Papers from Hillsdale College
REL 319 -- Eighteenth Century Theology:
Jonathan Edwards and American Puritanism

Cotton Pickings

by Bethany Newton

Cotton Mather was capable of mistakes and achieving wondrous things. A scientist, historian, minister, principal, father, politician and a writer was he. Dominating his lifetime with the strength of his character, his family names, and a sound traditional theology, Mather adamantly proclaimed his beliefs to receptive ears.

As far as personality, Cotton was a shy, quiet man -this due in part because of his stammer in youth. Yet in writing he could harangue with the best of them. He had a tendency towards ambivalence, never trusting his own judgment. His fear of being wrong made him the "ambidextor" in the Salem trials (Silverman 101). At the same time, though, he had a prideful streak of which he was acutely conscious and always wishing to change. Often his prayers ask for forgiveness of overweening conceit (Wendell 38). Over all he was extremely aware of the flaws in his character, and strove to fight against them.

Mather was truly a Renaissance man. Because of the childhood speech impediment, he was forced to rely on written forms of communication, and wrote many journals, books, and sermons. His most famous works include Magnalia, a history of New England's Puritans that is extremely accurate. In fact, it has been proclaimed " a work that has stood for 276 years as an expression of New England literary imagination" (Levin 251). He also wrote The Wonders of the Invisible World in the aftermath of the witch trials which documented demon possessions and witchcraft occurring at that time in Salem. For this he won acclaim in both Europe and the colonies. Also as a result of his stutter, Mather's chances of becoming a minister were not bright in his youth. As an alternative course, he began to study medicine. This included biological observations of plant life and pollination-things which would come in handy to Gregor Mendel `s later studies. He wrote the Angel of Bethesda and Bonifacious two great scientific works, and showed himself as an enlightened man on the seventeenth century. He and his father both supported Copernican ideas telling of the heliocentric universe. As Copernicans, they often, "insisted there was no need for conflict between science and religion" (Levin 91). He also promoted the study of small pox and inoculations ( especially for children's safety).

Mather became a figure head of the community. As the voice of the masses when governor Andros first came to Boston, he again defended the people from Joseph Dudley's administration in the early 1700's in attempts to preserve the traditional values of the community (Silverman Letters 57). His sermons stressed his displeasure with the political agendas afoot in Boston. He also was the overseer at Harvard for a time before coming to assist his father at Old North Church.

Mather genuinely loved mankind. He made no divisions of sex, creed, race, age, or social status. Often he called upon his congregates, visited sickbeds, and came to prisons. He was acutely aware of the needy." What was peculiar to Mather was his regard for the unfortunate, the miserable, the despised and degraded, the criminal and the base. Poor debtors, orphans, and widows had his sympathy" (Marvin 548). He started a society to Christianize blacks, and wrote an essay entitled " The Negro Christianized" in 1706 (Marvin 325). Cotton loved his family dearly also. He revered his father, even thought him a "celebrity" (Silverman 396). His wives he cared for greatly, and fervently prayed for their health and well being. The softest place in his heart, however, was reserved for his children, whom he adored and wished to prosper in all ways. The deaths of nine of his fifteen struck him very hard.

In his sermons, Mather stressed Chrisocentricity. Man should focus on Christ not " theology or individual duty" (Stout 150). These attributes would follow when the individual truly had the Holy Spirit in his heart. He was a strict Congregationalist himself, but believed that the Half-way Covenant was an imperative addition to the more tolerant third generation New England people. He understood that in order to maintain the dominance of the congregational Church, compromise was necessary. His sermon of 1692 affirmed this idea of toleration for all Protestant sects (Stout 120). He did not believe in the Episcopalian methods however and thought that open Communion and Baptism were abuses of a sacred covenant. Man had to be converted, convincingly to the elders, before becoming a communing member of the church. communion was not the means to that end (Levin 6-7). Yet he did believe in infant salvation, regardless of baptism. He used Genesis 42:36 to proclaim that " the loss of children is not against us, but for us, and them . . `they are taken from the evil to come, and received the sooner to glory'" (Marvin 79). Considering his personal losses, this sympathetic view is not surprising.

Cotton Mather remains a notable character in American History. He involved himself in all aspects of life in Boston, including family politics science and most importantly the resting place of souls. His role in the Salem witch trials has tarnished his character, but the other more positive aspects of his life far outweigh his faults. He was a tender, loving and selfless man who's abilities as a writer contend with the great author's if history. Emersing himself in all areas of interest, he truly has added to the fabric of our lives.

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Last updated: 20 March 1998