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Reverend John Wheelwright portrait
Reverend John Wheelwright

The Reverend John Wheelwright is my 11th great-grandfather. He was born about 1592 in Alford, Lincolnshire, England to Robert and Alice Wheelwright. His family was comfortably off, although not among the most wealthy. He trained as a minister at Sidney College, Cambridge University, graduating with his Bachelor's degree in 1614, and his Master's degree four years later. He was a classmate of Oliver Cromwell's who later said of Wheelwright "that he was more afraid of meeting Wheelwright at football than he had been since of meeting an army in the field, for he was infallibly sure of being tripped up by him."

In 1621, John Wheelwright married his first wife, Marie Storre. He was a vicar in Bilsby, Lincolnshire from 1623 to 1631, succeeding his father-in-law in the position. Apparently Marie died in Bilsby, and John married for a second time, Mary Hutchinson. Mary Hutchinson was the sister of William Hutchinson, Anne Marbury Hutchinson's husband. Thus, through his second marriage, John Wheelwright was the brother-in-law of the famous antinomian, Anne Hutchinson

After several years of preaching, religious leaders in England became distraught with Rev. Wheelwright's sermons due to their Puritan leanings, and silenced him as a minister. Two or three years after this, in 1636, John and Mary came to Boston, Massachusetts with their children, landing at Boston on May 26th, and becoming members of the Boston church in early June. Upon his arrival in the New World, John preached at Braintree and at Boston. However, by 1636, when John and Mary arrived in Massachusetts, Anne Hutchinson was already under investigation for her antinomian beliefs. The arrival in Massachusetts of her friends and relations was not positively viewed by authorities, especially when the Rev. Wheelwright began preaching ideas that seemed to correspond with Anne Hutchinson's belief in the covenant of grace.

When members of the church at Boston proposed to invite Rev. Wheelwright to become a church leader about six months after his arrival in the colony, the proposal was opposed by Governor Winthrop, who said that "he thought reverently of his godliness and abilities, so as he could be content to live under such a ministry; yet seeing that he was apt to raise doubtful disputations, he could not consent to choose him to that place." Instead, Rev. Wheelwright became minister to a church near Mount Wollaston (now Quincy, but then a part of Boston). He was also given a grant of land of about two hundred acres there.

Despite this appointment, the controversy surrounding Wheelwright and his ideas continued to increase, no doubt because of his relation to Anne Hutchinson and the general relationship of his ideas to hers. On January 19, 1636/7, the Puritan leadership declared a fast day to be kept in all the churches, in part because of the general dissension in the colony. Rev. Wheelwright gave a sermon for this fast day which proved to be highly controversial and he was called into the Massachusetts General Court to defend the Fast Day sermon. The sermon was produced, and he continued to defend it, though it was said that in the sermon he "inveighed against all that walked in a covenant of works." The court adjudged him guilty of "sedition and contempt of the civil authority."

The Puritan leadership then considered the case for twenty-four days in 1637, announcing at the end of that time that the Fast Day sermon contained eighty-two erroneous opinions. The clergy claimed these ideas had been brought to New England and "spread underhand there" by Rev. Wheelwright. The Puritan leadership brought Wheelwright before the General Court, which had been stacked with members sure to vote against Wheelwright. Wheelwright appeared before the court and pleaded not guilty, but the court found him guilty. "For now justifying himself and his former practice being to the disturbance of the civil peace," he was disenfranchised and banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony by the General Court in November of 1637.

Wheelwright was given just two weeks to remove himself from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. With winter approaching, the removal of himself, his family, and his possessions to what was likely to be a wilderness was a daunting task. Although Anne Hutchinson and many of her supporters went south to Rhode Island, Wheelwright apparently decided not to join them there. The reasons for this are unclear. Instead, Wheelwright and some of the others who were banished from Massachusetts at the same time headed north to the Squamscot Falls to found what later became Exeter, New Hampshire.

