Religion, next to poor economic conditions, was primarily responsible for the foundation of the colonies. It too was the backbone for its evolvement. And one of the chief leaders in that unfolding was the noted Congregational minister Cotton Mather, who, as author, theologian, science-minded neophyte and sometimes political insider, helped to lead the way before the likes of Washington, Franklin, Paine and Jefferson came into the underdeveloped social, religious and political scene. Though often cited as the one who added fuel to the fire in the Salem witch trials by giving a sense of legitmacy to the ideas and beliefs of spectral evidence, he was also openly criticized by his harshest critic and dogged nemesis Robert Calef, who mocked him for his blatant inaction and for his uttering of dated apocalyptic pronouncements when primitive superstition took a firm hold of the Salem villagers: "Robert Calef, Mather's angriest and most dogged critic, charged that by being "the most active and forward of any minister in the country" in the Goodwin case, and by printing his account of it, Mather "conduced much to the kindling of those flames" at Salem that "threatened the destruction of this country." P.87. There were those who saw the trials for what they were-a farce. And Mather-as a "learned" man-was not in the league of those who possessed clear comprehension. Hence, his name, over time, became stigmatized with that dark period of early colonial history.
As people are sometimes granted a second chance, Cotton Mather, after the tragic witch fiasco, took the opportunity to do only good-even in exchange for the bad-which he received from his enemies, a Biblical offering of the "other" cheek. The latter was the way of German Pietism, an approach that appealed to Mather, for it had: "...its emphasis on pastoral work and involvement in community life, its far-flung missionary work, perhaps especially its ecumenical attempt to reduce dogma to essentials." P. 231. But more than that, Cotton Mather seemed to try to go beyond himself, to try to outdue past accomplishments, because there was always this psychological manifestation of the stammerer he used to be, coupled with the stress of his prominent family lineage. It seemed to be pressure coupled atop pressure, forceful and expected success at all costs. In trying to be God's warrior and live up to perfection, he paid many costs: bankruptcy, the death of 13 of his 15 children, intellectual belittlement, to scores of other misfortunes. Yet, through his voluminous religious, economic, social, science, political and medical writings, he refined the colonies to a crest that it had never been at before. He, by his sermons, writings, insight, gave the colonies a caliber of legitmacy that it sorely needed in the eyes of the mother country, England. In a way, he gave the colonies respect by immersing himself in the lives of those who sought his council: academics, doctors, politicians to a bevy of others. He, in effect, taught himself and become knowledgeable-sometimes even an expert-in the career fields of the very individuals who sought him out. And thus, he was past being well-rounded and effective. But that also brought about jealousy and contempt. But prayer, introspection and conformity to theology (though it was a heavy struggle) gave him the necessary framework to do what he had to do. And upon his death, the respect that he so yearned for while alive, was heaped upon him in abundance.
Kenneth Silverman's The Life and Times of Cotton Mather is quite simply a stunning work of early colonial history and biography; he delves deeply into age-old diaries, hymnals, political documentation, to a whole pool of sources, and he makes them come to vivid life by his crisp and tight writing style. He brings a bygone era and all its conceivable joys, sufferings and anger to the forefront, illustrating with scholarly and literary certitude that the problems of our times have not differed in any extremity to previous generations. The evolution just becomes more pronounced. In the Life and Times of Cotton Mather, readers will be exposed to wharves, perriwigs, flickering candles and towering Congregational steeples that loom over a fledging city trying to form its own identity, history and truth. The book is a resounding achievement.
Religion, next to poor economic conditions, was primarily responsible for the foundation of the colonies. It too was the backbone for its evolvement. And one of the chief leaders in that unfolding was the noted Congregational minister Cotton Mather, who, as author, theologian, science-minded neophyte and sometimes political insider, helped to lead the way before the likes of Washington, Franklin, Paine and Jefferson came into the underdeveloped social, religious and political scene. Though often … more
Reintroducing Kenneth Silverman's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of the most celebrated of all New England Puritans, at once a sophisticated work which succeeds admirably in presenting a complete portrait of a complex man and a groundbreaking study that accurately portrays Mather and his contemporaries as the first true American rather than European expatriates.