Why read Cotton Mather? Reiner Smolinski and Kenneth P. Minkema – each of them leading experts on Cotton Mather – have contributed something very special and worthwhile to the reemergence of Matherian studies with their recent publication of A Cotton Mather Reader by Yale University Press. This incredible new book contains their powerful introduction followed by a thoughtfully and carefully curated selection of some of Mather’s most important works selected for their impact, significance and lasting influence in literature and American culture.
As one who has published on Cotton Mather and his work, the struggle here is inevitably one of rehabilitation coupled with fascination. It is difficult to discuss Mather without also battling a myriad of unfair and inaccurate assumptions about the man by those who have not read his work, or otherwise have some interest in continuing to besmirch his name. Historians and other assorted tastemakers have, as the editors aptly put it, “despised him as an execrable and meddlesome Puritan priest, a superannuated effigy of whatever was hateful and wrong in which Moses and Aaron made common cause.” It is this burden that the new wave of Matherian scholarship attempts to lighten, and this book is a brave and noble contribution in that direction. Indeed, this book would have been a great help to me in writing my recent doctoral dissertation on the theological conviction and change of Cotton Mather. It was Kenneth Minkema himself who inspired me at Yale to focus on Mather for my PhD. The fact he is one of the principal editors ensures that this volume is of the highest quality for he is among the top scholars of Cotton Mather alive (alongside co-editor Reiner Smolinski).
The goal of A Cotton Mather Reader is of a very special interest to me as I, too, have been undertaking the work of rehabilitating the great American puritan pastor and thinker. Having spent years and countless enjoyable hours poring over the writings of Mather, I recognize what a colossal endeavor this is. It is especially challenging when pushing against the tides of historical and pop culture bias that seeks to paint Mather as an ogre, a Jabba the Hutt-like figure dominating all who were within his prodigious reach in order to make Boston a more miserable place for God’s chosen people. The editors, therefore, do a wonderful job here in helping to present why this is not the case whatsoever. But the work goes beyond the puritan enthusiast and Mather specialist, it reveals the extent of Mather’s legacy and influence on the United States (and the world) at large and how this is a positive, not a negative, legacy and influence.
Smolinski and Minkema properly define this struggle in the introduction when they say that they are setting out to discover the real Mather behind the caricature. This books nobly presents Mather unvarnished and honestly displayed for what he really was: “the foremost scholar and innovative thinker of his generation in New England in this collection of his published and unpublished work.” Any depiction of Mather as anything but a great and innovative, indeed, humane, thinker is unwarranted.
Specifically, in light of the plethora of his writings, who was the real Cotton Mather when stripped of this pop-culture coating? Smolinski and Minkema attempt to answer this question as well as the more general one of “Why read Cotton Mather at all?” by letting Mather’s powerful and beautiful writing speak for itself. This is accomplished by looking at an expertly-curated collection of his writing focused on overall cohesion rather than Mather’s individual virtuosity in any one particular area. There were some great choices that showcase the uniqueness of Cotton Mather that were previously unpublished such as his discussion of the Psalms and music Psalterium Americanum (1718) and numerous entries from the Biblia Americana that are thankfully being published under the guidance of these same editors in other editions. These works were new even to me and they proved fascinating reading and will be fascinating reading for anyone involved in Puritan studies, Reformed theology, and colonial American history.
Mather’s refined and ultimately innovative version of New England puritanism reflected changes in his views as his selected writings in this reader demonstrate. We find that Mather moved away from his early commitment to New England exceptionalism and closer towards a new expression of a continuing Protestant Reformation in pursuit of Christ’s return to earth. The selected works by Mather here interspersed with the helpful chapter introductions by the editors go a long way towards showing the prismatic, full-orbed Mather that has so much to offer a modern readership. He was not a hard-nosed priest but a man of change, daring, and innovation. In many ways, he reflected what America would become as a nation.
As I have written elsewhere, getting Cotton Mather right is a strong step in the direction of getting the attendant issues surrounding the mythos of the puritans right. In this volume, Smolinski and Minkema do an admirable job of winnowing the hundreds of possible choices down to a few select and meaningful pieces by Mather that showcase the best of him. By introducing the varied breadth of his writings, the Salem stereotype will begin to wobble and ultimately (hopefully) collapse thanks to the studious efforts of our heroic editors.
I intend on placing this book on future syllabi for the graduate theology courses that I teach. I imagine that when my students notice this, they will perhaps first be offended, then surprised and ultimately enriched by reading this book. This type of change in the understanding of Mather is made possible through books like this and endeavors such as The Mather Project at my alma mater, Yale Divinity School.
From the pages of A Cotton Mather Reader we see a great man and pastor incorporate many of the changes in his own life and ministry into an innovative theology of covenantal hope and assurance that becomes a forward-thinking and influential vision for the Christian church in New England and around the world. It is this Mather that we would all do well to emulate as helpful in this new era of innovation and unstable ground inside and outside both the academy and church. This book wonderfully encapsulates this modern Matherian ethic and is a perfect start for anyone interested in discovering the real Cotton Mather.
A Cotton Mather Reader
By Cotton Mather
Edited by Reiner Smolinski and Kenneth P. Minkema
New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2022; 432pp
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