Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Cotton Mather’s MAGNALIA CHRISTI AMERICANA; OR THE ECCLESIASTICAL HISTORY OF NEW ENGLAND FROM ITS FIRST PLANTING, IN THE YEAR 1620, UNTO THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 1698 is commonly referred to, and dismissed, as a fairly authoritative and substantial picture of the Puritan theocracy in New England. It is a history of Puritanism in the New World and much of it is true; but it is the product of a dogmatic, neurotic, tyrannical clergyman who failed to discriminate between facts and legends, the laws and the superstitions, of the early colonial period. Mather gives as much prominence and weight to accounts of witches and repentant criminals as he does to the biographies of church leaders, and the entire history is conditioned by the belief that God’s will was done in early New England.

If the book is taken not as a history but as an impassioned product of the Puritan character in all of its dedication and its blindness, the experience of reading the book becomes a time-experiment by which one can gaze into the working of a mind three hundred years removed from our own. Great writers do not allow such strange, backward glimpses; their comments have a timelessness that makes their minds contemporary. But Mather is no great writer, and when he speaks he reveals himself as his times made him: pedantic, intemperate, and superstitious, yet an educated, religious man. From such personalities much of the distinctive character of America developed, and if the historian uses the MAGNALIA as source material for a study of the early American character and its formative influence, more will be gained than if the book is taken as simply an account of New England Calvinism in its beginnings.

Mather was pastor of the North Church in Boston only after the book appeared; during its writing he was assistant minister. He was a prolific writer, and critics generally agree in recognizing the quantity of his work without granting any worth, other than ordinary, to its literary quality.

The MAGNALIA is divided into two volumes; the first contains three books, the second, four. The first book, titled “Antiquities,” reports, in Mather’s words, “the design where-on, the manner wherein, and the people where-by the several colonies of New England were planted.” The second book contains the lives of the governors and the names of the magistrates of New England, and the third presents the lives of “sixty famous divines.” Volume II begins with an account of the history of Harvard College, proceeds to an account of the “acts and monuments” of the New England churches, their discipline and principles, then records a number of “illustrious discoveries and demonstrations of the Divine Providence”—including “sea-deliverances . . . remarkables done by thunder . . . a history of criminals, executed for capital crimes; with their dying speeches,”—and concludes with “the wonders of the invisible world, in preternatural occurrences. . . .” The last book, “A Book of the Wars of the Lord,” deals with early religious controversies, with the “molestations given to the churches of New England by that odd sect of people called Quakers,” with impostors who pretended to be ministers, and with an account of the Indian wars.

The historical account of the discovery and founding of New England begins with a critical consideration of the claims of various countries as discoverers of the New World. Mather finally gives the Cabots of England the credit for the discovery of the North American continent, but he declares that regardless of who first discovered America, it was the English who did the most for the new colonies.

Mather writes of the early settlements in Florida and Virginia and of their difficult days. He then provides a dramatized recital of the voyage of the MAYFLOWER. The landing at Cape Cod is taken by Mather as a sign of God’s providence; had the voyagers landed somewhere along the Hudson River, he declares,...

(The entire section is 1633 words.)