John Winthrop's "Christian Experience"

This is Winthrop's account of his spiritual progress delivered to the Boston church and obviously based heavily upon the "Experiencia", which he undoubtedly had with him to consult. It is of interest because it sheds some additional light on his life and spiritual struggles (perhaps the new information is covered in parts of the "Experiencia" that were lost or not published by Robert C. Winthrop), and because of the opportunity if gives us to compare some of his later reflections on episodes with the contemporary accounts he rendered in the "Experiencia".

In my youth I was very lewdly disposed, inclining unto and attempting (so far as my years enabled me) all kind of wickedness 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 frightening or danger, I have prayed unto God, and have found manifest answer; the remembrance whereof many years after made me think that God did love me, but it made me no whit the better:

After I was 12 years old, I began to have some more savor of Religion, and I thought I had more understanding in Divinity then many of my years; 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 logical 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 natural reason; whereby I had the command of my self that I could turn into any form. I would as occasion required write letters etc. of mere vanity; and if occasion were I could write others of savory and godly counsel.

About 14 years of age, being in Cambridge, I fell into a lingering fever, 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 youthful joys, I betook my self to God whom I did believe to bee very good and merciful, and would welcome any that would come to him, especially such a young soul, and so well qualified as I took my self to bee; so as I took pleasure in drawing near 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 bee loved me. But so soon as I recovered my perfect health, and met with somewhat else to take pleasure in, I forgot my former acquaintance with God, and fell to former lusts, and grew worse then before. Yet some good moods I had now, and then, and sad checks of my natural Conscience, by which the Lord preserved me from some foul sins, which otherwise I had fallen into. But my lusts were so masterly as no good could fasten upon me, otherwise then to hold me to some task of ordinary duties for I cared for nothing but how to satisfy my voluptuous heart.

About 18 years of age (being a man in stature, and in understanding as my parents conceived me) 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 only 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 exercises of Conscience: (yet by fits only) I could no longer dally with Religion. God put my soul to sad tasks sometimes, which yet the flesh would shake off, and outwear still. I had withal many sweet invitations which I would willingly have entertained, but the flesh would not give up her interest. The merciful] Lord would not thus bee answered, but notwithstanding all my stubbornness, and unkind rejections of mercy, bee left me not till hee had overcome my heart to give up itself to him, and to bid farewell to all the world, and until my heart could answer, Lord what wilt thou have me to doe?

Now came I to some peace and comfort in God and in his ways, my chief delight was therein, I loved a Christian, and the very ground hee went upon. I honored a faithful minister in my heart and could have kissed his feet: Now I grew full of zeal (which outran my knowledge and carried me sometimes beyond my calling) and very liberal to any good work. I had an unsatiable thirst after the word of God and could not miss a good sermon, though many miles off, especially of such as did search deep into the conscience. I had also a great striving in my heart to draw others to God. It pitied my heart to see men so little to regard their souls, and to despise that happiness which I knew to bee better then all the world besides, which stirred me up to take any opportunity to draw men to God, and by success in my endeavors I took much encouragement hereunto. But those affections were not constant but very unsettled. By these occasions I grew to bee of some note for religion (which did not a little puff me up) and divers would come to me 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 success I found of my endeavors, I gave up my self to the study of Divinity, and intended to enter into the ministry, if my friends had not diverted me.

But as I grew into employment and credit thereby; so I grew also in pride of my gifts, and under temptations which set me on work to look to my evidence more narrowly then I had done before (for the great change which God had wrought in me, and the general approbation of good ministers and other Christians, kept me from making any great question of my good estate, though my secret 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 zeal and love, etc.) And hearing sometimes of better assurance by the seal 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. Perkins and other books that a reprobate might (in appearance) attain to as much as I had done: finding withal much hollowness and vain 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 me; I feared it would shame my self and religion also, that such an eminent professor as I was accounted, should discover such corruptions as I found in my self, 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 me to think of that in Hebrews: 6. Yet I should sometimes propound questions afar off to such of the most Godly ministers as I met, which gave me 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 me 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 Hypocrite. 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 me, and many times outward occasions put these fears out of my thoughts. And though I had known long before the Doctrine of free justification by Christ and had often urged it upon my own 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 instead of finding it to bee mine, I have lost sometimes the faith of the very general truth of the promise, sometimes after much striving by prayer for faith in Christ, I have thought I had received some power to apply Christ unto my soul: but it was so doubtful as I could have little comfort in it, and it soon vanished.

