- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 5, 2003

The subtitle of Francis J. Bremer’s biography, “John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father,” is apt. Winthrop’s name today is familiar, to the extent it is familiar at all, as the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s Puritan settlement that would be so indelible a part of New England’s defining culture and of eventual U.S. nationhood.

There has been freshened interest lately in the Revolutionary era, but the Colonial period has not attracted comparable attention. Indeed, it isn’t too much to suggest that these early decades are essentially a void for very many of us. The religious intensity and anguish of soul that were endemic to the Reformation and carried to America seems nearly incomprehensible in our secular landscape, even, one suspects, to a good many who profess denominational creeds.

Part of the reason for this vague grasp, as the author notes, is because of a change in historical fashion. From an early conventional notion that “the puritans and their Pilgrim religious cousins were the true architects of what made America what it was,” writes Mr. Bremer, the opposite became prevalent: Late in the 19th and into the 20th century, they began to be portrayed as incubators of the strain of prudery and bigotry that supposedly is close to the surface of our national character, “the stereotype of sour, steeple-hatted persecutors.”

The most recent drift of professorial fashion is that history is written from “the bottom up,” concentrating on ordinary lives, social history. Fine, writes Mr. Bremer, editor of the Winthrop Papers for the Massachusetts Historical Society, a visiting scholar at Oxford and Cambridge, and professor of history at Millersville University in Pennsylvania.

But “it is also important to recognize the role that exceptional men and women can play in directing the course of events … By striving toward what he [Winthrop] saw as a radically better world while insisting on moderate and traditional measures to progress toward that goal, he helped to prevent his colony from being blown off course by the winds of extremism and from being wrecked on the rocks of fanaticism.”

If we are to try to understand Winthrop, who came ashore here in his mid-40s, it is necessary to grasp his earlier life. The new church that began to take form after Henry VIII’s break with Rome was, without “clear identity, its character being contested between the Catholic doctrinal and liturgical propensities of the king and the reform vision of the men whom he needed to run his new Protestant church,” writes Mr. Bremer. “Whereas Lutheranism, Calvinism and other reform movements were based on a religious vision and subsequently developed institutional identities, the English church had a structure before it had a platform.”

There was within that loose institutional frame, however, agreement on the dangers posed by Rome. The advocates of ever further reform, “previously identified as the ‘hotter sort of Protestants’ and as ‘evangelicals,’ now began to identify themselves as ‘the godly’ and to occasionally be accused by establishment churchmen as ‘puritans’ or ‘precisians.’”

Doctrinal and political turmoil (the two were not separable then, of course) continued through the brief reigns of Edward VI and Mary Tudor, and then that of Elizabeth (John Winthrop was born in the year of the Armada, 1588), James I and into the truncated tenure of Charles I and the civil war.

Winthrop was born in a county where “the godly” were in ascendance, and he was raised in the spirit of dissent by his father, Adam. There were doctrinal differences among these Protestants, a major fissure being between salvation by works or “free grace,” but it was the habit among parishes to seek areas of compromise — unity without uniformity. This would be the religious philosophy of the future governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

The Winthrops were minor country gentry. At 14, John went to Cambridge,intent on entering the ministry. At 17, however, he met Mary Forth and, as Mr. Bremer carefully writes, “The relationship between the two matured more rapidly than was customary.” Mary died after eight years. His second wife died in childbirth a year later, and soon he married for a third time, to Margaret Tyndal. It was a loving union that would last nearly three decades until her death. (There was a fourth marriage late in Winthrop’s life.)

John had succeeded his father as the lord of Gorton Manor, the Winthrop estate, and increasingly took part in the civic obligations of his position. He also studied law in London. Winthrop would note that he was tempted by the “glory, wealth, pleasure & such like worldly felicity” that such status could offer, but, writes Mr. Bremer, “it was [an] almost physical, ecstatic sense of God’s love that gave him the confidence that would enable him to shape his character and path regardless of external opposition and occasional inner doubts.”

In the years of James’ rule, the tensions between the established church and its parts grew. Most dissenters considered themselves communicants of the Church of England. The more radical dissenters, however, rejected the state church and its hierarchy (e.g., the “separatist” Pilgrims who established the Plymouth Colony in 1620). With Charles I’s accession in 1625, nonconforming clergymen were increasingly called before ecclesiastical courts and several were executed. The king’s marriage to a French princess intensified fear of a return of Catholicism.

Winthrop’s decision to migrate was based on “Concern for his family, concern for England, concern for the cause of religious reform — all these began to point to his undertaking an errand into the American wilderness.” A charter was granted in 1629 to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and Winthrop was chosen as governor by the company directors for the venture to found “a city on the hill” in a new land.

The reason “an obscure Suffolk gentleman” was chosen to lead the Massachusetts Bay initiative, writes Mr. Bremer, was because of the seeming unimportance of the group. These years, of course, saw the amazing acceleration of English spirit that would result in the splendid empire, and companies of adventurers were being established energetically.

Mr. Bremer suggests (would that it were the case) that most of his readers will be familiar with the colony’s founding and development. But he provides a compelling account — just in case. The hard early years, the Pequot Indian war, the intense efforts to fashion an equitable governing structure, and the episodic fractious disputes are thoroughly covered. These include of course the ruckus over the famous banishment of Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams (the latter during an interval when Winthrop was not governor; Williams was expelled because he urged rejection of the established English church, which the colonists feared could result in revocation of their charter and loss of autonomy).

Winthrop was frequently reelected as governor, and remained perhaps the most influential of the colonists. His sermon “Christian Charity” was once well known in America — “we must love one another with a pure heart, fervently” so that we “delight in each other, mourn together, labor and suffer together.” He died in 1626.

Mr. Bremer’s biography is rich in insights and detail. He has written a memorable account of a good man.

Woody West is associate editor of The Washington Times.

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