Saturday, March 27, 2010

Why read Magnalia Christi Americana?

The Magnalia is a beautifully written account of the Puritans—an account written by a Puritan himself.  Reading Mather’s work gives us insight on the American Puritan culture from within the culture—not from the perspective of an outsider, but of a man who completely identified himself with the tradition he recorded.  From Mather, we learn why they crossed the Atlantic, their context in history, their major leaders, and interesting events.  These are not just factual accounts, though; they are told in an engaging, purposeful manner that actually ushers us into the Biblically-framed world of early America. If you want to hear from the Puritans themselves about what was important to them and why, then read this work.  Plus, Magnalia is a unique approach to recording history.  It provides an interesting example of faith-inspired history, which can make us consider an important question: How will we present ourselves to posterity?

The Magnalia can be intimidating because it's so long, but it is separated into manageable portions.  The volume I used only contains Books 1 & 2, and I can attest that Magnalia works in segments if one can't tackle the whole history.  What surprised me is its readability.  If I'm trying to race through the book at a modern pace, his details annoy me.  However, when I sank into reading, I found his well-organized prose to be well-flowing, even buoyant.  The use of rich metaphor, Biblical allusions, and addresses to the reader save his writing from being boring.  You can't read Mather without noticing that it is steeped in Biblical language, so modern readers unfamiliar with Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, should use a footnoted edition.  I've also found that reading the Biblical account of the Israelites alongside Puritan texts enriches my reading.
Finally, through the Magnalia we can get to know Cotton Mather, one of the larger-than-life figures in early America.  He was an incredibly productive, brilliant scholar who wrote the immense Magnalia “by Snatches” in little more than two years, during which time he attended to pastoral duties and wrote several other books!  In many ways, he is worth emulating.  Even as he held up the lives of great New England leaders as examples of greatness, we can catch some greatness from Mather himself. 

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Salem Covenant of 1629

I've started at the end rather than the beginning in writing of the idea of covenant in New England.  Several of my posts have addressed Puritan preachers' fears of second and third generation backsliding from the covenant.  Here, though, let's focus on a beginning and discuss the Salem Covenant of 1629.  Mather's description of the founding of the first Massachusetts-Bay church, included in chapter 4, Book I, of Magnalia, illumines the New England church body-politic, the serious resolve of Puritan faith, and the concept of covenant in general. 

The oneness of church body and political body is striking: the church community was simultaneously the political community, for church membership was required for civic participation.  Church membership afterwards depended on the covenant: Persons who were either not present or not able to consent to the original covenant were admitted by "Publickly and Personally own[ing] the Covenant," an act which Mather says can be done in diverse ways.  An Enlarged Covenant of 1636 accounted for increasing number of settlers who were not church members.

In 1629, records Mather, the people of Salem "resolved to begin their Plantation with calling on the Name of the Lord."  Interestingly, the Salem leaders sought practical advice from the church at Plymouth.  Apparently, the two plantations considered themselves "Brethren" and worked in tandem.  They appointed a day of fasting and prayer for three interrelated purposes: "the settling of a Church-State," "making a Confession of their Faith," and "entering into a Holy Covenant, whereby that Church-State was formed."  The formation of their church/civil government was a spiritual act, performed before God and with His guidance.  Their agreement with each other was not a simple contract, but a covenant in which GOD was a party.

