“Why Cotton Mather?”

The Last Puritan, the First American

This spring, American Reformer rolled out its Cotton Mather Fellowship. The inaugural class entered the program ably steered by our Director of Education, Colin Redemer, last year. In 2023, applications were publicly opened. This year’s program is well underway.

The stated purpose of the program is to educate young, Protestant leaders in “Political Theology, Moral Order, Christian Civic Engagement, and American History.” Anyone paying attention will immediately recognize the urgent need for such a curriculum and a competitive, rigorous one at that.

Obviously, the fellowship is not some nerdy Cotton Mather fan club—although I, for one, would join such a thing if it existed. Mather’s name rather signifies the tenor and emphases of the program.

Some may ask, why Cotton Mather?

One answer is that Cotton Mather was the quintessential Puritan and the quintessential American—he bridged the gap as a transition figure between the two ages of colonial history. In many ways, he was the last Puritan—a member of the final generation born under that socio-political project—and the first American. Unlike his father, Increase, Cotton never left New England and apparently lacked ambition to venture far outside of Boston. Only for necessity’s sake did he visit Salem or Cambridge. He was homegrown, so to speak.

But there is more to Mather, for our purposes, than his localism.

Several biographies of Cotton Mather can bring the reader up to speed on the particulars of his full life. Kenneth Murdock’s short introduction to Mather may still be the best summary treatment for interested parties, whilst Kenneth Silverman’s 1984, Pulitzer Prize-winning, The Life and Times of Cotton Mather remains essential. We will not now trouble ourselves with biographical details except to say that Cotton Mather lived an astoundingly productive, polymathic life as a diligent scholar and committed pastor. By eighteen he had already graduated from Harvard; his corpus exceeded 400 published works by the end of his life; he was the first American inducted into the Royal Society of London because of his contributions to science; he ministered at the Old North Meeting House in Boston alongside his father without interruption from 1685 to his death in 1728; and he remained a near omnipresent force in the political controversies of his time. This is the active life, the exemplary public presence in matters of church, state, and scholarship that should inspire American Reformer fellows and all American Protestants.  

Beyond his peerless productivity, Cotton Mather deserves recognition because he, in word and deed, precipitated the distinctly American Protestant religious settlement that would come to full fruition in the late eighteenth-century American constitutional order. That is, an ecumenical pan-Protestantism; a sort of new Augsburg Settlement (1555) that bound the republic together in 1787/9. Per a colonial-federalist polity, each locale, each state would champion its own Protestant religious establishment, according to the particular histories and sentiments of its citizens, without compromising national unity.

Mather’s ideal, his legacy, was national religious unity without uniformity under a Protestant umbrella, with some exceptions, of course—Catholics and Quakers, notably—but as Justice David Brewer quipped in 1905, there was no atheist, Buddhist, or Muslim American state at the founding.

In this way, early America, by the end of the eighteenth century, mirrored Protestant Europe with considerably less bloodshed and more prudence. The so-called novus ordo seclorum (“new birth of the ages”) in America was not atomized individualism or Enlightenment “values”—whatever those are.

It was what Cotton Mather first experimented with earlier in the century, viz., a Christian (i.e., Protestant) Union. As a former of that unique American settlement, his name suits American Reformer and its aspiration for a reinvigorated ecumenical political Protestantism consistent with the American ethos and nomos. In this he was pragmatic and prudent, working from ideal to concession, not the other way around. Given certain inescapable socio-political conditions, Mather made the best of a situation that would have been foreign to his forefathers, but this without compromise on essentials.

Mather’s solution, in Robert Middlekauff’s words (from his magisterial intellectual biography of the Mather family):

“In time, as he came to believe that the unity in the essentials of religion did not lie in the forms of Church organization, he exploited the toleration that the Crown had forced on his country in 1691 to work out a fresh understanding of the meaning of New England. This is not to say that Cotton Mather welcomed the loss of the original charter. He regarded the Crown’s removal of it with a hatred envenomed by the knowledge that the era of Congregational dominance had passed… Cotton Mather recognized what the new situation meant for religion: uniformity was dead.”

So too may it seem foreign to us his successors, but that is where he is instructive for us, as is his trust in Providence, a doctrine underdeveloped in the political paradigm of most American Protestants today.  

To glean this instruction from Mather we will now all too briefly survey his public, sermonic pronouncements. These are rarely considered in typical studies—most such examinations are obsessed with exaggerations of the harrowing name, Salem, and thereby avoid serious examination of the man and his legacy. In the popular imagination, Mather’s role in that episode is exaggerated and his motives impugned. As it happens, Mather was not present for the witch trials at all and was less than enthusiastic about those proceedings.

