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 groveling to get back into the Puritans’ good graces.
Underhill had been hired as a captain by the colony to help train the militia. He was born Oct. 7, 1597 in England, the great-grandson of Hugh Underhill, who served as Keeper of the Wardrobe for Queen Elizabeth.
He then fled with his family to the Netherlands after his father got involved in a failed plot to overthrow the Queen. He lived in the Netherlands with a group of Puritan exiles until his early 30s. Then he and his wife, a Dutch woman named Helena de Hooch, emigrated to America aboard the Arbella during the Puritans’ Great Migration.
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. He later published an account of it called Newes from America.
Troubled John Underhill
But then it all fell apart. He supported the Rev. John Wheelwright’s unconventional theology, viewed as heresy by the Puritans. They banished Wheelwright and Anne Hutchinson from the colony. Then Underhill lost his job and found himself 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In 1641 the Massachusetts Puritans repealed his banishment and acquitted him of the charges of adultery.
Puritan leader John Winthrop described Underhill’s plea for repentance in his journal on Sept. 3, 1640.
Underhill showed up in old clothes and a foul linen cap, apologized abjectly, weeping and blubbering and sighing. It worked.
Winthrop Gives an Account
According to Winthrop, God’s blessing brought Capt. John Underhill “to remorse for his foul sins.” The elders and others gave him a safe conduct to return to the church.
Underhill arrived when the magistrates, called the Court of Assistants, met. On Lecture Day, after the sermon, the pastor called him forth and let him speak.
“[I]ndeed 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,” wrote Winthrop. “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,” he wrote.
With many deep sighs and an abundance of tears, he “lay open his wicked course, his adultery, his hypocrisy, his persecution of God’s people here, and especially his pride.”
Pride, noted Winthrop, caused all his troubles, along with “contempt of the magistrates.” Underhill described Satan’s power over him since his banishment. But then the “terrors of God came upon him, so he could have no rest.”
Underhill fell into such despair he considered suicide, but the Lord stopped him, “even when his sword was ready to have done the execution,” wrote Winthrop.
Bondslave of Satan
He faced many fearful temptations. In all of them, wrote Winthrop, “his heart shut up in hardness and impenitency as the bondslave of Satan.”
After a long time and many afflictions, the Lord broke his heart “and brought him to humble himself before him night and day with prayers and tears till his strength was wasted.”
Winthrop noted Underhill worn out with sorrow but could find no peace. Therefore he came back to the church. He spoke well, except his blubbering interrupted him, wrote Winthrop.
“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,” he wrote. In the end, Underhill “earnestly and humbly” asked the church to have compassion and deliver him from the hands of Satan.
The church let him back in. Then he confessed to the General Court, which met after the Court of Assistants, and asked for a pardon. They pardoned him for his sin against them, but not for his adultery. Instead, he won an acquittal.
The problem with adultery was there had been no law against it when he committed it, wrote Winthrop. Underhill had confessed that he had solicited the woman in question for six months — which, noted Winthrop, “he thought no woman could have resisted.” He gained her affection, but it took that long to overcome her chastity. Once he did, “she was wholly at his will.”
To make peace, Underhill went to her husband, fell on his knees, confessed his wrong and begged forgiveness. The husband, a cooper, freely forgave Underhill and sent Underhill’s wife “a token.”
John Underhill Moves On
Despite his acquittal and un-banishment, Capt. John Underhill could find no work in Boston. So he moved to Stamford, Conn. Then in 1644 the Dutch in New Netherlands hired him to attack Lenape settlements in retaliation for a raid on them.
He then moved to New Amsterdam, living on a plot of land where Trinity Church now stands in Lower Manhattan. He attacked and burned an Indian fort on Long Island. In 1648, Gov. Peter Stuyvesant appointed him sheriff of Flushing and then magistrate, but Underhill eventually turned against him.
He then learned the Dutch planned to ally with certain tribe to attack English settlements, he switched to the English side. Eventually he settled on Oyster Bay on Long Island.
After his first wife died, he married Elizabeth Feake, the daughter of Elizabeth Fones Winthrop Feake Hallett, who had settled Greenwich, Conn. He sired five children in addition to the three he had with Helena. Underhill died on July 21, 1672.
His descendants include Tom Selleck, Amelia Earhart, Johnny Depp and John Kerry.
This story was updated in 2022.
Image of the sculpture of John Underhill By Idoysterbay – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5962024. By Idoysterbay – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5966156.