John Winthrop and the Settlement of New England

From a lecture series presented by The Great Courses

New England is one of America’s most storied regions and its colonial roots illustrate a fascinating history of Puritans in America. Explore what John Winthrop termed “the city on the hill” in the Massachusetts colony.

Engraving showing Winthrop's arrival at Salem
John Winthrop arrived at Salem, Massachusetts, a coastal city of New England, in 1630.

The Massachusetts Bay Company’s fleet of 11 ships and 700 pseudo- employees left for New England in the spring of 1630. No one paid enough attention at that time to the fact that, contrary to English law governing corporations, neither Governor John Winthrop nor the general court nor the Bay Company Charter stayed in England. They all took ship with the fleet to America, and thus, before anyone could stop them, the government of the Massachusetts Bay Company was legally and geographically well out of the reach of any second thoughts on the part of King Charles.

Land Ho! Winthrop Arrives in New England

Once they made landfall in New England and set up a settlement on Massachusetts Bay, which they named Boston, Winthrop and the general court became not just the heads of a joint-stock company, but they also became the de facto government of a Puritan Massachusetts Bay. For the first time in their lives, the Puritan settlers of Massachusetts Bay could breathe freely as Puritans. Within that freedom, lurked a problem for John Winthrop. The Puritans of the Bay colony had left England swearing up and down that they were not Separatists—that they were not trying to dismantle the Church of England. Once they were in Massachusetts with no royal officials looking and listening, however, there would be a vast temptation to throw off these promises and these excuses, and to begin pushing Puritan radicalism to its limits, if there were any limits.

John Winthrop (1588-1649) and the general court became the de facto government of a Puritan Massachusetts Bay.

Learn more about puritans, kings and theology in practice

John Winthrop had anticipated this, and as governor during the voyage across the Atlantic, he had warned his fellow immigrants, in these terms: “We must be knit together in this work as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities,” our luxuries, “for the supply of others’ necessities, we must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body, for we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill.”

There’s that telling phrase for the first time in our history, “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 and so cause him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.”

Community in the City on a Hill

To be sure, there was every reason to believe that Winthrop’s Puritans would take this warning about the need for oneness, solidarity, community to heart. The Puritans who came to New England were, after all, a far cry from the freebooters and the street sweepings that populated so many of the other European colonies.

This is a transcript from the video series The History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Take as a comparison the passenger lists of three immigrant ships that left England for America in 1635. Two of these ships—the Merchants Hope and the Elizabeth—were bound to Virginia with 114 settlers; of that 114, however, 72 were single men whose average age was 20 years old, and all of them appeared to have been going as servant labor.

An unnamed passenger ship leaving Weymouth in England for Massachusetts carried, by contrast, 126 passengers, but among them were 13 complete households. In other words, there were husbands, wives, children, and servants. The average age of heads of those households was 36 years old, the midpoint of life expectancy in the 1600s.

Learn more about private life among 17th-century English commoners

In other words, the people bound for Virginia were footloose and poor. They were not a community; they were not bound together. In fact, they were so overwhelmingly young and male that they have all the difference from the ship that went to Massachusetts Bay as you would imagine between, let’s say, a company of new Marine recruits and a Sunday School class. The people bound for Massachusetts had stability. They had families. They had firm ideas already shaped by years of experience about the kind of community they planned to erect, and so one might suppose that they would have taken Winthrop’s words about community to heart.

Populating the Boston-to-Be

Ideas are volatile things, though, and radical ideas can drive apart stable communities of families just as easily as garrisons of short-tempered gentlemen can be driven apart. Winthrop seems to have imagined that his description of Massachusetts Bay as a city upon a hill was to be taken literally, that Boston would be the only settlement and that all of the Massachusetts Puritans would submit themselves there to the oversight of the governor and the general court.

They showed no such thing. In 1631, Puritans crowded onto Boston’s tiny peninsula. Then, some of them moved across the Charles River and established Charlestown without so much as a by-your-leave. They were followed in short order by settlements with names like Dorchester, Roxbury, Lynne, Watertown, Ipswich, Newbury, Concorde, and Hingham. All of these settlements were beginning to look like multiple cities upon a hill, rather than a single organized city. In 1635, one Puritan minister, Thomas Shepherd, actually migrated entirely out of Massachusetts Bay and founded a settlement on the Connecticut River named Hartford.

John Winthrop found that he had little power this far from England to curtail the itching of his fellow Puritans for movement. In fact, when he tried to intervene in a case in Hingham involving the promotion of a militia officer, Winthrop was indicted before the general court by the Hingham settlers for exceeding his authority as governor.

Roger Williams after being banished from the Massachusetts Bay colony, 1635,
In 1635, Roger Williams was banished to Narragansett Bay, where he organized his own Separatist colony of Rhode Island.

This action was only a sign that Puritan ideas could become as unstable as Puritan communities. In 1631, a radical Puritan named Roger Williams landed in Massachusetts and at once began advocating the conversion of the Massachusetts Bay churches into Separatist congregations. Winthrop was having none of it. He intervened, and in 1635, he arranged to have Williams banished to Narragansett Bay, where Williams organized his own Separatist colony of Rhode Island.

Then, in 1636, a radical laywoman named Anne Hutchinson bitterly divided the churches of Boston by teaching that God’s grace and sovereignty was so mysterious and so ineffable that no authority, not even the Bible, could stand in the way of its operation. Winthrop did not like hearing this, either. Winthrop trapped her as well when she began spouting what sounded like private revelations from God; Hutchinson, too, was banished to the Dutch settlements on Long Island.

From the lecture series The History of the United States, 2nd Edition, taught by multiple professors
Images courtesy of: By Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/item/98505313/.)
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