In focus here will be Mather’s political, election and fast-day sermons. Such sermons generally remain the best data on political sentiments of the eighteenth century. They marked what could be called civic holidays, were public, not private, correspondence, and were broadly disseminated, often reprinted multiple times over. John Adams cited Jonathan Mayhew sermons decades after their delivery as immeasurably impactful on him. This—the sermon—was the dominant intellectual medium of the colonial American milieu, as Harry Stout has famously shown.

Mather delivered several election sermons, as his father and both of his grandfathers had before him. His paternal grandfather and namesake, John Cotton, established the practice in 1634. Back-to-back, in 1689 and 1690, Cotton Mather held the honor, and then again in 1696 and 1700.

In the history of the election sermon practice in the Bay Colony, only Cotton Mather’s father, Increase, received the invitation as many times. The only other minister that came close to matching the father-son duo preached the sermon in 1644, 1660, and 1664. His name was Richard Mather.

Election days were not the only times either Mather addressed the General Assembly. Of interest, Cotton’s sermons to that body in 1709 (Theopolis Americana) and 1719 (Concio ad populum)—then by special invitation it seems.

From these sermons, several themes emerge, culminating in Mather’s grand vision of American Protestant unity: Providence, ecumenism, nationalism, reformation, hierarchy, and magnanimity.

Before examining Mather’s themes more closely we must set the political stage. His first political address did not come until 1689. It was the year of the Glorious Revolution (1688/9). Prior thereto, Massachusetts Bay had lost its original charter of 1629 which had granted it significant autonomy. Skirting the navigation acts and other import duties stoked the Stuart ire. From 1684 onwards, New England was governed by the Dominion of Edmund Andros (1637-1714). The General Assembly of the colony was dissolved, and taxes were raised unilaterally by Andros. New Englanders generally considered this arrangement intolerable. Several years in, revolt ensued in conjunction with the goings on in Old England.

But after Andros had been extradited to England the resettlement of the colonies left much to be desired, at least for those who expected the reinstallation of the old charters, with all its local autonomy. Instead, William and Mary issued a new settlement wherein, even as Massachusetts was freed from the prior Dominion, governors were thenceforth royal appointments and oversight from the home government remained a constant presence thenceforth. John Adams later wrote in his Novanglus Letters (1774-1775) of widespread and persistent resentment even in his own day with the new charter terms.

In this context of mixed emotions and uncertainty, Cotton Mather mounted the pulpit before the governor, assembly, and fellow ministers to chart a new path forward. Despite the recent political upheaval and weakening of the old order, God had not abandoned them.

Providence and Prosperity

Expounding on 2 Chronicles 15:2, Mather’s first election sermon in 1689 called Massachusetts to attend to God for “The GOD of Heaven will be with a people while they are with Him,” God’s presence being “the Interest, and should be the Desire, of Every people to have the God of Heaven With them.” Cotton Mather was not as embarrassed by contemporary applications of such passages as many of the preachers of our day are.

This doctrine is nuanced, however. God is not alike everywhere “present.” His “Immense Being” implies his natural presence in creation with all creatures (Acts 17:27 and Jeremiah 23:24). Distinct is his glorious presence in heaven where God’s very being provides light. A further distinction should be made between the prior two kinds of presence and God’s gracious presence with his people by which he is favorable to them. God’s providential presence is as perennial as the other two except that it, in a sense, ebbs and flows according to an “Outward Providence.” “It lies in The Engagement of Divine Providence for the Welfare of such a people. God is with us when God is for us.”

God is evidently and providentially present with his people by giving them success in their endeavors and protecting them from their enemies. But for either of these two benefits to manifest, God is present with his people by directing them. What Mather has in mind here is not so much a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night for navigational purposes, though it is no less than that. More fundamentally, Mather means,

“When God is with a people, He shapes their Counsels for them, and he disposes them to the Things that should be done. He supplies them with Apprehensions beyond the Reach and Verge of their own Wisdome, and He layes before them Invitations, and Provocations, which as it were push them into the way wherein they should go.”

This is a question of national trajectory. In other words, observe the virtues, vices, and loves of a people (at scale) and you will quickly divine whether God is present with them in a providential, directional fashion. For Mather and his contemporaries, this reading of Providence was perfectly legitimate and despite much chronological snobbery from modern evangelicals on this point, the latter has yet to produce a compelling case against it.   

