Tag Archives: Cotton Mather

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

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

$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

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.

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.

Cotton Mather in the vaccination debate

Cotton Mather is being put to use in American culture, today, his name invoked as an advocate for vaccinations.

Marvin Olasky, editor of the conservative evangelical newsmagazine World, has recently turned his attention to the subject of vaccinations, encouraging conservative Christian parents to trust the science and get their children inoculated. This is fairly controversial, in some circles, where science is considered a very suspect source of authority. Olasky, however, invokes Cotton Mather:

“Let’s start with modern science, which Christians largely invented, as Nancy Pearcey showed in The Soul of Science. Our Bible-believing forebears from Isaac Newton on saw how God rules nature with regularity that we can discern, without fear that Neptune stirs up the waves whenever he’s mad.

“Christians were strongly pro-science: Cotton Mather 300 years ago pioneered in promoting inoculation. But when scientists overreach by proclaiming, like Carl Sagan, that material existence ‘is all that is or was or ever will be,’ the credibility of science diminishes. Honest laboratory research deserves great respect.”

Mather, for his part, was insistent that inoculation was a divine mercy. As he wrote in 1721, during a smallpox outbreak in Boston and the subsequent debate, “But let us beseech those that have call’d this Method — the Work of the devil, or a going to the devil, no more to allow the cursed thought, or utter the horrid word, les they be found Blasphemous of a most merciful and wonderful Work of GOD.”

Some Bostonians found this less than persuasive.

Olasky isn’t the only one who has brought up Mather in this context, recently. At Jezebel magazine — a feminist site that has little in common to World — Mather has also come up recently. Strassa Edwards, writing about the history of vaccinations, praised Mather for refusing to accept that deadly diseases are “one of the strange works of God.” Paul Greenberg, the opinions page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, name-checked Mather by way of chiding modern Americans for forgetting the lessons of thee “great men” of history. “The lessons (Mather) and his fellow Puritans taught are forgotten with shocking regularity,” Greenberg writes, “among them the wisdom of vaccinating our kids.”

Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Kelly Wisecup recently considered what would happen if the esteemed Puritan of the 18th c. were to go to modern-day Disneyland, where there was an outbreak of measles attributed to unvaccinated children. “He would not have caught the measles,” Wisecup writes. “If Mather went to Disneyland . . . he would undoubtedly have already been vaccinated, assured of the rightness of the procedure and of his health.” How his heart would have handled the Magic Kingdom is another matter.

Another writer to raise Mather’s name is Peter Manseau. Mather and the 1721 smallpox inoculations come up in Manseau’s new book, One Nation Under Gods. “The exact same rhetoric that you hear from religious anti-vaxxers today,” he said in a recent promotional interview “are the arguments made against Cotton Mather.”

Of course, Mather’s name has been put to other uses in this cultural conflict as well. There are also some opposed to vaccinations — anti-vaxxers, as they’re sometimes called — who invoke Mather to their own ends. “Rev. Cotton Mather was not a doctor,” writes one, in an example of this rhetoric, “but a vicar and an intensely religious and superstitous man who was heavily involved in the Salem witch trials and who murdered traditional medicine women by burning them at the stake because he suspected them of doing black witchcraft.”

Whether or not anyone is persuaded by these mentions of Mather is unknown. It is clear, though, that Mather’s name is doing some rhetorical work in these very contemporary debates.

— Daniel Silliman