Prospero's America: John Winthrop, Jr., alchemy, and the creation of New England culture (1606--1676)

Date of Completion

January 2001


History, United States|History of Science




Town founder, political leader, industrial projector, physician, and first colonial member of England's Royal Society, John Winthrop, Jr. was one of the most important figures in seventeenth-century English America. He was also an alchemist, and this study examines, through Winthrop, the influence of alchemy on the formation of early New England culture. ^ The study examines five aspects of Winthrop's and his associates' alchemical practices: (1) Winthrop's nearly lifelong participation in a pan-European network of alchemical practitioners who believed spiritual alchemy could hasten the pansophic reformation of the human condition; (2) Winthrop's efforts, in the 1640s, to make New England a laboratory of alchemical transformation by creating a “new London” where alchemists could collaboratively pursue scientific advances in agriculture, mining, metallurgy, and medicine; (3) Winthrop's role as New England's most sought-after physician, and the importance spiritually-focused alchemical medicine came to play in seventeenth-century New England's highly providential medical environment; (4) Winthrop's decisive intervention, which brought to an end the Hartford witch-hunt of the 1660s. In the process he and the alchemist Gershom Bulkeley redefined diabolical magic in such a way that witchcraft executions ended permanently in Connecticut, and ceased in all New England for a generation; (5) Winthrop's election in 1662 as the first colonial fellow of the Royal Society, and the ensuing conflict between Winthrop's desire to support the society's pansophic vision of reformation, and his resistance to the society's efforts to gather intelligence useful in centralizing the crown's authority over the New England colonies. Using carefully balanced strategies of cooperation and resistance, and a selective approach to providing the society information, Winthrop maintained his good standing as a fellow while protecting the interests of colonial Connecticut. ^ Alchemy informed Winthrop's irenic approach to religion, his culturally sensitive approach to dealing with Indians, his tireless efforts to create a stable economic base for New England; his collaborative relations with women healers; and his ability as governor of Connecticut to assert and defend his colony's territorial boundaries. Winthrop and his associates collectively pursued a vision of spiritual and scientific reform whose influence pervaded early New England culture. ^