Whenever people mention the Salem Witch Trials, they tend to vilify anyone even remotely connected with them. Whenever people mention Cotton Mather, they tend to associate him with the Salem Witch Trials and summarily dismiss him. In reality, life is far more complex than either of these broad-brush strokes of the past suggest, and one of the great benefits of the historical discipline is that it helps us appreciate that complexity—it helps us understand.
In The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather (Eerdmans, 2015), Rick Kennedy helps us understand Cotton Mather and taste the complexity of his life and world. For starters, Cotton Mather played a far lesser role in the Salem Witch Trials than is commonly assumed—while he preached one of the execution sermons, he never attended the trials and actually recommended a more hands-on, reparative approach to those charged with being witches. He was certainly more moderate than has been suggested.
Beyond this event, Mather’s life was filled with a fair bit of drama. Here we find a man who experienced tremendous loss. He buried two wives and thirteen of his fifteen children. He also was thwarted more than once from his ambition to become president of Harvard. And he failed to secure a publisher for what became his largest work, his Biblia Americana, a compendium of notes on the Bible (though this book is now seeing the light of publication). Despite these disappointments, Kennedy paints a portrait of a joyful, generous man who gave himself to loving people and to learning as much as he could. Kennedy thinks it is best to “embrace” Mather (xiii), and though he could bring out more of Mather’s foibles, Kennedy’s book is a delightful way to get to know the man Cotton Mather.
But Kennedy aims to do something more with this book than simply correct misperceptions about Cotton Mather and introduce us to this influential pastor in colonial America. By setting Mather in the unique time of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s transition out of Puritanism, Kennedy seeks to capture in Mather a new sentiment that would blossom into the evangelical movement.
With the loss of its charter, Massachusetts had to leave behind its ambition of becoming a Puritan “city on a hill” and accept being folded into the expanding British Empire with its pan-Protestant interest. For many like Cotton Mather’s father, Increase Mather, this shift was all doom and gloom. For others like Mather’s fellow New Englanders Thomas Brattle and John Leverett, the change presented new political and economic opportunities but required cooling the spiritual fervor of earlier Puritanism. For Cotton Mather, the shift was filled with opportunities as long as one did not compromise on a white-hot faith in God.
Kennedy thus presents Mather as “the first American evangelical.” He understands evangelicalism as “a populist movement” that has changed through time (xi) but has been characterized—and first so in Mather—by the aim “to negotiate a way of cultural accommodation, intellectual sophistication, and personal holiness that was biblically authorized” (80). While avoiding the idea that Mather “created” evangelicalism, Kennedy argues that “it coalesced around one man during an unstable transition in post-Puritan New England” (xi). He thus describes “the birth of the evangelical tradition in America” as follows: “A coalition of ministers and laypeople rallied to Cotton Mather’s call to a zealous, freedom-loving, Bible-focused Protestantism that was open to spiritual activities and communications” (86).
This is a provocative thesis, in part because it pushes the origins of evangelicalism a few decades earlier than the more common tendency to date it as coalescing in the 1740s revivals known as the Great Awakening. Kennedy does make several striking parallels between Mather’s ministry and the marks of the evangelical movement. I am not quite persuaded that Mather was “the first American evangelical,” in part because the stirrings in Mather’s day lacked the geographical breadth and momentum that would mark the later movement emerging out of the revivals. Nonetheless, I greatly appreciate Kennedy’s argument for at least two reasons.
First, the evangelical movement did not arise out of nowhere, and Kennedy shows its continuity with the Puritanism of the seventeenth century as mediated through a figure like Mather. This is in keeping with the notion that Puritanism was one of three streams—along with Continental Pietism and Scots-Irish Presbyterianism—that led to the Great Awakening (see Thomas Kidd’s The Great Awakening [Yale University Press, 2007], xiv, 1–39). Kennedy rightly helps readers look prior to the Great Awakening to see the roots of the evangelical movement. Mather is, at the very least, a critical, influential precursor to the evangelicalism birthed in the 1740s.
Second, Kennedy elucidates the contextual factors that required Puritanism to reorganize itself so that it could become one of those streams feeding into evangelicalism. Colonial American Puritanism was never merely a spiritual movement; it always had political overtones as well. But those political ambitions were dashed to the ground when it lost its charter in 1684. Cotton Mather represented one way to navigate those muddy, post-Puritan waters that emphasized warm-hearted, Bible-based religion, which the evangelicals of the later revivals championed and extended.
I would be remiss if I did not mention one other area of Kennedy’s book that I found quite helpful, and that is his treatment of the Bible in Mather’s life and experience. He argues that Mather led a “boisterous ‘biblical enlightenment’” that participated in the new learning of the age without buying into its most radical elements (106). In fact, it was his belief in the divine nature and infallibility of the Bible that imbued his whole outlook on the world with a supernatural tint. Rather than a stark rationalism, Mather championed a “Christian reasonableness,” which allowed one to think oneself “deeper into Christianity, not out of it” (112). Thus, embracing a vibrant typology that unified the two Testaments, Mather believed, as Kennedy memorably puts it, that “it was important for Christians to read the Old Testament as if it had the New Testament baked into it” (115).
Kennedy’s Short Life of Cotton Mather is an engaging read, and it sheds helpful light on devotion through disappointment, on colonial America in its transition out of Puritanism, on commitment to the Bible as a supernatural book at a time when many sought to treat it like any other book, and on the stirrings for an interdenominational, supernaturally based, fervent form of Protestantism that would eventually take shape in the movement known as evangelicalism.