It goes without saying, of course, that God’s providential presence is not the same as his presence with his people on the basis of the covenant of grace. But to help presentist evangelicals understand Mather on his own terms we can simply note that providential presence and covenantal presence are distinct modes of presence the conflation of which leads to theological error—and, we must add, gross misrepresentation of New England Puritans like Mather. “We must not reflect on the Stability of the New-Covenant, for what Variety and Soveraignty we may see in providential Dispensations, toward this and that people in the world.” To distinguish the two, Mather contrasts 2 Chronicles 2:25 and Ezekiel 18:20. On the one hand, the covenant of grace is conditioned on the atonement of Christ. “Now come to outward Providence, and there you see other measures taken. Here God is with a people, according to those Terms.”

A similar comparison is made between Jeremiah 32:40 and 1 Samuel 2:30.

“God is with you, while you are with Him. We need only reflect on the People of Israel, for an Instance of it. That whole History, which almost fills the Bible, proclames nothing more than this; it loudly declares, That while a people are with God, God will be with them; but that He will be very Terrible in His providential Dispensations towards such a people as do forsake Him.”

And even in Israel, the two modes of presence were distinguishable if interactive. Such is the case, really, for any polity, but especially a self-consciously Christian one like Massachusetts Bay—though notice that Mather regularly refers to all New England as the object of his diatribe, not just one colony; a regional nationalism is already discernable in 1689. For a Christian polity, a covenantal presence must exist insofar as there must be genuine Christians in a Christian polity. But the providential presence is what Mather is after in this context, a presence indicative of the civil righteousness of a nation.

“The Presence of GOD, This is no less than the very Soul of New-England; We are dead and gone, if that withdraw… if we don’t in the first place look to this, That God be among us, we cannot avoid all manner of Dissappointments, Desolations.”

Economic depression, plague, war, open licentiousness, unrest, national humiliation, and so on. These are the “Desolations” of which Mather speaks, all of them having been visited upon New England. Does Mather beg the question, however? Does he establish that New England was once great such that it can be made great again?

For Mather, it is simple: look to the unique national blessings you have previously enjoyed and consider whether you enjoy them still. If these things were objectively good but are now lost, then there’s reason to doubt God’s providential presence has persisted. In this sense, the story of Israel is the story of all once and future Christian polities.  

“Let us Consider, what Fathers we have had; they were with God. I may say of ’em as in [Hosea] 9. 8. They were with my God: & they are gone to be so forever. What an unaccountable thing will it be for us, to have that Character, which we have been so much cautioned against, There arose another generation which knew not the Lord? What? Shall the Grandchildren of Moses turn Idolaters? and shall the Children of Samuel become the Children of Belial? Shall we forget the Hope of our Fathers, or forsake our Fathers Friend? The very Graves of those blessed men, every Post, every Stone upon their Graves, is a Witness against us, if we do. With dismal Accents, Methinks, their very Ghosts, will groan unto us, Alas, Is our posterity come to this! Nay, Abraham would be Ignorant of us, and Israel would not acknowledge us, if we should be so degenerate as to lose the Presence of the Lord.”

For New England’s part, good ministers and good magistrates had been a hallmark of God’s presence. Descent into moral and political confusion was a sign of the opposite. Rampant extortion, litigiousness, and drunkenness only bolster the assessment, not to mention violent incursions from native tribes. Evangelistic efforts regarding the latter had, in Mather’s opinion, been sabotaged by sinful examples within the Christian community such that the natives had been led to immolate “White Pagans.” In turn, men of the Bay colony had begun to mimic the worst traits of their native neighbors.  

So far, the observations of New England’s deleterious trajectory, as he saw it.

Again, a sort of regional nationalism is evident in Mather’s sermon: “We have hitherto, professed our selves, A Countrey of Puritans; I beseech you then let us have the wisdom to be first pure, then peaceable.” And with this he inaugurates or at least foreshadows in 1689 the pan-Protestant compromise of a hundred years later.


“We cannot avoid having our Different Sentiments; but Peace! … There is one ingenious way to unite this people… We all have our several Schemes of things, and every man counts his own to be the Best; but I would say to every man, Suppose your Scheme laid aside, What would you count the Next Best? Doubtless we should be of One mind as to That: And if we could act by the common measures of Christianity, we should soon be united in it.

Mind you, the range of “Schemes” referred to here is severely limited. Mather means Protestant denominational models of church discipline and sacramentology. He means Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Episcopalians, all cognizable under the Act of Toleration (1688), with his preference being for the unity and dominance of Presbyterians and Congregationalists in a United Brethren scheme according to the Heads of Agreement.

Mather goes on to reiterate the urgency of educating a rising generation for this task, predicting that,

“our little New-England may soon produce them that shall be Commanders of the greatest Glories that America can pretend unto. But if our Youth be permitted to run wild in our Woods, we shall soon be Forsaken by that God, Whom our Fathers followed hither, when it was a land not sown; and Christianity, which like the Sun, hath moved still Westward, unto these Goings down of the Sun, will Return to the old World again, leaving here, not a New-Jerusalem.”

