Archive for January, 2011

The “Patriarch of Dorchester” and the Founding of New England

Rev. John White (1575-1648), depiction during the Westminster Assembly

There are in history some extraordinary servants of God whose impact is disproportionate to their lack of public acclaim. Such a one is the Rev. John White (1575-1648), who happens to also be my 10th great-granduncle. (See excellent sites here, here, and here.)

Rev. White was a Fellow of New College, Oxford, the Rector of Holy Trinity, Dorchester (where he instituted social reforms incarnating the Second Great Commandment into civil government centuries ahead of their time), visionary founder of New England, and a leading moderate Puritan member and sometime Prolocutor / Chairman of the Westminster Assembly of Divines.

The chart below shows Rev. White’s relation to several people, whom I will describe further in the article to follow this brief introduction. Two of his nephews were prominent pioneers in America: 1) William White immigrated on the Mayflower (1620), and his son Peregrine was the first Christian born in New England; 2) Thomas Gardner II (my 9th great-grandfather) was the 1st Colonial Governor of Massachusetts (1623). White’s great-grandsons were John & Charles Wesley, famous founders of the Methodist revival, and he was also related to Col. John Hathorne, a prominent judge of the Salem witchcraft trials. The chart goes as far as Fred Macy Martin, my maternal grandfather.

From John White to Fred Macy Martin

Rev. John White’s relation to nephews 1) on the Mayflower (1620) & 2) 1st Colonial Governor of Massachusetts (1623), and to his great-grandsons John & Charles Wesley

Perhaps the most neglected area of White’s life is his extraordinary ministry that earned him the title, “Patriarch of Dorchester.” While this amazing saga has been given book-length treatment, many popular accounts of White’s life understandably allow this portion of his experiments in civil construction to be overshadowed by his other important work in American colonial adventures. But for those who are concerned with incarnating biblical principles into civil society, esp. with working out the 2d Great Commandment, White’s work in Dorchester is at least, if not more, important than his work helping found the New World. The most comprehensive treatment of White’s life remains the definitive work by Frances J. Rose-Troup, John White, the Patriarch of Dorchester and the Founder of Massachusetts, 1575-1648, with an Account of the Early Settlements in Massachusetts, 1620-1630 (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1930). But this is out of print and somewhat difficult to obtain (although I use it in .pdf format). Therefore, the best, widely available treatment on this phase of ministry is by David Underdown, Fire from Heaven: Life in an English Town in the Seventeenth Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992).

In 1606 White was appointed rector of Holy Trinity parish in Dorchester. On 6 August 1613 half of Dorchester was destroyed in a great conflagration, which its inhabitants regarded as a “fire from heaven,” the catalyst for the events described in this book. Rev. White became the agent to which people looked for rebuilding the town from the ground up, and he synthesized a wonderful experiment in constructing civilization according to biblical principles, changing Dorchester into the most Puritan community in 17th-cent. England. Over the next twenty years, a time of increasing political and religious turmoil all over Europe, Dorchester became the most religiously radical town in the kingdom. The first three chapters describe political and social structures, and chs. 4 and 5 go on to relate how the paternalist Elizabethan town oligarchy was quickly replaced after the heavenly fire by Pastor White and his supporters struggling to reorder through institutional reform and moral discipline.

This group of men had a vision of a godly community in which power was to be exercised according to religious commitment rather than wealth or rank. Productive Christian capitalism empowered the loving care of the genuinely weak and needy in Christ’s Name, schools and retirement programs arose, while moral vice decreased inversely as piety burgeoned. These social reforms they instituted are a model to which those desiring to construct Christian community of loving solidarity today should look for valuable lessons.


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