Commentary Magazine


The Life and Times of Cotton Mather, by Kenneth Silverman

At the Lord’s Table

The Life and Times of Cotton Mather.
by Kenneth Silverman.
Harper & Row. 479 pp. $29.95.

Any biographer of Cotton Mather is faced with a lot of wrongs to redress. Lampooned and scourged in his lifetime by a rising political class of populist merchants who had displaced his family’s religious authority, Cotton Mather went down in the books as an authoritarian bigot, a witch-burner who sought to keep America in its theocratic swaddling clothes well into the 18th century.

In the last twenty years, the territory has shifted: Cotton Mather has been forgiven, for his art. Literary historians like Sacvan Bercovitch and Kenneth Silverman have raised and installed Mather as the first American to explain America to Europe. In his newsletters reporting earthquakes, miraculous cures, and monstrous births, in his “Curiosa Americana” addressed to the British Royal Society (of which he was the first American member), and, above all, in his voluminous history of New England, Magnalia Christi Americana, Cotton Mather seemed determined to make his country noticed, if not admired.

This current line on Mather is taken as far as it will go in Kenneth Silverman’s new biography, which claims that in his “curiousness, epic reach, and quirkily ingenious individualism,” Mather initiated a tradition culminating in Gertrude Stein, Charles Ives, and Jackson Pollock. In an earlier introduction to Mather’s Letters, Silverman asserted that in the “gaudy novelty and elephantine scale” of his work, Mather anticipated “later Californian or Niagaran excesses” and the “latest state university system and urban culture palace.” If there seems something condescending about this judgment, whose very extravagance undercuts the praise bestowed, it is a condescension characteristic of Silverman’s biography as a whole: a large undertaking which is finally made little by the biographer’s reductive scorn for his hero.

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Cotton Mather was born in Boston in 1663. His grandfathers were two of the founders of Congregationalism and leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. His father, Increase Mather, was minister of North Church and president of Harvard, until his refusal to live in backwater Cambridge forced him out. Cotton Mather entered Harvard at the age of eleven, a sickly child with a sense of mission and an appetite for learning and self-laceration. The hopes united in his name were matched by the punishments he devised for himself: with two grandfathers, five uncles, and a father in the ministry, Cotton developed a stutter which threatened to bar him from the pulpit. But as he later wryly observed, “There is nothing more frequent than for stammerers to speak ten times more than they need to.” In compensation, he became a prodigious public speaker and the most prolific writer and correspondent in American history.

At the age of sixteen, he received God’s grace and began preaching informally. By the time he was ordained in the North Church in 1685, Mather had already built a reputation as the “young pope” of Boston.

It was a time when New England and its future as a religious and political entity were in question. Charles II had no liking for the Puritan New World. Having hinted without much success that if the colony could not admit Episcopalians and Presbyterians as Christians, it might at least give them the vote, in 1686 he finally revoked the Massachusetts charter. Silverman marks this as the turning point in New England’s history and in the fortunes of the Mather family.

The original Massachusetts charter had been little more than a license establishing the Bay Colony as a commercial enterprise, but in time it had come to seem to New Englanders a constitution granting the region virtual autonomy. It had been further reinforced by the Cambridge Platform of 1648 (drafted by Cotton’s grandfather) which cemented church and state, giving civil courts the power to enforce religious orthodoxy in New England. Its revocation by Charles reduced the City on the Hill to a crown possession feeling the weight of sovereign displeasure. When the first royal governor arrived with orders to disband the Assembly and cut back town meetings, stack the courts with non-Congregationalists, and set up the Church of England in Puritan meeting houses, the Mathers raised a Maccabean revolt.

From the pulpit of North Church, Increase reminded his congregation that within Puritanism’s strait confines there was room for the Church Militant, and that when true religion was threatened, “the ministers of God must then stand in the forefront of the battle and be the first that shall be shot down.” With a warrant out for his arrest, he escaped to England to negotiate a new charter for the colony from James II. Cotton, at the head of a cabal of elderly statesmen, led a popular revolt that seized New England in a day, imprisoned the royal envoys, and issued from the Town Hall a “Declaration” listing the royal governor’s violations of New England’s rights.

