Prof. Jan Stievermann’s new book is “the most important book ever written on biblical scholarship in early American history,” according to Douglas Sweeney, Professor of Church History and the History of Christian Thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
Prophecy, Piety, and the Problem of Historicity looks at how Cotton Mather struggled to read the Hebrew Bible as Christian scripture in the early modern era in a way that seemed intellectually honest and also, at the same time, spiritually satisfying. Prof. Sweeney says the work is “simply must reading for all who work on early modern Christianity.”
Ryan Hoselton, who is working with Prof. Stievermann on a dissertation on Mather and Jonathan Edwards, sat down with him to ask him a few questions about his work on Cotton Mather:
Hoselton: Some readers may find it curious that a German has devoted so much time and energy to studying Cotton Mather, and American religious history in general. What drew you to this field?
Stievermann: Some of it is biographical coincidence. Studying American literature and culture, I was lucky enough to have good teachers who believed in the crucial importance of religion, and especially New England Puritanism, for understanding the cultural and social life of the U.S. So reading the Magnalia and other texts by Mather was very much part of my training as an Americanist.
Later my fascination deepened for different reasons. Studying the Puritans and their different heirs gives you a very wide range of modern Protestant thought and culture, from strict Biblicism, creedal conservativism, revivalism to ultra-liberal. Mather’s religious and intellectual life is incredibly complex and complicated and well-worth studying.
Hoselton: What is the Biblia Americana project and what fruit has it yielded so far?
Stievermann: The “Biblia Americana: The Sacred Scriptures of the Old and New Testament Illustrated” was supposed to be Cotton Mather’s magnum opus of biblical interpretation. Because he couldn’t find the necessary patronage, his manuscript was left unpublished. It’s more than 4,500 folio pages. Mather’s heirs bequeathed the manuscript to the Massachusetts Historical Society after the the American Revolution. It has slumbered
in the archives almost untouched for more than two centuries.
Since 2010, Mohr Siebeck has started to publish what will be a 10-volume scholarly edition, amounting to about 10,000 pages in print. The scholarly edition is not only making the “Biblia Americana” readily available in transcription for the first time, but also, by virtue of extensive introductions, annotations, and translations, is facilitating access to its rich contents. In the past, the work had been largely unapproachable to most modern readers. Mather frequently uses early modern forms of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and he was engaging in dialogue with very specific, now often forgotten, debates and traditions.
Led by Reiner Smolinski (General Editor) and myself (Executive Editor), the Biblia Americana edition thus resembles an archaeological project in early American religious and intellectual history. An international team of experts is recovering and piecing together, shard by shard, the lost world of Mather’s biblical interpretation. We’re attempting to bring his thoughts back to life by placing the Biblia Americana within its larger discursive environment.
Four volumes 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). There has also been a collection of essays on Cotton Mather and the “Biblia America” (2010) that came out of a conference marking the launch of the editorial project. The positive reception of the published volumes is an encouraging sign that the scholarly community is beginning to recognize the importance of the “Biblia Americana” manuscript as a great untapped resource.
Hoselton: There’s been much attention given to Jonathan Edwards’ exegesis, recently. Why does Mather’s biblical interpretation deserve our consideration as well?
Stievermann: Now that Edwards’ exegetical writings are published in the Yale edition of the Works of Jonathan Edwards, his biblical interpretation has finally received the attention it deserves, including in Douglas Sweeney’s 2015 monograph, Edwards the Exegete. We hope to see the same for Cotton Mather. The “Biblia Americana” is a treasure trove, not only for early American studies, but also for scholars interested in the development of Protestant theology and biblical interpretation during a decisive period of intellectual change in the early modern Atlantic world.
The “Biblia” holds special potential since it’s the first serious engagement of an American exegete with critical-historical methods in biblical scholarship. With surprising breadth and depth, Mather discusses, among many other things, questions regarding the inspiration, composition, transmission, canonization, and historical realism of the biblical texts.
As one of the very first theologians in the British colonies, he pondered the quintessentially modern questions surrounding the Bible. He tackles issues that continue to concern those who seek to harmonize academic inquiry with a traditionalist faith. Mather was fully convinced that his “Biblia” offered just such a harmonization and effectively defended the authority and unity of the canon as well as the basic legacy of 17th-century Reformed theology.
Mather’s commentary is also an early attempt to reconcile a traditional Protestant biblicism with the emerging natural sciences and the philosophical challenges of the early Enlightenment. The “Biblia” pioneered a highly learned but apologetically-oriented type of biblical criticism especially invested in a new kind of factualist evidentialism, which would later flower among evangelicals. Thus, the “Biblia” can contribute much to a deeper understanding of the transformations of New England Puritanism into early evangelicalism.
Hoselton: What is the main argument of your monograph, Prophecy, Piety, and the Problem of Historicity, and what does it contribute to the findings of the Biblia Americana project?
Stievermann: In the simplest terms, this book is about Cotton Mather’s struggle to read the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture in ways that he thought were intellectually justifiable as a highly-educated scholar and which also felt satisfying and nurturing as a devout believer.
The book draws on fresh material from volume five (the one I edited), which contains the sections on Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Canticles (Song of Songs), Isaiah, and Jeremiah. It examines in detail Mather’s annotations on these biblical books and discusses specific subjects and hermeneutical problems that figure prominently there. At the same time, I undertake the first interpretative synthesis and overall appraisal of Mather’s engagement with the Hebrew Scriptures.
It introduces the reader to the main characteristics, recurring topics, and features of the “Biblia Americana.” The introductory section also ventures to provide a more comprehensive assessment of how Mather’s exegetical work can be situated in the history of biblical interpretation, specifically in the history of the Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures.
The title of this book, Prophecy, Piety, and the Problem of Historicity, alludes to what I regard as some of the most important issues with which Mather wrestled. Mather belonged to a generation of exegetes that was already confronted with far-reaching historical challenges to the authority of the Bible, and the Hebrew Scriptures in particular.
The basic legitimacy of time-honored methods of interpreting Old Testament texts as prophetically, typologically, and mystically prefiguring Christ and the gospel could no longer be taken for granted. Indeed, at least in intellectual circles, the problem of historicity was beginning to call into question the very status of the Hebrew Bible as the Christian Old Testament. Although Mather himself had not the slightest doubt about this status, he, like many other theologian-scholars of his generation, felt the need to make new apologetical arguments in support of the traditional view. He was ready to make some significant compromises, however, where the scholarly arguments appeared compelling to him.
Besides more specific questions relating to authorship, the provenance of the biblical texts, apologetically-oriented critics like Mather faced one very fundamental issue: Although for very different reasons than in earlier centuries, they saw the necessity of defining and defending what rightful uses could be made of the Hebrew Scriptures for Christian faith and piety.
Hoselton: How does Mather’s biblical interpretation fit into his early American cultural and transatlantic intellectual context?
Stievermann: The book emphatically confirms the assessment of revisionist scholars who have contested the still wide-spread belief that Mather propagated some early form of apocalyptically-inflected American exceptionalism. No entries in the “Biblia Americana” have been found where Mather does this. The long-held assumption that Mather somehow partook in an extension of the bounds of traditional typology to the realm of secular history that allowed him to identify New England as the latter-day surrogate of Old Israel is insupportable in the light of his “Biblia” annotations. On the contrary, Mather’s use of typology is quite conventional Protestant fare. Even in his reading of Canticles as a predictive history of the church culminating in the millennium, New England is not inserted into the narrative even once. The fact that this reading is derived from the German-Dutch Reformed Pietist Johannes Cocceius is emblematic of Mather’s very transatlantic and transdenominational orientation. The “Biblia” thoroughly defies the stereotypes of parochialism and the tribalist mentality that are too often still associated with Puritan theology. It also undercuts conventional readings of Mather and his work that primarily view them in terms of their American-ness.
One of the guiding assumptions of much of the older scholarship was that the key to understanding Cotton Mather and his significance could be primarily found in his relation to the future nation and its ideological formations. The “Biblia” commentaries make it unmistakably clear that Mather has to be studied as a figure whose thinking was not so much inward-looking as intensely transatlantic in orientation. Beyond a vast array of sources from across the British Empire, Mather drew upon work from his contemporaries and the generation preceding them in the Dutch, German, French, and broader European academic theological contexts. This is significant because it demonstrates that Mather and the British Colonies in North America, although geographically distant, were nevertheless very much involved in the European debates.
If Mather is still to be viewed as the archetypical Puritan forerunner of later trends in American cultural life at all, he should be seen as an early example not of intellectual nationalism but of a religiously inspired, utopian cosmopolitanism. For besides the many other things that Mather was—Reformed theologian, early evangelical pastor and reformer, Enlightenment philosopher, and naturalist experimenter with medical vaccinations—he, despite his location in a remote outpost of the British Empire, always aspired to be a Christian citizen of the international republic of letters.
Hoselton: Rick Kennedy’s recent biography on Cotton Mather labels him the “first American evangelical.” How does Mather’s biblical interpretation fit into the early evangelical historiography?
Stievermann: It’s a very complicated and loaded issue. Mather doesn’t use the term himself. He says “revivalism.” Constructing historical genealogies for modern groups or movements is a problematic endeavor that involves a lot of ideology and theology. We must not identify eighteenth century figures and their ideas with current positions or assume that one directly leads to the other. There are radical discontinuities between what we now call evangelicalism and pro-revivalist theologians of the Great Awakening like Edwards. But there are continuities, too.
The “Biblia Americana” offers plenty of new material that strongly affirms this assessment of Mather as an early evangelical. You also see how Mather drank deeply from medieval traditions, from the devotion moderna to alchemical lore to his vitalist cosmology. The “Biblia Americana” is really a treasure trove.