Weekend Reads: Rediscovering Cotton Mather

by Russ Pulliam
Posted 9/26/15, 10:09 am

Originally one of the most famous American Puritans, Cotton Mather is making a well-deserved comeback.

Maligned in popular culture as narrow-minded killjoys, the Puritans have been rediscovered in some circles as Christians who took their faith seriously into all walks of life and laid a foundation for American liberty.

Rick Kennedy adds to this rediscovery with a new biography of Cotton Mather, calling him (and titling his book) The First American Evangelical (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2015).

Kennedy, a history professor at Point Loma Nazarene University, shows how this third-generation Puritan leader lived out a serious and wholehearted Christian faith. In Mather’s post-Puritan New England period, other colonial leaders were content with a nominal or less evangelical faith.

The author humbly avoids a judgmental tone toward Mather or the Puritans. He does not indulge in chronological snobbery and assume the tone of moral superiority typical of many other historians. Instead, Kennedy sets Mather in a historical context and highlights his strengths and weaknesses accordingly.

He also shows how Mather lived (1663-1728) during two eras of American history. Mather was born when Puritans were the dominant cultural influence in New England, but he lived well into the post-Puritan time. In that context, Kennedy identifies Mather as the first evangelical because he was shifting the Puritan approach to being salt and light.

“His grandparents and parents had hoped to create a City on a Hill, a model republic, far from England, where purified churches would be the foundation of politics,” Kennedy writes. “But that colony was now a province and no longer isolated from imperial politics and imperial religion. Compromises must be made and expectations lowered.”

Kennedy also develops several themes that run counter to the Puritan stereotype.

Mather had a special care and love for orphans and was an enthusiastic supporter of Puritan missions to the American Indians, especially the pioneering ministry of John Eliot. Mather joined with Eliot in a deep sense of responsibility to share the gospel with the Indians and see that newcomers treated them justly. He learned Indian language in pursuit of those worthy objectives. That other side of the Native American story tends to be neglected in many history books, but Kennedy gives Mather his due credit and acknowledges where he fell short.

Mather also did not persecute or call for the execution of witches. He offered pastoral care to people who were deeply troubled spiritually—what today might be called spiritual warfare.

Kennedy also shows how Christ worked across the generations in the Mather family. Mather’s father Increase and grandfather Richard were prominent Puritan pastors who walked their talk with sincerity and devotion, creating an unusual level of spiritual commitment for several generations of the Mather family.

Cotton came alongside his father Increase in a joint pastorate at the North Church in Boston, where Cotton developed innovations such as small groups for prayer and Bible study. “He insisted that congregational families should gather in mutual support and it did not matter if the pastor was there or not. As much as he revered the pulpit and was proud of preaching to fifteen hundred people every Sunday, Cotton Mather was a populist-style pastor who believed it to be his job to encourage his congregation to practice their faith all week long in the intimacy of their homes and neighborhoods.”

Cotton Mather also was a pioneer in the Christian origins of American liberty, finding the eleutherian (Greek for freedom) theme in the Bible and applying it to the colony’s unusual challenges with the mother country of England. He became the leader of the freedom party. “Cotton used the terms ‘Eleutherians’ and ‘evangelical interest’ to designate the people who rallied to his call to hot-spirited, Bible-based Christianity.” Kennedy writes.

Kennedy tries to capture the evangelical heart of Mather, as a bridge builder from the Puritan era to the next wave of the Holy Spirit in the Great Awakening led by Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. Kennedy makes an interesting comment that the first biography of Mather, by his son Samuel, provided inspiration for the Great Awakening, and it was republished in the 19th century to encourage the Second Great Awakening.

Mather also pursued what we call personal disciplines today, or “quiet time,” and he encouraged others to do so. To him, sanctification required more than a weekly sermon.

“It is an all-day-long faith that begins with a morning ‘closet time’ dedicated to Bible reading and prayer,” Kennedy writes. “Progress through the day is marketed regularly by holiness of thought, word and deed. Prayers spring forth at random moments.”

Though thought of as a demanding and commanding Puritan, Mather was basically a very good pastor. “At this core, Cotton Mather was not what we would call an elitist,” Kennedy sums up. “He was a populist. His vision of holiness had a common touch and his appeal to listeners and readers was his emphasis on the practical.”

Mather’s story is good for any time. He was a third generation believer seeking to carry out such passages as Deuteronomy 4:9, both from his father and on to his children, with a spirit of wholehearted devotion to Christ. Every generation of believers faces this immense challenge, and the Mather family offers lessons of lasting value that way. Parents will find some role models and lessons of Deuteronomy 6:5-9 across these generations.

But in 2015, the life of Cotton Mather offers another benefit. America is moving from a time when many people looked to the Bible, sometimes seriously, others times nominally or by memory of a childhood Christian influence. American culture has shifted in recent years, at least to where the dominant influence is much more post-Christian than it was 25 years ago. Given those shifts in our culture, Kennedy’s life of Cotton Mather takes on added value for our times.

Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of the WORLD News Group board of directors.

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