The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop

The Puritan Dilemma written by Edmund S. Morgan elaborates on the life of John Winthrop. The purpose of the book is to answer the question: What responsibilities a man owes to society? Edmund S. Morgan, a history professor at the University of Yale, specializes in American Colonial History. Prior to Morgans teaching career, he had developed an interest in Puritans while studying at Harvard University in 1937. Morgan grew to respect the Puritans and their religion for their philosophy of what they wished to do in life and how their strong beleif for their relgion shaped their lives.

John Winthrop and his followers left England to be to break free from its corrupt Protestant religion. The only problem that lay ahead of John and his fellow Puritans was the responsibility they owed God and that they lived their lives in a more freely perspective. John Winthrop grew up privileged; he attended the best schools and soon after found himself running the family Groton estate.

At the early age of 17 he got married, and ten months later he was a father. While he was attending school or running his family’s estate, Winthrop had discovered the mind altering religion known as Puritanism. Puritanism was a religion that demanded more of the individual than it did the church.

At the time, England was transitioning through the death of Henry the VIII to Elizabeth the I. Henry the VIII transitioned England from Catholic to Protestant after he broke away from Spain. After he died, he did not leave any heir to take over so next in line was Edward who died soon after, and then Mary became queen, but she too soon died leaving Elizabeth the I to become queen.

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“After Mary died, her sister Elizabeth kept the Puritan guessing. Her government did not satisfy the Puritans, for she purified the church of its ceremonies and vestments”(p. 19). Winthrop watched the increasing corruption of his beloved Protestant religion with a growing weariness so it was very easy for him to turn to Puritanism. Winthrop didn’t think the Protestant church nor the Catholic church was pure enough for what God really wanted. Puritanism required that a man would have to devote his life to God and the complete worship of God.

Winthrop took this meaning to heart and decided that being a Puritan meant not living a minute in this world without taking his mind off of God in order to fully serve God. “Puritanism meant many things. But to young John Winthrop it principally meant the problem of living in this world without taking his mind off God.” (p. 8). Throughout Winthrop’s early life, he battled with self-denial and self-indulgence, refraining from the Puritan constant struggle of temptation and then giving in to his desires. Winthrop, along with his fellow Puritans, decided that Elizabeth was not purifying the churches in England to the extent they thought fit, so they made the decision to leave and set sail to start more pure churches in New England. The journey to New England was a harsh and brutal expedition.

There was much illness and death that consumed their travel to the new land. With all factors not going their way, they prevailed and arrived in the new land two months later. The trip was so harrowing, that because Winthrop survived the journey, his faith strengthened and his purpose in arriving in the new world was to carry out his Puritan destiny “Who could ask for greater proof that the Lord was pleased with His servant and with the people who had entered this wilderness to worship Him?” (p. 68). As happy as they were to finally be in their new land, the settlement that greeted them was hardly a comforting sight; they had much work to do before the area would be hospitable.

Winthrop took on the placement of being the Governor, and with this came many tough decisions. One of the biggest complications that the settlers were confronted with was finding a good source of drinking water. They originally had been raised to only trust spring water, and Charlestown’s single spring could not provide for the entire colony. Another problem that faced the colonists was starvation. This became a huge stress for the colonists as the winter began. Winthrop had done everything in his power to make sure that the colonist could survive; he even took money out of his own pocket which later caused him to go bankrupt. After fourteen years of being Governor for Massachusetts Bay Colony, he sadly was voted out due to his supposedly lack of effective governance.

The first church in Massachusetts, a congregational church, was created the year before Winthrop’s party arrived. Only six years after Winthrop had arrived there were more than a dozen churches around the area. Even though Winthrop was voted out as Governor, his excessive outlook on religion is what helped him from a soon to be thriving colony.

A new crisis arose when a well-spoken and charismatic preacher named Roger Williams, who had been apart of Massachusetts Bay Colony from the start, was invited to become pastor at one of the Boston churches. Although with this huge opportunity that lay ahead him he declined. His reasoning behind his declination was that the church was too impure for him since most of the people in the church didn’t approve of the Anglican Church. Winthrop reprimanded Williams, claiming that his opinions about the church were wrong.

Williams then decided to start expressing his thoughts and beliefs about the church to the other colonist. The General Court then got involved and ordered Williams to appear at its next meeting to be disciplined. After getting away with his actions, Williams kept expressing his thoughts to the people, so the court held another meeting which drove Williams and his other followers to Narragansett Bay in nearby Rhode Island. Winthrop had saved the Puritan church and reassured that their beliefs were safe. Winthrop died at the age of sixty-one, and his colony would thrive and flourish for many years to come.

The book starts before John Winthrop was even born. Winthrop’s uncle, Adam Winthrop, bought Groton, a piece of land outside of London. From there, the author goes on describing Winthrop’s young life to his life as a married man. The book takes you through the struggles that Winthrop faced while finding his way as a Puritan, and how his belief drove him away from England to find land at New England to vigorously start his religious path. This book was interesting, but not the most captivating book to read. Morgan uses very straight forward language to teach the reader about Winthrop.

Morgan tries to answer the questions “what responsibility a righteous man owes to society. If society follows a course that he considers morally wrong, should he withdraw and keep his principles intact, or should he stay?” (Authors preface, xii).

I thought the book did a really great job on elaborating on the topic of the upbringing of the Puritans in New England. I would not recommend this book to anybody who is not interested in learning about the history of the Puritans, as it is a difficult topic to develop interest. I think the author did a good job of explaining the purpose of the book, which again, was how Winthrop attempts to answers the question what responsibilities that a man owes to society.

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The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop. (2022, May 09). Retrieved from

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