Upon these and the like troubles, when I could by no means attain sure and settled 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 duties; and hereby though I put myself to many a needless task, and deprived my self of many' lawful comforts, yet my peace would fail upon every small occasion, and I was held long under great bondage to the Law (sin, and humble myself; and sin, and to humiliation again, and so day after day) yet neither got strength to my Sanctification nor bettered my Evidence, but was brought to such bondage, as I durst not use any recreation, nor meddle with any worldly business etc.: for fear of breaking my peace (which even such as it was, was very precious to me) but this would not hold neither, for then I grew very melancholy and mine own thoughts wearied me, and wasted my spirits.

While I wandered up and down in this sad and doubtful estate (wherein yet I had many intermissions, for the flesh would often shake off this yoke of the law, but was still forced to come under it again) wherein my greatest troubles were not the sense of God's 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 faith in Christ, and fain 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 me no satisfaction but brought me lower in mine own eyes, and held me still to a constant use of all means, in hope of better things to come. Sometimes I was very confident that bee had given me a hungering and thirsting soul after Christ and therefore would surely satisfy me in his good time. Sometimes again I was ready to entertains secret murmurings that all my pains and prayers etc. should prevail no more: but such thoughts were soon rebuked: I found my heart still willing to justify God. Yea I was persuaded I should love him though bee should cast me off.

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

I was now about 30 years of age, and now was the time come that the Lord would reveal Christ unto me whom I had long desired, but not so earnestly as since I came to see more clearly into the covenant of free grace. First therefore hee laid a sore affliction upon me wherein hee laid me lower in mine own eyes than at any time before, and shewed me the emptiness of all my gifts and parts, left me 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 only upon his free mercy in Jesus Christ. I knew I was worthy of nothing for I knew I could do nothing for him or for my self. 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 soul, and said I should live. Then every promise I thought upon held forth Christ unto me saying I am thy salvation. Now could my soul 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. Me thought this condition and that frame of heart which I had after, was in respect of the former like the reign of Solomon, free, peaceable, prosperous and glorious, the other more like that of Ahaz, full of troubles, fears and abasements. And the more I grew thus acquainted with the spirit of God the more were my corruptions mortified, 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 me so. This Estate lasted a good time (divers months), but not always alike, but if my comfort and joy slackened a while, yet my peace continued, and it would return with advantage. I was now grown familiar with the Lord Jesus Christ, hee would oft tell me he loved me, I did not doubt to believe him; If I went abroad hee went with me, when I returned bee came home with me. I talked with him upon the way, bee lay down with me and usually I did awake with him. Now I could go into any company and not loose him: and so sweet was his love to me as I desired nothing but him in heaven or earth.

This Estate would not hold neither did it decline suddenly but by degrees. And though I found much spiritual strength in it, yet I could not discern 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 heartedness which I discerned in many professors, had weakened the esteem of a Christian in my heart. And for my comfort in Christ, as worldly employments, and the love of temporal things did steal away my heart from him so would his sweet countenance bee withdrawn from me. But in such a condition hee would not long leave me, but would still recall me by some word or affliction or in prayer or meditation, and I should then bee as a man awakened out of a dream 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 me while I was purposing to go seek it, and yet sometimes I could not obtain it without seeking and waiting 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 tears from mine 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 me melts my heart that I cannot refrain.

Since this time I have gone under continual 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 lived long under some, yet never quite forsaken of the Lord. But still when I have been put to it by any sudden danger or fearful temptation, the good spirit of the Lord hath not failed to bear witness to me, giving me comfort, and courage in the very pinch, when of my self I have been very fearful, and dismayed. My usual falls have been through dead heartedness, and presumptuousness, by which Satan hath taken advantage to wind me into other sins. When the flesh prevails the spirit withdraws, and is sometimes so grieved as bee seems not to acknowledge his own work. Yet in my worst times bee hath been pleased to stir, when bee would not speak, and would yet support me that my faith hath not failed utterly.

The Doctrine of free justification lately taught here, took me in as drowsy a condition, as I had been in (to my remembrance) these twenty years, and brought me as low (in my own 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. Only this I found that I had defiled the white garments of the Lord Jesus. That of justification in undervaluing the riches of the Lord Jesus Christ and his free grace, and setting up Idols in mine own heart, some of them made of his silver, and of his gold, and that other garment of Sanctification by many foul spots which God's people might take notice of and yet the inward spots were fouler than those.

The Lord Jesus who (of his own free grace) hath washed my soul in the blood of the everlasting Covenant, wash away all those spots also in his good time. Amen even so do Lord Jesus.

JOHN WINTHROP.

The 12th of the 11th month, 1636. in the 49th year of my age just complete.