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Book review: John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father

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John Winthrop is a mostly obscure figure in history that actually had quite a strong influence on the transition between old world England and the colonies in the new world. Nowadays, Winthrop is probably most famous for being the original source of President Ronald Reagan’s description of the “city on the hill” (but even then he is rarely given credit). If you want to learn about that original context and about the man that indirectly helped found Rhode Island, check out John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father by Francis J. Bremer.

Know before you read

Winthrop did not move to the Americas until he was in his 40s, which of course means that a good chunk of this book is about his life in England (and actually before that as Bremer begins with Winthrop’s great-grandfather). While most of why he is even remembered is his life and actions in Massachusetts, his background and earlier life in England, as well as the religious context he grew up in, shaped and informed his personality and beliefs (which, of course, he took with him to the colony and his governorship there).

Also be aware that a lot of the book is quite detailed – maybe more than you need or want. But all those details do help paint an accurate portrait of this empathetic leader genuinely trying to do his best for God and his fellow colonialists. Random tidbit: it is probably so detailed because Bremer is the editor of John Winthrop’s papers for the Massachusetts’ Historical Society.

John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father

John Winthrop was not in the first wave of colonists to head to America – but he became one of the most influential. He was elected governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony before even leaving England and was reelected again and and again through the rest of his life. He worked tirelessly to help create a godly community in Massachusetts and struggled regularly with what decisions (and punishments) would be the best for the ‘sinner’ and for the community.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony were granted an interesting charter that omitted (whether deliberately or no) the provision that would require more oversight from England itself. Because of that opportunity, the colonists were able to set up their own version of self-government (but still walked that fine line hoping not to offend the king). Winthrop was more or less in the center of it all, trying to keep more liberal separatists from teaching treason, but still not being too connected and influenced by the crown.

While he was lenient and moderate for his time, to our modern sensibilities, Winthrop seems close-minded and harsh towards all those who think differently from him and the other (white, male, property-owning) community leaders. By the end of this book you will see Winthrop as a real person, the man who helped shape the religious landscape of the American colonies in the 17th century.

For more on Winthrop and the Puritans’ theological background and ideas, check out The Puritan Dilemma by Edmund S. Morgan.

P.S. Looks like John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father is all online on Google Books.

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