Looked at from the Puritan perspective, the magnitude of this agreement takes my breath away!  A binding agreement with fellow erring humans is not the same as one with the Holy God.  They were promising obedience to the Almighty, and they were fully, solemnly aware of His presence.  Salem residents saw God as savior and Father of their people and, at the same time, as the awe-inspiring, holy deity.  The result of their faith is this beautiful covenant.
We covenant with our Lord, and one with another; and we do bind our selves in the presence of God, to walk together in all his ways, according as he is pleased to reveal himself unto us in his blessed word of truth; and do explicitly, in the name and fear of God, profess and protest to walk as followeth, through the power and grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
We avouch the Lord to be our God, and our selves to be his people, in the truth and simplicity of our spirits. We give our selves to the Lord Jesus Christ, and the word of his grace for the teaching, ruling and sanctifying of us in matters of worship and conversion, resolving to cleave unto him alone for life and glory, and to reject all contrary ways, canons, and constitutions of men in his worship.
We promise to walk with our brethren, with all watchfulness and tenderness, avoiding jealousies and suspicions, back-bitings, censurings, provokings, secret risings of spirit against them; but in all offences to follow the rule of our Lord Jesus, and to bear and forbear, give and forgive, as he hath taught us.
In public or private, we will willingly do nothing to the offence of the church; but willing to take advice for our selves and ours, as occasion shall be presented.
We will not in the congregation be forward either to show our own gifts and parts in speaking or scrupling, or there discover the weakness or failings of our brethren; but attend an orderly call thereunto, knowing how much the Lord may be dishonoured, and his gospel, and the profession of it, slighted by our distempers and weaknesses in publick.
We bind our selves to study the advancement of the gospel in all truth and peace; both in regard of those that are within or without; no way slighting our sister churches, but using their counsel, as need shall be; not laying a stumbling-block before any, no, not the Indians, whose good we desire to promote; and so to converse, as we may avoid the very appearance of evil.
We do hereby promise to carry our selves in all lawful obedience to those that are over us, in Church or Commonwealth, knowing how well pleasing it will be to the Lord, that they should have encouragement in their places, by our not grieving their spirits through our irregularities.
We resolve to approve our selves to the Lord in our particular callings; shunning idleness as the bane of any stake; nor will we deal hardly or oppressingly with any, wherein we are the Lord's stewards.
Promising also unto our best ability to teach our children and servants the knowledge of God, and of His Will, that they may serve Him also; and all this not by any strength of our own, but by the Lord Jesus Christ; whose blood we desire may sprinkle this our Covenant made in his name.
 In conclusion, I'll add a connection to self-examination. When I studied sermons, preachers continually exhorted people to examine their souls, and I began to gather an understanding of how self-examination is done: it depends heavily on evaluating based on the past, I said.  Well, here in Magnalia we have another example of self-examination through public means.  A form of self-examination is measuring oneself against a defined covenant.  Mather notes that the Salem covenant was afterwards read often by the church, and they "renewed the Consent of their Souls unto every Article in it," especially on "Days of Humiliation."

Saturday, March 20, 2010

In Remembrance

The American Puritan leaders were continually aware of the importance of memory to the success of their endeavor and to the people's spiritual health.  They had to remember where their fathers came from, why they came, God's gracious providences, and the consequences of disobedience.  Remembrance would develop in each new generation the correct sense of identity, thus propagating the pure, upright commonwealth originally envisioned.  Through its role in self-examination, remembrance purifies the heart of each individual. Further, memory prompts thanksgiving, which is God's proper due.

Stirring the memory, then, was a prominent purpose of the various forms of Puritan communication.  How else would the people remember, unless through words?  Where would they hear the words, unless from the pulpit or in forms appropriate for home and school reading?  As in the sermons, we see a focus on multi-generational memory in the Magnalia. 

In fact, Mather's Magnalia is itself a spiritual memorial, or, using Biblical terminology, an "Ebenezer."  This comes from Samuel's actions after an Israelite victory recorded in the book of I Samuel.  As a memorial to God, Samuel set up a stone and called it "Ebenezer," saying "Hitherto the Lord hath helped us."

Mather ends Book I of Magnalia with a sermon called "The Bostonian Ebenezer," which he sets up as a "stone" of remembrance for the town of Boston, saying "That a people whom the God of Heaven hath remarkably helped in their Distresses, ought greatly and gratefully to acknowledge what help of Heaven they have received."  In this wonderful, buoyant discourse, Mather exhorts Bostonians to give glory to God in the Lord Jesus Christ, particularly for Christ's sacrifice which "purchased for us all our help" and for the ministry of angels.  He encourages hope and piety among all the people.

He then enters directly into jeremiad form, based on another Biblical usage of a stone, in Joshua 24.  Joshua and the people had just renewed their covenant with God, so Joshua "took a great stone, and set it up....And Joshua said unto all the people, Behold, this stone shall be a witness unto us; for it hath heard all the words of the Lord which he spake unto us: it shall be therefore a witness unto you, lest ye deny your God."

