The Puritan Dilemma: “The Story of John Winthrop” by Edmund S. Morgan Book Review

Puritanism is an activist movement, which was founded in the frames of the Church of English. The role of Puritanism for the English history at the beginning of the 17th century could not be underestimated.  The supporters of Puritanism were limited in their access to the established church and were restricted in England with legal regulations, which controlled the practice of religion. The Puritans transmitted their beliefs to the Netherlands, to New England and North America, partially also to Ireland and Wales. These beliefs had impact upon social order and the educational system. The Puritans managed to organize alliance with the commercial world and the parliamentary opposition. No wonder, that they soon managed to become a weighty political force in England and received their power at the end of the First English Civil War. “Almost all Puritan clergy left the Church of England after the Restoration of 1660 and the 1662 Uniformity Act, with many continuing to practice their faith in nonconformist denominations, especially in Congregationalist, as well as in Presbyterian churches.” (Trevor 2002).

The Puritans launched a lot of different religious groups, which stood for the greater purity in doctrine along with personal and group piety. The Puritans did not constitute any formal sect or religious group or division in the frames of Protestantism and the term Puritan was not much in use after the 18th century. Some of their ideas were accepted by the Church of England, for example this was related to rejection of Roman Catholicism. Protestant denominations also involved some of the Puritans’ ideals in the 17th and 18th centuries. “The Congregationalist Churches, widely considered to be a part of the Reformed tradition, are descended from the Puritans. Moreover, Puritan beliefs are enshrined in the Savoy Declaration, the confession of faith held by the Congregationalist Churches, which they originated.” (Trevor 2002).

One of the well-known writings, devoted to the theme of Puritanism, is The Puritan Dilemma, The Story of John Winthrop by Edmund Morgan. This story is written in a form of short biography of John Winthrop and is closely related to the events of the Puritan colonization of America along with the colonists’ struggle. The major themes of the book are related to the role, played by Puritan theology, in the Puritan relations with the political forces in England; it explains how they managed to create their unique culture and found the basis for one of the most democratic political forces in the 17th century. There are a lot of controversies about Puritans, which are based upon numerous stereotypes. These stereotypes were definitely formed not on an empty place, at the same time the author of The Puritan Dilemma, The Story of John Winthrop made an attempt to provide more versatile and profound meaning of their positions via telling about the life of their first leader John Winthrop.

The author of The Puritan Dilemma, The Story of John Winthrop by Edmund Morgan was born in Minneapolis and received his education in Harvard and the London School of Economics. He devoted a lot of effort towards producing historical writings about the American experience with Puritanism and relations between racism and slavery. His wrote his works in the form of combination of scholarly information with imaginative analysis. Sometimes Morgan was criticized for his Whig historian position, which is not the reality, as he avoided any kind of simplistic categorization. In relation to Puritanism Morgan did his best not to hide anything about the Puritans and present them in open manner. Most of his writing is based upon facts; however, there is a portion of criticism as well. The narration is devoted to John Winthrop, his personal life, personal history and his personality. The author did his best to present the main character from different positions in order to show his abilities as mediator and compromiser, to make the readers understand the position of Winthrop.

The narration starts from the childhood years of the main character, which he spent in England. Winthrop inherited Groton Manor from his grandfather, then he became a student at Cambridge and served as justice. Winthrop’s early adult years were associated with distancing from worldly pleasures and profound love for God. Winthrop had to face the hardships of the depression in the 1620s, as his home was dependant upon textile industry. Winthrop had to work as a common attorney in His Majesty’s Court of Wards and Liveries. This position was meaningful for his life, as it allowed him to meet new strata in English society. In 1628 a group of Puritan merchants received a charter for a colony in New England. Winthrop was interested in emigration, as his positions in England were not good at that moment, and in addition his son was in a difficult situation. However, the major impact upon his decision to leave England came from his desire to spread the God’s will.

