Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Colonizing the Bay


The Lesson


John Winthrop wrote "General Observations for the Plantation of New  England"

John Winthrop wrote his "General Observations for the Plantation of New England" in the summer of 1629 to justify the Puritan migration to New England.

Credit: Images courtesy of American Memory, Library of Congress.

John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity” was delivered as a sermon aboard the Arabella, as the Puritans approached their destination of Massachusetts Bay in 1630. It is a powerful speech outlining some key tenets of the Puritans’ beliefs, as well as Winthrop’s ideas of what the Puritans needed to do to build a successful community in the land they were entering. The speech, often referred to by its “City upon a Hill” metaphor, spells out his vision of the society they hoped to create and how they must act if they were to succeed in the eyes of God. The sermon sought to inspire and to motivate the Puritans by pointing out the distance between an ideal community and their real-world situation. It is a speech that American political leaders still quote.

Why would a large number of English people leave their country and homes for a destination far across the Atlantic Ocean? From 1630 to 1641, approximately 13,000 Puritans left England for New England – WHY? They followed the migration of the Pilgrims, who arrived in 1620, and an advance party of Puritans who went to Salem in 1629. But the first mass exodus occurred in 1630, when Governor John Winthrop led a fleet of ships from England to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony. King Charles I issued a charter to the Massachusetts Bay Company that would serve as the colony’s constitution, in other words, its framework of government.

This lesson focuses on the content of Winthrop’s speech and how it illuminates the Puritans’ beliefs, goals, and programs. It requires a close reading of a difficult text – but one that yields significant benefits to those who persist and analyze it closely.

Guiding Questions

  • What does John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity” sermon explain about the beliefs and goals of the Puritans?
  • What type of society did he hope to create and how?
  • What were the consequences if they did not succeed?

Learning Objectives

  • Explain John Winthrop’s goals in his “Model of Christian Charity” speech.
  • Discuss whether Winthrop appealed more to Puritans’ hopes or to their fears.
  • Paraphrase Winthrop's key points in the speech.
  • Predict the possibilities for success and failure in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and provide evidence from the speech to support their answer.
  • Explain why Winthrop predicted the Puritans’ new society would be “a city upon a hill” and why that metaphor is still important today.


The term “New England” was first used by John Smith before any English settlers had even reached North America. The Puritans’ charter from King Charles, creating a typical joint stock company, was issued to the Massachusetts Bay Company, although it did not specify the exact location in North America where they would settle. It was used as the colony’s framework of government when they arrived in 1630, with different parts of the large fleet settling in several small communities around Massachusetts Bay. Each town was formed around a minister and a magistrate. The Puritans had demanded a fuller reformation of the Church of England. They were being persecuted for their beliefs and their protests against the corruption they saw in the Church of England. By fleeing England they hoped to escape the divine wrath that threatened England and create the kind of churches that God demanded in New England.

The Puritans did not arrive in an unoccupied world, however. The Algonquian population had recently suffered a dramatic decline caused by their contact with Europeans and their deadly contagious diseases, which led to a series of epidemics among the natives. The English, accustomed to seeing signs of God’s providence throughout the natural world, viewed this plague as evidence of God’s desire for them to build their colony.

Winthrop’s speech addresses the dual concerns of the Puritans as they arrive in this new land: the fact that they have left England for a potentially hostile, unwelcoming terrain, and the idea that they are there to fulfill their mission. He is exhorting his fellow Puritans to see their endeavor as a tremendous opportunity to do God’s work, while cautioning them of the dangers with which it is fraught. As such, it is a good example of the Puritans’ notion of a covenant, or agreement, of how they believed they must act in order to retain God’s favor and be successful in their work.

New England settlers also intended to continue their familiar agricultural practices; soon they were raising livestock and grains. They established a successful trade in grain, lumber, and fish with the West Indies. Their economic success ultimately led to a shifting of emphasis away from religious matters and greater attention to material prosperity – much to Winthrop’s dismay. Economic considerations, religious persecution in England, and the desire to establish a community based on their religious ideals were important motivating forces in the settlement of New England.

The following materials from EDSITEment reviewed websites will be useful to teachers for background information on the Puritans, their beliefs, their reasons for migrating to New England, and related topics.

Preparation Instructions

Download or bookmark one version of Winthrop’s speech, depending on how much experience your students have reading 17th century documents and their reading level:

  • The short version, in the original from EDSITEment-reviewed Digital History, will require more experience, strong readers, and patience. (In addition, there is no punctuation nor are there paragraphs!)
  • The full version linked from EDSITEment-reviewed History Matters is MUCH easier. If you choose to use this one, use only the last TWO paragraphs.

The activity below is explained using the last two paragraphs of the full version, referencing paragraphs and punctuation that ARE NOT in the shorter, original version.

In addition, teachers may want to use the National Archives’ document analysis worksheet that is linked through the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory site, which prompts students to seek important information in the primary source and consider questions of audience, motivation, etc.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Why leave England?

(If you have more than one class session for this topic include this lesson, if not, proceed directly to “Winthrop's Speech” below):

Scholars believe that John Winthrop authored this document as a justification for the colonization of New England as well as a defense against those who criticized the Puritans’ departure from England.

Students should read “Reasons for the Plantation in New England” [available for students as a worksheet in .pdf format] to determine the major reasons Puritans wanted to immigrate to New England. Working in groups, students should analyze the different reasons, and the “objections” that are raised and answered. They should present their findings to the class. After the class has a list of reasons, they should work together to prioritize the list, rating the reasons for emigrating from “most” to “least” important.

