Capt. John Underhill Gets Un-Banished From Massachusetts Bay, 1640

Capt. John Underhill paid a steep price for crossing the early Puritan establishment in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He was banished, and had to do some serious grovelling to get back into the Puritans’ good graces.

John Winthrop

John Winthrop

Underhill had been hired as a captain by the colony to help train the militia. He was born Oct. 7, 1597 in England, but fled with his family to the Netherlands after his father was involved in a failed plot to overthrow the Queen. He lived in the Netherlands with a group of Puritan exiles until his early 30s, when he and his wife emigrated to America.

Things went well at first. John Underhill was appointed to the General Court and elected a Boston selectman in 1634. In 1636 he was sent to arrest Roger Williams, but Williams had already fled to Rhode Island. In 1637, Underhill headed the militia during the Pequot War.

But then it all fell apart. He supported the Rev. John Wheelwright’s unconventional theology, viewed as heresy by the Puritans. Wheelwright and Anne Hutchinson were banished from the colony, and Underhill was not only out of a job but accused of adultery. He left for England, but couldn’t find work. So he returned to New England and settled in New Hampshire, where he became governor. In 1641 his banishment was repealed, and in September he was acquitted of adultery.

John Winthrop described Underhill’s plea for repentance in his journal on Sept. 3, 1640. He showed up in old clothes and a foul linen cap, apologized abjectly, weeping and blubbering and sighing. It worked:

Captain Underhill being brought, by the blessing of God in this church’s censure of excommunication, to remorse for his foul sins, obtained, by means of the elders, and others of the church of Boston, a safe conduct under the hand of the governor and one of the council to repair to the church. He came at the time of the court of assistants, and upon the lecture day, after sermon, the pastor called him forth and declared the occasion, and then gave him leave to speak: and indeed it was a spectacle which caused many weeping eyes, though it afforded matter of much rejoicing to behold the power of the Lord Jesus in his ordinances, when they are dispensed in his own way, holding forth the authority of his regal scepter in the complicity of the gospel. He came in his worst clothes (being accustomed to take great pride in his bravery and neatness) without a band, in a foul linen cap pulled close to his eyes; and standing upon a form, he did, with many deep sighs and abundance of tears, lay open his wicked course, his adultery, his hypocrisy, his persecution of God’s people here, and especially his pride (as the root of all, which caused God to give him over to this other sinful courses) and contempt of the magistrates. He justified God and the church and the court in all that had been inflicted on him. He declared what power Satan had of him since the casting out of the church; how his presumptuous laying hold of mercy and pardon, before God gave it, did then fail him when the terrors of God came upon him, so as he could have no rest, nor could see any issue but utter despair, which had put him divers times upon resolutions of destroying himself, had not the Lord in merely prevented him, even when his sword was ready to have done the execution. Many fearful temptations he met with beside, and in all these his heart shut up in hardness and impenitency as the bondslave of Satan, till the Lord, after a long time and great afflictions, had broken his heart, and brought him to humble himself before him night and day with prayers and tears till his strength was wasted; and indeed he appeared as a man worn out with sorrow, and yet he could find no peace, therefore he was now come to seek it in this ordinance of God. He spake well, save that his blubbering, etc., interrupted him, and all along he discovered a broken and melting heart, and gave good exhortations to take heed of such vanities and beginnings of evil as had occasioned his fall; and in the end he earnestly and humbly besought the church to have compassion of him, and to deliver him out of the hands of Satan. So accordingly he was received into the church again; and after he came into the court (for the general court began soon after) and made confession of his sin against them, etc., and desired pardon, which the court freely granted him, so far as concerned their private judgment. But for his adultery they would not pardon that for example’s sake, nor would restore him to freedom, though they released his banishment, and declared the former law against adultery to be of no force; so as there was no law now to couch his life, for the new law against adultery was made since his fact committed. He confessed also in the congregation, that though he was very familiar with that woman, and had gained her affection, etc., yet she withstood him six months against all his solicitations (which he thought no woman could have resisted) before he could overcome her chastity, but being once overcome, she was wholly at his will. And to make his peace the more sound, he went to her husband (being a cooper) and fell upon his knees before him in the presence of some of the elders and others, and confessed the wrong he had done him, and besought him to forgive him, which he did very freely, and in testimony thereof he sent the captain’s wife a token.

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