Winthrop was appointed to the position of Governor of New England and the Governor of the Company. “Though Winthrop’s own capacities for public service had hitherto been demonstrated only in local and minor offices, though he had never sat in Parliament, those who knew him evidently recognized that he had extraordinary talents.” (Morgan, 1962). The first year in New England was rather difficult and the Puritans tried to survive. The Puritans had their own visions of the advanced structure of government and how to make it democratic. The basic tensions were related to finding the balance between the maintenance of God’s kingdom and correspondingly lenient treatment of usual people.

Roger Williams, as one of the bright representatives of Puritanism, brought a lot of problems due to his separatist position, as well as the views of Anne Hutchinson caused additional challenges. The name of Anne Hutchinson is associated with Puritanism, as she used to be a Puritan spiritual adviser and a well-known participant of the Antinomian Controversy. She managed to develop her strong religious convictions and position and due to her personal charisma and ability to convince, she almost caused breaking of the Puritans’ religious community. This was the reason, why she was sent away from the community and left it together with some of her followers. Together with her supporters Hutchinson organized a settlement of Portsmouth with the support from the founder of Providence Plantations Roger Williams. Upon her husband’s death she traveled outside of Boston and settled in Split Rock. In 1643 she and some of her children were massacred by Siwanoys. Roger Williams was Puritan minister and English Performed theologian, the founder of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. He supported the position of religious freedom and separation of the state from the church. In addition he belonged to abolitionists and supported relations with American Indians. In 1638 he became the founder of the First Baptist Church in America.

One more famous Puritan colonial leader was Thomas Hooker. He was the founder of the Colony of Connecticut and was a famous speaker and advocate of universal Christian suffrage. Hooker proved to be an outstanding preacher of his time and earned his popularity thanks to his writings about Christian subjects. He was “the first minister of Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of the first settlers and founders of both the city of Hartford and the state of Connecticut, and cited by many as the inspiration for the “Fundamental Orders of Connecticut,” which some have called the world’s first written democratic constitution establishing a representative government.” (Trevor 2002).

The concluding chapters of the book are devoted to debates about the structure of government and the challenges, which were brought by the English Civil War. Finally, when Winthrop and his people from New England face economic depression, they start to understand that there is a need to build connections with outside world for finding markets for the goods and services.

The Puritan Dilemma, The Story of John Winthrop is perfect reading for those, who have little to no idea about the Puritans and their positions and meaning for the history of the country. This book helps to distance from the prejudices, which are usually associated with the basic teachings of the Puritans. Morgan points out in his introduction that Puritans were not well regarded in modern America. Most people are not aware of the actual connection between democracy and the positions of the Puritans, as it is generally believed that they aimed at restricting humans in their activities and choices. This was probably the most interesting fact from this book, as usually the Puritanism is associated only with religious views and appreciation of God.

This writing is a good presentation of the concepts of separatism and arminiaism, which played their important roles in the history of America. In reality the Puritans had managed to find answers to such human problems, which are unfortunately often ignored in societies and people prefer to treat them as products of fanatical minds. The Puritan Dilemma, The Story of John Winthrop by Edmund Morgan is very informative writing, actually this is a historical writing, but presenting in a literary form of biography.

Overall, The Puritan Dilemma, The Story of John Winthrop by Edmund Morgan is profound and vivid representation of the personal struggle of John Winthrop with the dilemma of all his life, having to meet a lot of challenges and establish his own position about the meaning of God, democracy, human relations in this world.

Works cited:

Morgan, Edmund, S. The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop (Library of American biography) Scott Foresman & Co; 2nd edition, 1962

Trevor, Cliffe. Puritan Gentry Besieged 1650–1700. Routledge, 2002

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"The terms offer and acceptance." freeessays.club, 17 May 2016

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"The terms offer and acceptance." freeessays.club, 17 May 2016

[Accessed: August 15, 2020]

"The terms offer and acceptance." freeessays.club, 17 May 2016

[Accessed: August 15, 2020]

"The terms offer and acceptance." freeessays.club, 17 May 2016

[Accessed: August 15, 2020]