The sermon closes with an exhortation to “publick Spirit” to “do what we can, that our God may be still among us,” with his providential presence.  

Spirit and Service

Picking up where he left off the year prior, Mather returned to his plea for public spirit, and for service to and love for New England.

Addressing his “Countrey,” the Puritan country he identified the year prior, Mather took Nehemiah 5:19 as his text on election day, 1690 in a lengthy sermon (64 pages, to be exact). Therein was the picture of a godly magistrate. Mather casts New England and the recovery of its charter liberties in the role of Israel’s restoration from “Babylonish Captivity,” and exhorts his audience to embody the mood and manner of Nehemiah, a restorationist governor who exhibited fealty to the law of God and the traditions of the nation. Most importantly, Nehemiah was a man of personal prayer and piety, magnanimous in his rule, and “whatever he saw amiss in Church or State, he courageously set himself upon the Reformation of it.”

God rewards, honors, and is close to, the serviceable man. “When God singles out a man for this and that Service to His People, ’tis an Honour from Heaven bestow’d upon him; the very Angels of the third Heaven do account it so.”

This general principle takes on greater significance in the context of New England:

“But behold, you may see an Israel in America, by looking upon this Plantation; may Peace be upon this Israel of God! It is notorious, That a Settlement in this part of America, was first endeavoured by some that had no designs but those of a Secular Interest: but the God of Heaven blasted all those Designs, and broke up one Plantation after another by very terrible Frowns of His Holy Providence.”

God “smiled upon” those serviceable men that immigrated to the wilderness for godly endeavors, that is, for the church, not for their own coffers.

“Tis the prerogative of New-England above all the Countries of the world, That it is a Plantation for the Christian and Protestant Religion. You may now see a Land filled with Churches, which by solemn and awfull Covenants are Dedicated unto the Son of God… If the New-Englanders once forget their Errand hither, they are immediately deserted by that God, who says, Wo to them, when I depart from them.”

In his sermon on Nehemiah, the figure of the reformist magistrate—the great, anointed man—looms large for Mather. A man of true public spirit and piety can lead a country back to itself, as it were, and out of Babylon. Most Americans today would froth at such images, but Mather is not innovating. Within the Reformed tradition such talk was standard. The terror it may invoke in modern readers says more about the latter than the former. Still, Mather advocates no particular political polity and his advice to princes is applicable to all levels of authority, so long as they embrace their inescapable religious role, that is.

Humiliation and Reformation

Brevity was not a virtue acquired by Cotton Mather as he aged. His election sermon six years later was even longer than that of 1690. Things for a distress’d people to think upon, a 68-page exposition of 1 Samuel 7:6-10, a “Text very proper, for a Day of Humiliation” given that “we are generally agreed, That we are in most Humbling Circumstances.” “The People of Israel, were, by their Sins, like us, the poor People of New England, brought into very dismal circumstances.” Mather calls for communal repentance and confession of sin. He laments the “want of Family-Discipline,” that is national discipline.

“Our Lord Jesus Christ from Heaven may thus Argue with us; If other People do Wound me by their Sins, ’tis not such a Wonderful and horrible Thing: But for you, O my People, of New England, a People that for the Liberties of my Gospel, I have known above the other Families of the Earth; a People that are obliged unto me, above the rest of mankind: For these Vile Things to be done among you, my Children! Oh! This is a Lamentation.”

New England risked becoming a “Degenerate Plant of a strange vine,” a dishonor to the “Rules” and “Rulers” of God.  

Mather further laments the diminishment of national stock. The first planters had been capable men, but the future hope of New England in this regard appeared bleak as the character and competence of that settler generation had not been replicated. “Where is the Glory of the Ancient Things!” Surely we can relate to Mather’s distress!

But Mather’s ire is also stoked by the reactions of the home government: “We have seen our selves Deprived, not only of Charter Liberties, but also of English-Liberties, with such Things done to us, as the High Court of Parliament, by their Vote numbred [sic] among the Grievances of the Nation.” Locally, he recalls also the devilish “Storm” of “Praeternatural Possessions” which had visited New England in 1692. This too was judgment. “O New England; Thy Father has been Spitting in thy Face… Let thy Tears run down that shamed Face.”

Front of mind for Mather was the “Irish proposals,” which Mather described as parliamentarian machinations to transplant Irish immigrants to New England unilaterally in order to “check the growing Independants [sic] of that Country.” The effect of this would be to “set up the Roman-Catholick Religion in the Plantations of America.” The New Englanders were saved from this fate only by “An Happy REVOLUTION.” By this Mather means the Glorious Revolution of 1689. But the threat of Catholic incursions remained and haunted the New England mind.

