A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.

Papers of the Winthrop Family, Volume 1

John Winthrop’s Christian Experience1
Winthrop, John

In my youth I was very lewdly disposed, inclining unto and attempting (so far as my yeares enabled mee) all kind of wickednesse, except swearing and scorning religion, which I had no temptation unto in regard of my education. About ten years of age, I had some notions of God, for in some great frighting or danger, I have prayed unto God, and have found manifest answer; the remembrance whereof many yeares after made mee think that God did love mee, but it made mee no whit the better:

After I was 12. yeares old, I began to have some more savour of Religion, and I thought I had more understanding in Divinity then many of my yeares; for in reading of some good books I conceived, that I did know divers of those points before, though I knew not how I should come by such knowledge (but since I perceived it was out of some logicall principles, whereby out of some things I could conclude others) yet I was still very wild, and dissolute, and as years came on my lusts grew stronger, but yet under some restraint of my naturall reason; whereby I had the command of my self that I could turne into any form. I would as occasion required write letters etc. of meer vanity; and if occasion were I could write others of savory and godly counsell.

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About 14 years of age, being in Cambridge2 I fell into a lingring feaver, which took away the comfort of my life. For being there neglected, and despised, I went up and down mourning with myself; and being deprived of my youthfull joyes, I betook my self to God whom I did believe to bee very good and mercifull, and would welcome any that would come to him, especially such a yongue soule, and so well qualifyed as I took my self to bee; so as I took pleasure in drawing neer to him. But how my heart was affected with my sins, or what thoughts I had of Christ I remember not. But I was willing to love God, and therefore I thought hee loved mee. But so soon as I recovered my perfect health, and met with somewhat els to take pleasure in, I forgot my former acquaintance with God, and fell to former lusts, and grew worse then before. Yet some good moodes I had now, and then, and sad checks of my naturall Conscience, by which the Lord preserved mee from some foule sins, which otherwise I had fallen into. But my lusts were so masterly as no good could fasten upon mee, otherwise then to hold mee to some task of ordinary dutyes for I cared for nothing but how to satisfy my voluptuous heart.

About 18 yeares of age (being a man in stature, and in understanding as my parents conceived mee) I married into a family under Mr. Culverwell his ministry in Essex; and living there sometimes I first found the ministry of the word to come to my heart with power (for in all before I found onely light) and after that I found the like in the ministry of many others. So as there began to bee some change which I perceived in my self, and others took notice of. Now I began to come under strong excersises of Conscience: (yet by fits only) I could no longer dally with Religion. God put my soule to sad tasks sometimes, which yet the flesh would shake off, 156and outweare still. I had withall many sweet invitations which I would willingly have intertained, but the flesh would not give up her interest. The mercifull Lord would not thus bee answered, but notwithstanding all my stubbornesse, and unkind rejections of mercy, hee left mee not till hee had overcome my heart to give up itself to him, and to bid farewell to all the world, and untill my heart could answer, Lord what wilt thou have mee to doe?

Now came I to some peace and comfort in God and in his wayes, my cheif delight was therein, I loved a Christian, and the very ground hee went upon. I honoured a faythful minister in my heart and could have kissed his feet: Now I grew full of zeal (which outranne my knowledge and carried mee sometimes beyond my calling) and very liberall to any good work. I had an unsatiable thirst after the word of God and could not misse a good sermon, though many miles off, especially of such as did search deep into the conscience. I had also a great striveing in my heart to draw others to God. It pittyed my heart to see men so little to regard their soules, and to despise that happines which I knew to bee better then all the world besides, which stirred mee up to take any opportunity to draw men to God, and by successe in my endeavors I took much encouragement hereunto. But those affections were not constant but very unsetled. By these occasions I grew to bee of some note for religion (which did not a little puffe mee up) and divers would come to mee for advice in cases of conscience; and if I heard of any that were in trouble of mind I usually went to comfort them; so that upon the bent of my spirit this way and the successe I found of my endeavors, I gave up my selfe to the study of Divinity, and intended to enter into the ministry, if my freinds had not diverted mee.

