The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in and around Boston believed they had been called to the New World to fulfill God’s Providence. They were part of the Protestant Reformation, which they considered the most significant period of history since Christ himself walked the earth and one that would hasten the millennium.
For some twenty-five years before the publication of Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana, there had been, according to Kenneth Silverman, calls for someone to document the history of the New England colony. Many felt that Mather’s father, Increase, was in the best position to write such a magisterial work. Thus, Cotton, being not only Increase’s son but also the grandson of two other essential contributors to the Puritan settlement of America—John Cotton and Richard Mather—felt it his familial duty to take responsibility for this monumental ecclesiastical history.
In the estimation of Silverman, the book was begun in 1693 and was compiled from diaries, Increase’s correspondence, and manuscript histories of New England by William Bradford and William Hubbard. Mather and his father also were acquainted with survivors of the first generation of settlers, or their families. Although Mather had interviewed many of them, he wanted even more information. In 1700, the manuscript of the book was sent to England for publication. After many delays and discouragements, Mather learned that it had been published in 1702. He was dismayed, however, to find that the publisher had made some three hundred typographical errors in the text.
According to Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson, the book’s Latin title means “great achievements of Christ in America.” The phrase originates from a Latin translation from the Greek of the book of Acts 2:11 that uses the phrase “magnalia dei,” or “wonderful works of God.” The title also might have derived from Magnalia Dei Anglicana by John Vicar, published in London in 1646. In any event, Mather’s title reflects the purpose of the book, which is to celebrate the marvelous works of Christ in the New World, particularly the rise of a Reformed Evangelical Church forced to leave a flawed Old World to practice Christianity as it was intended, and a church intended to serve as “a city on a hill,” in John Winthrop’s words, for the rest of the world to emulate. More immediately, Mather hoped to reinvigorate what he perceived as a flagging enthusiasm in his—the third—generation of New Englanders by citing the pure beliefs and heroic actions of the Puritan ancestors.
The collection of historical sketches and documents, including sermons, biographies, and historical narratives, spans eight hundred folio pages in double columns. Babette M. Levy points out that Mather includes seventeen of his previously published works, including a long biographical sketch of Sir William Phips, one of the later governors of Massachusetts. This sketch is out of proportion to the other biographies (including those of more significant people) in book 2. Such additions give the sense of a miscellany of history rather than a seamless historical narrative.
Critics have complained that the book is sprawling, heavily allusive, and pedantic. Mather’s writing style has been called artificial, turgid, fantastic, and overloaded, full of dense jungles of quotation, analogy, and other embellishments. The word “baroque” best describes an artistry that is highly ornamental, elaborate in verbal usages, and crowded with figures of speech. Many of the devices Mather employs, such as repetition, puns, paradoxes, anagrams, and other wordplay, are probably ones he found effective in the pulpit.
Although Mather was attacked as ostentatious, idiosyncratic,...
(The entire section is 1546 words.)