Out of gratitude, contrition, and expectancy, Mather exhorts the people to collective prayer and supplication, for prayer is “A Golden Key to Unlock all the Treasures of Heaven.” “All our Undertakings, would they not prosper the more, if by more Prayer over them, like the Servant of Abraham, we acknowledged the Lord in all our ways?”

Most of all, New England prayer should be for the “Regeneration of the Rising Generation; the general Conversion of our Young People, to know and prize, and serve our Lord Jesus Christ.” A nation is dead lest God take “pleasure in your young men.” Obsession with “Extravagant and Exorbitant Impiety,” or death in wars at home and abroad, both of which steal the young, is a plague upon a nation.

These warnings notwithstanding, the postmillenarian Mather was hopeful that reformation would come. Triumph over the Turkish Empire, “a Wo to Christendome,” by conversion and conquest of the same coupled with the demise of “the Kingdom of Satan, managed by his Vicar at Rome,” were projected, near-term outcomes for Mather’s vision—his eschatological, epochal mathematics guaranteed it. Assent to Mather’s reading of John’s Apocalypse is not necessary for affirmation of his invocation for national prayer unto the triumph of Christ and his kingdom. Nor was the same required for his encouragement of the ”Samuels of this New-English Israel” to call upon the name of the Lord for strength to face the day—whether days of judgment or triumph.

Contrition, repentance, and ceaseless prayer were, for Mather, the essential marks of a good statesman and a healthy, humble nation, not least because national, moral degeneracy indicates a “controversy” between God and nation. It is judgment and usually signals domestic conflict too. The first order of prayerful business is to plead for God to expose the ways and means by which a people have offended him and gotten out of step with Providence. “Are we sure that we have no Secret Sins to be Repented of? Let us, with all Humility of Soul, Enquire after them.”

But national reformation requires prayer and action. A cleansing of “filthy Idolatries” was the command of God in Isaiah 1:16, and any who would obstruct such moral reformation was “a Publick Enemy of the Land.” Moral concern for the nation signifies the man of public interest. Yet, also, that man must be sensitive to the traditional liberties of the people—for Mather, those English, colonial liberties of “Royal Grant.”

Reformist statesmen cannot lapse into a rule incongruent with the historical expectations of the people. Mather is insistent on this point, but it does not negate the advent of a reformist statesman:

“Although we are Invested with a Royal Charter, which leaves not any Governour capable to Enact one Law, or Levy one Tax, or Constitute one Counsellor, or one Judge, or one Justice, or one Sheriff, without such a Negative of the People upon him [i.e., veto], as the People are not in the other American Plantations, no, nor in Ireland, no, nor in England it self, priviledged withal; Nevertheless, we shall have cause to Receive a Governour that like a Nehemiah, shall Seek our Welfare, with all Thankfulness to God, and the King, as a very Rich Blessing from Heaven unto us… Our God will send us a Governour, who will cast a Favourable, and a Fatherly Aspect, upon all that is valuable to us; a Governour, who shall have the brave Motto of the Emperour Hadrian Engraved upon his Heart, Not for my self, but for my People. And with such a Governour, He will give us, Our Judges as at the First, and our Counsellers as at the Beginning.”

Reformation duty falls not solely on the statesman, however. Everyone must, according to his station, search himself and his sphere of authority for sin and evil, blot it out, and endeavor to reform. Every man must look to himself and his household before he goes about restoring society. That said, Mather is especially concerned with those “provoking evils” (e.g., heresy) which sow discord and invite the controversy of God. Also in view are public sins like “prophanations of the Lords-Day.” “Lev. 26 23. If ye will not be Reformed by me, through these things, but will walk contrary unto me, Then will I also walk contrary unto you, and I will Punish you yet Seven Times for your Sins.”

Back to the statesman: Mather—perhaps, curiously from our perspective—draws an analogy between the opportunity for reformation and the parable of the talents. The chance to morally restore or rejuvenate the country is “precious,” and a chance for which the statesman is “Accountable to the Eternal Son of God.” Jehoshaphat is the model—albeit Samuel makes repeated cameos as the ideal statesman throughout the sermon—and 2 Chronicles 19:6 is the instruction:

“Take heed what you do; For ye Judge not for man, but for the Lord: let the Fear of the Lord be upon you; Act in the Fear of the Lord, faithfully, and with a perfect Heart; ye shall warn men that they Trespass not against the Lord, and so Wrath come upon you, and upon your Brethren… Deal courageously, and the Lord shall be with the Good.”

