Author Archives: Daniel Silliman

Cotton Mather’s wig

Cotton Mather had quite the wig.

Wigs were, everyone knows, “just the fashion.” But Mather’s wig can also be seen as a statement of his Puritanism. Against Puritan condemnation of the vanity of wearing someone else’s hair, Mather asserted a Reformed theology of the disjuncture between outward appearances and the internal truth of a redeemed soul.

There was some real controversy around wigs in Puritan New England. As Dr. Richard Godbeer documented in a 1997 article for the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, there were 17th and 18th century debates about whether wigs were dishonest. There were arguments that wigs were a subversive vanity, undermining the natural order. They were, to some, nothing less than a rebellion against God.

Samuel Sewell, for example, said that God gave him his hair, and it seemed wrong to want someone else’s. Sewell was an adamant opponent of wigs. He went out of his way to condemn wig-wearers and even tried to rally the Puritan clergy to take a stand against the fashion. Mather, however, wasn’t interested.

Sewell records in his diary that in 1690, Mather preached it was “a sign of a hypocrit” to “be zealous against an innocent fashion,” instead of more serious matters. Mather reminded his congregation of Christ’s admonition about gnats and camels.

Sewell was shocked.

Mather gave the issue no more attention. He did, however, wear a wig for his 1728 portrait, memorializing himself in someone else’s luxurious curls.

“The most fundamental issue raised by the debate,” according to Godbeer, was about the correspondence between “inner and outward comportment, between the appearance of the outer man and the true nature of what lay within.”

Sewell fits the Puritan stereotype of the harsh busybody, whose self-rightousness is matched only by his pettiness. Mather, however, was as much a Puritan as anyone. So while his wig was “just the fashion,” it was a statement, too, about how Puritanism need not obsess over every hair on your head.

— Daniel Silliman

Edwards texts return to Yale

They’ve been checked out for about 150 years, but now a dozen boxes of Jonathan Edwards texts are being returned to the library at Yale Divinity School.

The books were borrowed by Edwards Amasa Park, a professor at Andover Theological Seminary, in the mid 1800s. The exact date is unclear. Park apparently intended to write a biography of Edwards. He was interested especially in Edwards’s writings on natural philosophy. Park has been called “the last Edwardsian,” though there are surely some today who would dispute that. A Congregationalist theologian, Park also happened to be married to one of Edwards’s descendants. Perhaps it felt like the books belonged in the family. When the theologian died 1900, the books he’d borrowed just stayed at the Massachusetts seminary.

More than a century later, they’ve been returned.

As the New Haven Register reports, the small-but-significant collection is being reunited with the larger Yale collection. Andover Newton, struggling with the declines hitting many mainline seminaries in the U.S., formed a partnership with Yale several years ago. Part of the partnership is the merging of theological libraries, including the Edwards collection.

“It brings great relief,” Ken Mikema, director of the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale told to the New Haven paper. “I sleep better at night knowing these things are all reunited again.”

–Daniel Silliman

Kenneth Silverman, RIP

Kenneth Silverman, the award-winning biographer of Cotton Mather, has died. He was 81.

With his 1984 biography, Silverman showed Mather was a man, not a metaphor, not a cartoon villain, not a crude foil for American history. His work was especially notable for depicting the richness of Mather’s intellectual life and the daily, lived-out struggle of his physical existence.

For example: “However luxuriantly he lived in heaven,” Silverman wrote in one passage, “Mather had not lived affluently on earth, and had lost much. What he left behind, as set down in the inventory of his estate, was dingy and mean: pie plates, lumber, a crosscut saw, three old rugs, four old bedsteads, two old oval tables, two old chests of drawers, old china curtains, old quilt, old warming pan, old standing candlestick, red
curtains motheaten, broken stone table, broken fireplace dogs, broken chairs, broken pewter, broken spoons.”

The New York Times praised the book, reporting, “An immense richness is what one feels first of all in reading ‘The Life and Times of Cotton Mather.’ Mr. Silverman has got hold of one of the most colorful men in American history, and he treats Mather with all the awe, sympathy and skepticism that he deserves.”