Through this Bostonian sermon- and through the Magnalia as a whole- Mather sets up a "great stone" that unites the functions of the two Biblical stones.  The written words both memorialize God's goodness and serves as a witness against the actions of future generations in the covenant.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Light in the Darkness

Another account of why the Puritans went to America...
In the introduction to Magnalia, Mather sets the Puritan errand in the context of the Protestant Reformation.  He places the New Englanders in a line of sincere reformers and martyrs persecuted by Catholics and Anglicans; these believers wished to reform the Reformation itself.  They desired and petitioned to be accepted by the Church of England, but at last, "Multitudes of Pious, Peaceable Protestants, were driven, by their Severities, to leave their Native Country, and seek a Refuge for their Lives and Liberties, with Freedom, for the Worship of God, in a Wilderness, in the Ends of the Earth." The Puritan errand, then, was one of the many double reactions of the Reformation age.  Protestants broke off from the Catholics but then splintered into various groups, each claiming to be "the truest Friends of the Reformation."

The New Englanders did not forget about the Reformation once they left Europe.  Even aboard the Arbella, John Winthrop reminded his people that the world was watching, that New England should strive to be an admirable "city upon a hill," to be imitated by Protestant churches in Europe.  The Magnalia is a means to lift New England to that position of prominence from which they can help purify the European Church.  Mather humbly expresses his aim "to offer unto the Churches of the Reformation, abroad in the World, some small Memorials, that may be serviceable unto the Designs of Reformation, whereto, I believe, they are quickly to be awakened."  The American Puritans were uniquely qualified to pose as an example for Protestant Christianity, because, as Mather claims, the Puritan faith was the closest yet to the ideal faith of the first-century Church. 

He calls the American Puritans a "Light in the Darkness" that is "now to be Darted over unto the other side of the Atlantick Ocean," which recalls two specific Biblical images.  First, in Revelation, "seven golden candlesticks" represent the seven early churches.  Second, in Matthew 5, the "city upon a hill" phrase is part of a larger passage with a dominant metaphor of light:
Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.  Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.  (5:14-16, KJV)
The American Puritans hoped--and Cotton Mather wrote--to set New England's candle on a candlestick to be seen by the worldwide "house" of Protestant Christianity, for a pure Reformation and the glory of God.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Praise for the Magnalia

Just for fun, here are some excerpts from the Magnalia's prefatory poems. Same idea as a book jacket with reviews from NY Times or well-known authors!

         ...such a Scribe as COTTON MATHER;
Whose Piety, whose Pains, and peerless Pen,
Revives New-England's nigh-lost Origin....

His Pen was taken from some Bird of Light,
Addicted to a swift and lofty Flight.
Dearly it loves Art, Air, and Eloquence,
And hates Confinement, save to Truth and Sense.
 -Nicholas Noyes, Teacher of the Church at Salem

Thus led by secret sweetest Influence,
You make Returns to God's good Providence:
Recording how that mighty Hand was nigh,
To Trace out Paths not known to mortal Eye,
To those brave Men, that to this Land came o'er,
And plac'd them safe on the Atlantick Shore:
And how the same Hand did them after save,
And say, Return, oft on the Brink o'th' Grave;
And gave them room to spread, and bless'd their Root,
Whence, hung with Fruit, now many Branches shoot.
-Timothy Woodbridge, Minister of Hartford

Immortal Mather! 'tis thy page alone
To Old World minds makes New World wonders known;
And while the solid Earth shall firm remain,
New World and Old World shall thy praise retain.
-Henry Selijns, Pastor of a Dutch Reformed Church at New York (trans. from Latin)

History for "After-times"