In all likelihood, Wheelwright sailed north from Boston to the mouth of the Pascataqua River in New Hampshire, and then made his way over land to Squamscot Falls. Supporters of his ideas, including Samuel Hutchinson and Augustine Storre, of Boston, Edward Colcord and Darby Field of Piscataqua, John Compton of Roxbury, and Nicholas Needome, of Mount Wollaston, likely came with him on this journey. The families of these men, including Wheelwright's, seem to have followed in early spring. Upon Wheelwright's arrival, he probably stayed the winter in the home of another earlier settler of the region, perhaps Edward Hilton. The winter was a snowy one, with snow up to three feet from early November into March, so little could be accomplished, and it is amazing that the men were able to secure food and shelter for the duration of that time.

Wheelwright Deed for Exeter
Wheelwright's Deed for Exeter

In the spring, on April 3, 1638, John Wheelwright and his supporters who had come with him to the area, purchased from the sagamore Wahangnonawit and his son a large tract of land reaching from the northern boundary of the Massachusetts Bay on the south, to the Piscataqua Patents on the east, and on the north to Oyster River, officially forming the town of Exeter. In that same year, he was appointed minister of the newly formed church in Exeter. Rev. Wheelwright apparently settled into his new home quickly and in late June of 1639, he even hired an indentured servant for a house maid, Elizabeth Evans of Bridgend, co. Glamorgan, Wales.

However, almost immediately, the claim to the lands surrounding Squamscot Falls was put into question. Settlers with patents to the lands from Massachusetts began settling in the area within a few months of Wheelwright's arrival (an area which later became Hampton), causing dismay among the members of Wheelwright's company, who felt that their purchase of the lands from the Indians made them the lawful owners. Wheelwright's company appealed to the Massachusetts General Court, who responded "that they looked at this, their dealing [Wheelwright's company's dealing with the Indians], as against good neighborhood, religion and common honesty" since the lands in question had already been claimed by Massachusetts as part of the colony.

The General Court also claimed that the title purchased from the Indians was invalid as it referred to unimproved lands, which could not really be owned by the Indians, who had a right only to the lands that were improved or which could not be improved. The court claimed that all the unimproved lands were open to settlement and occupation by others. However, since Massachusetts had already claimed the lands, Wheelwright's patent was declared invalid.

In addition, since Wheelwright was still banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, his residence in the town of Exeter was similarly illegal from the standpoint of the Massachusetts General Court, and so in 1642 Wheelwright was forced once again to relocate. This time, Rev. Wheelwright traveled to Wells, Maine, where he bought land near the Ogunquitt River on April 17, 1643. He built a sawmill on his property near the Ogunquitt Falls. A number of his supporters also traveled there with him and he continued as minister to the church in Wells. Although Rev. Wheelwright subsequently relocated yet again, many of his supporters and some of his children stayed in the Wells area, and many descendants of theirs can still be found there.

After only a short time in Wells, Wheelwright seems to have either repented of his former antinomian ideas and/or to have sought an end to his banishment, and he wrote a letter to Governor John Winthrop:

"Right Worshipful.

Upon the long and mature consideration of things, I perceive that the main difference between yourselves and some of the Reverend elders and me in point of justification and the evidencing thereof, is not of that nature and consequence as was then presented to me in the false glass of Satan's temptations, and mine own distempered passions, which makes me unfeignedly sorry that I had such a hand in those sharp and vehement, censorious speeches in the application of my sermon, or in any other writing, whereby I reflected any dishonor upon your worships, the reverend elders, or of any contrary judgment to myself. It repents me that I did so much adhere to persons of corrupt judgment, to the countenancing of them in any of their errors or evil practices, though I intended no such thing; and that in the synod I used such unsafe and obscure expressions falling from me as a man dazzled with the buffetings of Satan, and that I did appeal from misapprehension of things. I confess that herein I have done very sinfully, and do humbly beg pardon of this honored State. If it shall appear to me by Scripture light, that in any carriage, word, writing, or action, I have walked contrary to rule, I shall be ready, by the grace of God, to give satisfaction; thus hoping that you will pardon my boldness, I humbly take leave of your worship, committing you to the good providence of the Almighty; and ever remain your worships in all service to be commanded in the Lord.

