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Book review: The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop

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John WinthropI have just recently read The Wordy Shipmates, and in it Sarah Vowell seems slightly enamored, but definitely admiring of the first Massachusetts governor John Winthrop. Since I only slightly remembered his character and personality from the first John Winthrop book I read, I jumped right into The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop by Edmund S. Morgan. to see what all her fuss was about.

Know before you read

This book is not very long at all. It’s not a true biography of John Winthrop so much as it is an examination of ‘the Puritan dilemma’ told through his point of view, framed around his life. Still very interesting – just not really a biography.

John Winthrop and the Puritan community of New England

Before reading this book, I’m not sure I ever realized the true heart-searching decisions that the Puritans had to make before coming to New England. I mean, they didn’t like the Church of England, so they left, right? Nope. Not that easy, my friend.

The ‘Puritan Dilemma,’ according to Morgan, is “the paradox that required a man to live in the world without being part of it… Though [the Puritan] must do what he could to prevent and punish evil, yet if he failed, he could not wash his hands of the world and resign it to the forces of darkness” (27-8). Morgan traces the way Winthrop dealt with and was shaped by this paradox all through his life – from trying to find a professional place in 17th century Anglican England, to the life-altering decision to emigrate to New England, to how he later governed Massachusetts and punished ‘heretics’ and extreme separatists like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson.

Winthrop seems like a genuinely good man, trying earnestly with every decision to do the most Christian thing. Even when he banishes Anne Hutchinson, he believes he is doing it for the good and longevity of the entire settlement (and all the souls within it). Morgan describes Winthrop as having a natural leadership and was called on for help and guidance even when he was not the elected governor.

All in all, I enjoyed this book. A little theological history, in an easy-to-read format. Add The Puritan Dilemma to your reading list.

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