According to the New Republic, “The author seems virtually to have taken up residence inside Mather’s head and heart and the reader is repeatedly invited to see the world as Mather himself would have done — looking out.”

Mather scholarship, including that sponsored by the Jonathan Edwards Center Germany, has not been uncritical of Silverman’s work. Nevertheless, we owe a great deal to Silverman. He invited readers to think about Mather in all his complexities and contradictions. Generations of scholars accepted that invitation.

The Life and Times of Cotton Mather won the Pultizer and the Bancroft prizes. Silverman, a professor of English at New York University from 1965 to 2001, went on to write biographies of Edgar Allan Poe, Samuel F. B. Morse, John Cage, and Harry Houdini. His biography of Houdini, called Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, American Self-Liberator, Europe’s Eclipsing Sensation, World’s Handcuff King and Prison Breaker — Nothing on Earth Can Hold Houdini a Prisoner!!!, is especially well regarded. At the time of his death, he had completed a new biography of Emma Lazarus.

Silverman had lung cancer and died in New York City on July 7.

— Daniel Silliman

Pennington Award goes to Edwards scholar

This year’s prestigious James W.C. Pennington Award is going to Harry S. Stout, the Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Christianity at Yale Divinity School and the General Editor of the Works of Jonathan Edwards.

The Heidelberg Center for American Studies and the Faculty of Theology of Heidelberg University give the annual award to one outstanding scholar who has done stellar work on the African-American experience in the Atlantic world. The award is named for the escaped-slave-turned-abolitionist who received a doctorate from Heidelberg University in 1849. The award is funded by the With financial support from the Manfred Lautenschläger Foundation. The first recipient was Albert J. Raboteau. Subsequent awards have gone to Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Laurie Maffly-Kipp, William L. Andrews, and John With, Jr. Stout is the sixth recipient.

Stout has written a number of books of interest to Jonathan Edwards scholars, including The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England, published in 1986 and The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism, published in 1991. He has also edited a numerous critical volumes in the study of American religious history, including The Jonathan Edwards ReaderJonathan Edwards and the America Experience (co-edited with Nathan Hatch), Benjamin Franklin Jonathan Edwards, and The Representation of American Culture, (co-edited with Barbara Oberg), Reading in American Religious History, (co-edited with Jon Butler), and Stories of Faith, Stories of America: Religion in United States History (with Randall Balmer and Grant Wacker).

Stout will be speaking at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies on May 17, at 6:15 p.m. The title of his talk is “Lincoln’s God and the Emancipation Proclamation.” The talk is free and open to the public.

$35,000 grant will support continued publication of Biblia Americana

First Edition of Cotton Mather’s Biblia Americana
Cotton Mather was America’s first major Bible commentator.

From 1693 to his death in 1728, Mather tirelessly worked on an ambitious, ever-expanding work, “Biblia Americana: The Sacred Scriptures of the Old and New Testament Illustrated.” With this commentary, he  aimed at nothing less than the harmonization of an orthodox Reformed Christianity, based on a faithful interpretation of Scripture, with the growing body of learning in all the new fields of Enlightenment scholarship and philosophy. However, he never managed to get his opus magnum published. He couldn’t secure the necessary patronage from far-away London. After the American Revolution, Mather’s heirs bequeathed the manuscript to the Massachusetts Historical Society, where the six folio volumes (containing more than 4,500 densely written pages) have slumbered for over two centuries.

The Biblia Americana has remained unpublished and largely unexplored until today.

Since the early 2000s, however, a team of international scholars under the directorship of Reiner Smolinski (Atlanta) and Jan Stievermann (Heidelberg) has begun editing the manuscript. In 2008, we were able to convince the distinguished theological publishing house Mohr Siebeck in Tübingen, Germany, to undertake what will be a 10-volume, fully annotated scholarly edition of the Biblia Americana. In total, the letterpress edition will comprise about 10,000 pages.

Four volumes of the have been published so far: Genesis (2010, ed. Reiner Smolinski), Joshua-Chronicles (2013, ed. Kenneth P. Minkema), Ezra-Psalms (2014, ed. Harry Clark Maddux), and now Proverbs-Jeremiah (2015, ed. Jan Stievermann).

The Henry Luce Foundation Grant
The publication of this important monument of America’s early religious heritage will continue, thanks to a generous $35,000 grant from the Theology Program of the prestigious Henry Luce Foundation.

The Theology Program of the Henry Luce Foundation aims to advance understanding of religion and theology through grants to seminaries, divinity schools, and research universities, supporting work that crosses religious, disciplinary, and geographic borders, and scholarship that is theoretically sophisticated, historically informed, critically reflexive, and practically invested.

The forthcoming volumes are:

Vol. 9 (Romans-Philemon) to be published in 2017
Editor, Robert Brown
James Madison University

Vol. 2 (Exodus-Deuteronomy)
Editor: Reiner Smolinski to be published in 2018
Georgia State University

Vol. 8 (John-Acts)
Editors: Rick Kennedy to be published in 2019
Harry Clark Maddux
Appalachian State University

Vol. 10 (Hebrews to Revelation) to be published in 2020
Editors: Jan Stievermann and Paul S. Peterson
Heidelberg University

Vol. 6 (Lamentations-Malachi)
Editor: Ava Chamberlain to be published in 2020
Wright State University

Vol. 7 (Matthew to Luke)
Status: Reiner Smolinski to be published in 2021

Cotton Mather: The Most Influential North American Theologian of his Time
This edition of the Biblia Americana is one of the most promising interdisciplinary projects now underway in early North American Studies. The significance of the Biblia is that Cotton Mather, in his exegetical works, sought to harmonize new insights emerging from the nascent field of historical biblical criticism, the natural sciences, and revolutionary philosophical ideas of the early Enlightenment with a traditional Biblical worldview and Reformed Orthodox Christian doctrines. Thus researchers examining the cultural, religious or literary history of America as well as Europe can equally profit from this academic edition of the Biblia.

The scion of one of the most important Puritan clergy families of New England, Cotton Mather was arguably one of the most influential and productive theologians in British North America of his time. In his lifetime he published more than 400 writings, including a series of extensive and well-known works in various academic fields at the time, such as his account of American church history, Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), or his compendium of physico-theology, The Christian Philosopher (1721). Nevertheless, it was the Biblia, which he worked on for more than three decades until his death in 1728, that he always regarded as his most important endeavor and the summation of his lifework.

An Encyclopedic Archive of the Intellectual History of the Early Enlightenment
When considered as a whole, the Biblia can be seen as a forum for the central intellectual debates of the time period – in British North America and in Europe – and thus serves as an almost encyclopedic archive of intellectual history.

An academic edition of this work not only benefits American cultural, religious, and literary historians but is also highly valuable for scholars working those working on European intellectual history and studying the Enlightenment. The work will be a great source for many interdisciplinary and transnational studies in the years to come.

As reactions to the publication of the first four volumes have shown, the project has met with a very broad and enthusiastic reception internationally. It is widely viewed as a pioneering research project.

Scholarship produced in the course of work on the edition points to the possibilities. The extensive introductions to the edited volumes, Jan Stievermann’s recent Prophecy, Piety, and the Problem of Historicity: Interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures in Cotton Mather’s Biblia Americana (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016) and the nineteen essays in the anthology edited by Smolinski and Stievermann, Cotton Mather and Biblia Americana – America’s First Bible Commentary: Essays in Reappraisal (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2010), indicate new directions in scholarship.

The rediscovery of Mather’s Bible commentary has only just begun. The support of the Henry Luce Foundation enables more work to be done and will positively affect scholarship for years to come.

Cotton Mather gets the YA treatment

The ghost of Cotton Mather has made another appearance in modern America: this time in a Young Adult novel about bullying.

