J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, October 14, 2013

A Day with Cotton Mather

I recall seeing a newspaper letter refer to the Rev. Cotton Mather as a “Founder” and thinking, “Come on! Not every old American guy was a ‘Founder’.”

Mather’s life fell between the settlement of New England, which we here of course claim as a foundation of the U.S. of A., and the Revolution that actually formed the new republic. He got to see the waning of his father’s Puritan order but not the flowering of the Enlightenment, and he may have been happier in either of those intellectual eras than in his own.

The Congregational Library in Boston is hosting a conference on 18 October called ”Mather Redux: New Perspectives on Cotton Mather.” It offers this enticement:
Understanding Mather’s legacy is a key to uncovering much about early America and the nation that follows. For the first time in North America eminent scholars and historians will be brought together to examine the complex historical figure, Cotton Mather. Join them as they create a revised and relevant portrait of the much maligned preacher and his time.
The following morning there will be a walking tour of the North End that ends at the Mather family tomb on Copp’s Hill.

The précis of the speakers’ presentations suggest they want to reclaim Cotton Mather from his unflattering stereotype and recreate the Boston and British Empire of his lifetime. Yet we may not be able to help measuring him against the eras we know better. For example, one presentation is called “Cotton Mather’s Declaration of Independence”:
David Levin, a literature professor at Stanford, made the case several decades ago that Cotton Mather’s role in Boston’s Glorious Revolution was comparable to Thomas Jefferson and his pattern of thought similar to the Declaration of Independence. Rick Kennedy [professor of history at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego] will revisit this notion showing where it is true, but also showing where it is incomplete.
This event is open to the public. Registration through EventBrite costs $50 and includes morning pastries but no lunch.


Mark said...

Its a bit off topic, but thanks to today's blog entry I stumbled upon a piece of history I might never have found otherwise. Cotton Mather was obviously held in high enough esteem, even in the 1750's, to have one of Halifax's founding churches named after him. Mather's Meeting House was built in 1753 and was first led by Rev. Aaron Cleveland, the great, great GF of Grover Cleveland. Perhaps there's something to be said for presenter Prof. Smolinski's assertion that Mather's character was tarnished by later theologians, and not in the era in which he lived.

J. L. Bell said...

I have to admit to being confused by that summary’s reference to “Old- and New-Light theologians in the nineteenth century.” I read about the Old Light/New Light debate in the mid-1700s, or eighteenth century. In the nineteenth, religious historians looked back at that period and called it the “First Great Awakening” (not a term used at the time). It’s possible that at that point in the 1800s there was additional Old Light/New Light debate that affected Mather’s standing.

I don’t doubt Mather was still highly respected in many circles in the 1700s. The portrait above was engraved by Peter Pelham after the minister’s death, suggesting a market of admirers. Mather’s descendants among the Boston clergy in the 1700s (Samuel Mather, Mather Byles Sr. and Jr.) were encouraged to live up to his and his father’s examples.

That said, the church in Halifax may have been founded by people on Mather’s side of a theological dispute, making a point.

MaryJeanAdams said...

I wish I could get to this presentation, but unfortunately I'm in fly-over country. I am currently in the process of reading Sydney George Fisher's "The True Benjamin Franklin." I believe it was written around 1898. Anyway, he mentions Cotton Mather a couple of times as being an influence on Franklin. (Probably not always in the ways Mather would have preferred to influence others, however.) While I would not consider Mather a "founding father" as in part of the Revolution, would we be the same country without him and others like him?

JJ said...

Not being from Boston, (but liking to go there as often as possible) I was not aware of the Congregational Library. Will visit on my next trip.