Commentary Magazine


Cotton Mather

To the Editor:

In her review of Kenneth Silverman’s The Life and Times of Cotton Mather [Books in Review, August], Fernanda Eberstadt writes that Mather “prayed to God that he might not only be apprised in advance of the conversion of the Jews but might live to convert and baptize a Jew himself.” Neither Miss Eberstadt nor Silverman seems to know that later in life Mather changed his mind. As Mel Scult reports in his Millennial Expectations and Jewish Liberties (1978), Mather in his unpublished Triparadisus, written near the end of his life, declared that only those “that worship Christ” are the “true Israel of God” while “the circumcised infidels [i.e., the Jews] are no better than so many dogs.” Mather now believed that Jews would never be converted, for they had been superseded by the Gentiles, the new Israel. “Alas I was a very young man; I understood not the true Israel,” he wrote, explaining his earlier views, “and now I make my most public retraction.”

None of this, of course, challenges Miss Eberstadt’s broader interpretation of Mather. As she rightly understands, he was “no liberal and no ecumenicist.”

Jonathan D. Sarna
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
Cincinnati, Ohio

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To the Editor:

Fernanda Eberstadt’s otherwise excellent review contains a factual error which ought to be corrected. Specifically, Miss Eberstadt states that “in 1686 [Charles II] finally revoked the Massachusetts charter.” While the revocation may have been effective in 1686, Charles II assuredly did not issue it in that year, having died on February 15, 1685. . . .

Harris M. Abrams
Columbus, Ohio

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Fernanda Eberstadt writes:

I am grateful to Jonathan D. Sarna for his information. Harris M. Abrams, of course, is right: Charles II died in 1685. But there is nevertheless some confusion over when the charter’s revocation actually came into effect. Although the High Court of Chancery’s decree of dissolution was handed down in October 1684, it was not served upon the colony until May 1686, along with a commission for a provisional government. In the intervening year and a half, Governor Simon Bradstreet ruled as if nothing had happened. The delay can be attributed to Charles’s death, to Monmouth’s rebellion (which Charles’s chosen governor of Massachusetts, a colonel returned from Tangier, helped put down), and to Whitehall’s stalling over proposals from the Lords of Trade that additional territories be annexed.

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