Above all, reformist statesmen are to be “Watchmen in our Churches; ‘Tis from You, that the Lord Jesus Christ expects the most critical watchfulness, in Advising your several Churches and Charges, of the several Evils, that are to be Reformed among them.” “Gospellizing” the country is also their duty.

The key point for us in Mather’s sermon is that moral and religious revival, renewal, or whatever term you like, is not at odds with, and nor does it necessarily precede, the action of the reformist statesman. Rather, the two coincide and complement. Within two pages, Mather waxes eloquent about the fatherly magistrate who will uphold the ancient liberties of the people whilst punishing licentiousness and idolatry, and then concludes thus:

“Oh! might there be a General Obedience of New-England unto the Lord Jesus Christ, that Lord of Heaven would soon Darken our Adversaries, with His Plagues upon them. Hear, O New-England, Hear thy Lord, saying over thee, O that my people would Hearken to me; I would then soon Turn my Hand upon their Adversaries; but their own Time should Remain for ever and ever.”

Again, reformation and revival are not mutually exclusive, nor need they be constrained by some kind of linear, sequential causality. Properly, according to Mather, they go hand-in-hand and prayer undergirds both efforts.

Unity and Liberty

In Pillar of Gratitude (1700), Mather recounts the great blessings bestowed upon the English nation, and specifically its New English outpost, by God. “The Power, the Wisdom, the Mercy, and the Faithfulness of the Great God, gloriously Shine forth in His Dealing so with us, as not with any Nation.”

The primary evidence of this favor was the presence of true religion. “The Christian Religion, is indeed a Matchless Favour of Heaven… We have the Gospel of our Lord JESUS CHRIST… And this Gospel will make a Glorious People.” New England was a “Gospellized People.” (We might say a culturally Christian people.) “O New-Englanders, While you have a Bible in your Habitations you Eat Angels Food!” Such nourishment makes man a “Noble Creature, and a Candidate of the Angelical Life.” Other nations had not been so favored. “The Strangers to this Religion, are Without God in the World, and without Hope of Blessedness in another World.” But not only was New England Christian, it was Protestant, free of “the Dark Times of the Romish Apostasy.” With the advent of the Reformation, the “Antichrist Lost Half his Empire.” New England was a beneficiary and product of this “Spirit of Reformation,” and blessedly so. “’Tis no Small Thing that God has done for our English Nation, in delivering it from, the Political Mischiefs of Popery.” One gets the sense from Mather that “Gospellized” was code for Protestant-ized.  

This blessing was intended by Mather to lead to a sort of sympathetic ecumenism. Freedom of “Descretion [sic] in the concerns of our own Salvation,” and freedom from “bloody Inquisitions,” the free Protestants of England should be inclined to “put on all Bowels of Charity, for our Brethren, that are Confessors, and Refugees, for the cause of God.”

And interestingly, Mather identifies strongly in his sermon with the Church of England, declaring its “Doctrinal Articles” were preached faithfully in New England. (Neither were there any Arminians, Neonomians, or Antinomians there.) The identification of New England with the “English Nation” was not new. What was new was Mather’s explicit identification of New England with the English church. The legal fiction of non-separation had been common New England currency since its inception, but Mather’s praise and embrace of the “Doctrinal Articles” (i.e., the Thirty-Nine Articles) signals a new era of trans-Atlantic, cross-denominational, conformist-non-conformist unity. The “Primitive Discipline” was restored in New England, “that Cranmer, and Hooper, and other Great Lights of the Church of England, wish’d for, and wrote for.”

New England was true England for “God brought a Nation out of the midst of a Nation!” There “English Liberties,” “Christian Liberties,” and the blessings of the “Three Kingdoms” which were liberates from the “Chains of Popery and Slavery,” abounded. “Say, O New England; Has the Lord so dealt with any Nation?” Truly, New England was English but also, analogically, a “Little Israel.”

Theopolis Americana

Surveying the political landscape some 20 years after the Glorious Revolution, Mather considered in Theopolis Americana (1709) the accommodations of the old Standing Order to the new Anglo-American settlement, viz., that of ecumenical Protestant toleration mentioned already. This charitable accommodation itself, read through Mather’s post-millenarian lens, instilled confidence and optimism in him that New England could be a golden city governed by the “Golden Rule of Charity” in all its dealings, economic and spiritual—markets of commerce and markets of truth.