But as I grew into employment and credit thereby; so I grew also in pride of my guifts, and under temptations which sett mee on work to look to my evidence more narrowly then I had done before (for the great change which God had wrought in mee, and the generall approbation of good ministers and other Christians, kept mee from makeing any great question of my good estate, though my secrett corruptions, and some tremblings of heart (which was greatest when I was among the most Godly persons) put me to some plunges; but especially when I perceived a great decay in my zeale and love, etc.) And hearing sometimes of better assurance by the seale of the spirit, which I also knew by the word of God, but could not, nor durst say that ever I had it; and finding by reading of Mr. Perkins3 and 157other books that a reprobate might (in appearance) attaine to as much as I had done: finding withall much hollownes and vaine glory in my heart, I began to grow very sad, and knew not what to doe, I was ashamed to open my case to any minister that knew mee; I feared it would shame my self and religion also, that such an eminent professour as I was accounted, should discover such corruptions as I found in my selfe, and had in all this time attained no better evidence of salvation; and I should prove a hypocrite it was too late to begin anew: I should never repent in truth having repented, so oft as I had done. It was like hell to mee to think of that in Hebr: 6.4 Yet I should sometimes propound questions afarre off to such of the most Godly ministers as I mett, which gave mee ease for the present, but my heart could not find where to rest; but I grew very sad, and melancholy; and now to hear others applaud mee was a dart through my liver; for still I feared I was not sound at the root, and sometimes I had thoughts of breaking from my profession, and proclaiming myself an Hipocrite. But those troubles came not all at once but by fits, for sometimes I should find refreshing in prayer, and sometimes in the love that I had had to the Saints: which though it were but poor comfort (for I durst not say before the Lord that I did love them in truth) yet the Lord upheld mee, and many times outward occasions put these feares out of my thoughts. And though I had knowne long before the Doctrine of free Justification by Christ and had often urged it upon my owne soul and others, yet I could not close with Christ to my satisfaction. I have many times striven to lay hold upon Christ in some promise and have brought forth all the arguments that I had for my part in it. But insteed of finding it to bee mine, I have lost sometimes the fayth of the very general truth of the promise, sometimes after much striveing by prayer for fayth in Christ, I have thought I had received some power to apply Christ unto my soule: but it was so doubtfull as I could have little comfort in it, and it soon vanished.

Upon these and the like troubles, when I could by no meanes attaine sure and setled peace; and that which I did get was still broken off upon every infirmity; I concluded there was no way to help it, but by walking more close with God and more strict observation of all dutyes; and hereby though I put myself to many a needlesse task, and deprived my self of many lawfull comforts, yet my peace would fayle upon every small occasion, 158and I was held long under great bondage to the Law (sinne, and humble myself; and sinne, and to humiliation again, and so day after day) yet neither got strength to my Sanctification nor betterd my Evidence, but was brought to such bondage, as I durst not use any recreation, nor meddle with any worldly businesse etc.: for feare of breaking my peace (which even such as it was, was very preteous to mee) but this would not hold neither, for then I grew very melancholy and mine own thoughts wearied mee, and wasted my spirits.

While I wandred up and downe in this sad and doubtful estate (wherein yet I had many intermissions, for the flesh would often shake off this yoake of the law, but was still forced to come under it again) wherein my greatest troubles were not the sense of Gods wrath or fear of damnation, but want of assurance of salvation, and want of strength against my corruptions; I knew that my greatest want was fayth in Christ, and faine would I have been united to Christ but I thought I was not holy enough. I had many times comfortable thoughts about him in the word prayer, and meditation, but they gave mee no satisfaction but brought mee lower in mine own eyes, and held mee still to a constant use of all meanes, in hope of better thinges to come. Sometimes I was very confident that hee had given mee a hungring and thirsting soule after Christ and therefore would surely satisfy mee in his good time. Sometimes againe I was ready to entertaine secret murmurings that all my paines and prayers etc. should prevayle no more: but such thoughts were soon rebuked: I found my heart still willing to justify God. Yea I was perswaded I should love him though hee should cast mee off.

