Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1633
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, they would have been massacred by the Indians.
Mather’s story of the founding of the various colonies is enlivened by zestful and partly imaginary accounts of Indian raids, of storms and droughts, and of quarrels with England and among the colonists themselves. The difficulties of the early settlers are interpreted as signs of God’s providence working to produce men of strong faith in a new land. To the history of the establishment of the colonies and of churches within the colonies Mather attaches an “ecclesiastical map” which is a list of the congregations and ministers in the Plymouth, Massachusetts, and Connecticut colonies in 1696. The churches were erected, Mather writes, “on purpose to express and pursue the Protestant Reformation.”
After some “historical remarks” on Boston, a lecture given in 1698 and designed to warn the Bostonians that their town had fallen on evil ways and that only with the help of God could it be returned to its former state of power and piety, Mather presents the lives of the governors of the colonies, commencing with William Bradford, governor of Plymouth colony. Other governors whose lives are included are John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts colony; Edward Hopkins, the first governor of Connecticut colony; Theophilus Eaton, governor of New Haven colony; John Winthrop (the son), governor of Connecticut and New Haven, and other successors.
His stories of the clergy are so punctuated with moralizing passages and anecdotes that it is difficult to distinguish one divine from another. Despite Mather’s pious tone, it is possible to appreciate the courage and religious devotion of the colonial ministers.
Mather is at his informative best in recording the decisions of the early churchmen concerning matters of faith. He objected to the opinion that the churches of New England simply followed the doctrines professed in England. A copy is given of the “Confession of Faith” agreed upon at Boston on May 12, 1680. The predominant feature of the document is the declaration of reliance on Holy Scripture, which is taken to be the word of God, interpretable by reference to the Scripture itself. Man’s corruption is definitely admitted and is related to the fall of Adam, as seduced by Satan. Christ is the mediator between God and man. Man has free will, but since he does not always will the good, he is a sinner, to be saved only by the grace of God. The laws of God are for the direction of man, but they do not bind God Himself. The report of these points of dogma is supplemented by an account of the practices of the churches concerning such matters as church membership, election of officers, ordination, and the communion of churches with one another.
Mather becomes more human, almost gay, in the section titled “Remarkables of the Divine Providence.” He begins with sea-deliverances: “I will carry my reader upon the huge Atlantick, and, without so much as the danger of being made sea-sick, he shall see ’wonders in the deep.’” The first story concerns Ephraim Howe, who lost two sons during a voyage from New Haven to Boston, was buffeted by storms for weeks, was shipwrecked and forced to live on gulls, crows, and ravens, and was rescued only after his friends had died and he had been isolated on an island near Cape Sables for over three months. Other tales of deliverances after prayer include the story of a man preserved on the keel of an overturned boat, an incident of “twelve men living five weeks for five hundred leagues in a little boat,” and several incidents of rescue at sea involving the calming of storm-tossed waters, the changing of wind, or the chance passage of a rescuing boat.
To his accounts of sea-deliverances Mather adds stories of other acts of God—of flocks of birds arriving to end a plague of caterpillars, of the relief of droughts and floods, of persons rescued from drowning or other dangers. Mather was impressed by wounds which would have been fatal, in his opinion, had not Divinity intervened. He tells, for example, of Abigail Eliot:One Abigail Eliot had an iron struck into her head, which drew out part of her brains with it: a silver plate she afterwards wore on her skull where the orifice remain’d as big as an half crown. The brains left in the child’s head would swell and swage, according to the tides; her intellectuals were not hurt by this disaster; and she liv’d to be a mother of several children.
In the hope of correcting ordinary sinners, Mather included a number of dying speeches of criminals. A verbatim report is given of the conversation between Hugh Stone, who cut his wife’s throat, and a minister. The conversation was lengthy, but the criminal continued his confession of sins in a discourse and prayer almost as long as the conversation. He directed his remarks to “young men and maids,” and warned that “If you say, when a person has provok’d you, ’I will kill him;’ ’tis a thousand to one but the next time you will do it.”
In writing of witches, Mather had few reservations concerning the truth of the charges against them. He believed in molestations from evil spirits, as directed by Satan, and he regarded the evidence of such possession as beyond any reasonable doubt. He wrote of women who claimed to have made pacts with the devil, who rode on broomsticks and put curses on others, causing endless trouble. Execution was the proper punishment for such persons, according to Mather—although he did admit that there was “a going too far in this affair.”
Perhaps the wonder is that the Christian spirit survived the passionate dogmatism and superstitions of colonial days. Mather’s MAGNALIA is a curious and fascinating hodgepodge of history, didacticism, and fatal error combining to give an authentic reflection of a seventeenth-century American mind.