HOW GOVERNOR JOHN WINTHROP "SINNED
AGAINST THE LIGHT."
GOVERNOR JOHN WINTHROP sat in the magistrate’s
chair in the little log meetinghouse in the New Town. That was the
village which is to-day the city of Cambridge, and the little
meetinghouse stood at what is now the corner of Mount Auburn and Dunster
streets, just beyond Harvard Square.
The governor, seated thus, looked upon a grave and
somber company grouped about him, —ministers, magistrates, and laymen,
picked from the churches of the Bay colony, and met together in what was
called a "synod," or council, summoned to deliberate on
important matters of church and state; and, in the Massachusetts Bay
colony, the church was the state.
In that solemn council were men foremost in the
councils of the colony, —men who had given up home and country for
loyalty to opinion and the courage of their convictions, men whose names
are now a part of the splendid story of the United States.
There was John Cotton, the great Puritan preacher,
short and stout, red-faced and snowy-haired, dignified in bearing,
charming in manner, an advocate for toleration, but ready ever to yield
to the will of the majority; there sat that stern soldier of the church,
large-framed, big-jawed, his harsh face and grizzled
locks crowned by a black skullcap, his firm mouth thatched with a gray
mustache and emphasized by a pointed beard; there,
too, sat Thomas Dudley, the deputy governor, hard
of heart, quick of temper, unyielding of purpose; John Norton, scholar
and gentleman, wit and fanatic; Thomas Shepard, young in years, but so
wise in counsel that "no man could despise his youth;" Hugh
Peters, bigot and bully,—these and others, "priests, magistrates,
and deputies," presided over by that tactful, noble, broad-minded
lawyer, that tolerant, tender, loving man, that excellent and most
shrewd politician, Governor John Winthrop, whose
portrait, with its well-known ruff and its Vandyke
beard, you may see to-day in the senate chamber of the Massachusetts
Statehouse, as you may see his marble statues in the chapel at Mount
Auburn and in the Capitol at Washington, or his bronze statue standing
with its back to the subway in Scollay Square, in Boston. A great man
was Governor Winthrop; but sometimes even the great ones falter, and you
shall see how, in this first Synod of Massachusetts, as it is called,
Governor Winthrop "sinned against the light."
The year was 1637;
the month was September,—that lovely New England
month, when Cambridge looks its best. But that solemn assembly thought
little of grass or tree or flower. The governor had cantered soberly
across from his fair estate of Ten Hills Farm on the Mystic, in what is
now Somerville, and as he rode across country to Cambridge Common, that
September landscape, no doubt, was as fair and beautiful as when
Whittier described it in his poem, "The King’s Missive:
"The autumn haze lay soft and still
On wood and meadow and upland farms;
On the brow of Snow Hill the great windmill
Slowly and lazily swung its arms;
Broad in the sunshine stretched away,
With its capes and islands, the turquoise bay;
And over water and dusk of pines
Blue hills lifted their faint outlines.
"The topaz leaves of the walnut glowed,
The sumac added its crimson fleck,
And double in air and
The tinted maples along the Neck;
Through frost flower clusters of pale
And gentian fringes of amethyst,
And royal plumes of goldenrod,
The grazing cattle on Century trod."
But not of frost flower nor
gentian nor goldenrod did Governor Winthrop think, that September day,
as he rode to the synod at Cambridge. His thoughts were rather as to
how he might square his own sense of justice with the stern and
harshly drawn lines of his fellow-magistrates, who, yielding to the
narrow teaching of the ministers, had declared to those who did not
agree with them on points of doctrine that "New England was no
place for such as they." He, too, changing from kindheartedness
to harshness, because he determined to side with the majority, had
said to Mrs. Anne Hutchinson, as he banished her from the colony:
"Your cause is not to be suffered. .
. . We see not that any should have authority to
set up any other exercises besides what authority hath set up here
already." For Governor Winthrop, though in most things a great
and noble man, was a wonderful manager of men,
and knew that to manage men the politician must often give up his own
desires and go over to the side of the majority; land in the Bay
colony, the ministers, with their hard and narrow opinions, were the
leaders of the majority.
Roger Williams had come with a mission and message,
and had been driven away; young Sir Harry Vane had come with a desire
for wider liberty, and had been forced out of the field; Anne
Hutchinson had come as the apostle of free speech, and had been
banished. Each one in turn had been the bearer of a light that,
properly trimmed and managed, might have shown the
whole land the way to liberty long before the day that finally came.