Mather recounts having read Aelian, “a Grecian Writer,” who wrote of a “great Island” beyond the oceans that encompassed Europe, Asia, and Africa where God dwelled among the people—a “Godly City.” Mather does not fully embrace this “Ancient” tradition but does seize the opportunity to admit that he is persuaded,

“That our Glorious LORD, will have an Holy City in AMERICA; a City, the Street whereof will be Pure GOLD. We cannot imagine, that the brave Countries and Gardens which fill the American Hemisphere, were made for nothing but a Place for Dragons…. The Fall of the Old Pagan Babylon, was brought about, by the Diversion of her Euphrates from her. The Fall of the New Popish Babylon, will be accompanied with the Loss of her American Interest: But when ‘tis diverted from her, certainly it will then serve the City of God.”

Perhaps, America would serve as a shelter from the “European World” for “Worshippers of the Glorious JESUS.” Maybe Isaiah 24 applied directly. No one could say exactly. But what Cotton Mather was willing to predict was that there would be a day when “the Lord of Hosts will Reign among His Ancient People,” and in that day, “it will be impossible, for the Holy People, and the Teachers and Rulers of the Reformed World in the other Hemisphere, to leave America unvisited. He knew this: America had a role in the outworking of God’s providence. “The Kingdom here will be the Lords, and the Lord will be Governour among the Nations.” It was left to the inhabitants of America to strive to be in step with Providence. Indeed, when the “the Great Trumpet shall be Blown” America could only “hope for a Share.”

Valley of Vision

A decade later, Cotton Mather delivered in 1719 a profound if harrowing sermon to the Massachusetts Bay General Assembly entitled, Concio ad populum: A distressed people entertained with proposals for the relief of their distress.

His text was Proverbs 29:18: “Where there is no Vision, the People Perish.” Mather called his audience again to statesmanship, viz., men with vision.

“A Wise Man under the Inspiration of GOD, has told us, what is like to become of a People, that have no Vision among them; None to see what their Dangers are, and see what Methods are to be taken for a Rescue from them.”

Mather takes it upon himself as a self-proclaimed elder statesman to provide a vision of the country both negative and positive. For, “The Ministers of the Gospel, are by their Office, the Watchmen of the People.”

Much of the sermon is a lament for the colony’s condition, a more pessimistic approach than prior sermons: “we are a People falling into very Grievous Distresses, yea, Growing Distresses… THERE is—Who sees it not? — the Wrath of the Lord of Hosts darkening our Poor Land, in these our Unhappy Circumstances.”

Some of Mather’s concern relates to trade and economics. He is worried that the people lack frugality and that self-interest, as opposed to “association” for the public good, had become predominant.

“I insist upon a Prudent and proper Frugality, as a Thing of the last Consequence for the welfare of our People. Our Great SAVIOUR, who is the very Wisdom of GOD, commended Frugality to His Disciples, Even when He Miraculously Multiplied their Bread & their Fish unto them. And without Frugality, WE cannot avoid that Iniquity, which will carry us into the Pathes of the Destroyer, and bring a Swift Destruction upon us.”

Mather is quite literally anxious about we might call national debt or deficit and inflation, but this is accompanied by a moral component: “’Tis ordinarily so, that People cannot lawfully Grasp at what they cannot Honestly Pay for.” “Moral Honesty” as a bare, abstract principle will not sustain an indebted people. Desperation takes over at some point. Mather considered overspending tantamount to licentiousness and lust, even gluttony.

A top-down corrective is in order which can be issued only by a true elite. The “Richer Sort” must model for the “Poorer Sort” not only a magnanimity but a wholesome frugality such that goodness and deference to the public and national interest become “A Fashionable Thing.” The same effect emerges when the wealthy class pursues “Great Estates” where they are not yet established: it stirs up vanity across class lines and resentment when the poorer class is made poorer by it. 

This is insightful and recalls complimentary and humorous comments from Nathaniel Ward in his Simple Cobbler of Agawam (1647) on the frivolous slavishness of chasing fashion contra true virtue. Typically, today, we get what Mather proposes backward. And here he unapologetically acknowledges and affirms the influence of the ruling class and directs them—indeed, imposes upon them—to model for the lower classes a selfless lifestyle and noblesse oblige. To say that our country does not today feature this arrangement would be an egregious understatement. Instead, our “aristocracy” is a pitiful excuse for the term, a truth confirmed by their abject lack of sacrifice and magnanimity. Rather, they encourage their onlookers to embrace self-indulgence beyond their means or station and self-destruction in violation of the created order.

