“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.— Isaiah 41:10
John Winthrop: Leadership through Courage and Self-Sacrifice | 1588-1649
Though the Winthrop family was part of the landed gentry of England, they were active in the Protestant Reformation. Thus, John Winthrop was born in 1588 to a tremendous heritage; spiritually, the strong faith of his reformationist grandfather was coupled with the material and societal privilege that came with being the son of Lord Adam Winthrop of Gorton Manor in Suffolk. John Winthrop’s early years were filled with the indulgences and vices common to young men of his station, but at the age of eighteen, while a student at Trinity College, Winthrop came to a saving knowledge of Christ and completely abandoned himself into the hand of God. His lifestyle was forever transformed by a deep love of the Word of God that led him to reject the godless popular culture of London’s high society, where he had been a rising star. John went on to attend law school, built a prominent career, married and began a family, but all the while, the Puritan Christian fellowship he was deeply involved with kept leading him away from worldly success and into something greater. In a letter to his wife in 1629, Winthrop wrote, “Oh! The riches of Christ! Oh! The sweetness of the Word of Grace! It ravisheth my soul in the thought hereof, so as, when I apprehend but a glimpse of the dignity and felicity of a Christian, I can hardly persuade my heart to hope for so great happiness. Let men talk what they will of riches, honors, pleasures, etc.; let us have Christ…for, indeed, he who hath Christ hath all things…Let us trust in him, and cleave to him with denial of ourselves, and all things besides, and account our portion the best in the world.” A year later, John and his wife Margaret would leave the comfort and prosperity of England and make the perilous journey across the Atlantic to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Winthrop’s primary motivation for leaving England was “to erect a bulwark against the kingdom of the anti-Christ and to provide a refuge for the deteriorating European church.” As parents and prominent leaders in society, he and his wife saw the effect that corrupt teachers and religious leaders were having on their own children and the children of their peers. Together, they felt called to lead from a place of courage, self-sacrifice, and extraordinary faith in God. At the time, the survival rate of migrants to the new world was hardly fifty percent, and it cost a small fortune to build a whole new society. In this case, it would cost John everything he had to obey God. Indeed, the perils of the new world would lead him to bury two wives and some of his children and would deplete his vast fortune, but for Winthrop and his family, everything was worth the cost of advancing the kingdom. He commissioned 11 ships with sailors and officers, then recruited talented craftsmen who could build the colony, and over the course of 16 years, engineered the migration of more than 20,000 Puritans to New England. This feat was not undertaken to establish a society of tolerance; it was done out of strict obedience to God’s will as he understood it—to create a “City on Hill” that would be a beacon of God’s goodness, justice, and love to all mankind.
What Winthrop engineered was basically a planned society devoted to living in biblical community—and that community became an important part of the foundation of our nation. He was strategically focused on restoring the Biblical depth of community that the New Testament spoke of among believers, even to the point of the sacrificial love that he modeled in his own life. He said, “There was a time when a Christian must sell all and give to the poor, as they did in Apostle times…Likewise community perils call for extraordinary liberality, and so doth community in some special service for the church. Lastly, when there is no other means whereby our Christian brother may be relieved in his distress, we must help him beyond our ability.” Winthrop practiced what he preached, and God blessed it. In addition to a brilliant legal career, Winthrop served as Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for 12 of its first 20 years and also became a renowned teacher and preacher of the Word. As one historian wrote, “Winthrop was a great lover of the saints…especially ministers of the gospel. He was the wisest champion the clergy could have had. He was a man of great judgement and possessed purity in moral character. His mind, more than any other, arranged the social state and shaped the society of New England.” Another historian ranks Winthrop second only to George Washington in terms of the significance of his contributions to the founding of the American nation.
Lessons from John Winthrop’s Life:
Had John Winthrop lived for the things of the world, he would have lived and died and been forgotten as another insignificant aristocrat from a few hundred years ago. Because he dared to follow Christ in a life of self-sacrifice and seek His Kingdom with courageous faith, he is forever remembered as a world-changer and difference maker, whose legacy continues to shape our lives today.
Winthrop took God at His word a radical way, and in doing so, built a new society dedicated to shining the light and love of Christ. Geographically, financially, and personally, Winthrop followed God with courageous faith-often not knowing the next step or how God would provide. He stepped out as the leader that God called him to be, but at every turn, he did so with extraordinary self-sacrifice, modeling the revolutionary love of our Savior. Helping others “beyond our ability” to do so means relying on God fully to provide the resources to do His will. Can you imagine if the church today, especially the Western church, loved one other and their communities the way Witherspoon and the Puritans did? We would see our world transformed by Gospel grace, too. May we be as devoted to love, as selfless in motive, and as courageous in faith as John Winthrop!
Quotes By John Winthrop
“This love among Christians is a real thing. Not imaginary…as the sinews and ligaments of a natural body are to the wellbeing of that body.”
“When there is no other mean whereby our Christian brother may be relieved in his distress, we must help him beyond out ability.”
“When a man is to wade through a deep water, there is required tallness, as well as courage, and if he finds it past his depth, and God open a gap another way, he may take it.”
“Now the only way to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah 6:8, ‘To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man, we must entertain each other in brotherly affection, we must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace, the Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us, as His own people and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness, and truth then formerly we have been acquainted with.”
“For we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our god in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world, we shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of god and all professors for Gods sake; we shall shame the faces of many of gods worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into Curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whether we are going: And to shut up this discourse with that exhortation of Moses that faithful servant of the Lord in his last farewell to Israel Deut. 30. Beloved there is now set before us life, and good, death and evil in that we are Commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another to walk in his ways and to keep his Commandments and his Ordinance, and his laws, and the Articles of our Covenant with him that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land whether we go to possess it: But if our hearts shall turn away so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced and worship other gods…we shall surely perish out of the good Land.”
“Liberty is the proper end and object of authority, and cannot subsist without it; and it is a liberty to that only which is good, just, and honest. This liberty you are to stand for, with the hazard (not only of your good, but) of your lives, if need be. Whatsoever crosseth this is not authority but a distemper thereof. This liberty maintained and exercised in a way of subjection to authority; it is of the same kind of liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.”
“True liberty is not liberty to do evil as well as good.”
“Love is the bond of perfection.”
Character for Life by Don Hawkinson
The First Amendment Encyclopedia: https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1232/john-winthrop