In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section John Winthrop

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Winthrop’s Writings
  • Biographies
  • Religious Culture
  • Roger Williams
  • Anne Hutchinson and the Free Grace Controversy
  • Other Forms
  • Legacy

American Literature John Winthrop
Francis J. Bremer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 April 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0028


John Winthrop (b. 1588–d. 1649) was the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He was first chosen by the investors of the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1629 and after the settlement of the colony in 1630 was selected by the freemen to serve as governor in annual elections through 1634 and then again in 1637–1640, 1642–1644, and 1646 until his death in 1649. Winthrop is considered the central figure in shaping Massachusetts and more broadly New England society in the 17th century. The lay sermon he preached to his fellow colonists on the eve of their departure for America, “A Model of Christian Charity,” set forth the aims of the Great Migration to New England in the 1630s and 1640s. This sermon has been quoted by numerous American politicians seeking to use his words to support their understanding of America’s purpose.

General Overviews

Because of his central role in the history of the colony, most studies of early Massachusetts feature Winthrop prominently. Cotton Mather set the tone for positive assessments of the Puritan colonists in Mather 1972. Most 18th- and 19th-century historians followed his lead in extolling the New England colonists for their moral character and identifying the colonies as the seedbed of American democracy. The late 19th century saw a reversal, as works such as Adams 1893 highlighted the authoritarian aspects of Puritanism, focused on the colonial persecution of dissenters, and depicted the colonists as critical of all earthly pleasures. This false stereotype of Puritans and their colonies was challenged in Morison 1960, written at the time of the three hundredth anniversary of the settlement of Massachusetts. Subsequent studies have been balanced in their depictions of early New England. Dunn 1962 tells the story of New England by looking at three generations of Winthrops. More recent developments have taken the form of Bremer 2003, Bremer and Botelho 2005, Bozeman 1988, and other works in recovering the broader Atlantic context of the story.

  • Adams, Charles Francis. Massachusetts: Its Historians and Its History; An Object Lesson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1893.

    Adams, a descendant of early New Englanders, was highly critical of the persecution of dissenters in early New England, arguing that the colonists were as intolerant as the English authorities they had come to America to escape from.

  • Bozeman, Theodore Dwight. To Live Ancient Lives: The Primitivist Dimension in Puritanism. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

    Bozeman argues that rather than seeking to create a model society without precedent, the early settlers of New England turned to Old Testament models to shape their institutions.

  • Bremer, Francis J. John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    The English background of the settlement of New England and the history of the Massachusetts colony from 1630 to 1649 centered on the life of John Winthrop.

  • Bremer, Francis J., and Lynn A. Botelho, eds. The World of John Winthrop: Essays on England and New England, 1588–1649. Massachusetts Historical Society Studies in American History and Culture. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2005.

    A collection of nine essays by leading English and American scholars dealing with the political, religious, economic, cultural, and other aspects of England and America, most taking a comparative approach.

  • Dunn, Richard S. Puritans and Yankees: The Winthrop Dynasty of New England, 1630–1717. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1962.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400878727

    This is an overview of colonial New England history from the perspective of the Winthrop family and its contributions.

  • Mather, Cotton. Magnalia Christi Americana; or, The Ecclesiastical History of New England, from Its First Planting in the Year 1620 unto the Year of Our Lord 1698. New York: Arno, 1972.

    Originally published in 1702. Mather regarded the settlement of New England as part of God’s divine plan and saw parallels between colonial leaders and the Old Testament heroes of Israel. Mather depicts Winthrop as “Nehemiah Americanus” in his biographical chapter on the governor.

  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. Builders of the Bay Colony. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960.

    Originally published in 1930. A collection of biographical chapters meant to illustrate the nature of New England society in a way that undercut the negative stereotypes popular at the time. Extremely well written and generally insightful. The chapter on Winthrop emphasizes his nobility of character.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.