The Puritans, Part 6

Phil Jensen


After leaving England on April 8, 1630, the Puritans arrived at Salem on June 12th.  Salem was the place where Higginson along with a man named Skelton, had gone in 1629 after the charter was signed.  They had taken two hundred Puritans with them.  Their arrival had been preceded by sixty six men led by John Endecott in 1628, and John Winthrop knew this.

Puritans_AmericaNow, even though he knew this, we don’t know what John Winthrop expected to see when he arrived at Salem, but we could speculate that in one year’s time Higginson and Skelton and the people with them could have been expected to have made some progress. Winthrop probably expected to see some good permanent structures and a functioning orderly community.  But what did Winthrop and his fellow travelers find?

As the sea-weary company of men and women looked ashore at the straggling collection of huts, and hovels and canvas booths that went by the name of Salem, they must have been staggered by the crudity of the life that lay ahead of them. [1] 

Rick Kriebel 2016


This was not a good picture.  After giving up all that they had in England and traveling 3,000 miles across the Atlantic, this was not what Winthrop and his fellow travelers wanted to see. The physical state of Salem was not the only concern.  The weather there was also a concern, for the winters would be colder.  The settlers who had come over with Higginson and Skelton would tell them that.

How would they shelter themselves in such a cold? A few had brought tents….They could be improvised of course, but at best they would make a frail fence against the winter. [2]

Then there was the state of the men who greeted them when they arrived. Here is what Winthrop saw:

Woodrow Wilcox


On the faces of the languid men around him he read a failure of nerve.  Many were already in the forlorn and lackadaisical state of mind that marks the onset of scurvy.  Others, because of their short supplies and their disappointment in the primitive condition of the settlement, were ready to give up. [3]

It was a disappointing scene to be sure.  But that was just the beginning, for after Winthrop got a chance to visit with the leaders on shore, he learned that what he could see was not the half of it:

From Endecott, he learned that of the sixty-six men who had come over with him in 1628, and the two hundred who had accompanied Higginson and Skelton the following year, scarcely eighty-five remained.  More than eighty had died, while the rest had quit and gone back to England. And many of those who were left were intending to do the same. [4]

How would you like to arrive in the New World and find that many in the advance party had died or had gone back to England, and the rest were planning to leave? This was the situation Winthrop and his fellow travelers faced. Yet here they were expecting to start a new life and live there the rest of their lives. They were like a band marching with great joy down main street on July 4th, and then suddenly the band stops and every instrument is silenced. The mood changes from joy to shock when they see what is before them.

Think of it.  Four hundred men, women, and children had come with John Winthrop.  Six hundred more would be coming in three weeks.  Sure, they had properly prepared.  They brought supplies to last for a year.  But how does a person with Christian faith, a person who has heard Winthrop’s  sermon respond when they arrive and find what they did?

It was a desperate situation to say the least.  Winthrop had to do something. If this was happening today, people would be saying, “Pump millions of dollars into Salem.” That is what they did in Baltimore. But it did not work. What they needed in Salem was not money but backbone. For in giving Winthrop’s understanding, Morgan says, “Looking over the beachhead to which he had brought so large and so weak a force, Winthrop saw that the colony needed backbone.” [5]

What did Winthrop mean by backbone?  He meant no matter how tired they were from their trip, and no matter how the men felt who had come in 1628 and 1629, this was not a situation where you let your fatigue and disappointment make your decisions. True, conditions in Salem had caught them unexpectedly and were extremely disappointing.  But that didn’t change the mission.  They had come to New England to be a city on a hill, and that they would be.

Notice what is meant here by “backbone.”  When you are sure of what God wants you to do, you press on and do whatever is necessary.  You do what the Israelites should have done when they ran into problems in the wilderness after leaving Egypt. You continue to trust in God and move forward.  You don’t think about going back to England anymore than the Israelites should have thought about going back to Egypt.  Instead, you believe God will help you with the obstacles you face and you press on.

Notice, in order to take this attitude, you can’t let present circumstances cause you to doubt the future. This was the kind of man Winthrop was.  For even though many of the people who had come over in 1628 and 1629 had left or were leaving, and even though his son Henry died shortly after his arrival, and then more died later, Winthrop never doubted the future.

What was the basis for Winthrop’s belief in the future?

In his first letter to Margaret, written on July 16, after reciting the various afflictions, he concludes, “Yet for all these things I praise my God I am not discouraged, nor do I see cause to repent, or despair of those good days here, which will made amends for all.” [6]

Notice here, in his letter to his wife Margaret, John Winthrop expresses faith.  And faith was the way forward.  It is always the way forward.  For we have to be able to see beyond the present circumstances to the better future.  We have to believe that a better day is coming.

The faith that a better day is coming must spring out of a personal relationship with God, where we are seeking to build a life that honors God, and we believe that God is going to help us do that because He promised to help.

Notice this kind of faith was not available to the people at the court of King James the 1st whose manners and morals were appalling. It was not available to the men and woman who were staggering down London streets so drunk they could hardly see. It was not available to the prostitutes wearing low cut gowns that made the imagination superfluous. Neither was this faith available to the compromised leaders of the Church of England who cared more about their authority and their status than they did about seeking God’s will and showing mercy to those around them. No, this kind of faith was only available to people like John Winthrop, people who were determined to take all that the devil threw at them and still press forward because they were whole hearted in their commitment to build a life that honored God.

Therefore, while over eighty had already died in Salem, and while many of those who had come over with Higginson and Skelton had already left to go back to England, and while scores of those who had come with Winthrop were ready to turn around and head back, people like John Winthrop who were wholeheartedly committed to the cause were determined to stay.  Why were they determined to stay?  They had faith and character. Their faith and character caused them to have backbone.

[1] MORGAN, EDMUND S., THE PURITAN DILEMMA; THE STORY OF JOHN WINTHROP, 3rd Ed., © 2007.  Reprinted by permission of Pearson Education, Inc., New York, New York,    p. 50

[2]  Ibid., p. 51.

[3]  Ibid., p. 52.

[4]  Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory, (Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 1977), p. 160. Used by permission.

[5]  MORGAN, EDMUND S., THE PURITAN DILEMMA; THE STORY OF JOHN WINTHROP, 3rd Ed., © 2007.  Reprinted by permission of Pearson Education, Inc., New York, New York,  , p. 52.

[6]  Ibid.



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Bob Wittstruck was a pastor for 33 years, was the associate director of the Black Hills Creation Science Association, and is a supporter of both Christian schooling and home schooling. His latest book, The Forgotten Factor of History God Rules, is being printed in February or March of 2016. His email address is [email protected]
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