Friday, March 22, 2013

Book Review: "The Life and Times of Cotton Mather" by Kenneth Silverman

Cotton Mather's life will shame you for a number of reasons.

Kenneth Silverman's biography is out of print, which is both fortunate and unfortunate at the same time. It is fortunate because Silverman writes his bio with all the best psychoanalytical tools at his disposal- which are exactly the kind of tools that rust and crumble as quickly as the next fad comes along. Given that this book was first published in 1984, you can probably well imagine how odd some of the analyses of Mather's psychology sound to someone living in the midst of today's fads. It is as if I were to write about how similar the New England Associations of Ministers are to Facebook. There might be truth to it, and it might even help people understand something true about New England Associations of Ministers, but 30 years from now when Facebook has gone the way of Myspace, that comparison will be jarring to those who remember Facebook and pointless to those who do not.

With that said, it is also unfortunate that this book is out of print, since Silverman is an excellent writer and (the aforementioned weaknesses aside) gives us a picture of Mather that is fascinating and compelling for a number of reasons.

First is the one Silverman saves for last (literally- it shows up on page 426 of 428): Cotton Mather was the first truly North American writer. That is, he was
the first person to write at length about the New World having never seen the Old. Much of his career illustrates, for the first time, the costs and gains to America's intellectual and artistic life of its divorce from Europe. These costs and gains have been one and the same-- a lack of standards or a freedom to create (depending on how it is viewed) which has often inspired works tainted by provincial crabbedness, eccentricity, and overreaching, but also often distinguished by their close kin, pungency, innovation, and grandeur. (426)
Mather wrote not as a transplanted European, but as someone in a new land and a new setting. In this sense, he should be read as a forerunner of all the American writers who would follow. Not that he was necessarily a great writer, just that he was really the first.

More than that, however, Mather is fascinating in that he embodies the world that was changing from one dominated by the Christian narrative to one dominated by the Enlightenment one. What's more, he represented both of those narratives in the same person. Unlike his immediate Christian followers, Mather did not see a problem with the new ideas as articulated by the likes of Newton, Boyle, and the continental enlightenment thinkers. (Of course, it helped that the Enlightenment itself was still in the hands of fairly devout Christians who had not seen the logical conclusions of their new ideas.)

This, I suspect, is what most readers will find most compelling in the book. After two hundred years of rhetoric, we tend to think of Mather as a bigoted, woman-hating witch-hunter who liked nothing more than to torture young women in the name of his angry God. It is surprising to learn that

  1. Mather took a much more moderate stance on the Witch Trials than is commonly believed. While he didn't go as far as his father and actively oppose them, he did call for caution and hesitation rather than quick and summary judgment. 
  2. Mather interpreted demonic possession not through the filter of superstition or fuzzy mysticism, but rather according to the best scientific thought of his day- thought that perhaps most closely parallels modern quantum relativity (according to Silverman, I have little knowledge of such things). That is, Mather believed that all of existence was united in some physical-but-flexible way on the subatomic level. And, well, I'm not sure that I understand it, so take this for what it's worth, but it seems that Mather believed that demonic intelligences could move along this plastic substance uniting observable matter and, under the right conditions and circumstances, affect it--including by taking control of individual's bodies.
    Whether I've managed to explain Mather correctly or not, what matters is that he wasn't making this up himself- he was extrapolating from Newton, Boyle, and the greatest minds of his day. 

The most famous example of this side of Mather's personality is his bold stand on inoculation. Basically the old-timey version of vaccination, the earliest forms of inoculation were dangerous if not done well (which they often weren't), and could still spread the disease even at the hands of an experienced surgeon. Yet Mather was convinced that inoculating the population was truly the best way to prevent future diseases. The rest of Boston was not. Despite Mather's strong arguments in favor of inoculation, the idea of intentionally giving someone a disease quite understandably did not sit will with the denizens of the town. Mather was publicly mocked, insulted as he walked down the street, and even had a grenade (which failed to ignite) thrown through his window with "inoculate this!" written on it.

Again, a generation later and the Enlightenment would be engaged in open warfare with religion. Yet Mather firmly believed that God created the world and Isaac Newton explained how it worked, with no inconsistency at all. In fact, the first systematic work of science in America was published by Mather under the title The Christian Philosopher, in which Newton is resoundingly praised and his system held up as the most Christian way of viewing the world. This from the man who gave us the much more well-known Wonders of the Invisible World (later reprinted as On Witchcraft).

Finally, the most important aspect of Mather's life is of course that he was a devout Christian and faithful pastor at a time when both of those things were increasingly relics of the past. He had been born when the Puritan preacher was the pillar of the community, if not its de facto leader. Through the course of his life, he not only saw the collapse of this social status, he saw increasing scorn for both religion in general and him personally. When this is considered alongside the facts that he outlived two of his three wives and thirteen of his fifteen children (not to mention the crippling debt he shouldered in order to help out a friend), the fact that he got so much done in the name of Christ should be a remarkable rebuke to all of us.

Just a small sampling of the things Mather did with his time (not counting being fluent in Greek and Latin by the age of six, Hebrew by twelve, and attending Harvard at thirteen):

  • Teaching himself Spanish in a few weeks, and then doing the first North American Spanish translation of the Bible.
  • Publishing 450 books- with somewhere between 150 and 200 left unpublished on his death. These books include the famous Magnalia Christi Americana (the first comprehensive history of the American colonies), the aforementioned books on science and witchcraft, and a number of other sermons and texts that provide a wealth of information about the time period. 
  • Getting elected as a Fellow of the British Royal Society AND receiving an honorary Doctorate (I think from the University of Edinburgh, but don't hold me to that).
  • Pastoring (and quite well, by most accounts) the largest church in America. 
  • Helping to found Yale University.
Again, I am convicted of how poorly I use my own time. I mean, 450 books! I've read this biography twice now, and both times have been deeply convicted of how lazy and unmotivated I am, despite having spectacular technology in my hands (even this very moment) that should enable me to do more than anyone in the past, and yet somehow ends up being more of a hindrance than anything...

But I digress. All in all, this is a remarkable biography of a remarkable individual, and really is worth picking up should you come across an affordable used copy. 

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