This year’s Moderator, David Grimsted, continues his exploration of the Puritans: their history and their ideas about God.
Shifting Eternal Truths
Churches often pretend to offer eternal truths; believers tend to think they find them in their faiths. Yet dogmas have to float within the changing currents of their times, often a bit more slowly in churches than elsewhere.
Puritans remained strong defenders of core Christian doctrines, with salvation coming from intense rational-emotive seeking within autonomous Congregational judgement. The core doctrines lasted by reasonable response to the pressures, within and outside the church, between 1650 and 1750.
Changing Membership Policies. Early, the church began withering because of its hereditary and harshly argumentative membership policies. Within a quarter century after Puritan colonization, sharply falling numbers of full church congregants led to the introduction of the “half-way covenant,” and slowly after that to the practice of church-joining by simple public affirmation of faith.
The Congregational system eased these changes. No one denied that local ministers and believers were in charge, so shifts came on the basis largely of local circumstances and needs. There were arguments, but never the crisis of a denominational decision.
Changes in England. Puritans accepted that they were English colonists, so changes in the United Kingdom more quickly changed the church in Massachusetts. With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 making high-church Anglicanism the sole sanctified faith there, Puritanism in New England went unchallenged—except for having to become tolerant of other religions. When Catholic James 2 sought greater control by destroying the colony’s Charter, the Puritans were even forced briefly to share a few church buildings for Anglican services.
This threat ended when James was deposed in 1688. Protestant William and Mary came to power, and soon gave a new royal charter to Massachusetts restoring the colony’s autonomy on a political not religious basis. It now included the always closely aligned Plymouth. In London, Increase Mather fought to restore the old Charter, but the monarchs more sensibly favored the democratic political system. The old faith in the new colony remained dominant, restricted only by the clear need for tolerance to those of differing religions.
In1692 Increase Mather returned home with the new Charter, and the new royal governor, quickly baptized by his son and carefully cultivated by both men. All arrived as fear spread about the Salem Village witches. Both ministers pushed forward that incident, a little gingerly, in support of the “old” Puritanism. Yet they both regularly warned against “spectral evidence,“ although the witch convictions depended centrally on that. Both men retained positions and respect in the church, but their reputations diminished as the Salem Village trials and all witchery was increasingly seen as tragic hysteria.
Changes in the Arts. Cotton Mather, in the some 450 books and pamphlets he wrote, advocated many changes to keep the church modern and vital. He worked to make music broader and better, and architecture more gracefully spiritual, He argued that ministers should tie poetry and art more effectively into their work. In his essays “to do good” he preached responsibilities to make things better for others, personally and socially. He was tolerant of other religions. When male wigs became fashionable in England, he endorsed them from the pulpit. Strong aspects of conservatism always lurked in these progressive causes: ministers should love and use Horace and Virgil, but they should never touch Ovid or stage plays. Yet no one did more to push society along in the ways it was going and growing.
His sprawling great work, Magnalia Christi Americana, is a long and somewhat haphazard history of early New England Puritanism. It is strongest on his excellent descriptions of early leaders like John Winthrop and Plymouth’s William Bradford. Here his classical comparisons and his fondness for quotations in many languages advertise his learning, but precede shrewdly intelligent portraits of these and other men. His long biography of Sir William Phips up-plays religion and downplays the witch scare, but Mather probingly constructed the nation’s first enthusiastic from-poverty-to-prominence narrative.
Changes in Science. Mather’s largest contribution was to tie religion to the period’s popular new path to truth, science. A slave’s testimony and his reading of English and Turkish sources led to his brave support of small pox inoculation in a 1721 Massachusetts outbreak, when most people and doctors condemned the procedure. It was dangerous, this injecting a trace disease. One doctor agreed to use it, and Mather publicized his support. He had some of his children inoculated. He faced communal fury; a bomb was thrown into his home. One Mather child became quite ill, and a few people so treated died of the pox. Procedures improved, although sickness and some deaths always occurred. Cotton Mather’s learning and courage gave us the continent’s first pandemic “vaccine.”
Mather glorified science on all fronts. One hero was Irish-Englishman Robert Boyle, the great exponent of the experimental method and modern chemistry. He and like-minded scientists in the mid-1600s cooperated in what they called “the Invisible College” until they formed London’s Royal Society in 1663, which immediately became the world’s leading scientific organization. Boyle also wrote tolerant Protestant theology, arguing that “God would not have made the universe as it is unless He intended us to understand it.” Mather himself was invited into the Royal Society on the basis of observational papers he wrote on New England’s flora, fauna, weather, seas and sky. In 1703 he published The Christian Philosopher, the first American attempt to use scientific data to prove God’s creation of a benevolently and wisely constructed universe for his human children. It used and borrowed much from Boyle. It also contributed to the later ideas in eighteenth-century America that put “Nature” first and “Nature’s God” second in establishing human truths.
Cotton Mather retained his North Church pastorate throughout his lifetime. He and his father were major religious figures in Boston until both died in the mid-1720s. Yet they increasingly represented the “old guard,” remembered for their support of the 1690s witch trials. Puzzled disappointment marked their later lives. Increase Mather was forced out of the presidency of Harvard in 1701. He was replaced by the Rev. Samuel Willard, who may have written the first attack on the witch trials. Cotton Mather who had long dreamed of taking his father’s place at Harvard was infuriated and saddened. Their feelings were much like that of their father/grandfather, John Cotton: anger that they, in their dream of passing on the original piety, had been bypassed by the more comfortable acceptors of the new. To Cotton Mather, who had written so much encouraging change, it seemed human and perhaps divine injustice.