The Guilt-Heavy Theology of Cotton Mather

Rachel S. Stahle
Friday, August 3rd 2007
Nov/Dec 1997

Suffering and death have evoked wails and questions of "Why?" in every age since Job. One need only scan the pages of today's newspapers or watch the nightly news to witness crushing pain and turmoil. Whether the distress is a result of human brutality or nature's cruelty, the outrage and sense of tragedy we feel leads us to consider once again the role of God in our riddle-filled existence.

Cotton Mather's generation at the dawn of the eighteenth century was certainly no different. New England's intimate acquaintance with affliction came in part through human agency, as in the military exploits undertaken by the British and French, and in the "Indian" raids which culminated in King Philip's War, which killed proportionately more than would any subsequent American war. (1) Indeed, during that particular conflict, towns were so completely devastated that they were often abandoned, if there were even survivors, and never rebuilt. (2)

But equally devastating were "acts of nature": earthquakes; ten tremendous fires which consumed hundreds of structures each; famine and drought; a flood which decimated the Boston Harbor region; and, most significantly, four smallpox plagues. During the smallpox epidemic of 1677-78, about twenty percent of Boston's population of 11,000 perished. "In but one day, on September 30, 1677, thirty people had died … the proportional equivalent of more than sixty thousand New Yorkers today." (3) During another epidemic in 1722, Mather wrote, "The distemper has lately visited and ransacked the city of Boston, and in little more than half a year, of more than five thousand persons that have undergone it, near nine hundred have died." (4) No doubt Mather and his contemporaries, in the American colonies and in Europe, endured suffering on a scale no longer seen in the West.

Children were especially vulnerable. (5) We can assume based on extant documents and family burial grounds that the infant mortality rate was quite high, though formal records for infants were not kept. "From the moment they were old enough to pay attention children were repeatedly instructed regarding the precariousness of their existence." (6) Instead of being a "guilt trip" or a ploy to trick children into religious conversion, this practice reflected the simple truth that many children never saw adulthood. Mather himself was no stranger to suffering and death in this regard. Of his fourteen children, seven died soon after birth, one died aged two years, and five others died in their twenties. Only Samuel survived his father. Apart from infant deaths, nearly all Mather's losses came due to smallpox; after his first wife Abigail died of it in 1702, he cried nearly every day to the extent that he "feared his eyes were thus being weakened." (7)

Given this historical background, it remains for us to see how Mather explained such suffering, what theological framework he constructed for himself and his congregation who encountered such dreadful circumstances. Mather's theology began with sin. He regarded sin as not only a personal rejection of the one true, holy God, but as a breach of divine contract as well. Sin offended the covenanting God who brought the Nonconformists from England to this land of milk and honey, the New Israel. (8)

Mather saw in his era a rebelliousness, an ungratefulness to God, which reflected a failure on Boston's part to give a proper answer to all she had been given from heaven. He was not shy in condemning the decay around him. "Ale-Houses are Hell-Houses!" is a typical example of his candor. (9) In his sermon "Advice from the Watch Tower," he mentions "A Black List of some EVIL CUSTOMES," including frolicking on the Lord's Day evenings, games such as cards and dice, lack of sobriety at weddings, and the irreverent imitation of baptism in the "christenings" of boats and ships. (10) He continues, "It is to be fear'd, that because of Swearing, the Land may mourn" due to impending judgment from God. (11) He complains about betting on horses, usury, and people who "Run into Debt when they have no Rational prospect of getting out …." (12) And "To Sleep in the Publick Worship of God, is a thing too frequently and easily Practised, by very many People …." (13) Modern sensibilities may find his objections to these behaviors quaint or hypersensitive, but the Puritans' respect and diligent concern for holy living puts our era, and even many Christians, to shame.

