England’s sin, New England’s problem–John Winthrop’s letter from an anonymous “friend”

Posted on January 23, 2013. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , |

Yes, it’s taking four posts to go through the long May 1637 letter from an anonymous correspondent in England to Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop. This was a long letter. We’ve seen how this correspondent has lambasted Winthrop and his colony for its overconfidence, strayings into sin, and dangerous letter writing home to England. Now the writer turns to problems in England and what New England can do about them. All spellings are modernized.

“…whereas the hand of God hath laid upon us above these two years, by a grievous kind of pox, general through the kingdom, killing many of the aged as well as others of the younger sort, and likewise whereas the pestilence hath reigned for above [a] year, and killed between 12 and 20 thousand in London and the suburbs, and even laid waste Newcastle in the north, and is like yet further to continue; by means of which there hath been a great stoppage in trading, and much misery throughout all the kingdom, for the Lord is highly displeased with us, and there is some fear of scarcity (Oh, our sins are exceeding great!)…”

—You’ll note this begins with “whereas”: the writer is laying out reasons behind a request he is about to make of Winthrop. Because God has sent plague to England, other nations have stopped trading with England to avoid contagion, and so there are food shortages. The editors of the volume of the Winthrop Papers which includes this letter say in a footnote that 10,400 people actually died of this plague in 1636, “after an unusual mortality from smallpox and other malignant diseases for two or three years previous.” So this pestilence would have begun about 1633, shortly after Winthrop’s group left England, and was just another punishment from God that the American Puritans were able to avoid. It is all part of God’s judgment against England, to this writer, and Winthrop would likely have agreed.

“[would you in New England] be pleased to procure a general public fast throughout your plantations for us, for we stand in great need of it; afford us, for the Lord’s sake, the help and pity of brethren, and how do you know what favor this may win you, both with God and men?”

We’ve talked previously about the hostility between American and English Puritans that arose very quickly after the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The letter writer has been criticizing Winthrop and his colonists throughout this letter, accusing them of abandoning their English brethren and leaving them to suffer God’s destruction of England without a care. So this passage is particularly devious. The writer asks Winthrop to hold a fast to pray for the Puritans in England who are suffering plague and shortages, begging him to show “the help and pity of brethren” just after claiming that the English Puritans are so disgusted with the American Puritans that some of them don’t even pray for Winthrop and his group any more. And then another mafia-style encouragement, saying who knows what might be in it for you, Massachusetts? Maybe God blesses you, and maybe your erstwhile English brethren deign to accept you again.

This must have been disgruntling to Winthrop, but he went ahead and held the fast in the name of many problems in Europe and America, including “the calamities upon our native country… plague raging exceedingly, and famine… threatening them”.

“And how would such a pious course answer for you to very many (and some of them your brethren) who think you are gone from us in affection and brotherly kindness, as well as in place. And let me speak freely to you, that if so just a motion as this should find no place with you, I fear that God will be angry with you.”

—Again, the writer is one of those people who makes sure to tell you all the negative gossip about you, and all the people who don’t like you, all the while morphing from a friend who wants you to know to one of those angry haters. After saying God is punishing England for its sins with this plague, the writer does a 180 and says if Winthrop and his people don’t respond to the request for a fast and prayer, God will punish them. One might be forgiven, in Winthrop’s place, for thinking that maybe the letter writer should be more concerned about whether God is angry with him and spend less time threatening Winthrop. How “just a motion” does it really seem to have someone threaten you if you won’t help them?

“And O that some powerful sermon that would endure the reading in old England, preached with you upon such a day, might come to our hands here, how joyfully we would read it, and… how readily we should object it to all such as either condemn or suspect you of uncharitableness and unnatural affections?”

—Since the English Puritans are censored and their ministers removed from the pulpit, New England’s ministers should preach a “powerful sermon”, perhaps condemning the English government, and have it published in London. This suicidal gesture, sure to bring royal persecution to Massachusetts, would be made simply to try to win back the love of English Puritans who, as the writer points out for the 100th time, condemn and suspect the New England brethren.

“And now perhaps you may think (at least I know many among you would, for I am well acquainted with the spirits of many with you in this thing) that all these things savor of fear, unbelief, and over-much discretion.”

—At last the letter writer acknowledged that perhaps he is an exceedingly annoying person. Even in acknowledging this he is insulting: he says “you may think” and then, realizing Winthrop will take “you” to mean himself, adds “at least I know many among you would”. That is, he knows Winthrop is fine, but all the people with him are fallen, conceited people who will somehow take offense to this letter.

“But I would answer them, that what I thus write, it is for their sakes, and well may I show love, but why fear for their sakes…”

—It’s tough love here from England, cruel to be kind, and for New England’s own good that the letter writer vents his craven fear for his own safety and irritation on those lucky enough to have sacrificed everything to go to Massachusetts while he sits comfortably at home.

“…whether I shall ever come over unto you, I know not, for I desire to do the work of God and to glorify him here or there, living and dying, and I have found the Lord’s special presence with me now of late… and I can but enjoy his presence in any part of the world.”

—The last blow here repeats what many of Winthrop’s, and probably other colonists’, correspondents so often said: yes, we’ll be coming over soon, but not this year. This year’s not good for me; let’s try next year. This would go on for a decade before the pretext that the correspondents in England would ever leave there for the hardship of New England was dropped. But the letter writer here goes further, getting in another dig at what he sees as the conceitedness of the colonists who, able to worship freely, believed they were serving God more completely than any other Christians. The letter writer says he won’t be coming over, maybe ever, but, unlike Winthrop, he wants to do God’s work in England, where it is actually needed most, and unlike Winthrop, he can enjoy God’s presence anywhere, he doesn’t have to be secluded from the world in the wilderness to be close to God.

We’ll wrap this letter up next time with the writer’s craven demands for anonymity and secrecy; how would he have felt if he had known his letter would go down in history in all its carping and self-serving glory?

Next time: the end!

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