  1. To begin this activity, the teacher can use the annotated document (available as a PDF) to model the first reason given for migrating:

    "It will be a service to the Church of great consequence to carry the Gospel into those parts of the world, to help on the fullness of the coming of the Gentiles, and to raise a bulwark against the kingdom of AnteChrist, which the Jesuits labor to rear up in those parts."

    At this point the teacher might want to raise questions with the students about whether Winthrop was speaking for the Puritan leadership or expressing ideas held by common Puritans.

  2. In groups, students should read reason #2, discuss it, and try to figure out what it is saying (model annotation as a PDF):

    "All other Churches of Europe are brought to desolation, and our sins, for which the Lord begins already to frown upon us and to cut us short, do threaten evil times to be coming upon us, and who knows, but that God hath provided this place to be a refuge for many whom he means to save out of the general calamity, and seeing the Church hath no place left to fly into but the wilderness, what better work can there be, than to go and provide tabernacles and food for her when she be restored".

  3. Working in groups students should figure out the other seven (7) reasons. [these are available as student worksheet with directions and questions] For each one, they should explain the reason in their own words. Each group should read all seven together and divide up the annotations (or compose them together). Another possibility would be to have groups or pairs read only one reason, distributing the work so that at least one pair or group covers each reason.
  4. Students share their reason(s), explaining them to the class.
  5. Students could then discuss the reasons for going to New England. Based on their reading of the document (and without any further research) they should speculate on what might be the most critical reasons for going? Why? Through this discussion they should create a list of the “most” to “least” important reasons for the migration. The results could be compiled and kept on the board; the document could serve as good reinforcement and reference for future class study/review.
  6. Depending on time constraints, students could do the same kind of activity with the ten (10) objections (only the Objections, not the Answers) that are raised, which provide more insights into why the Puritans believed they should go to New England. Again, the teacher could model the first “objection” and then have students interpret the rest; or, the teacher may feel the students could do these on their own, having done the earlier activity.
  7. Students then could prioritize the objections, from strongest to weakest. They should explain how they decided what were the stronger and the weaker objections. The results could be compiled and kept on the board; the document could serve as good reinforcement and reference for future class study/review.
Activity 2. John Winthrop's "Model of Christian Charity" Speech

(if you have only one period, do this activity)

  1. Focusing on only the last two paragraphs of the document, have students read the first sentence and try to figure out what it is saying (see selection in student launchpad and in separate PDF with questions):

    "Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God."

    Have students read the annotation available in the document (available as launchpad and as a PDF to clarify their understanding and to serve as a model for their annotation writing.

  2. In the next five sentences, Winthrop offers specific suggestions of how the Puritans can succeed; available in the Launchpad and in the PDF, the students should explain all of Winthrop's suggestions in their own words.
  3. The next three sentences offer “proof,” in Winthrop’s words, of how the Puritans will know that they are being successful (starting with “So shall we keep the unity …”) ,students should create three “bullet points” from the “evidence” that Winthrop pinpoints.
  4. The next part of the speech has become an ageless metaphor for America. Students should read this annotation and briefly discuss why this part of Winthrop’s speech has taken on such importance for generations of Americans:
  5. Students should read and annotate the last paragraph of the speech available in the Launchpad and in the PDF considering the following questions:
    • Why did Winthrop quote Moses? /li>
    • What was he predicting would happen if they followed Moses’ advice?
    • What was the alternative, if they did not?


Activity 1. Why Leave England?

Working in pairs, students develop a dialogue between two Puritans who are debating the merits of going to the New World, one of whom is in favor of the venture, the other against. They use the evidence presented in the “reasons for going” as well as the “objections, their answers and resolutions” to underscore the main arguments on both sides.


Activity 2. John Winthrop's "Model of Christian Charity" Speech
  • Students assume the role of someone on board the Arabella. Create a series of questions to pose to Winthrop about his speech; OR
  • Write a letter to someone back in England, explaining the key issues Winthrop raised; OR
  • Create editorial cartoons, in favor of or critical of what Winthrop proposed.

Extending The Lesson

1. Did It Work?

Ideally, the big question that students will pose is: How did things actually work out for the Puritans? Lessons could be developed to look at other documents/images that illustrate the course of the Puritan’s “model” society. They could examine Winthrop’s journals and the subsequent development of Massachusetts. In addition, they could examine key dissenters: Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. See the following EDSITEment-reviewed websites for possible resources:

2. Tackling the Full Version of the Speech

Stronger students who are interested in the Puritans and Winthrop’s language should be encouraged to tackle the full speech.

This is a full-text version (it is LONG) in the original language (from the EDSITEment-reviewed History Matters. The language has been somewhat updated, making for easier reading)

Have students LISTEN to part of the speech and explain how it differs hearing it, rather than reading it. This is a link to a portion of the sermon read aloud, by Reverend Peter J. Gomes, Harvard University Divinity School professor, linked through the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library.

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Colonization and Settlement (1585-1763)
  • History and Social Studies > Place > The Americas
  • History and Social Studies > People > Native American
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Modern World (1500 CE-Present)
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • History and Social Studies > People > Women
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Immigration/Migration
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Religion
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Historical analysis
  • Internet skills
  • Logical reasoning
  • Online research
  • Report writing
  • Summarizing
  • Using primary sources
  • David Jaffee, City College of New York, CUNY (New York, NY)
  • Richard Miller, Beacon High School (New York, NY)
  • Pennee Bender, American Social History Project, CUNY (New York, NY)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources