Category Archives: book

New book looks at Edwards and print culture

Scholars of Jonathan Edwards have explored Edwards’ writings and legacies from seemingly every angle. Yet, a new monograph published by Oxford University Press has revealed a blind spot: print culture. In Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture, Jonathan Yeager, UC Foundation Associate Professor of Religion at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, fills this lacuna.

JY bookThis book is grounded in extensive research. In four Appendices, Yeager provides a table of Edwards’s published works in chronological order up to 1800, a graph showing the most fruitful years for his publications, their prices and formats, and subscription lists for his most successful work, The Life of David Brainerd. But this work is no mere collection of data. Yeager unpacks a compelling narrative and advances an important thesis: “I argue,” he writes, “that Edwards’s printers, publishers, and editors shaped the public perception of him in the way that they packaged and marketed his publications” (xi).

Yeager has two intended audiences. First, he wants to help historians of print culture better understand the religious dimensions of the trade, and second, he guides scholars of religion through the critical connections between religious history and the history of the book. He has five chapters detailing the reception of Edwards’s writings, his relationship with his publishers and their impact on his public perception, and the role of those in the late eighteenth century who continued to publish Edwards’s writings to advance their own objectives.

Yeager also helpfully underscores the transatlantic dimension of evangelical publishing networks and its role in shaping the public identity of figures like Edwards. Not only did Edwards’s evangelical contemporaries like John Wesley and Isaac Watts in England help advance his publications, but so did his heirs, including his son Jonathan Edwards Jr. and the New Divinity men in New England, John Erskine in Scotland, and Baptists in England such as John Ryland Jr.

The German reception of Edwards’s Faithful Narrative is of particular interest, with two groups translating and appropriating Edwards’s work in 1738, but in different ways. On the on hand, Johann Adam Steinmetz packaged Edwards’s work as reinforcing a Lutheran approach to revivalism. On the other, a group of German Reformed Pietists embraced Edwards’s Reformed inflections in their translation, and catered it to a more uneducated and popular readership (23-24).

This book is a much-needed resource, and students and scholars of religious history and print culture will benefit greatly from it.

–Ryan Hoselton

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

Unlocking the Cotton Mather treasure trove

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?

IMG_1573Stievermann: 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?

IMG_1576Stievermann: 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.

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

New book takes page-turning approach to Salem witches

Just in time for Halloween, there’s a new book out about the Salem witch trials.

It’s not clear  we needed a new book about the Salem witch trials, but it’s coming anyway. The Witches: Salem, 1692, is due out from Little, Brown and Company on Oct. 27. The book is written by Stacy Schiff, who has previously penned popular works on Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Véra Nabokov, Benjamin Franklin and Cleopatra. She won a Pulitzer for Véra: (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) and achieved bestseller status with Cleopatra: A Life. Now she turns her attention to Puritan New England.

The jacket copy promises a book that is “as psychologically thrilling as it is historically seminal,” and says “the first great American mystery” will be “unveiled fully for the first time.”

Schiff, for her part, acknowledges a lot of historical work has been done on Salem, but says she wanted to take a different approach.

“Most of the really good books,” Schiff told Publishers Weekly, “are thesis driven: it was geographic hostility, or it was the trauma of Indian warfare, or it was conversion disorder. I felt that was cheating. The whole point is that you want readers to want to turn the page—you don’t want to tell them, here’s what you should be thinking . . . I wanted the reader to pick up the hints and put them together. Only at the end do I say, oh, yes—if you saw this and this and this, that’s how the pieces fit together.”

Some early reviews have been critical on exactly this point.

41+p60iyA1L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Library Journal Review reports that “Schiff’s goal appears to be creating a complete accounting—it’s hard to tell, though, because the work is weak in structure and organization and lacks a solid thesis.”

Kirkus faintly praises the book for being “intelligent and reliable,” but generally dismisses the effort. According to its review, “While Schiff has marshaled the facts in neat sequential order … she doesn’t have anything new to say or at least nothing that would come as a revelation to even general readers, until the final pages.”

Others found the narrative approach to the story of the Salem witches more compelling. Booklist Review, for example, calls Witches “a compulsively readable slice of Americana that will appeal to both book clubs and a wide variety of
individual readers.”

Some reviewers are also arguing that Schiff’s work is very thesis-driven, even if she doesn’t come right out and declaim it.

In the Minneapolis, Minn. Star Tribune, reviewer Hamilton Cain writes that “Schiff nimbly connects Salem’s fatal mania to subsequent witch-hunts, such as McCarthyism and the rise of Movement conservatism, revealing how close we remain to the specters and demons that stalked the Bay Colony more than three centuries ago.”

At the Atlantic, reviewer Adam Goodheart reports that Schiff re-tells the witch trials as befits “our own peculiar cultural moment.” She places the children at the center of the story, not unlike what one finds in wildly popular young adult fiction, like Harry Potter and Twilight. She also connects the hysteria to, among other things, problems of media and the uneven distribution of knowledge. Demonic possession is imagined as a matter of memes.

“The whole scholarly infrastructure of the 17th century—books, universities, learned societies—helped disseminate accounts of witchcraft and its dangers to the far ends of the Christian world,” Goodheart writes. “The judges in Massachusetts, and probably also some of the accusers, were deeply influenced by accounts of a witch outbreak in distant Sweden some years earlier. Witchcraft was science, and vice versa.”