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The Mathers’ revolutionary career ended in 1692, with the new charter Increase Mather brought back from London, and with it ended their power. From then on, they lived in Boston like deposed monarchs in a new republic, alternately neglected and reviled. Cotton Mather’s life, in particular, had the dogged unrelievedness of a penny dreadful. The gargantuan labors of his long career—four hundred written works in the service of a world reformation and a lifetime of “doing good”—were rewarded by scandal and misprision, illness, lawsuits, and bankruptcy. He buried two wives and was hounded to debtors’ jail and death by a lunatic third. Thirteen of his fifteen children died in his lifetime. His greatest work, a biblical concordance and commentary crammed with such delights as a history of the Jews from Adam to their present Diaspora, went unpublished. For his mission to save America from smallpox by inoculation, a bomb was thrown through his window. What recognition Mather received in his lifetime came from two places where he never set foot: from Europe, his fellowship in the Royal Society and his doctorate from the University of Glasgow, his correspondence with Newton, Addison, Defoe, and Francke; from heaven, his communion with angels.

The miscarriage of all Mather’s American doings and his inability to assume the power in New England which he had every right to expect, Silverman blames in part on the changed landscape brought about by the new charter, in part on Mather’s poor judgment. The new charter, which Increase negotiated and Cotton Mather lauded, radically transformed the character and destiny of New England, dispossessing the Mathers in the process. For political freedom it substituted religious freedom, an innovation for which England could expect small thanks from the Puritans who had ventured into “the horrid thickets of America” to exercise exclusive rights to religion throughout the land and who hanged any persistently intruding Quakers or Catholics. (Nathanael Ward, in his Simple Cobler of Aggawam, best summed up the Puritan idea of tolerance. Tolerance was for “things tolerable,” but “God does nowhere in His written word tolerate Christian states to give toleration to such adversaries of His truth if they have power in their hands to suppress them.”) This new invitation to heresy was compounded by the Act of Toleration, which, in issuing freedom of worship to all nonconformists within the Protestant Church, removed the cause which had first led the Puritan fathers into exile. The Puritans’ voice in the wilderness was to become a Babel of clamoring sects.

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The new charter’s religious dispensation brought about a corresponding shift in Cotton Mather’s position. According to Silverman, the shift amounted to a conversion from the orthodox Congregationalism of his fathers to a warmed-over ecumenism. When the first Anglican ministers were sent to Boston by Charles II, Cotton had preached inflammatorily against “the high place” being set up among the Puritans. Yet when the new charter went so far as to open local government to Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians, Mather raised a call not to arms but to disarmament, urging his congregation not to “monopolize all godliness unto our own small party” but to welcome all comers.

Silverman has several explanations for this first in a series of about-faces that were to mark Mather’s political life. Most slightingly, he presents Mather as a compulsive negotiator whose anxiousness to ingratiate himself with England, to be a fixer brokering every deal, suspended any notions he once had of a true religion threatened by accommodation with heresy.

Certainly it is true that Mather had a sense of America’s cultural inferiority to Europe, unalleviated by the old belief that New Engenders were a chosen, or covenanted, people and the American Zion a model to all the world. Addressing the English, Mather warned solemnly that “they will not find New England a New Jerusalem” and even suspected that New England was already superfluous, having “done the most that it was intended for.” Worse, Mather not only denied America’s future greatness, he diminished its past. In his Magnolia, Mather asserted that his forebears never wished to break with the Church of England, but only with certain papistical prelates within it at the time. This revisionism in effect repudiated the entire claim behind the Puritan fathers’ mission in the wilderness.

More creditably, perhaps, Cotton Mather was an inveterate internationalist, who preferred rejoining the universal visible church and corresponding with German pietists, French Huguenots, and Scottish Presbyterians, to being a lone if righteous diner at the Lord’s Table. In the year of the new charter, Mather wrote in his diary: “I think I am the only minister living in the land that have testified against the suppression of heresy by persecution.” In a clear departure from Congregationalist doctrine, Cotton feared that “the zeal of my country formerly had in it more fire than should have been,” and that Quakers should not have been hanged but put in lunatic asylums.

