PS: the end of the letter from John Winthrop’s annoying colonial correspondent

Posted on January 28, 2013. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

Part the last of our look at the May 1637 anonymous letter to Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop deals with the craven postscript, in which the writer explains why he is writing anonymously. All spellings modernized.

” I have not subscribed hereunto, not knowing whether my letter may not miscarry. The bearer perhaps can tell you of me.”

—Afraid the letter might be seized or, in good English Puritan fashion, read and then circulated thoroughly to everyone in the community and beyond, the writer chooses to remain anonymous, but sends the letter by a messenger who will reveal his identity. This seems dangerous for the messenger; what if royal officials did seize the letter? Right there on the last page it says the messenger knows who wrote it. It would not be unusual for the messenger to be arrested, jailed, and even tortured to reveal the name if the government felt the letter was threatening.

This small section is in the final paragraph of the letter, but the writer feels it necessary to add a postscript underlining the need for Winthrop to keep his name secret…. and underlining all the reasons why Winthrop, if he were a lesser saint, would not have done so.

“Sir, I humbly entreat you to conceal it, that any with us has thus written to you. There is another thing I have noted since I wrote the enclosed letter, that many in your plantations discover much pride, as appears by the letters we receive from them, wherein some of them write over to us for lace [and] cut-work coifs, and other, for deep [fabric] dyes, and some of your own men tell us that many with you go finely clad, though they are free from the fantasticalness of our land.”

—If we hadn’t just spent four posts parsing this writer’s deep comfort with self-righteous haranguing, we would be taken aback by his abrupt shift, from pleading humbly for Winthrop to shield him from attack to attacking Winthrop. Colonists have dared write home for lace and dye and pieces of apparel (a coif is a close-fitting cap that women wore under their hoods or hats to protect their hair). None of these things would have been available in America. They were items of earthly vanity Puritans were supposed to have sworn off. These requests are more proof exploding the myth that the Puritans in America wore black all the time and hated ornament. The writer says that while the colonists are asking for some finer things, at least they are not chasing the extremes of 17th-century fashion (“fantasticalness”) current in England. We might forgive the writer for reproaching the colonists for wearing finery, as it really was something the English Puritans did not do, but then again, the American Puritans no longer had a reason to give it up. In England, they wanted to stand out against the unreformed population, and plain clothing was a visible and striking sign of their faith. In America, there were no unreformed Anglicans to stand out against—all were Puritans, so it did not matter what they wore. Plain clothes were a religious protest. In America, there was no other religion to protest against, and plain clothes were no longer necessary.

“There is likewise another thing which I have not mentioned in the letter enclosed, which I suppose you are not altogether ignorant of, that your Patent is called in and condemned, and the Patentees have renounced, and they are outlawed that have not, till they come in and make their peace. …what the effects of [this] will be we are ignorant, but doubt and fear, only we look up to God.”

—Oh, by the way—your colony is about to be overthrown by the crown and all your liberty taken away. This is a very alarming thing to relay to Winthrop, that the royal patent allowing the MBC to exist and to make its own laws has been condemned by the government, and that the men in England funding the Massachusetts Bay Company (“the Patentees”) are being forced to renounce the patent or be arrested for treason. Winthrop had been threatened with this many times before, as the anti-Puritan Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, went to Charles I many times to try to get the patent revoked. Charles actually did agree to revoke it in 1637, but, in an unexpected bit of true justice, this was declared invalid because the government had heard testimony against the MBC but had not given MBC officials a chance to come to London and speak in their own defense.

So what the letter writer is hearing is technically true, but he has clearly never learned the value of breaking bad news gently.

“How earnestly can I pray that you may [all] mind holiness, and the things that are above, and grow up in faith, love, humility, and self-denial… for if once pride, covetousness, opposition and contention etc. destroy the power of holiness among you, or your being cast into a new frame of discipline take you up for the most part, diverting your minds… there will soon grow a strangeness between you and God, who will then surely bring afflictions upon you…”

—One can’t help wondering if one of those afflictions God might send is correspondents like this one. And one might also wonder whether the correspondent takes his own advice about not letting pride, jealousy, opposition and contention destroy to power of holiness that should be binding England and American Puritans together.

“…the Almighty God vouchsafe that both your doctrine and discipline work mightily and effectually upon your hearts and lives, to meeken and sanctify them throughout. if you please to write anything back to me, the bearer hereof can tell you how it may be sent and delivered to me. The Lord be with your spirit. Amen.”