Mather's most common complaints condemn the consumption of excessive amounts of alcohol, "the Liquor of Death in the Bottel"; (14) the importation, bondage, and failure to evangelize and educate the "Ethiopians"; (15) and, above all others, neglecting to observe the Sabbath. In a sermon he preached during a terrible storm which flooded many sections of Boston, he stated, "LET the Distraction which this Day makes the LORD'S DAY a Day of so little Rest unto us, cause us to Examine how poorly we have Sabbatized at other times." (16) As would be expected, he appeals to Scripture for the foundation of his all-important doctrine of Sabbatarianism:

I fear, I fear there are many among us, to whom it may be said, Ye bring wrath upon Boston, by prophaning the Sabbath. And what Wrath? Ah, Lord, prevent it! But there is an awful Sentence in Jer. 17.27. If ye will not hearken unto me, to sanctifie the Sabbath Day, then will I kindle a Fire on the Town, and it shall Devour, and shall not be Quenched. (17)

Regardless of whether one agrees with Mather's Sabbatarianism, clearly he joins other Puritans in emphasizing the cause/effect framework of sin and its consequences. Mather is keenly aware of the social deterioration which results from a relaxed sense of morality. Whether this laxity was manifest in Boston by swearing, sleeping, or neglecting the Sabbath, he was diligent to have his city, what remained of the "New Jerusalem," obey the commands of God. In all the various ways Boston strayed from the narrow path, Mather saw either impending or fulfilled divine retribution.

Smallpox was to him "one of those New Scourges whereof there are Several, which the Holy and Righteous God has inflicted on a Sinful World." (18) The great fire of October 1711 was another case of judgment: "sirs, Our God has come, and has not kept Silence, when the Fire Devoured before Him … My Sermon is but a Repetition …." (19) And using the earthquake which occurred in Jamaica on August 4, 1692, as a warning against Boston's "Dangerous Transgressions," he prophesies, "Ah, Boston, beware, beware, lest the Sins of Sodom get footing in thee! … If you know of any Scandalous Disorders in the Town, do all you can to suppress them, and redress them …. But beware, I beseech you, of those provoking Evils that may expose us to a Plague …." (20) So discouraged and repulsed was Mather that he wrote on January 5, 1723, that New England "is indeed become so distempered and so degenerate, that I am often under Elias's juniper; yea, often sighing, woe is me that I sojourn in Boston, and that I dwell in the tents of New England!" (21)

Mather's discouragement was not without its recourse. Though it is easy to suppose from his sermons that he had given up hope for Boston's spiritual renewal, he does to some extent present the Gospel message, the hope of salvation in Christ, in every sermon. His preaching on personal affliction took two forms: either judgment or salvation in Christ for the unregenerate, and the possibility of sanctification for suffering believers.

Affliction upon the Unregenerate

Mather's preaching to unbelievers stressed two themes: the imperative necessity for sincere repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, and the severe consequences of rejecting the Gospel call. But his preaching greatly emphasized the latter theme. Suffering was a wake-up call for conversion, a punishment for sin, and-should the sinner choose to continue to sleep in his depravity-grounds for him to be condemned to hell. Mather used this threatening picture of hell, not love for Christ, as the central motivational factor for belief. The preacher does not call sinners to devotion and obedience through recognition and adoration of Christ's holiness and goodness, as much as frighten them by threats of horrible eternal suffering. (22)

One might suppose that Mather avoided positive preaching because of his view of depravity. After all, a sinner must become aware of his sin before he sees his need for redemption. But while Mather is generally consistent with Calvinism's views of depravity, he slights its stance on mercy and grace. The God who has kindly condescended to elect and redeem sinners through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ is overshadowed by Mather's unbalanced portrayal of a grim God of judgment. His error was emphasizing hellish torment, while neglecting the hope found in God's mercy and grace. (23)

Addressing sufferers of smallpox, he writes, "There is a Poison Within thee, the Poison of an Evil Heart which departs from the Living God …. All the nasty Pustules which now fill thy Skin, are but Little Emblems of the Errors which thy Life has been filled Withal." (24) In his mother's funeral sermon, he states, "Truly, Sinners have the Wrath of God abiding on them, and … are serving diverse Lusts, and … are held by Satan in the Chains of Death, [and] are in the way that leads down to a Devouring Fire, and Everlasting Burnings…." (25) And finally, he describes the unsaved soul as "A Soul that sees GOD Angry with it, Hell gaping for it, the Devils ready to seize upon it; and a Devouring Fire and Everlasting Burnings assign'd unto it; surely such a Soul is in an Horrible Tempest!" (26) Though the doctrine of hell is theologically proper within Calvinism, the harshness Mather uses, at the expense of proclaiming the mercy and grace which answer God's perfect justice, is not.

