Sweeney’s Booknotes: First American Evangelical

Rick Kennedy, The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather, Library of Religious Biography (Eerdmans, 2015)

CottonMatherIn one of my recent entries, I referred to three learned scholarly monographs on Mather written by members of the editorial team slogging away on Mather’s biblical magnum opus, Biblia Americana: America’s First Bible Commentary, a Synoptic Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, 10 vols. (Mohr Siebeck and Baker Academic).

The first of those three monographs has made it into print.

The following booknote, refashioned and abbreviated for posting on ChristianityToday.com, may prove useful to students of Edwards as well.

Cotton Mather (1663-1728) is widely “known” as a moralistic hypocrite, a meddler more concerned about his own reputation for intelligence and piety than the people killed for “witchcraft” in Salem on his watch or the slaves held in bondage in his hometown of Boston.

But as Rick Kennedy argues in this lively new biography, Mather was much more noble, even socially progressive, than his reputation suggests.

He knew his share of real suffering. Picked on as a child, he would stutter for years to come—a painful thorn in the flesh for one who wanted to be a preacher. He buried two wives and thirteen of fifteen children. But his faith rarely wavered. He rested on the promises of God made in Scripture, compensating for hardships by edifying others. He led in public education, outreach to Native Americans, and ministry to prisoners, widows, orphans, slaves, and sailors. His congregation loved him dearly “for exuberantly modeling a lively relationship with Christ that was grounded in the Bible.” Mather’s Old North Church, in fact, would shine as a beacon of vital Christian faith and practice long after its famous minister and role model died.

Mather is most often pictured as the last of the Puritans, a backward-looking Calvinist who chafed at modern life. But Kennedy portrays him as the first evangelical, a forward-looking polymath, warm-hearted herald of pure and undefiled religion, and doyen of what he calls Britain’s “biblical enlightenment.” By the late seventeenth century, New England outgrew its narrow Puritan identity. It became more ecumenical and shared in what was known as Great Britain’s “Protestant interest” vis-à-vis the Catholic French. Mather joined in this transition, forging partnerships with a wide range of European Protestants. But he worried about the spiritually tepid, covetous conformity that all-too-often shadowed its cosmopolitan ambitions, promoting what he liked to call the “evangelical interest,” an “all day long faith” that transcended the “Protestant interest” and could take one “to the . . . top of Christianity.”

Kennedy clearly loves Mather, which is a breath of fresh air in a day and age when Christian scholars usually treat their kin with an air of superiority and more than a hint of irony. It seems a stretch to me to trace the history of the modern American evangelical movement to the work of one man (as Kennedy does repeatedly), but not to remind readers of the movement’s cultivation in the greenhouse of Puritanism and continental Pietism (which Kennedy points out well). It seems ill-advised today to gloss over Mather’s complicity in the persecution of “witches” and the enslavement of Africans (as Kennedy sometimes does), but not to remind readers that Mather urged great caution among the civic leaders at Salem, called for loving, personal ministry to those accused of witchcraft, spoke out against the slave trade, and eventually permitted his own slave to buy his freedom (which Kennedy notes well). Kennedy’s handling of his subject, in short, shields our view of Mather’s most notorious personal failings. But it also serves to rectify his subject’s reputation. Mather has languished for so long in the pillory of late modern moral indignation that we’ve lost sight of the things that he can teach us about ourselves and our own moral struggles.

This book is fun to read. I hope it gains a wide hearing. It offers readers a better feel for Mather’s vibrant, quirky, learned, evangelical spirituality than any book before. It is full of Christian wisdom. Indeed, it shows us what we can learn from Christian leaders of the past when we humble ourselves and heed them not as spotless moral saints, but as humans—just like us—who sought to do the best they could with the gifts that they received.

I highly recommend Kennedy’s interview with Eerdmans about Mather and the book filmed aboard Rick’s boat (a boat on which I myself have sailed or, rather, sat while Rick sailed my wife and me around the San Diego Bay—what a delight). Rick may be the coolest historian I know!