Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1546
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.
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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, extravagant, and intemperate, scholars such as Barrett Wendell and Lyman Kittredge note his veracity and ability to capture the spirit of his times. He was certainly quite conversant with the languages of the age. Kenneth B. Murdock notes four languages in particular that he masters in the work: the language of the English Renaissance, shown especially in his allusions in their original Latin and Greek to works of classical antiquity; the Old Testament jeremiad, in which he, like the prophets of old, warns that sinful behavior will be punished; typology, in which Old Testament events and persons prefigure New Testament ones; and a rich exegetical dialogue about the book with which he was most familiar, the Bible.
The central theme of Mather’s masterwork concerns divine Providence: the belief that events happen when they do, persons rise to occasions in the manner that they do, and enemies fall as they do because an omnipotent and deeply interested God designed the universe for his own purposes. Puritan historiography is providential, each anecdote illuminating some aspect of God’s eternal will. No incident happens by chance or luck.
Magnalia Christi Americana consists of seven books and a general introduction. The latter imitates the opening of Vergil’s epic Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553), which indicates Mather’s desire to stress the heroism of the Puritans’ errand into the wilderness and to place his story in the literature of the world. His stated intention is to describe the wonders of Christ as revealed in America in the community of a small, chosen band of Puritan wanderers who had left England to settle in the Massachusetts Bay region of America in the seventeenth century. It is a history of evangelical Protestants driven away from the Church of England by powerful, but mistaken, brothers in the faith who departed from a course of reformation meant to restore the church to its original form at the time of Christ and his apostles. To the Puritans of New England, that reformation had not yet been completed. Mather expects his work to be criticized by those who disagree with the Puritan view, but he cheerfully takes on the task as an act of service to Christ’s kingdom.
The first of the seven books treats what Mather calls antiquities. He gives an account of the discovery of America by European explorers, thus providing a context for the eventual settling of Massachusetts and Connecticut by the pilgrims and the Puritans. Book 2 traces the lives of the first governors of these colonies, emphasizing the importance of William Bradford of Plymouth and John Winthrop of Massachusetts Bay but also mentioning other governors, such as Edward Winslow, Simon Bradstreet, and Edward Hopkins. Appended to this section is a long, previously published account of “The Life of Phips,” the most recent governor of Massachusetts Bay and a parishioner of Cotton and Increase Mather in their Boston church.
Book 3 focuses on the ministers who guided the faith of the New Englanders. According to Levy, some seventy-seven of these divines were graduates of Cambridge and Oxford and were practicing in England before coming to America. Dozens followed them. The measure that Mather uses for these ministers’ greatness is ethical significance. As with the governors, these pastors follow a similar pattern of sainthood, according to David Levin. Although they struggled with doubt and uncertainty, all glorified God and instructed posterity by their example.
Book 4 notes the early and essential role Harvard College played in developing new spiritual leaders in the colonies. Mather’s father was president of the college, and several of his commencement addresses (in Latin) are included in the Magnalia Christi Americana. Later in his life, Mather would be disappointed that he himself was not to be appointed to the college’s presidency. He did attend the school, however, beginning at the age of twelve. This book sketches nine ministers’ lives, all earning Harvard degrees. Book 5 is a discussion of the congregational churches in New England and the synods in which representatives of individual congregations agreed on organizational structure, membership requirements, and other matters of the church polity.
Book 6 concerns what Mather calls wonderful providences that illustrate God’s hand at work in New England. Among the examples cited are rewards of the worthy and punishments of the sinful. Some examples recount deliverance from storms at sea, a frequent source of anxiety for the colonists who depended on ships to bring their loved ones and supplies; other examples involve remarkable conversions, including those of Native Americans. Mather also cites instances of witchcraft and demon possession. All these events have a supernatural aura that challenges the rationality and skepticism of the times.
The final book of the Magnalia Christi Americana describes various tribulations, from Indian wars to heretics in the church to political problems with England’s governance of the colony. Each problem, to Mather’s way of thinking, is ultimately the result of sinfulness among the colonists themselves, which causes God to punish them. He includes his own jeremiad on the subject, which warns of further retribution if the colony does not reform itself.
Sacvan Bercovitch argues that the apocalyptic nature of the Magnalia Christi Americana establishes very early on in American history a corporate American identity. It is one of the first prophetic books in American literature, and may be less significant as history than as myth and archetype. Mather’s treating America as exceptional in both its creation and central role in world history has greatly influenced American thought, including the ideas of such literary figures as Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Magnalia Christi Americana set an important standard by which Americans came to identify themselves.