J. Wheelwright"

This apologetic letter seems to have made its impact with the Massachusetts General Court and so the court invited him to return to Massachusetts to make his case in person. To this invitation, on March 1, 1644, Wheelwright responded that he did not plan to come to the court in person, because, while he did believe in the spirit of his prior letter, he could not bring himself to admit to the charges of heresy and sedition that had led to his banishment. This letter, especially when read with the carefully worded letter above, seems to indicate that Wheelwright may not have truly changed his mind about the opinions that he previously held, but that he regretted the incidents, his temper, and the punishment that resulted. In other words, Wheelwright did not exactly admit that he was wrong, but he apologized for disagreeing with the clergy.

The Governor responded to Wheelwright's letter with advice that he should appear in person to the court, as it was unlikely that without a personal apology the court would overturn the banishment sentence. Nevertheless, Wheelwright did not attend, and in 1644 the court still "ordered that Mr. Wheelwright, upon a particular solemn, and serious acknowledgement and confession by letters, of his evil carriage, and of the court's justice upon him, hath his banishment taken off and is received in as a member of the Commonwealth."

With this reversal of the banishment sentence, Wheelwright was able to move back within the boundaries of Massachusetts. Accordingly, in 1647, Rev. John Wheelwright undertook another move, this time to return to the Exeter area, becoming minister at Hampton, New Hampshire in concert with the Rev. Timothy Dalton. The contract between the Hampton church and Rev. Wheelwright begins with the following:

"The church of Jesus Christ in Hampton haueing seriously considered the great paines & labours that the reverente & well-beloued Mr Tymothy Dalton haue taken among them in the worke of the ministry euen beyond his abilitie or strength of nater: And haueing upon sollemne seeking of God settled their thoughts upon the reverente & well-beloued Mr John Whelewright, of Wells, as a help in the worke of the Lord with the sayd Mr Dalton our prsent & faithfull Teacher: And haue[ing] given the sayd Mr Whelewright a call to that end, with the consent of the hole towne; the which the sayd Mr Whelewright doe except off according unto God"

The contract continues, granting Rev. Wheelwright a house-lot and a farm that was to be given to him, his heirs and assigns, unless he left his position without permission from the town. The farm was later deeded to him. Rev. Wheelwright also received a salary of £40 per annum, which in 1654 was increased to £50 per annum.

During Rev. Wheelwright's tenure in Hampton, some of the residents appear to have tried to clear his record of heresy and sedition. On May 1, 1654, the town residents voted that a petition should be sent to the Massachusetts General Court asking that all charges be dropped. Cotton Mather, in his Magnalia, describes the petition as follows:

"They, hearing that Mr.Wheelwright is, by Mr. Rutherford and Mr. Weld, rendered in some books printed by them as heretical and criminous, they now signify, that Mr. Wheelwright hath for these many years approved himself a sound, orthodox, and profitable minister of the gospel among these churches of Christ."

The General Court responded:

"In Ansr to the peticon of the Inhabitants of Hampton. The Court doth declare, 'though they are not willing to recall those uncomfortable differences that formerly passed betwixt this Court and Mr. Wheelwright, concerning matters of religion or practice, nor doe they know wt Mr. Rutherford, or Mr. Welde hath charged him wth, yett Judge meete to certify that Mr. Wheelwright hath long since given such satisfaction, both to the Court and Elders, generally, as that he is now, and so for many years have binn an officer in the church of Hampton, wthin or jurisdiccon [jurisdiction], and that wthout offence to any, so farre as wee know; and there, as we are informed, he hath binn an usefull and profitable Instrument of doing much good in that church.'"

With this, the matter of John Wheelwright's involvement in the Antinomian Controversy appears finally to have been dropped by the Massachusetts General Court.

