If we remember the Puritan pastor Cotton Mather at all these days, we’re likely to think of him as a meddling, moralistic hypocrite. To the contemporary mind, Mather (1663–1728) was more concerned about his own reputation for intelligence and piety than about the Salem people killed for “witchcraft” on his watch, or the slaves held in bondage in his hometown of Boston.
But Rick Kennedy challenges this portrayal in his lively new biography, The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather (Eerdmans). Kennedy, a historian from Point Loma Nazarene University, argues that Mather was more socially progressive than his reputation suggests.
Mather knew his share of suffering. Picked on as a child, he stuttered for years—a painful thorn in the flesh for an aspiring preacher. He buried 2 wives and 13 of his 15 children. But he rested on the promises of Scripture, compensating for hardships by edifying others. He undertook pioneering efforts in public education and ministry to prisoners, widows, orphans, slaves, and sailors. His congregation loved him dearly, as Kennedy writes, “for exuberantly modeling a lively relationship with Christ that was grounded in the Bible.” Mather’s Old North Church would remain a beacon of Christian faith and practice long after his death.
Historians often picture Mather as the last of the Puritans, a backward-looking Calvinist who chafed at modern life. In Kennedy’s telling, however, Mather emerges as a forward-looking man of formidable learning, a warm-hearted herald of pure and undefiled religion, and a major catalyst of Britain’s “biblical enlightenment.” By the late 17th century, New England was outgrowing ...1