Being in this condition it pleased the Lord in my family excercise to manifest unto mee the difference between the Covenant of grace, and the Covenant of workes (but I took the foundation of that of workes to have been with man in innocency, and onely held forth in the law of Moses to drive us to Christ). This Covenant of grace began to take great impression in mee and I thought I had now enough: To have Christ freely, and to bee justifyed freely was very sweet to mee; and upon sound warrant (as I conceived) but I could not say with any confidence, it had been sealed to mee, but I rather took occasion to bee more remisse in my spirituall watch, and so more loose in my conversation.

I was now about 30 yeares of age, and now was the time come that the Lord would reveale Christ unto mee whom I had long desired, but not so earnestly as since I came to see more clearely into the covenant of free grace. First therefore hee laid a sore affliction upon mee wherein hee laid 159mee lower in myne owne eyes then at any time before, and showed mee the emptines of all my guifts, and parts; left mee neither power nor will, so as I became as a weaned child. I could now no more look at what I had been or what I had done nor bee discontented for want of strength or assurance mine eyes were onely upon his free mercy in Jesus Christ. I knew I was worthy of nothing for I knew I could doe nothing for him or for my selfe. I could only mourn, and weep to think of free mercy to such a vile wretch as I was. Though I had no power to apply it yet I felt comfort in it. I did not long continue in this estate, but the good spirit of the Lord breathed upon my soule, and said I should live. Then every promise I thought upon held forth Christ unto me saying I am thy salvation. Now could my soule close with Christ, and rest there with sweet content, so ravished with his love, as I desired nothing nor feared anything, but was filled with joy unspeakable, and glorious and with a spirit of Adoption. Not that I could pray with more fervency or more enlargement of heart than sometimes before, but I could now cry my father with more confidence. Mee thought this condition and that frame of heart which I had after, was in respect of the former like the reigne of Solomon, free, peaceable, prosperous and glorious, the other more like that of Ahaz, full of troubles, feares and abasements. And the more I grew thus acquainted with the spirit of God the more were my corruptions mortifyed, and the new man quickened: the world, the flesh and Satan were for a time silent, I heard not of them: but they would not leave mee so. This Estate lasted a good time (divers months), but not alwayes alike, but if my comfort, and joy slackened a while, yet my peace continued, and it would returne with advantage. I was now growne familiar with the Lord Jesus Christ, hee would oft tell mee he loved mee, I did not doubt to believe him; If I went abroad hee went with mee, when I returned hee came home with mee. I talked with him upon the way, hee lay down with mee and usually I did awake with him. Now I could goe into any company and not loose him: and so sweet was his love to mee as I desired nothing but him in heaven or earth.

This Estate would not hold neither did it decline suddainly but by degrees. And though I found much spirituall strength in it, yet I could not discerne but my hunger after the word of God, and my love to the Saints had been as great (if not more) in former times. One reason might bee this, I found that the many blemishes and much hollow heartednesse which I discerned in many professors, had weakned the esteem of a Christian in my heart. And for my comfort in Christ, as worldly imployments, and the love 160of temporall things did steal away my heart from him so would his sweet countenance bee withdrawne from mee. But in such a condition hee would not long leave mee, but would still recall mee by some word or affliction or in prayer or meditation, and I should then bee as a man awakened out of a dreame or as if I had been another man. And then my care was (not so much to get pardon for that was sometimes sealed to mee while I was purposing to goe seek it, and yet sometimes I could not obtaine it without seeking and wayteing also but) to mourn for my ingratitude towards my God, and his free, and rich mercy. The consideration whereof would break my heart more, and wring more teares from myne eyes, then ever the fear of Damnation or any affliction had done; so as many times and to this very day a thought of Christ Jesus, and free grace bestowed on mee melts my heart that I cannot refraine.