The Magnalia is prefaced by pages of interesting-looking material—attestation, poems, Latin odes, and introduction.  These prefatory writings proved quite fascinating! The “Attestation” in particular, written by Salem pastor John Higginson (1616-1708), reframes for us the concept of multi-generational vision.  He gives ten reasons for the Magnalia’s importance:
1.      Obey Scripture by recording the works of God for after-times
2.      Manifest the truth, to avoid misrepresentations of New-England
3.      Record the “True Original and Design of this Plantation,” that it may be known and remembred for ever”
4.      Render glory to God for what He did for the colonists
5.      “Embalm and preserve” the names of “Eminent Persons” for posterity to imitate
6.      Provoke remembrance among the present generation of God’s Providences in the wilderness
7.      Cause genuine belief in God among the generations to come, that they “may serve him with a perfect Heart and willing Mind”
8.      Witness against and reclaim the degenerate
9.      Present a memorial to “Mother England” of what “the Little Daughter of New-England” has done
10.  Stand as a “Monument of a fuller and better Reformation of the Church of God, than it hath yet appeared in the World”
The Magnalia, then, grapples with many of the central Puritan themes: transmitting faith to new generations, the importance of memory, knowing why they came to America, glorifying God, and providing an example of pure religion to the world. This list of reasons demonstrates a rootedness in a multi-generational, covenantal perspective of time.  Identification with the ancient Israelites places the Puritans in a large span of history, but even within their own American “errand” they saw in terms of past, present, and future.  Fathers, sons, and posterity.  Original settlers and born New-Englanders.  “Eminent persons” and those who will imitate them. 
Because of its charge to readers, the Magnalia is a jeremiad.  It is calling the settlers’ descendants to remember their forebears’ faith, to examine themselves, and to face the consequences of disobedience or reap the blessings of obedience. Above all, they must REMEMBER and learn from the past.  The reasons listed for the Magnalia contribute to a kind of philosophy of history-- why do we record history and how should it be recorded?

Friday, March 5, 2010


The American Puritan ideas, like being a chosen people and a "city on a hill," carried forward into later American thought.  These are just a couple of examples:

I shall need, too, the favor of the Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land, and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with his providence, and our riper years with his wisdom and power; and to whose goodness I ask you to join with me in supplications, that he will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures, that whatsoever they do, shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations.

--Thomas Jefferson
"Second Inaugural Address" (Mar. 4, 1805)

And this is the Country, which the Disposer of events designs shall go forth as the cynosure of nations, to guide them to the light and blessedness of that day. To us is committed the grand, the responsible privilege, of exhibiting to the world, the beneficient influences of Christianity, when carried into every social, civil, and political institution; and, though we have, as yet, made such imperfect advances, already the light is streaming into the dark prison-house of despotic lands, while startled kings and sages, philosophers and statesmen, are watching us with that interest, which a career so illustrious, and so involving their own destiny, is calculated to excite."

--Catharine E. Beecher (sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher)
"A Treatise on Domestic Economy" (1841)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Magnalia Christi Americana

Cotton Mather's tremendous work Magnalia Christi Americana: The Ecclesiastical History of New-England was published in 1702. Separated into seven parts, the Magnalia's topics range from "wonderful providences" to Indian wars to the university at Cambridge, and, perhaps most famously, biographies of governors and pastors.  I read the Life of John Winthrop, entitled Nehemias Americanus, and found it a helpful transition because of its links to the ideas I've already studied.

In the sermons, I had noted the generational split that resulted in sermons like Danforth's Errand, reminding the lukewarm children of original settlers of their calling and covenant.  Magnalia serves the same function as those sermons.  Through a different medium, it exhorts the second generation Puritans to live virtuously and "godlily" (Increase Mather's term, I believe) to fulfil the errand for which great men of the first generation labored.  "Let posterity consider with admiration," Mather writes. 

Mather wants his readers to not only admire, but copy Winthrop.  Bercovitch classes the John Winthrop piece in the genre of "exemplary biography," that is, the featured individual is an example for readers to follow in their own lives.  It has elements of hagiography as well--saintly Winthrop is the ideal Christian leader. "The wisdom, courage, and holy zeal of his life were an example well worthy to be copied by all that shall succeed in government."  Winthrop certainly led by example.  He lived out the generosity described in his famous sermon--he was, himself, a living "model of Christian charity," giving to the poor, even seeking out needy people to help. 

The "you" of the sermons is only implied, but just as present, as if he were writing: "You, my reader, are the posterity. You are the heir of this great man, and to you he has entrusted the continuance of his life work. Be like him, therefore, in virtue, faith, humility, and charity, and New-England will continue to be great."  A call to self-examination is also implied.  Readers are to compare themselves against Winthrop, who is presented above all as a ruler who governed himself.  When he recounts Winthrop's death, Mather exalts Winthrop's "overcoming of himself" above all the other triumphs of his life.