Governor John Winthrop: Biography, History & Significance

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  • 0:00 Winthrop's Early Years
  • 1:14 Sailing To the New World
  • 2:12 Massachusetts Bay Colony
  • 5:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Crystal Daining

Crystal has a master's degree in history and loves teaching anyone ages 5-99.

John Winthrop was the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Learn about his role in the colony and both the good and bad decisions he made in this New England colony.


John Winthrop (1588-1649) was the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and a prominent figure among the Puritan founders of New England. Winthrop was one of the best educated of the Puritan colonists, had great leadership skills and wisdom, and was known for being very religious. Although his strictness did result in a few mistakes, in general he is respected and admired for making the best decisions to help allow the colony to survive in the New World.

Portrait of John Winthrop

Winthrop's Early Years

Winthrop was born into the English gentry class. He went to Trinity College and studied law there, served as a justice of the peace, and gained a position in the government. He was also a country squire with an estate and land. Life was quite comfortable for Winthrop. He was also a very religious person, and spent much of his time studying scripture and praying. Eventually, his religious pursuits led him to become a Puritan, a strict religious group who wanted to purify the Church of England.

By the late 1620s, Winthrop's life was no longer quite so comfortable and established. The King of England was making anti-Puritan policies, which cost Winthrop his government position. In addition, England was going through some hard economic times, and both Winthrop's lands and income were greatly reduced.

Sailing to the New World

In 1629, the Massachusetts Bay Company gained a royal charter that allowed them to make a colony in New England. Winthrop and his fellow Puritans eagerly joined the Company in the hopes that the New World would allow them to pursue their Puritan religious beliefs without persecution. Winthrop sold his remaining English lands, and he and his family set sail with other Puritans in the spring of 1630 on a ship called the Arabella.

Right before the ship set sail, the Massachusetts Bay Company chose Winthrop to be the Governor of their future colony. This was because Winthrop had the best educational and vocational background for the job among all of the colonists leaving for New England. While on the ship, Winthrop gave a sermon to his fellow Puritans called 'A Model of Christian Charity', in which he envisioned that the Puritan colonists had made a covenant with God and were divinely ordained to build a 'City Upon a Hill' in New England. Winthrop and his fellow Puritans believed that they were supposed to make a religious utopia in New England as an example to the rest of the world.

Massachusetts Bay Colony

For the remaining 19 years of his life, Winthrop lived in New England with his fellow Puritan colonists. He was considered a father figure and natural leader, and he was elected as governor 12 times during his remaining years. In the years that he was not governor (elections were held every year), he was still in government positions such as the colony council or the court of assistants.

New England Colonies

Winthrop settled his family in Boston, which quickly became the capital of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as the colony spread out throughout New England. As governor, Winthrop actively helped organize all of the new towns and the churches in those towns. He was responsible for maintaining the civic and social order of a very large group of people. Winthrop was known as a compromising, wise man who tried very hard to keep peace among the thousands of colonists.

However, it was inevitable that the large, quickly expanding colony would deal with problems. The Puritan colonists believed that they were destined by God to make a religious utopia in the New World. In order for the colony to be successful, they thought that there needed to be both political unity and religious conformity.

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