Readers can judge for themselves at the end of the month. Or, for a sneak peak, check out the extended excerpt of Schiff’s book in the New Yorker.

“In isolated settlements, in smoky, fire-lit homes,” Schiff writes, setting the scene. “New Englanders lived very much in the dark . . . The seventeenth-century sky was crow black, pitch-black, Bible black, so black that it could be difficult at night to keep to the path, so black that a line of trees might freely migrate to another location, or that you might find yourself pursued by a rabid black hog, leaving you to crawl home on all fours, bloody and disoriented.”

Just in time for Halloween.

— Daniel Silliman

Cotton Mather in a post-Christian world

Cotton Mather can provide a useful example as today’s evangelicals reckon with the changing culture, according to the conservative evangelical World Magazine.

The Puritan who lived at the turn of the 18th century had a lot in common with evangelicals living in the first part of the 21st, writes Russ Pulliam, a newspaper editor, in a positive review of Rick Kennedy’s new book, The First American Evangelical

Pulliam explains:

“Mather lived (1663-1728) during two eras of American history. Mather was born when Puritans were the dominant cultural influence in New England, but he lived well into the post-Puritan time. In that context, Kennedy identifies Mather as the first evangelical because he was shifting the Puritan approach to being salt and light.

“‘His grandparents and parents had hoped to create a City on a Hill, a model republic, far from England, where purified churches would be the foundation of politics,’ Kennedy writes. ‘But that colony was now a province and no longer isolated from imperial politics and imperial religion. Compromises must be made and expectations lowered.'”

That loss of privilege looks familiar to readers of World. As the review concludes:

“America is moving from a time when many people looked to the Bible, sometimes seriously, others times nominally or by memory of a childhood Christian influence. American culture has shifted in recent years, at least to where the dominant influence is much more post-Christian than it was 25 years ago. Given those shifts in our culture, Kennedy’s life of Cotton Mather takes on added value for our times.”

Pulliam argues that Mather needs to be rediscovered along with other Puritans such as Jonathan Edwards and John Owens. Kennedy’s book is recommended to that end. Mather, it is suggested, might be especially useful in these times.

— Daniel Silliman

Notre Dame colloquium

The Jonathan Edwards Center Germany will be participating in a colloquium at Notre Dame, in South Bend, Ind., on Oct. 1. Prof. Jan Stievermann, director of the center, will be speaking with Prof. Mark Noll, of Notre Dame, and Douglas Sweeney, of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, on “Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather and the Bible.”

All three men have books coming out this fall. Noel’s work, In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in Public Life, 1492-1783, is coming out with Oxford. Sweeney’s latestEdwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment, is also being published by Oxford. Stievermann’s book, Prophecy, Piety, and the Problem of Historicity: Interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures in Cotton Mather’s Biblia Americana, is coming out with Mohr Siebeck.

Stievermann, Noll and Sweeney will discuss their forthcoming books and the some common questions and issues relating to the Bible in Puritan New England. The event is sponsored by the Notre Dame history department and is open to the public. It will be held at 217 DeBartolo, Thursday, Oct. 1, from 4 to 5:30 p.m.

New documentary on David Brainerd

A new documentary on Puritan missionary David Brainerd has been put out by Church Works, a group that publishes worship music and devotional material.  The documentary, featuring interviews with scholars and pastors, looks at how Brainerd’s devotional life has been an inspiration over the years. An accompanying devotional on Brainerd’s life is also available.

Edwards among the theologians and the political philosophers

There are two new titles of interest, both putting Jonathan Edwards into new contexts and perspectives.

51b6qY+1Z2L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The first is The Ecumenical Edwards: Jonathan Edwards and the Theologians, a collection of essays edited by Biola University’s Kyle C. Strobel. The essays are written by scholars from a variety of religious traditions. Each puts Edwards in conversation with a different theologian, from Thomas Aquinas and Gregory of Nyssa to Karl Barth and Wolfhart Pannenberg.

The book has a blurb from George Marsden, who writes:

“The Ecumenical Edwards offers a treasure trove of insights on the relationship of one of the greatest theologians in the Reformed tradition to the grand traditionsof Christian theology as represented by Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and other Protestant thinkers. Here is an all-star international ecumenical line-up of analysts who are critical as well as sympathetic in assessing Edwards’s contributions to discussions of some of the most profound theological issues.”

The second book is by Jeff Jay Stone, titled Mysteries of Government: The Political Philosophy of Jonathan Edwards.

81ni89SeRaL._SL1500_A revised dissertation written at the University of Dallas, Stone’s work has long been cited in the literature, but is only now widely available as an ebook. Michael J. McClymond and Gerald R. McDermott, for instance, cited Stone to support the claim that “Edwards in fact cared deeply about civil and public life, and developed elaborate conceptions of how life in the public square ought to be conducted.”

This work treats Edwards as a political philosopher, looking especially at Edwards’ reading of John Locke.

“The few occasions on which Edwards does speak of politics,” writes Stone, “reveal a compeling particularity: he has indeed thought very seriously about politics, but has encountered a problem which he does not clearly enunciate. However, the problem is no less evident for not having been mentioned, and the solution–which is explicit–gives us new insight to the nature of Edwards’ thought as a whole.”

Both books are available now.

— Daniel Silliman