What I Just Finished Reading: John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founder by Francis J. Bremer published by Oxford University Press (2003)
Look, I like the Puritans as much as the next man, but the first third of this book was awfully slow going. Starting a biography of the founding father of American Puritanism nearly a full century before he was born may not have been the best strategy to engage the reader. And the fact that John Winthrop, the hero of the story, doesn’t get to Boston until around page 200 doesn’t help matters either.
Winthrop is an important figure in early American history. He, much more than the “Pilgrim Fathers”, set the tone for the development of New England, and English-speaking America. The Pilgrims brought about 100 people to the New World, Winthrop’s group brought 30,000. Winthrop’s sermon on Christian Charity said that the Puritans would build a “City on a Hill”, an image invoked by worldly politicians ever since.
The Puritans were a troubled lot in England in the late 1500s. They were officially part of the Church of England under the overlordship of whomever happened to be king or queen, but they chaffed under the duty of associating with other English Protestants whom they saw as sinful backsliders. They were also eternally fearful of Catholics and viewed the Pope variously as and agent of the devil or as the devil himself.
To compound problems, they faced the eternal Protestant Dilema. They were splitters within the Church of England, and their members tended to be splitters as well. This was a movement that was constantly splintering. Congregationalists, Unitarians, Quakers, Baptists, Presbyterians, Pilgrims, Seekers, and a half-dozen other religions would emerge as splinters of Puritanism.
And, Puritans did not react well to dissidents.
Before Withrop even arrived in New England, the small Puritan settlement of Salem, Mass. had already arrested and deported two Anglicans in 1629! They would later expel Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, execute Quakers, execute sexual non-conformists, and burn witches. All in less than 60 years time.
Within this overheated Puritan world, Winthrop was considered a moderate. While he rejoiced at the death of Anne Hutchinson during an Indian raid, he looked after the fortunes of the exiled Roger Williams in Rhode Island. The most frequent criticism of his performance as governor of the colony was that he was too lenient with sinners.
See if you find these examples of liberality: Sir Chistopher Gerliner was exiled because he was believed to be a Catholic, John Baker was whipped for hunting on the Sabbath, Philip Radcliffe had his ears cut off, and was whipped, fined, and exiled for criticizing the local government. When new immigrants arrived in Boston, they had to avow that they were not followers of Anne Hutchinson.
Winthrop also gave his top military aide a license to provoke the Native Americans living near Boston.
On the other side of the ledger, Winthrop helped establish what would be the most literate society in the world at the time. He backed education for children and helped Harvard College get its start.
Bremer’s book has many merits, but he may think of condensing it for a short, and more readable biography of one of the most important figures of the first century of English America.