—Again the poor messenger is set up to be killed.

We don’t know if Winthrop wrote back. As usual, his reply does not exist, for while he carefully kept and preserved the letters he received, the people he wrote to were not so careful. But it’s most likely he did. He would have taken the lecturing and hectoring of this writer with great humility, as he always did. But while the governor would have thanked the letter writer for his care, and assured him that the colonists strove to put all earthly conflict and vanity behind them, there are no laws or decrees on the books of the MBC censoring letters home, forbidding women to wear coifs, banning books, or restricting Puritans’ freedom of religious speech, all of which the letter writer urged Winthrop to do. Winthrop knew, though it likely pained him, that American and English Puritans were already growing apart, and that the work to be done in the Old World was very different from the task at hand in the New World, and that no matter how much they longed to remain one community, that would likely be impossible.

One wonders why the letter writer was so afraid to reveal his identity to anyone but Winthrop. At first one thinks maybe he was afraid the English authorities would harass him, but after a little thought it seems there’s nothing in the letter to get the writer into trouble in England. After all, he is denouncing the colonists and deploring the abuse of the Anglican church and its bishops. It seems maybe the writer was actually afraid that his identity would be made known to the colonists, who would not take his criticisms well. If they found out the identity of the man who wanted to curb their liberties, religious and otherwise, and who denounced them so roundly to all, the colonists might well have written to England to complain about him, and then this Saint would have been in hot water.

This letter is interesting to close-read because it reveals so much about the rapid evolution of Puritanism during the fractious decade of the 1630s, both in America and in England. It is a window into the minds of those who stayed behind from the promised land of America, the dangers they faced at home, and their feelings about their brethren far away. It also illuminates the thinking of those who sacrificed everything to leave England and keep the faith in the unknown land of America, the things they missed about home, and the power of their elation over their success in forming a new and pure church doctrine—the whole point of their journey. It is a shame the two sides had to divide so widely and so soon.

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4 Responses to “PS: the end of the letter from John Winthrop’s annoying colonial correspondent”

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I have really enjoyed this close reading of the anonymous letter. It is instructive, perhaps, to consider some additional historical context from the English side: the correspondent, craven as he is, seems prescient about the gathering storm about to break in the 1640s as the great English Civil War would engulf the nation. Although the puritans used typically apocalyptic language to describe their growing unsease and their growing certainty of divine wrath about to fall, I wonder if there was a clear scent of what was about to unfold (easy enough to see via hindsight, of course).
I’m very interested in your analysis of the divide between the two sides, especially in how immediate it was. It would be interesting to explore (if possible) what we can of the psychological and even material differences between the puritans who left and those who stayed.

Hello John; thanks for writing. Yes, you’re right that the writer did not delude himself about the mounting trouble in England. All Puritans at that time (1630s) believed God was about to deliver his judgment on the country and that it might even be destroyed, as Israel was destroyed, and its people scattered into captivity and refugee status. They used religious language and metaphor to predict this, but they also saw that God might also accomplish his destruction of the land through brass-tacks political problems, including the unpopular self-rule of the king, the Scottish attacks in the north, and the growing determination of erstwhile Parliament members to confront Charles I. The Puritans still in England worried that the New England Puritans no longer really cared about this—they had saved themselves by going to America and were happily building new lives there without a thought for the old country. New England Puritans writing home asking for banned books and criticizing the English church, in this light, could easily have been seen by some English Puritans as their brethren adding fuel to a terrible fire of political dissension and religious persecution.

If American Puritans congratulated themselves on leaving England behind to avoid Armageddon, it’s not evident in their eager willingness to return to England once the Civil War began. Many hundreds of Massachusetts colonists went back to England permanently to take part in the war as soldiers, willing to die for the cause of returning England to the true faith. It’s bitterly ironic that those who did stay became just as hostile to the New England Puritans as those who had never left England, and that the nominally Puritan government of Oliver Cromwell tolerated New England with bad grace, unable to completely cut it off because of the supposed brotherhood between them, but having no patience for the continued cries for religious purification coming from America.

Excellent, I did NOT know that American puritans returned to England for the Civil War! Nor was I aware of Cromwell’s relations with the American colonies (my detailed expertise fades quickly after the theatres are closed in 1642 :)

…one thing New England and English Puritans could agree on!


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