Affliction upon the Regenerate

Mather's preaching to Christians was often inspiring and thoughtful, but it was also deeply theologically flawed. He believed that believers' suffering fell into one of three theological categories. Sometimes believers suffer simply because they are Christians. Other times, they may suffer blamelessly, just because they exist in a fallen world. Lastly they may suffer because of their own sins, falling away from the narrow path by developing evil habits. (27)

The practical difficulty lies in how to distinguish among these options. A smallpox sufferer could receive any of these responses from Mather. "Child of GOD, Thy Humiliations are only to Do thee Good in the Latter End!" (28) Or, "A Languishing Body and a Prospering Soul may dwell together … [T]he Prosperity found in the Soul of this Excellent Man, might be very much owing to his feeble and crazy constitution." (29) He might remind the sufferer that Christ, the one who suffered and died on a cross, does not promise his followers earthly prosperity. Rather, "The People among whom the Covenant of the Gospel is most adher'd unto, see much more Temporal Adversity, than many People who pay very little Regard unto it." (30) To one dying he might say, "When you feel yoursel[f] brought by Him to the Brink of the Grave, you may hear Him saying unto you, Do not fear to go down, I will surely bring thee up again." (31)

But Mather might also suspect sickness brought on by a lack of piety. He states, "Upon the occasion of SICKNESS on myself, I sett myself to consider PIETY, and the Effects of it, under the Notion of An HEALED SOUL." (32) He could continue, "What are Sicknesses, but the Rods, wherewith GOD corrects His own offending Children?" (33) And since "Tis possible, that a Godly person may be unawares overtaken with an Evil Custome," I must take pause about how well I have been serving the Lord. (34) He might conclude, "Yea, O Christian, Lett all thy Pains be so many Spurs, to quicken thy Pace in the Race of Christianity: And Lett them hasten thee into those Dispositions of PIETY, which will be rich Compensations for all that thou mayst Suffer from them." (35) Indeed, piety is the best remedy, for "The Rational Soul in its Reflections has Powerful and Wonderful Influences on the Nishmath-Chajim." (36)

How then can one determine which of Mather's explanations for suffering applies? One can only speculate what the pastoral implications were for it in his congregation. His answer was self-examination. "There is a Self-examination incumbent upon All Men: Upon Sick Men it is peculiarly incumbent." (37) And the suffering one must not only examine himself for sin, but must go so far as to question the legitimacy of his faith. Mather states, "Ah, my Afflicted Neighbour, Thou art yet in thy Sins … Divine Patience is affronted in it, when Afflicted People prove Incorrigible." (38) Mather tells the smallpox patient to pursue "self-Abhorrence, and Self-Abasement." (39) If self-examination reveals an evil custom, he responds, "Oh! Be sensible of the Evil that is in it. Confess it, Bewayl it, Bitterly mourn for it before the Lord." (40)

Such views betray a doctrine of grace inconsistent with Mather's professed Calvinism. Compare Mather and Calvin on the matter of weakness of faith. For Mather, suffering should lead to self-examination, and then ultimately to a subjective evaluation of the sufficiency of one's faith. For Calvin, weakness of faith is the Christian experience. As such, God invites us to his objective table; giving us the Sacrament, "by which the Lord seals on our consciences the promises of his good will toward us in order to sustain the weakness of our faith…." (41)

His instruction for self-examination can be biblically supported as a healthy sign of spiritual awareness and sensitivity. (42) But when applied as a litmus test for "sufficiency" of faith, it logically requires that every ache and pain could be a divine punishment. Where is God's grace in Mather's theology to assure the sick that their sins have been cast as far away as the east is from the west? Mather's subjective measure for piety is inconsistent with Calvinism's emphasis upon the objective Word. Mather is correct in observing that godly people will suffer in this world, just as Christ and Paul and Job did. But in purporting this concept of self-examination, he is guilty of every error for which Job's friends were rebuked.

