Genius, and other essays/Wendell's Cotton Mather

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Genius, and other essays by Edmund Clarence Stedman
Wendell's "Cotton Mather"

XXIV

WENDELL'S "COTTON MATHER"[1]

FOR the sub-title of this book, "The Puritan Priest," doubtless many readers would think "The Puritan Prelate" might be substituted,—so well established have become our traditions of the most renowned of the Mathers: traditions perhaps strengthened, since the appearance of Tyler's American Literature, by its author's vivid alignment of the Mather Dynasty. But this new and faithful examination of a stormy, self-torturing career makes it evident that priest and not prelate is the fit appellative. Dr. Cotton Mather, though in temper the most autocratic of his race, held no undisputed sway. His proud and armored spirit, humbling itself to none save Jehovah,—self-elected to be His familiar, even as Abraham and Moses had been of old,—found barriers that pent it in, and against which it beat in vain. It was freest and most potent in his early prime, while his father Increase was also at the height of influence. Apparently from the day when, in the flush of youth and denunciatory zeal, he strode his horse and harangued an awe-stricken throng at the hanging of George Burroughs on Salem hill, both his secular authority and his power to maintain the stern Hebraic law and ritual in the Old Colony grew less and less. To the end of his life he found himself more or less a suspect, criticised, hampered, gainsayed, by the laity and his sacerdotal peers; slowly but surely, to his grief and bewilderment, getting farther away from his inherited rights as the chief exponent of the ancestral creed and New England's spiritual potentate.

He found himself, while keenly alive to his prerogatives as the flower of theocratic generations, lacking real advancement; forced, after all, to take refuge in his learning, subtlety, mysticism, and in what Professor Wendell analyzes as the "histrionic insincerity of priesthood that brings to unhappy men the Divine sympathy of priests." One soon discovers that Mr. Wendell is a master of paradoxy: it is his natural method of getting at a radical truth. In using it for honest needs, rather than for effect, he is original and gives his style a decidedly specific flavor.

Dr. Mather, then, even in that colonial period, was an anachronism. He incurred the obloquy of many who advanced beyond his creed, and in whom his vanity and egregious manner bred a hearty antagonism. And he died after experience of foiled ambitions, grievously baffled, it is clear, in never securing the Presidency of Harvard—which his father held for sixteen years. He saw that college dangerously liberalized, and was driven to strengthen Yale as the citadel of the true faith, where a glorious defence could still be made—the outposts having been sapped if not taken. Yale College—how would the Doctor estimate her now?—can never forget that to Cotton Mather's influence she owed a helpful endowment and a name. Meanwhile, after every rebuff and humiliation, and in the domestic tragedies that shrouded his later years, he went to his closet like the men of old, and wrestled wnth his Puritan God. He invariably restored his wounded self-respect by comforting entries in the diaries begun in youth and assiduously kept up—despite the labor of writing some hundreds of other volumes—throughout his life. To an acquaintance with his pangs and ecstasies we are skilfully led by the present biographer. We enter into his secret thoughts; we know him, his people, his time, as not even he or they could have known themselves.

The projectors of the Makers of America Series hardly could have placed him in better hands than those of the accomplished Assistant Professor of English at Harvard. Mr. Wendell brings to his task, his first of the kind, an exact method habitual from university work, and the instinct of a New Englander steeped in the culture and traditions of the Mother of American learning. He has had recourse to the diaries and other MSS., largely unpublished, held by Historical and Antiquarian Societies, and to those in private keeping. It is greatly to be regretted that the outcome is restricted to the narrow limits of a volume in the present "series." What we obtain makes it probable that, if given fuller scope, the author would have produced a very notable biography.

As it is, Dr. Mather was not without wisdom in his careful prevision for the illumination of after-centuries, that the annals and relics of so forceful a being might not perish from among men.

With respect to Mather's share in the witchcraft tragedies of 1692, and his homicidal belief in the activity of Satan and his fiends throughout New England at that time,—as set forth in the "Magnalia" and "Perentator" and the diaries,—Professor Wendell has ideas which he presents briefly but with much effect. These are not at all inconsonant with the note of our closing century, or with the chances of the next century's demonstrations. They are certainly suggestive now that we are already familiar with "More Wonders of the Invisible World," which even Robert Calef, for all his cool-headed traverse of Matherian credulity, would not be able to gainsay. Our biographer not only accredits Mather with absolute honesty of conviction, but thinks there may have been scientific ground for the confused statements and charges of the "afflicted," young and old, in Salem. In the light of ancient and modern instances, and of our psychical research, he is not prepared to deny that there were at that time, and may now be, sensitives who do "hear a voice" and "see a hand" beyond ordinary hearing or seeing. He would look upon these as less developed natures, retaining the senses of archaic progenitors—senses akin to those of brute creatures whose quality of sight and hearing is certainly different from, if not finer than, our own. The latter-day psychologist and evolutionist more readily will believe that mankind is to acquire the future power of taking in what is now imperceptible to us; that we are ever approaching the spiritual sensitivity which is "all touch, all eye, all ear." The theosophist will aver that certain adepts already have reached that goal. But Professor Wendell, if we mistake not, is the first of historical writers to take the view that the witchcraft declarations are not to be repelled altogether as born of malice or delusion; that there may be conditions all about us which are entirely within nature, yet not discoverable by the normal perception of the average man. What he says upon this topic is of singular interest and affords new hints for discussion.

On the whole a graphic portraiture, largely from his own pencil, is given of the voluminous Mather—a Cambridge prodigy in youth, both of piety and learning, and of a disposition to exercise those attainments for the regulation of less-favored mortals,—a disposition which possibly is even yet not without exemplars in the places that once knew him. We see him from first to last endowed with the Puritan second-sight, familiar with apparitional imps and angels, ecstatic as Swedenborg or Böhme; of implicit credulity in his father's Remarkable Providences, and with an imagination so inflamed thereby that he unwittingly became in character, though not in power, a type of the egotist, the tyrant and the bigot. With no more appreciation of the comic than Sewall exhibits, he writes of himself and his surroundings with grotesque fidelity. His present chronicler, while rarely dilating upon the ludicrous side of his meditations, must have chuckled now and then, if not unblessed with humor, while leaving that so manifestly to speak for itself. But Professor Wendell usually remembers that he holds a brief for his subject, and discharges his trust becomingly.

Indeed, the distinctive result of his labor is that he has shown Cotton Mather not alone as history thus far has shown him: not merely, on the one side, as the most loquacious pedant, yet in truth most learned scholar, of his time; not merely as the egotist, the mystic, the theocrat, the promoter of the Salem trials; nor yet merely as the author of that unique, quaintly inclusive, survey of his compeers without which none can fully comprehend the early and middle colonial periods; but he has set before us a man who may in justice be absolved from the charge of obstinate bad faith and concealed recognition of terrible mistakes. He has taken us into Dr. Mather's sanctuary and patiently laid bare the chambers of his heart, wherein even his unfaltering credulity invests him with something like heroism. He has conceived of the Puritan priest as sincere to the last, as one who died a good man, going to his grave stricken but not cast down. It was "a good man," he enables the reader also to believe, "whom they buried on Copp's Hill one February day in the year 1728," just as he had rounded the sixty-fifth year of a defiantly militant pilgrimage.

  1. The Critic, January 2, 1892.