Thomas Dudley

Thomas Dudley (1576-1653), a Puritan leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in America, was four times elected governor of the colony.

Thomas Dudley was born in England. Little is known about his formative years except that he was an orphan and was befriended by people who saw that he was educated and placed in service to the English nobility. He rose to the post of steward to the Earl of Lincoln and took pride for having recouped the earl's diminishing fortune by raising tenant rents.

Dudley, converted to the Puritan belief by John Cotton, his pastor in England, came into contact with other emergent Puritans. By 1629 he was one of the small group who founded the Massachusetts Bay Company. Along with John Winthrop and other "persons of worth and qualitie," he became one of the eight shareholders in the company who arrived in the New World in 1630.

Dudley was second only to Winthrop among the leaders who made the crossing; once arrived, they assumed control of the new society. The former steward was now one of the "first magistrates of the Bay Company." Persecuted in the Old World, perhaps Dudley, more than the other oligarchs, became righteous and narrow in the New. "In Calvinism," historian Bernard Bailyn notes, men like Dudley "found doctrines that might be applied to every aspect of life."

For Dudley, at least, this proved all too true. He hoarded corn and lent it to his neighbors with the understanding that he would receive 10 bushels for every 7 1/2 lent; John Winthrop considered Dudley's practices usurious. Historian Edmund Morgan notes that "Dudley was a rigid, literal minded type, ready to exact his pound of flesh whenever he thought it due him." Yet, Dudley had his place in the development of the colony. He was 13 times deputy governor and was elected governor on 4 different occasions.

As might be expected, Dudley was no less rigid and fanatical in religious matters than in matters political and economic. The notorious expulsion of Roger Williams in 1635 was Dudley's most celebrated effort to thwart what he considered to be Winthrop's leniency in religious matters. Dudley also figured prominently in the persecution of Anne Hutchinson, who followed Williams into exile largely because of Dudley's allegations of her heresy. A strong believer in the political power of the oligarchy, and to his dying day (July 31, 1653) almost paranoid on the question of religious heresy, he was nevertheless a remarkable man, part of that first generation of New World Puritans who alone were able to keep the faith.

Further Reading on Thomas Dudley

There is an excellent analysis of Dudley in Edmund S. Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop, edited by Oscar Handlin (1958). James Truslow Adams, The Founding of New England (1921), remains useful in placing Dudley in his colonial setting.