritan colony in America. So much was riding on its success; if the MBC could thrive and remain on a path of righteousness, then a) all the English Puritans could leave England, where they were seriously endangered, and flee confidently to Massachusetts; b) true religion would not perish from the earth when God destroyed England; and c) England and its church might actually be reformed if they could clearly see that God was blessing the Puritans in America while battering the Anglicans in England.
1637 was a crucial year in this anxious watching and waiting to see if God would really bless New England. There were many doubters even amongst the English Puritans. Many early emigrants to America had permanently returned to England, bearing tales of hardship, starvation, cruelly cold weather, and, most importantly and worryingly, religious and political apostasy. (It is somehow poignant to note how shocked English people were by the winter weather in New England; English colonists had not yet encountered American cold [having only been in Virginia] and some believed that the extreme temperatures, so unlike anything they had ever experienced in England, were a sign that New England was not the promised land, and that God did not bless their venture there, and was trying to drive them out.) Returnees and even MBC colonists writing letters told enough about the political innovations of the colony to make English Puritans worry that the colonists were practicing treason (making all adult males freemen, for example, and allowing them to vote for their governor and legislature, and having all freemen swear a loyalty oath to the colony rather than the king). English Puritans, while persecuted by King Charles I, did not want their colony in America to launch a rebellion against him because that would only lead Charles to make the MBC into a royal colony under his direct control, which would have meant an end to the Puritanism practiced there.
English Puritans were perhaps even more alarmed at word of religious “innovations” being introduced in Massachusetts. They worried that the complete freedom colonists had to worship as they saw fit in America, and their release from the state persecution that had knit English Puritans tightly together as a resistance unit, was leading to pointless and divisive arguments about how to worship, which was leading to new ideas and unsound theology.
These fears were confirmed for many by news of the Antinomian Controversy, which began to reach England in 1637. This religious civil war, led by John Wheelwright and Anne Hutchinson in Boston, was thoroughly and luridly described in letters from New England and publications from Boston and in London, and seemed to show English Puritans that the MBC was going off the rails, reaping the harvest of its chaotic religious arguments. The Antinomians were condemned, but so too were some of the conclusions their opponents came to in Boston, and John Winthrop’s description of the errors Wheelwright and Hutchinson had been condemned for only convinced many English Puritans that New England had quickly become a place where any lunatic could raise a devoted following.
This bad press came at a time when anti-Puritan Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud was working hard to have the MBC’s charter, or patent, revoked; this document gave the colonists permission to settle in America and to form their own government. Many English Puritans saw the MBC as irresponsibly sabotaging its own chances of survival, and they took the opportunity to write to their brethren in America to complain.
One such letter, and a perfect example of the genre, is an anonymous letter sent to Governor Winthrop in May 1637. He must have received it in late June or July. It is an astounding piece of work, doing three things at once: warning Winthrop of the dangers to his colony in London; praying for the colony’s survival; and taking every opportunity to slag off the MBC and everyone in it as lousy, degenerate, lazy jerks whom everyone in England hates. But with love. It is a tribute to John Winthrop’s complete lack of ego that he saved this letter,and likely responded to it very patiently. (We have many more letters that Winthrop received than letters he wrote; as governor, he felt it a duty to posterity to save his correspondence, but the people he wrote to were not as careful.) Let’s go over this remarkably long and haranguing missive, if not in full, then in large part (spellings modernized):
“Myself and many others are daily petitioners to God, for his grace to abound to you in New England, that you may increase in faith, wisdom, humility, love, zeal, patience, brotherly kindness, etc., enjoying such a competency of outward prosperity as may make you to live in the service of the Lord the more comfortably. And we are exceedingly glad to hear of your welfare, and especially your growth in holiness.”
—Already this first paragraph might irritate us as modern people, but it is in line with the usual Puritan watch and “exhortation”; Winthrop would have been grateful that so many in England were praying for his spiritual success and that of the colony, and he would not have seen this opening paragraph as implying that he and the colonists were not all they should be. It’s interesting here to see the writer say that he hopes the colony’s economy will improve (“competency of outward prosperity”) so that the people can “live in the service of the Lord more comfortably”—it’s unusual for a Puritan to admit that it’s a lot easier to devote yourself to prayer when you’re not poor and starving.
“I have been much moved of late… to write my slender advice to some prudent man among you, and one gracious with the plantations, and thereby able to give counsel to them, and to prevail with them in things conducing to God’s glory and your own prosperities.”
—He is writing to Winthrop because Winthrop is that prudent man whom everyone in New England loves (“gracious with the plantations”); now the burden is on Winthrop to listen to what the writer has to say because he is the only man in New England who has the clout and the respect to give its people advice. Winthrop, thus deliberately singled out, becomes at once someone to pass along the criticisms in this letter and the victim of those criticisms, since, as the colony’s leader, the implication is that he should have been stopping the bad behavior there on his own without having to be told to do so.
“First, I have read and heard of sundry letters written from some with you unto others with us, (and I fear there have been very many such sent over to us into diverse parts of our land,) wherein there are many weak, and some dangerous passages, which if they should come to the eyes or ears of any one of the many thousands of your adversaries, it would afford them matter enough to attempt your undoing, what in them did lie.”
—People in the MBC are writing home to England, not just to London but to many different locations in England, so the things they say are widely known, and most of those letters say stupid things that could bring down royal control on your colony (which would be its “undoing”). Who would be angered by these letters? Why, any of the “many thousands” of the colony’s enemies. This first reference—and there will be many, many more—to people in England hating people in New England might not have raised John Winthrop’s suspicions; he might have thought that the writer was referring to anti-Puritan Anglicans. As the letter goes on, however, Winthrop must have wondered two things: if these “adversaries” didn’t include those who called themselves the colonists their “dear brethren”; and whether their criticisms weren’t directed at him in particular and not just those ignorant colonists who wrote careless letters.