Governor Winthrop was a friend to Williams and to Vane; he could even
see a good side to Mrs. Anne Hutchinson’s bold teachings. He was the
foremost man in the colony,—leader, guide, and governor, —and
had he but accepted and used the light that shed the first glow of
liberty on the land, he might have been the greatest man of colonial
America. As it was, for policy’s sake, and for the sake of peace and
of place, he bent to the demands of the ministers, drove out those who
differed, and said to them: Ego! The world is wide; there is no place
for you among us."
This synod of September, 1637, was
convened especially to root up and stamp out heresy, and in those days
heresy meant whatever the Puritans of the Bay colony did not believe.
The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay colony came
across the sea to establish a religious community of their own kind.
Their charter permitted them to rid themselves of all obnoxious or
objectionable persons who were hostile to the peace of the colony. A
heretic —that is, one who believes as I do not—was
esteemed by the fathers of Massachusetts both objectionable and
obnoxious, and therefore to be got rid of.
So the synod gathered at Cambridge in 1637 to
consider and to take steps to choke out the heresies that had somehow
crept into the community, and which, as they declared, threatened the
They sat in session for twenty days in that fair
September weather, and they found "eighty-two opinions,
some blasphemous, others erroneous, and all
unsafe," so their report declared, —a pretty big list of
"heresies" for a carefully guarded colony of small proportions
and of but seven years’ growth.
But some of those considered the chief of heretics
were such persons as Roger Williams, Sir Harry Vane, John Wheelwright,
and Anne Hutchinson, and these bold, brilliant leaders had drawn to
themselves some of the very best and brainiest people in the colony. It
was high time, the rulers said, that the ministers and teachers took a
firm stand, or these "heresies" might divide the fold and
endanger the church.
The synod, with scarcely a dissenting
voice or vote, declared relentless and unceasing war upon all new ideas,
against all heresies in religion or action; and again, Governor
Winthrop, shutting his eyes to the truth, forgetting the bold stand of
Roger Williams, the utterances of Sir Harry Vane,
the truthful rebukes of Anne Hutchinson, repeated his declaration:
"We see not that any should have authority to set up
any other exercises besides what authority hath set up here
This decision meant that, as the colony had decreed a
certain form of religion, to that form every one must subscribe, or
leave the colony. The people of Massachusetts had published as their
decree the very proclamation from which they had fled across the sea,
leaving their pleasant English homes. Toleration
and liberty of conscience were not yet born in America.
"It is said," wrote one of those men of the
synod, "that men ought to have liberty of their conscience, and
that it is persecution to
debar them of it. I can rather stand amazed
than reply to this. It is an astonishment I
to think that the brains of men should be
parboiled in such impious ignorance."
The men of Massachusetts were
not yet ready for the light which the men of
Massachusetts themselves in a later day set aflame, to show the way to
liberty. Sir Harry Vane and Roger Williams were ahead of their time. But
their time came at last, and Massachusetts was first among the peoples
of the earth to lead the columns of freedom; but it took one hundred and
thirty years and more to reach that glorious standpoint. In 1637
the synod of Massachusetts fettered the limbs of
For that decree of banishment or death against those
who differed from them was final. It was the central law by which
Massachusetts was governed for over a century, —by which Baptists were
harried, Quakers persecuted and martyred, and all "dissenters"
silenced, until that better day when the Geneva bands of the ministers
gave place to that spirit of Christ which said, "Therefore all
things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to
them," and brought to fulfillment in Boston and throughout the
growing Bay colony that prophecy of Boston’s brave old citizen of
those days of proscription, as given by Whittier:
"Upsall, gray with his length of days,
Cried from the door of his Red
‘Men of Boston! give God the praise!
No more shall innocent blood call down
The bolts of wrath on your guilty town;
The freedom of worship dear to you
Is dear to all, and to all is due.
"‘I see the vision of days to come, When
your beautiful City of the Bay Shall be Christian liberty’s chosen
And none shall his neighbors’ rights gainsay;
The varying notes of worship shall blend
And as one great prayer to God ascend;
And hands of mutual charity raise Walls of
salvation and gates of praise! ‘"