The Conclusion and Beginning of Suffering

Implicit in every aspect of Mather's theology of suffering and death is the assumption of a climactic end to history in the Second Coming of Christ and Judgment Day. Only in heaven or hell will body and soul be established in their eternal state, whether that be utterly pure of disease or utterly corrupted. Only in heaven or hell, Mather's "Invisible World," will the body and soul enjoy the eternal fellowship of the Kingdom of God in His Presence, or endure eternal, just torment in a state of banishment from all goodness and pleasure. Only in heaven will a perfect corporate ethic exist, and thrive. Yet in hell, corporate existence will be as fragmented as the broken souls of its inhabitants. Mather warns, "Souls, Get into Good Terms with your Great SAVIOUR. In the Invisible World, on the edges whereof you ever stand, and at the approaching Death which will transmit you into it, you will see the marvellous Consequences." (43)

Mather achieved terrific success in convincing his audience of its guilt, its terrible need for deliverance. But his success came at the expense of a distorted view of God. Speaking from the perspective of an unrepentant sinner, Mather writes, "The Terrible God, at whose Rebuke the Everlasting Rocks are tumbled down, … is such an Adversary to me, that if I do not agree quickly with Him, never ceasing Tormentors [demons] will take me into their unpitying hands." (44) And referring to God's "dreadful rumbling Thunderclaps" in John 3:36, he states, "And many more such Threats and Menaces does He roar out of Sion with, wherein the smoke of the Fire and Brimstone reserved in a hot Hell for the Portion of Unbelievers is blown under the Nostrils of men." (45) Listeners were left in the midst of their suffering, facing death, with Mather's distant, unapproachable "King of Terrors" for a God. (46)

Mather didn't always leave his audience in a thoroughly bleak condition; occasionally he reminds them that only Christ is able to deliver them from their horrid condition. For the Christian, "There is no Dying, but an Entring into Everlasting Life." (47) But by and large, Mather's works are dominated by images of "the Day of the Lord that shall burn like an Oven." (48) When in 1727 scores died in a barn fire in "Cambridge-shire," rather than comforting his fellow Bostonians and mourning their loss, he wrote, "Why may not the Hundred and Eighteen that perished … be shown unto the World, as a Type, of what shall be done to many Millions, in the CONFLAGRATION, which is to come… ?" (49)

Chiefly because of suffering's inexorable ties to sin in Mather's theology, we see a raging, fiery God whose gentleness and compassion for humanity are generally absent. Mather's God seems more about the business of torturing unbelievers and punishing his children, than demonstrating his glory through the redemption of his elect and the efficacy of their sanctification. Time and time again he highlights God's fury, instead of celebrating God's majesty and grandeur in his redeeming anyone at all. Surely Cotton Mather understood God's holiness, and how dreadfully offensive human transgressions are to the Lord of the Universe. But he failed to convey to his audience a counter-balancing understanding of God's might-the might which mercifully claims hearts for his own service through the enduring power of love. It is love which Mather's God lacks: love for the people whom he has created and preserved, redeemed and sanctified, all for his good pleasure.

