Unlocking the Cotton Mather Treasure Trove, Part 2

Hoselton: What is the main argument of your monograph, Prophecy, Piety, and the Problem of Historicity, and what does it contribute to the findings of the Biblia Americana project? Stievermann: In the simplest terms, this book is about Cotton Mather’s struggle to read the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture in ways that he thought were intellectually justifiable as a highly-educated scholar and which also felt satisfying and nurturing as a devout believer.

The book draws on fresh material from volume five (the one I edited), which contStievermann bookains the sections on Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Canticles (Song of Songs), Isaiah, and Jeremiah. It examines in detail Mather’s annotations on these biblical books and discusses specific subjects and hermeneutical problems that figure prominently there. At the same time, I undertake the first interpretative synthesis and overall appraisal of Mather’s engagement with the Hebrew Scriptures.

It introduces the reader to the main characteristics, recurring topics, and features of the “Biblia Americana.” The introductory section also ventures to provide a more comprehensive assessment of how Mather’s exegetical work can be situated in the history of biblical interpretation, specifically in the history of the Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The title of this book, Prophecy, Piety, and the Problem of Historicity, alludes to what I regard as some of the most important issues with which Mather wrestled. Mather belonged to a generation of exegetes that was already confronted with far-reaching historical challenges to the authority of the Bible, and the Hebrew Scriptures in particular.

The basic legitimacy of time-honored methods of interpreting Old Testament texts as prophetically, typologically, and mystically prefiguring Christ and the gospel could no longer be taken for granted. Indeed, at least in intellectual circles, the problem of historicity was beginning to call into question the very status of the Hebrew Bible as the Christian Old Testament. Although Mather himself had not the slightest doubt about this status, he, like many other theologian-scholars of his generation, felt the need to make new apologetical arguments in support of the traditional view. He was ready to make some significant compromises, however, where the scholarly arguments appeared compelling to him.

Besides more specific questions relating to authorship, the provenance of the biblical texts, apologetically-oriented critics like Mather faced one very fundamental issue: Although for very different reasons than in earlier centuries, they saw the necessity of defining and defending what rightful uses could be made of the Hebrew Scriptures for Christian faith and piety.

Hoselton: How does Mather’s biblical interpretation fit into his early American cultural and transatlantic intellectual context?

Stievermann: The book emphatically confirms the assessment of revisionist scholars who have contested the still wide-spread belief that Mather propagated some early form of apocalyptically-inflected American exceptionalism. No entries in the “Biblia Americana” have been found where Mather does this. The long-held assumption that Mather somehow partook in an extension of the bounds of traditional typology to the realm of secular history that allowed him to identify New England as the latter-day surrogate of Old Israel is insupportable in the light of his “Biblia” annotations. On the contrary, Mather’s use of typology is quite conventional Protestant fare. Even in his reading of Canticles as a predictive history of the church culminating in the millennium, New England is not inserted into the narrative even once. The fact that this reading is derived from the German-Dutch Reformed Pietist Johannes Cocceius is emblematic of Mather’s very transatlantic and transdenominational orientation. The “Biblia” thoroughly defies the stereotypes of parochialism and the tribalist mentality that are too often still associated with Puritan theology. It also undercuts conventional readings of Mather and his work that primarily view them in terms of their American-ness.

One of the guiding assumptions of much of the older scholarship was that the key to understanding Cotton Mather and his significance could be primarily found in his relation to the future nation and its ideological formations. The “Biblia” commentaries make it unmistakably clear that Mather has to be studied as a figure whose thinking was not so much inward-looking as intensely transatlantic in orientation. Beyond a vast array of sources from across the British Empire, Mather drew upon work from his contemporaries and the generation preceding them in the Dutch, German, French, and broader European academic theological contexts. This is significant because it demonstrates that Mather and the British Colonies in North America, although geographically distant, were nevertheless very much involved in the European debates.

If Mather is still to be viewed as the archetypical Puritan forerunner of later trends in American cultural life at all, he should be seen as an early example not of intellectual nationalism but of a religiously inspired, utopian cosmopolitanism. For besides the many other things that Mather was—Reformed theologian, early evangelical pastor and reformer, Enlightenment philosopher, and naturalist experimenter with medical vaccinations—he, despite his location in a remote outpost of the British Empire, always aspired to be a Christian citizen of the international republic of letters.

Hoselton: Rick Kennedy’s recent biography on Cotton Mather labels him the “first American evangelical.” How does Mather’s biblical interpretation fit into the early evangelical historiography?

Stievermann: It’s a very complicated and loaded issue. Mather doesn’t use the term himself. He says “revivalism.” Constructing  historical genealogies for modern groups or movements is a problematic endeavor that involves a lot of ideology and theology. We must not identify eighteenth century figures and their ideas with current positions or assume that one directly leads to the other. There are radical discontinuities between what we now call evangelicalism and pro-revivalist theologians of the Great Awakening like Edwards. But there are continuities, too.

The “Biblia Americana” offers plenty of new material that strongly affirms this assessment of Mather as an early evangelical. You also see how Mather drank deeply from medieval traditions, from the devotion moderna to alchemical lore to his vitalist cosmology. The “Biblia Americana” is really a treasure trove.

Editors' note: This article was originally published on the Jonathan Edwards Center Germany website.