The First American Evangelical image

The First American Evangelical

Recently a colleague asked me to recommend some good biographies for him to read. I found this a harder request to respond to than it should have been.

Twenty years ago I read a lot of Christian biography but in more recent years have read far less. In part, this is because so much of what I was reading twenty years ago (like so many Christian books) was very poorly written – and no matter how inspiring the subject might be, I lost the will to plough through badly written books. As a matter of course I will recommend Dallimore’s Whitefield (which had a transformative effect on me when I read it more than two decades ago) and Spurgeon’s biography (similarly transformative). Both of these are two thick volumes each though, and I know the reality is that their sheer bulk will be off-putting to many people.

So it was a real delight to pick up a copy of Rick Kennedy’s Short Life of Cotton Mather. This is a tremendously written biography, lucid and insightful – and inspiring. Mather (1663-1728) was an extraordinary man in an extraordinary age. The product of the union of two great Puritan families of New England, the Mathers and the Cottons, Cotton Mather was a towering figure. From the perspective of our own post-modern context Mather’s position at the beginning of modernity is illuminating – the parallels and lessons are abundant – as he embraced science, but clung to supernaturalism, emphasised personal liberty but had to tread carefully to avoid provoking authoritarian government. 

First and foremost, Mather was a pastor. He enjoyed tremendous success in this, with a large congregation and wide respect, but also experienced periods of slander and church division. He was diligent and creative in setting up small groups across Boston to meet different needs and serve different constituencies. His home was a centre of ministry, bustling with visitors and housing his extensive library. He was an educationalist, key in securing the future of what was at that time a very small and vulnerable Harvard College. He taught his daughters to read Greek, Latin and Hebrew. He was a pioneer in inoculating against smallpox – something that was highly controversial, and at one point even led to a bomb being thrown into his study.

One of the things that shines through most clearly in this biography is Mather’s enjoyment of God. Mather prayed constantly and believed that “Delight should be the character of the bond between creator and creature,” and that, “The fear of God is a pursuit of long-term, ultimate happiness…All day long the evangelical Christian should be promoting happiness in others.”

This happiness in God was tested by the reality of suffering. Mather experienced financial difficulties and near bankruptcy. He knew the pressures of pastoral ministry. He was denied the presidency of Harvard. And of his fifteen children, thirteen predeceased him. He was widowed twice. In one measles epidemic his wife, three children, and a servant all died in the space of a month. But Mather held onto joy,

Cotton Mather never thought to himself, “God wouldn’t do that”; he never responded to human suffering by asking why God had not stepped in to rectify the situation; Cotton never tried to protect God from responsibility for everything; and he never assured the mother of a suffering baby that a loving God would not do this to a baby. God was not trapped by a logic that said contraries – human freedom and divine sovereignty – could not exist at the same time in the same situation.

If the name of Cotton Mather is known for anything today it is most likely to be in connection with the Salem witch trials and his supposedly reprehensible role in this. Kennedy, however, shows that the reality was very different, with Mather having only a peripheral involvement in the trials, and exercising a very humane approach to those thought to be possessed by demons. He really did believe in miracles, and spiritual phenomena, and pushed back against the ‘moderate Protestantism’ beginning to take hold in New England. In many ways he seems the ideal embodiment of the ‘reformed charismatic’, 300 years before anyone thought to put those two terms together.

Kennedy describes how Mather’s approach to life and ministry set the pattern for American evangelicalism, “Most particularly an openness to the winds of the Holy Spirit, the experience of answered prayer, a biblical focus on Jesus as savior in and through history, and a readiness to judge, negatively or positively, the spiritual temperature of a pastor or church.” This is the kind of evangelicalism that anticipates revival, but also embraces the disciplines of scholarship, and engages in social transformation. It is the kind of evangelicalism I want to be part of, and Kennedy’s life of Cotton Mather is an inspiring guide to what it looks like.

If, like my colleague, you’re searching for a good Christian biography, this is one I would definitely recommend.


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