1 [ Back ] David E. Stannard, The Puritan Way of Death (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977), 61.
2 [ Back ] Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana, Books I and II, Kenneth B. Murdock, ed. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard Univ. Press, 1977), 178.
3 [ Back ] Stannard, 61.
4 [ Back ] Cotton Mather, letter to Hans Sloane, March 10, 1722, in Selected Letters of Cotton Mather, Kenneth Silverman, ed. (Baton Rouge: LA State Univ. Press, 1971), 347.
5 [ Back ] For a detailed exposition, see Peter Gregg Slater's Children in the New England Mind: In Death and in Life (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1977).
6 [ Back ] Stannard, 65.
7 [ Back ] Cotton Mather, Diary I, 457, quoted in David Levin, Cotton Mather (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1978), 307. Mather's second wife was lost to smallpox as well. Both Mather and his third wife suffered through their marriage, as she struggled with mental illness.
8 [ Back ] For more on the centrality of the concept of covenant to American Puritans, see Puritan New England: Essays on Religion, Society, and Culture, Alden T. Vaughan and Francis J. Bremer, eds. (New York: St. Martins Press, 1977), and Harry Stout's The New England Soul (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986).
9 [ Back ] Ibid., 192.
10 [ Back ] Mather, "Advice from the Watch Tower," 206-209.
11 [ Back ] Ibid., 205.
12 [ Back ] Ibid., 210.
13 [ Back ] Idem. On the same page, he also pleads, "...that it might grow more fashionable for People of all Ranks, to do the Charitable Action of Waking one another, where they see Drowsiness prevailing, and not say, Am I my Brothers Keeper...."
14 [ Back ] Ibid., 201; see also 213.
15 [ Back ] Ibid., 203. In miscellaneous sermon notes from June 1723, he writes, "...there can be nothing more seasonable and reasonable than for us to consider, whether our conduct with relation to our African slaves be not one thing for which our God may have a controversy with us," in Selected Letters, 368.
16 [ Back ] Cotton Mather, "The Voice of God in a Tempest" (Boston, 1723), in Days of Humiliation, 277.
17 [ Back ] Mather, Magnalia, 193.
18 [ Back ] Mather, Angel, 93. On 94, he continues that smallpox was a "Sharp" and "New Rebuke" for a "Sinful Generation...Tis because ye Revolt more and more!" In a letter to Dr. James Jurin dated May 21, 1723, he describes smallpox: "The apprehensions of dying a very terrible death, after a burning for many days, in as painful, as loathsome a malady, or at best of having many weary nights roll away under the uneasy circumstances of loins filled with a loathsome disease, and recovering with boils, and scars, and wounds, not quickly to be forgotten, hold the children of men in the terrors of death, until the fiery trial be over with them." From Selected Letters, 360.