This is not a commentary on a particular form of economic arrangement from Mather. It is an insight into unavoidable and even desirable class structure and concomitant duty vis-a-vis material prosperity. “It will have no good Aspect upon us, if it should be so, that a Levelling Spirit get so much Head among us, that no Man shall be in any thing Superiour to his Neighbours”

In any case, the poor should not aspire to the station of the rich but the rich—taking the label holistically—should lead well. Mather is no egalitarian and channels in his sermon the affirmation of difference and inequality found in John Winthrop’s Model of Christian Charity (1630), recently situated by the New Yorker as the textual basis for American Christian nationalism—and not without reason, I might add. Disparity and inequality reflect  God’s “most holy and wise providence,” the “glory of his wisdom.” A leveling spirit denies this but, more immediately, disrupts the web of mutual dependency that acts as societal sinews.

Mather too calls each member of the polity to embrace his place and act accordingly in all virtue and restraint. As Winthrop had said, wealth and position are not due to man “out of any particular and singular respect to himself,” but for God’s glory and the common good. Sluggards in duty or industry in any station are a detriment to flourishing. The rich, in particular, are expected to sacrifice for the good of the whole and to contribute not just to the remediation of poverty but to the promotion of “Good Manners” and the preservation of morals so that the people admire what is proper, as said before. Frugality—a “Dutch Frugality,” to be exact—and charity are two sides of the same citizen coin. (In a colorful paragraph, he calls “extortion,” by which he means price gouging, an “Evil Spirit” seizing the people—a “Devil, that is Come down in great Wrath upon us”—and grinding the poor between millstones thereby inviting God’s judgment.) This is the “Publick Spirit” mentioned in prior sermons but that in 1719 Mather saw dwindling and the country’s reputation along with it.

But all this is preliminary in Mathers’ sermon. Debauchery, selfishness, and egalitarianism invite insatiable despair if no remedy exists. A remedy may be discovered by investigation of the cause of the illness. A “Neglect and Contempt of Education” is first among such causes for Mather. This neglect yields bad laws because it produces lackluster leaders.

“We have had Brave Men in our Ancient Times [c.f. 1 Chronicles 4:22-23]. But shall we bring this upon our Posterity, that there shall not be One Thorough-pac[e]d [i.e., skilled] and Universal [i.e., comprehensive] Scholar in the Country? … I must say, with the Prophet, I am astonished at the Vision.”

An uneducated elite will be unacquainted with the rudiments of government. Ignorance and immorality are a corrosive combination that diminish the political reason and will to live. Education, true education, is supposed to eliminate both.

Absent mechanisms and institutions of formation, governance is weak, too weak to withstand the “Greater Abomination” that visits a “Distressed People,” viz., “Mutinous” disorder. Sedition and rebellion trouble Mather more than the prospect of tyranny. Or we might say that the tyranny of many scares him more than tyranny of the few. Mutinous men are a judgment on a country; they are Theudas and Judas. “[I]t had been good for the Country, yea, for themselves too, that these wretches had never been born.”

Cotton Mather closes his sermon by reminding the audience that “Religion was the First and Main Design” of the colony. “Let us be a Religious People, and we are sure of being Fed with a Food Convenient for us. If we Seek First the Kingdom of GOD, Our dear SAVIOUR has assured us, of so much to be added unto us. Let that Competency be enough!”

Looking back, we can see the descending order of Mather’s sermon. He called the governor and assemblymen to spot social ills, a sort of prophetic vision informed by experience. These ills, as he envisioned them, were first, economic gluttony and frivolous living; second, the leveling spirit of egalitarianism; third, selfishness, or a decline in public spirit; and fourth, a neglect of proper education. These smaller ills foster a more serious one, disorder and chaos. What Mather recounts is a polity neglected—or besieged, depending on how you look at it—at every level: from its economics to its social attitude to its longevity. Indeed, a regime that can no longer rationally perceive and pursue its own self-interest unto survival is sub-sentient, inhuman, and one that is irreligious invites more foundational confusion, rebellion even, a sure sign of judgment.


So, why Cotton Mather? Well, for one thing, he helps us see all this: the key societal sectors, we might say, their order of priority and interconnectivity, and the result of their erosion. And, of course, the antidote: true religion and piety, frugality and charity, hierarchy and magnanimity, education and public spirit, order and governance, all animated by a zeal for reformation joined with an ecumenical pan-Protestantism and a nationalist self-consciousness. These are the attitudes and emphases American Protestants must recover as they work for national renewal.

Image Credit: Mezzotint of Cotton Mather, American Clergyman, by Peter Pelham. ca 1700. Public Domain.

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline is the Editor in Chief at American Reformer. He is an attorney and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary and the Director of Scholarly Initiatives at the Hale Institute of New Saint Andrews College. His writing has appeared in the American Spectator, Mere Orthodoxy, American Greatness, Areo Magazine, and the American Mind, among others. He writes regularly at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post.

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