Since this time I have gone under continuall conflicts between the flesh and the spirit, and sometimes with Satan himself (which I have more discerned of late then I did formerly) many falls I have had, and have lyen long under some, yet never quite forsaken of the Lord. But still when I have been put to it by any suddaine danger or fearefull temptation, the good spirit of the Lord hath not fayled to beare witnesse to mee, giveing mee comfort, and courage in the very pinch, when of my self I have been very fearefull, and dismayed. My usuall falls have been through dead heartedness, and presumptuousnesse, by which Satan hath taken advantage to wind mee into other sinnes. When the flesh prevayles the spirit withdrawes, and is sometimes so greived as hee seemes not to acknowledge his owne work. Yet in my worst times hee hath been pleased to stirre, when hee would not speak, and would yet support mee that my fayth hath not fayled utterly.

The Doctrine of free justification lately taught here, took mee in as drowsy a condition, as I had been in (to my remembrance) these twenty yeares, and brought me as low (in my owne apprehension) as if the whole work had been to begin anew. But when the voice of peace came, I knew it to bee the same that I had been acquainted with before, though it did not speak so loud nor in that measure of joy that I had felt sometimes. Onely this I found that I had defiled the white garments of the Lord Jesus. That of Justification in undervalueing the riches of the Lord Jesus Christ and his free grace, and setting up Idolls in myne own heart, some of them made of his sylver, and of his gold, and that other garment of Sanctification by many foule spotts which Gods people might take notice of and yet the inward spotts were fouler than those.

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The Lord Jesus who (of his owne free grace) hath washed my soule in the blood of the everlasting Covenant, wash away all those spotts also in his good time. Amen even so doe Lord Jesus.

John Winthrop. The 12th of the 11th month, 1636. in the 49th year of my age just compleat.
1.

MS. Note Book of Henry Dunster (1612?–59), President of Harvard College, pp. 119–123; L. and L. , II. 165–174. For his edition Robert C. Winthrop was able to use also a second manuscript copy, not now to be found, sent by Governor Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut to President Ezra Stiles of Yale College in 1783. Cf. L. and L. , II. 161–165. The narrative, written in New England in January, 1636–37, is inserted at this point because it deals largely with the spiritual history of Winthrop’s boyhood and youth. Robert C. Winthrop says of it ( L. and L. , I. 78): “It is written in a stern spirit of self-condemnation and self-abasement; and, as we have already suggested, might give room for the idea that its author had been a much less exemplary young man than he probably was, were not the peculiar elements of his character and the peculiar circumstances of his condition, both at the time of which he speaks, and still more at the time at which it was written, taken into consideration in reading it. But viewed in this light, or, indeed, in any light, it presents a striking picture of a pious soul struggling under the doubts and despondencies which so often beset the religious temperament, and which the peculiar trials of his lot were so well calculated to aggravate. There is, too, a zeal and a fervor of expression in it—in some passages rising almost to the height of poetry—which, to a religious heart, gives it a charm not unlike that which belongs to some of the devotional writings of Baxter or of Bunyan, or even to the Confessions of St. Augustine.”

George Bancroft writes (ibid., II. 162–163): “By those who do not know, that, in good Puritan times, a thought amiss was mourned over as a defilement, and love of play as lewdness, wrong judgment would be formed of the singularly pure character which the very excess of self-reproach sets off with new lustre.”

2.

John Winthrop was admitted to Trinity College at the age of fourteen years and eleven months nearly (supra, p. 78; cf. Venn, A. C. , IV. 441). He appears to have been in attendance something less than two years. Supra, pp. 78, 82, 84, 85; L. and L. , I. 58. Franklin B. Dexter notes that, among the Cambridge colleges, Trinity stood next after Emmanuel in supplying men of learning to the New England emigration. “Influence of the English Universities in the Development of New England,” M. H. S., Proc. , XVII. 340–352.

3.

William Perkins (1558–1602), celebrated divine, author of A Declaration of the State of Grace and Condemnation and other works. D. N. B. , XLV. 6–9; Thomas Fuller, Abel Redevivus (1651), 431–440.

4.

Hebrews, c. vi, verses 4–6: “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.”