This view of smallpox as a scourge inflicted on sinners is especially interesting because Mather led a campaign for decades to administer the new treatment of innoculation to Bostonians. Robert Middlekauff in The Mathers (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1971) notes that his adversaries accused him of contradicting his own theology by obstructing divine judgment (356). He responded in Angel that innoculation is "a New and Right Method" given by God as an "Instrument of Saving" (98). He does not explain, though, why God would concurrently utilize instruments of judgment and preservation.
19 [ Back ] Mather, "Advice from Taberah," 143.
20 [ Back ] Mather, Magnalia, 191.
21 [ Back ] Mather, from a letter probably to John Stirling, January 5, 1723, in Selected Letters, 357.
22 [ Back ] Space restrictions prohibit a full exposition of his concept of hell, what he preferred to call "The Invisible World." For representative treatments, see "The Call of the Gospel," especially 71-79; "Hades Look'd into," 99-137; and "Boanerges," 374-380, in Days of Humiliation.
23 [ Back ] Mather rarely engages in significant discussions of grace, describing only God's use of affliction as an instrument of mercy, the "Flagellum Dei," as in Angel, 5. His silence may be telling. But also important are hints that Mather's view of grace was defective, from the Calvinist perspective, because he intimates that grace follows repentance. In one such example, he encourages a sinner to repent, then writes that doing so will yield "a wonderful Display of Sovereign Grace" (Angel, 119). See also "Advice from the Watch Tower," 198, where grace succeeds repentance. An undeveloped and weak view of grace would certainly impact his preaching on hell, as I have suspected.
24 [ Back ] Angel, 96. This passage is especially incredible given his family situation and the suffering he observed, as noted above. He also writes, "You are sensible that it has been a time of much calamity in this town, and that I, whom [sic] am far from being the least sinner in the place, have not been the least sufferer in the calamity," in a letter to George Corwyn, December 22, 1713, in Selected Letters, 145.
25 [ Back ] Cotton Mather, "Maternal Consolations" (Boston, 1714), in New England Funeral Sermons, Ronald A. Bosco, ed. (Delmar, NY: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1978), 73.
26 [ Back ] Mather, "The Voice of God in a Tempest," 272.
27 [ Back ] Unfortunately, Mather nowhere explores the tie, if any, between the corporate sin and judgment previously discussed and the individual spiritual states of society's members. Why would a blameless Christian suffer the discipline of God for the wrongs of the greater society? If society as a whole is morally corrupt, can a Christian be blameless?
28 [ Back ] Mather, "The Voice of God in a Tempest," 272.
29 [ Back ] Mather, Angel, 11.
30 [ Back ] Cotton Mather, in Parentator, quoted in Levin, 106. See also "Right Thoughts" (London, 1689), quoted in Levin, 138.
31 [ Back ] Mather, "Hades Look'd into," 128. One of Mather's best discussions of death per se occurs in this article, which emphasizes God's authority over the circumstances of human death, and destiny thereafter. For a general discussion, see Gordon E. Geddes' Welcome Joy: Death in Puritan New England (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1981).
32 [ Back ] Mather, Angel, 20.
33 [ Back ] Ibid., 6.
34 [ Back ] Mather, "Advice from the Watch Tower," 196.
35 [ Back ] Mather, Angel, 55.
36 [ Back ] Ibid., 37. Chiefly in The Angel of Bethesda, Mather describes the rational soul as the domain of the juncture of God with man, that place in which the Holy Spirit dwells in the regenerate, and in which vacuous spiritual darkness prevails in the unregenerate. But Mather takes another step beyond the rational soul by proposing the Nishmath-Chajim, a principle which serves as a mediator, the "Middle Nature," between rational soul and body (28). The Nishmath-Chajim is a God-given principle, comparable to instinct in animals, which animates both rational soul and body, enabling them to function as a unit (32). But it is more than an abstraction or a spirit; it consists of substantive particles, much like a ray of light. "But by what Principle the Particles of it, which may be finer than those of the Light itself, are kept in their Cohoesion to one another, is a Thing yett unknown unto us" (30).

Mather's notion of the Nishmath-Chajim is as nebulous as the substance itself, for though he uses the term elsewhere, he never fully develops it and merely toys with its implications for the remainder of his theology. This neglect is especially unfortunate because much of his perspective on suffering and death hinges on his assumption that the Nishmath-Chajim plays an integral role in human affliction. The Nishmath-Chajim, just as with the rational soul and body, is transmitted from parent to child in the Traducian fashion. But it is through the Nishmath-Chajim that original sin also is transmitted; consequently, the Nishmath-Chajim is the seat and source of disease (33). Mather writes, "The Soul and the Body constitute One Person; and the Body is unto the Soul, the Instrument of Iniquity. Hence for the Sins of the one, there come Sufferings on the other" (7). All the while, however, the Nishmath-Chajim is the mediator in this destructive process, being the "Medium of Communication, by which they work upon One another" (28). The dynamic existence of original and customary sin in the Nishmath-Chajim is the root of human affliction, which in turn serves as the "Flagellum Dei pro peccatis Mund" (5).
37 [ Back ] Ibid., 7.
38 [ Back ] Mather, "Advice from Taberah," 148-149.
39 [ Back ] Mather, Angel, 96.
40 [ Back ] Mather, "Advice from the Watch Tower," 197.
41 [ Back ] Institutes, 4.14.1.
42 [ Back ] For example, 1 Cor. 11:27-32, and 2 Cor. 13:5-9.
43 [ Back ] Mather, "Hades Look'd into," 124.
44 [ Back ] Mather, "The Call of the Gospel," 66.
45 [ Back ] Ibid., 53. The passage reads, "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him" (NIV).
46 [ Back ] Mather, "The Call of the Gospel," 42.
47 [ Back ] Mather, Angel, 322.
48 [ Back ] Mather, "Boanerges," 379.
49 [ Back ] Ibid., 380.
Friday, August 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology