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The Biblia Americana has remained unpublished and largely unexplored until today.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