Adriana and Cotton Mather How to Hang a Witch is the debut work of Adriana Mather, a Mather of the Mathers.

Adriana identifies as a descendent of the famous Puritan and says she learned about her Mather lineage and Cotton Mather from her great-grandmother, a teacher and amateur historian who “catalogued everything from our family.”

Now she’s turned her personal history into a bit of fiction. The heroine of the new novel How to Hang a Witch is also a Mather of the Mathers. The 15-year-old protagonist moves to Salem, Mass. with her stepmother, only to discover that her family’s connection to the witch trials make her a target of the witches who dominate her school.

Also there’s a ghost boy and a whisper about a Mather-family curse.

A sample:

“‘Not having a good first day at Salem High?’

“I shake my head. ‘Have you noticed a group of girls in my grade that wear all black—rich goth types?’

“‘The Descendants?’

“I venture a look at Jaxon. ‘What?’

“‘Like that?’ He nods toward a guy and a girl entering the room. The guy wears an expensive–looking black button-down shirt, black pants, and black loafers. And she has on a floor-length black dress with a tailored black blazer. Her hair is a perfect bob.

“‘Yeah, exactly like that.’

“‘There are five of them in our school. He’s the only dude. They’re descended from the original witches. Everyone kinda love-hates them. People think they can curse you if they want to. I think it’s total bull.’

“‘You’re kidding, right?’ But I can tell from his expression that he’s not.”

Publisher’s Weekly says the novel is “an entertaining story that draws intriguing parallels between the 17th-century trials and modern-day bullying, as well as the fears and mob mentalities behind both.”

Adriana Mather said she wanted to show how the mob-mentality of the witch trials were not as outdated as one might think. “We look at the Salem Witch Trials,” she said in a promotional interview, “and think, ‘How could they ever let something horrible like that happen?’ But it’s not that different for the people who suffer from bullying now.”

Mather’s ghost thus provides pop culture another modern lesson in how not to be a bully.

–Daniel Silliman

Jonathan Edwards, lifestyle brand

A lot of people like reading Jonathan Edwards. But maybe that’s not enough for you. Maybe you want to wear Jonathan Edwards.

You can!

Jonathan Edwards comes on a tee shirt, thanks to Missional Wear, an Orlando, Florida company that boasts “the largest selection in Reformed lifestyle products anywhere!”ms-MilitaryGreen-w-large.jpg

That’s an advertizing claim that seems like it’s probably true.

Missional Wear is certainly the only company selling Jonathan Edwards tee shirts in all sizes and more than a dozen colors for about $20.

Edwards’s face does not appear to be as the most popular for Reformed lifestyle products, however.

The most popular is the 19th century British Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon. The company offers multiple versions of his face, including several that show him smoking a cigar and one that has a stylized representation of Spurgeon’s beard, with a quote from Spurgeon about beards.

There are also shirts and hoodies with other faces from the Reformed canon, including Reformers such as Martin Luther, John Calvin and John Knox and Puritans such as John Owen, John Bunyan and Richard Baxter. The company also offers shirts with the faces of some 20th-century theologians, including B.B. Warfield, Cornelius Van Til, and Francis Schaeffer.

If an obscure face is too obscure, Missional Wear also offers a shirt with the word “Calvinism” on the front in a font that evokes the Coca-Cola brand.

Ten years ago, Christianity Today noted a resurgence in Calvinism in America, a “comeback” that was “shaking up the church.” To some it seemed this “New Calvinism” offered a more serious, more theological alternative to popular evangelical culture.

New Calvinists didn’t all embrace the term “New Calvinist,” or even “Calvinist,” but they did articulate a self-conception of rugged seriousness. They allied themselves against “the atheological, consumer-driven nature of the modern evangelical machine,” as the director of the Southern Baptist LifeWays Research once put it.

But there was still enough consumerism for Reformed lifestyle products. If you want, you can even get a shirt with Jonathan Edwards’s face on it.

