Cotton Mather’s Advice for Seminary Students

Ryan Hoselton | August 26, 2015

Scholars have had a field day with the complex character of the New England Puritan Cotton Mather (1663–1728). Psychoanalysts have construed him through his childhood speech impediment and complex relationship with his father, historians have portrayed him as a backwards Puritan witch hunter or a capitulating Enlightenment progressive, and literary critics have followed Nathaniel Hawthorne and blamed Mather for all of America’s problems. Nevertheless, Mather’s legacy continues to invite closer and more sympathetic looks today; a new book by historian Rick Kennedy even claims him as “the first American evangelical.” Whether or not this claim will convince the academy, evangelicals can still greatly benefit from Mather’s remarkable mind, spirituality, and ministry genius. 

Despite the many distorted “Mathers” that have been passed down in historical memory, we fail to give proper recognition unless we understand him first and foremost as a dedicated pastor. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Glasgow, gained prestigious membership in the Royal Society, promoted scientific and medicinal advancements (like smallpox inoculation), and wrote more than many of us will ever read. Nonetheless, his devotion to preaching the Word and caring for his church far surpassed all these avocations.

The Mather who learned Spanish just to…

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