Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Mich. 176 pages
Michael G. Hall wrote “The Last American Puritan: The Life of Increase Mather” in 1988, and Rick Kennedy, history professor at Point Loma Nazarene University, has now written the sequel: “The First American Evangelical,” a short life of Increase Mather’s son, Cotton Mather. This is clever, but was Cotton Mather really an Evangelical? Cotton Mather (1663-1728) was the scion of two distinguished Puritan families in New England. A much beloved minister of Boston’s Old North Church and a prolific writer, Mather is usually depicted as a transitional figure between Puritanism, which arrived on American shores with the Pilgrims in 1620 and was waning a century later, and Evangelicalism, which was born in the Great Awakening, a religious revival that began in the late 1730s. Though there were numerous revivals prior to this, it was the “Grand Itinerate,” George Whitefield, who launched this new tradition in Protestantism and Jonathan Edwards who shaped its theology.
Mather played a significant role in preparing British North America for the rise of Evangelicalism, but his major interests were in Puritan history, Pietism and numerous pastoral duties. As a Pietist, he believed that Christianity should be a felt religion — one of the heart instead of simply the mind, one that included an experience of conversion and was centered on the Scriptures. Later, Evangelicalism would incorporate these themes, but it would also go beyond them by emphasizing evangelism, revivalism and lay participation. Mather would have been sympathetic to these developments, but it is going beyond the evidence to say that he was part of them. In fact, he died a decade before Whitefield arrived in Georgia.
By claiming Mather for Evangelicalism, Kennedy wants to restore him to an honored place in the American religious canon. Mather, he observes, is mostly remembered — often inaccurately — for the relatively minor part he played in the Salem witch trials of 1692, and he has been disparaged by even so eminent a historian as Samuel Eliot Morison for being, in his student days at Harvard, an “insufferable young prig.”
Neglected and misunderstood by later Americans, in his own time Mather was a towering figure. He is difficult, however, to categorize, being both an Enlightenment thinker who made significant contributions to medical science, and one who wrote of encounters with angels, demon possession and witchcraft. He also participated in the 1689 coup d’état against the royal governor of New England, an insurgency he justified in terms that anticipated the political principles of the American Revolution
Kennedy notes that Mather “is the first person in American literature to think of himself as an ‘American’ writer.” He wrote nearly 500 publications, many being of pamphlet length, and is perhaps best remembered for two monumental works of history: “Biblia Americana” and “Magnalia Christi Americana” — the first a “history of Jewish, Islamic and Christian politics,” and the second a history of New England.
While overstating the case for Mather’s relationship to Evangelicalism, Kennedy has written a sympathetic and insightful introduction to a generally unfairly maligned and undervalued figure in American history. Those who want to go deeper might read Kenneth Silverman’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Mather or wait for Reiner Smolinski’s forthcoming intellectual biography.
Michael Parker is Presbyterian World Mission’s interim coordinator for Europe and the Middle East. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.