— Daniel Silliman

Course: The Challenge of the Moravians

There is a special opportunity for Heidelberg University students this summer semester. In cooperation with the theology faculty and the Heidelberg Center for American Studies, the Jonathan Edwards Center Germany has arranged a special course on the Moravians.

“The Challenge of the Moravians in the Old and New World” will be co-taught by Dr. Craig Atwood, of Moravian Theological Seminary, and Jennifer Adams-Massmann, a doctoral student at Heidelberg. The course will be held at the HCA on May 6-7, 20-21, and 27-28.

Adams-Massmann sends along this description of the course:

“The Unitas Fratrum (English: Moravian Church or German: die Herrnhuter) was one of the most dynamic and controversial religious groups in Europe and British North America. Founded in the mid-15th century in what is now the Czech Republic, the Moravians were the first “peace church” and tried to live according to the teachings of the New Testament. Intense persecution in the 17th century almost destroyed the church, before it was reborn in the early 1700s under the leadership of German Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf and by 1760 the movement had established relicommunities worldwide through missions, from Greenland to India, to the American colonies. In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the Moravians created a busy multilingual and multiethnic commune which rejected the patriarchal family structure and where women served in leadership alongside men. This alternative way of life generated controversy as did Zinzendorf’s provocative theology and piety, which included erotic spirituality, adoration of God “the Mother,” and mystical devotion to the wounds of Christ. This course will explore the fascinating history of the Unitas Fratrum from its radical founding through the end of the 18th century, paying particular attention to Zinzendorf and the Bethlehem community in America. We will also consider their controversial missions in the American colonies to Native peoples, slaves and European immigrants and how they understood and practiced gender difference. Using a mix of primary and secondary sources, we will thus consider the appeal and threat presented by the radical, idealistic Moravians in early modern Europe and especially in America.”

Anyone interested in taking the course may email Adams-Massmann at: jennifer.adams-massmann@wts.uni-heidelberg.de

Now Available: Biblia Americana, Vol. 5: Proverbs-Jeremiah

From Mohr Siebeck:

This volume of the Biblia Americana contains Cotton Mather’s annotations on the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Canticles, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. A mixture of historical-textual criticism and pious explications, the commentaries are a treasure-trove for scholars interested in the development of Reformed theology and biblical interpretation during a decisive period of intellectual change in the early modern Atlantic world. Mather, an apologetically oriented, pastoral yet deeply learned exegete, confronts the early Enlightenment challenges to the Bible’s authority.
He engages with issues of translation and the difficult questions about authorship, provenance, and genre being asked in his day, especially about the three books traditionally ascribed to King Solomon. Who wrote Proverbs and Ecclesiastes? How can the worldly wisdom of these books be reconciled with the Christian gospel? Is Canticles only a royal wedding song celebrating human love?

IMG_0521In turn, the annotations on Isaiah and Jeremiah are crucially concerned with the relevance and evidential value of the Hebrew prophets for the claims of Christian theology. If seen in their original contexts, in what ways can the oracles of Isaiah and Jeremiah be understood to speak of Christ, the gospel and the second coming? The volume shows the struggle of exegetes in Mather’s generation to adjust traditional interpretations of the Old Testament to a growing awareness of the Scriptures’ historicity. The annotations shift between detailed attention to this historical dimension of the texts and typological and allegorical readings. Moreover, many of the entries reve l a new “Baconian” concern with demonstrating the factual realism of the scriptural narratives by recourse to empirical evidence and the natural sciences.

The book can purchased from the publisher here.

Old Puritan texts now online

The John Richard Allison Library of Vancouver, Canada, has digitized scores of rare Puritan volumes and made them available online. The books come from the personal libraries of James Houston and J.I. Packer, evangelical theologians associated with Regent College. These British texts come from the 17th and 18th centuries and are well worth checking out.

A glimpse:

Isaac Ambrose The Compleat Works

Daniel Neal History of the Puritans

Benjamin Keach The Display of Glorious Grace

 

— Daniel Silliman