John Wheelwright served as the minister in Hampton for several more years, at least until 1655 when the last extant receipt for his salary can be found. In 1656, the town voted "To seeke out for helpe for the minestry to helpe wth or teacher untill wee see how God will dispose of us in respect of our pasture [pastor]." It is possible, therefore, that Rev. John Wheelwright had ended his tenure at the Hampton church at this time, although other historians place the date of his departure some years later.

Regardless of the date of his actual departure from Hampton, it is known that Rev. John Wheelwright made a return trip to England at about this time. In the time since Rev. Wheelwright had left the country about twenty years earlier, the political climate in England had changed a great deal. The result of a number of social and political factors, the English Civil War resulted in the overthrow and execution of King Charles I, and the institution of Oliver Cromwell as head of state in the late 1640s. With Cromwell, a Puritan, in charge, the climate in England had become more tolerant of religious differences.

Rev. Wheelwright, familiar with Oliver Cromwell from his school days, must have felt especially comfortable about this return to England, where he met with Cromwell in 1658. However, Oliver Cromwell's death in late 1658 threw England into a state of confusion, and the monarchy was resumed just two years later, with Charles II. This may have been one reason that Rev. Wheelwright returned to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1662, although there is no direct evidence that he ever intended to stay in England. Several other Puritan ministers who had made the return trip to England likewise returned to Massachusetts when the monarchy was resumed. In October 1677, Rev. Wheelwright severed some of his ties with England by deeding his land and tenements at Mawthorop, Willoughby parish, Lincolnshire to his daughter Sarah Crispe of Boston. He did, however, hold onto some of his English lands until his death.

When Rev. Wheelwright returned from England, he served as minister of the church of Salisbury, Massachusetts from Dec. 9, 1662 until his death.

Reverend John Wheelwright died Nov. 15, 1679 in Salisbury, Massachusetts in his mid-80s, and was said to be the oldest pastor in New England. In his will, dated on May 25, 1675 and proved on Nov. 26, 1679, he made bequests to his grandson Edward Lyde of his estate in Mumby, Langham and Minge, co. Lincolnshire to be delivered to his mother, Mary Atkinson; to his granddaughter Mary Mavericke other lands in England; to his son-in-law Edward Rishworth and his daughter Mary White; to grandsons Thomas and Jacob Bradbury; to son Samuel lands at Craft near Waneflitt, Eng. and at Wells, Maine; and to his latter wife's children all his plate.


  1. Ancestry.com. Maine Pioneers, 1623-1660 [database online]. Orem, Utah: MyFamily.com, Inc., 1999. Original data: Pope, Charles Henry. The Pioneers of Maine and New Hampshire, 1623-1660. n.p., 1908.

  2. Anderson, Robert Charles. The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England, 1620-1633, vols. 1-3. Boston, MA: New England Historic Genealogical Society. 1995.

  3. Banks, Charles Edward. History of York Maine. Baltimore, MD: Regional Publishing Company. 1967.

  4. Bell, Charles H. History of Exeter, New Hampshire . Exeter: J.E. Farwell & Co. 1888.

  5. Bourne, Edward E. History of Wells and Kennebunk Maine. Portland, ME: B. Thurston and Co. 1875.

  6. Dow, Joseph. Town of Hampton, New Hampshire. Salem, MA: Salem Press & Printing Co. 1894.

  7. Fischer, David Hackett. Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America New York: Oxford University Press. 1989.

  8. LaPlante, Eve. American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans. San Francisco: Harper Collins. 2004.

  9. New England Historical & Genealogical Society. English Origins of New England Families from the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Volumes I-III, Genealogical Publishing Co, Inc: Baltimore, 1984.

  10. Perkins, Esselyn Gilman. Wells: The Frontier Town of Maine, Volume I, Ogunquit, Maine: Esselyn Gilman Perkins. 1970.

  11. Sewall, Samuel. The Diary of Samuel Sewall. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Inc. 1973.