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Silverman, though attributing low motives to Mather, does make much of his tolerance, his calls for inter-church councils and synods, his pacifism, his permissiveness as a doting husband and father, and above all, the vaunted ecumenism that marked much of his career. In other words, Silverman’s Cotton Mather comes across as a kind of liberal. Yet in truth Mather’s idea of “things tolerable” was extremely changeable, and his purposes not ones to which the ACLU would likely subscribe. Rather, he had concluded that since a religious monopoly was no longer possible in New England, benign accommodation was a more effective lever than persecution in the mission to which God had appointed him.

That mission was a world revolution that would bring on the End of Days. To this end, Mather published treatises in France exhorting rebellion after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, taught himself Spanish on the strength of a revelation that the Spanish colonies would soon be converted, set up Negro prayer meetings, sent gazettes around the globe on the progress of the conversion of the Indians, and 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. At times, Cotton Mather seems to have believed that the Lord would allow him to usher in the millennium single-handed.

In the spring of 1693, shortly after devils had begun to besiege New England souls, Cotton Mather made a pact with God. “My special errand unto the Lord was this . . . that He would please to grant me the enjoyment of all those angelical kindnesses which use to be done by His order for His chosen servants.” He asked for nothing more than what Abraham or Jacob had received, only that the signals of favor be delivered in “a manner and measure more transcendent” than those accorded the rest of mankind. His presumption was rewarded:

The spirit of the Lord came near unto me; doubtless the angel of the Lord made me sensible of his approaches. I was wondrously irradiated. My Lord Jesus Christ shall be yet more known in the vast regions of America, and by means of poor vile sinful me He shall be so.

The dangers of such flights of fancy were obvious. The church authorities, Mather’s father included, warned against the desire to converse with angels as leading either to satanic imposition or to idolatry. Diabolic deception, moreover, was a phenomenon with which Mather was familiar: his own recent experience with possessed children had proved to him that devils could quite convincingly masquerade as angels of the Lord. And the heretical implications were equally familiar. Fifty years earlier, his grandfather John Cotton had been forced to pronounce the excommunication of his disciple Anne Hutchinson for the heresy of preferring private revelation to the written word.

Cotton Mather must have been aware of the antinomian tinge to his secret “angel days,” on which he sang hymns about angels, contemplated their many attributes, and ransacked his old diaries for events which could be reascribed to angelic intervention. But he was staving off something more fearsome than devils or heresy: his own bouts of atheism. For much of his life Mather seems to have been seized by religious doubts: indeed, both the overreaching pride of his “errand unto the Lord” and the overheated superstitiousness of his angel worship seem, if not aspects of atheism, at least accomplices to it.

But more than that, Cotton Mather’s visions illustrate how great a change in religious thought had occurred from John Cotton to his grandson. For the central tenet of Puritan faith, that of being God’s chosen people whose “special relation to Him” (as William Stoughton put it) “hath been written upon us in capital letters from the beginning,” Cotton Mather substituted his own individual and transcendent relation to God. Where an entire people had been called to serve as a spark setting off a universal conflagration, Cotton Mather intended to be a lone incendiary, single-handedly hurrying on the apocalypse. No liberal and no ecumenicist, he was, rather, an inspired near-heretic.

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It is the failing of Kenneth Silverman’s biography that in removing (without warrant) the brand of dogmatism and authoritarianism from Mather’s name, he misses the scale and audacity of Cotton Mather’s enterprise and leaves him a temporizing whiner. This reading of Mather’s character is given a certain specious justification by Silverman’s heavy reliance on psychology in telling his story. We are forced to spend altogether too much time trapped in the prison of Cotton Mather’s psyche, fed too exclusively on his diaries: a place where a man generally bares not his soul but his self-pitying and posturing delusions. The range of human emotions is after all narrow; of actions, immense.

Consumed though he might have been by hidden resentments and unbecoming ambitions, Cotton Mather did great deeds. That his tremendous accomplishments are here all but eclipsed by the motives which may have fueled them is regrettable. Moreover, Silverman’s character analysis itself is willfully selective. Nowhere in his 479 pages does one capture any scent of the sharp wit, the sometimes disconcerting casualness, the huge good humor and imagination of the Olympian presence that presides over Cotton Mather’s prose and animates his recorded conversation.

With this latest biography, Cotton Mather has been demoted in history from local tyrant to devious nag. We have yet to wait for an account that does him justice.

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