The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather
Reviewed by Carol Sue Humphrey, History, Oklahoma Baptist University
In The First American Evangelical, Rick Kennedy presents an excellent brief biography of Cotton Mather. He discusses Mather’s life, ideas, and impact on colonial America, emphasizing the role that Mather played in laying the groundwork for the Great Awakening in the eighteenth century.
The book is arranged primarily in a chronological format, but it begins with a brief discussion of Mather’s study and how it functioned as the place where he communicated with God about all the issues and concerns he dealt with as a pastor. Kennedy includes an interesting story of a young Benjamin Franklin visiting the study while on business for his brother’s print shop. Throughout his life, Mather’s study functioned as his place for study and prayer, as well as a place to engage with people in need. In many ways, it was the center of his life.
Kennedy gives a good overview of Mather’s childhood and education. Early in life, he learned how to concentrate no matter what was going on around him. This skill would prove very useful later during times of turmoil and confusion in colonial Massachusetts. Part of the reason for his educational success was his brilliant mind. He passed the tests for admittance to Harvard at age 11 at a time when most new students were in their teens. Kennedy notes that one of the reasons for this success was the education Mather had received, first at home and then at Boston’s Latin School.
Kennedy continues with a discussion of Mather’s time at Harvard. His first calling was to be a scholar, and he worked at fulfilling that goal during his years at Harvard from 1674 to 1681. Harvard was having major problems during these years, and Cotton Mather’s father, Increase Mather, worked diligently to save the school. Kennedy praises both Mathers for their support of Harvard and states that “Harvard’s survival remains the Mathers’ greatest gift to American education” (18). Mather’s experience at Harvard also helped him deal with his stuttering, a problem he had had since childhood. He wrote in his diary about “having to learn to accept being humiliated” (24). Through his education, Mather came to believe that a liberal arts education was very important because it helped people think more about the world in which they lived. He was ready to share information about America with people in Europe and described himself as an “American” author, the first person to do so. Mather came out of college as “a stuttering, humble, provincial scholar” (29) who wanted to help people in Europe better understand his world. Kennedy argues that Mather’s desire influenced the rest of his life.
Kennedy’s discussion moves on to Mather’s debates about what to do with his life. Following graduation, Cotton Mather spent several years seeking his calling in life. Much of this struggle can be found in his diary, which he kept for 45 years. It contains descriptions of events and Mather’s thoughts and reactions to these events, as well as his spiritual debates and concerns. The diary reflects “a saint-like intensity in him that turns every day into a personal battle within God’s cosmic war with the Devil” (31). Kennedy uses the diary to show that Cotton Mather reflected a variety of interests throughout his life. Besides continuing his work as a scholar, Mather also engaged in other possible vocations. He began working with his father at North Church, serving as the associate pastor for years. But Mather’s stammering worried him that he would not be able to be a pastor or preacher, so he studied medicine. This vocation would remain part of his life, as he often examined sick members of the families he visited in his church.
Kennedy also discusses how New England changed in the late 1600s because of political conflicts and the Salem Witch Trials. Puritanism was declining, and there were growing conflicts between Massachusetts and England. Kennedy shows Cotton Mather’s role in a revolt in Boston against the new royal governor, Edmund Andros, in April 1689. Mather’s writings during this period reflected many of the ideas that would later become the foundation for the American Revolution. This argument was settled, but the fears and disagreements continued. Probably the ultimate example of the stress produced at this time would be the Salem Witch Trials. History has tied Cotton Mather directly to these trials, but Kennedy shows that Mather was not really very involved. He never attended the trials, and he had no authority in the conflict. But his name became forever connected with this nightmare in Massachusetts.
Part of the reason for this connection was the fact that Cotton Mather was becoming an increasingly influential person. He was a very popular pastor and maybe the most famous American at the time. Kennedy shows how these developments enabled Mather to provide the leadership for the beginnings of the evangelical tradition in America. Mather believed that the church should work to appeal to the masses, and he encouraged everyone to seek that goal. Mather issued “a call to a zealous, freedom-loving, Bible-focused Protestantism that was open to spiritual activities and communications” (86). Following the nightmares of the conflict with Great Britain and the Salem Witch Trials, many people were seeking ways to stabilize the colony, and Mather’s ideas became increasingly influential in the effort to accomplish this goal.
Kennedy also discusses how Mather reflected the growing impact of Enlightenment ideas in the early eighteenth century. In many ways, Mather was a precursor to Jonathan Edwards, because he encouraged people to explore things in the world through reading and observation. He urged them to focus their attention on the Bible, because only then would they be able to understand the world fully. Mather reflected a biblical enlightenment that called for people to recognize biblical authority, pursue knowledge, and promote freedom and liberty in the world around them. He called for education to be available to everyone, because all people had rights that should be recognized and honored. As reflected in the ideas of the Enlightenment, Mather believed in progress and pushed others to do the same.
Kennedy presents Cotton Mather as a person who urged everyone to learn and grow as individuals in order to make the world a better place. Mather worked hard in his ministry until the end of his life, because he wanted God to use him in whatever way was needed. When he died in 1728, it was a major event in New England since Mather was widely respected. He was both the most famous preacher and the most popular writer in New England. The main reason for this was his unwillingness to be lukewarm in his faith and his call for people to be radical in their beliefs and actions in the kingdom of God.
Kennedy’s focus in his biography of Cotton Mather is the role that his faith played in his actions. His use of Mather’s writings throughout the book provides interesting support for this focus. Kennedy clearly shows how Mather was the primary person in sparking the development of the evangelical tradition in America. His faith called him to act for God, and he urged others to do the same. A major accomplishment of this interesting work is showing the breadth and depth of Cotton Mather as a man and a pastor and overcoming the mistaken emphasis by many on his supposed role in the Salem Witch Trials. Kennedy shows that Mather was a strong Christian who sought to use all the gifts and knowledge that God had given him to make the world a better place.