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John Winthrop was the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Learn about his role in the colony and both the good and bad decisions he made in this New England colony.

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John Winthrop (1588-1649) was the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and a prominent figure among the Puritan founders of New England. Winthrop was one of the best educated of the Puritan colonists, had great leadership skills and wisdom, and was known for being very religious. Although his strictness did result in a few mistakes, in general he is respected and admired for making the best decisions to help allow the colony to survive in the New World.

Portrait of John Winthrop

Winthrop’s Early Years

Winthrop was born into the English gentry class.

He went to Trinity College and studied law there, served as a justice of the peace, and gained a position in the government. He was also a country squire with an estate and land. Life was quite comfortable for Winthrop. He was also a very religious person, and spent much of his time studying scripture and praying. Eventually, his religious pursuits led him to become a Puritan, a strict religious group who wanted to purify the Church of England.By the late 1620s, Winthrop’s life was no longer quite so comfortable and established.

The King of England was making anti-Puritan policies, which cost Winthrop his government position. In addition, England was going through some hard economic times, and both Winthrop’s lands and income were greatly reduced.

Sailing to the New World

In 1629, the Massachusetts Bay Company gained a royal charter that allowed them to make a colony in New England.

Winthrop and his fellow Puritans eagerly joined the Company in the hopes that the New World would allow them to pursue their Puritan religious beliefs without persecution. Winthrop sold his remaining English lands, and he and his family set sail with other Puritans in the spring of 1630 on a ship called the Arabella.Right before the ship set sail, the Massachusetts Bay Company chose Winthrop to be the Governor of their future colony. This was because Winthrop had the best educational and vocational background for the job among all of the colonists leaving for New England. While on the ship, Winthrop gave a sermon to his fellow Puritans called ‘A Model of Christian Charity’, in which he envisioned that the Puritan colonists had made a covenant with God and were divinely ordained to build a ‘City Upon a Hill‘ in New England. Winthrop and his fellow Puritans believed that they were supposed to make a religious utopia in New England as an example to the rest of the world.

Massachusetts Bay Colony

For the remaining 19 years of his life, Winthrop lived in New England with his fellow Puritan colonists. He was considered a father figure and natural leader, and he was elected as governor 12 times during his remaining years. In the years that he was not governor (elections were held every year), he was still in government positions such as the colony council or the court of assistants.

New England Colonies
Trial of Anne Hutchinson

History has considered Winthrop as being too strict with his actions against both Williams and Hutchinson; however, Winthrop truly believed that these religious dissenters threatened the stability of the colony.

Winthrop gave the rest of his life to leading the colony and helping it survive against all threats, from Indians to internal issues. It is very possible that the colony would never have survived if not for the skills, wisdom, and leadership of Winthrop.Winthrop was married four times in his life; the first three wives died early, and his last wife survived him. His wives bore him a combination of 16 children. Winthrop died at the age of 61, in 1649, from a fever that lasted six weeks. His colonists had loved and respected him to the very end, which was the true proof of his excellent leadership skills.

Lesson Summary

John Winthrop was the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and a prominent figure among the Puritan founders of New England.

Winthrop’s fortunate early life helped him carve a role as a leader and governor. He was a passionately religious Puritan, and he truly believed that the Puritans were meant to make a religious utopia, a ‘City Upon a Hill’, in New England in order to prove their worth to the rest of the world. His strict views on political and religious conformity may seem harsh today, as well as his banishment of both Williams and Hutchinson, however, he truly believed that this was necessary for the survival of the colony. In the end, he passed away surrounded by both family and colonists who respected and loved him for his wisdom and leadership skills, and he is remembered as one of the reasons that the New England colony survived and grew.


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