1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Cotton, John

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COTTON, JOHN (1585–1652), English and American Puritan divine, sometimes called “The Patriarch of New England,” born in Derby, England, on the 4th of December 1585. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating B.A. in 1603 and M.A. in 1606, and became a fellow in Emmanuel College, Cambridge, then a stronghold of Puritanism, where, during the next six years, according to his friend and biographer, Rev. Samuel Whiting, he was “head lecturer and dean, and Catechist,” and “a diligent tutor to many pupils.” In June 1612 he became vicar of the parish church of St Botolphs in Boston, Lincolnshire, where he remained for twenty-one years and was extremely popular. Becoming more and more a Puritan in spirit, he ceased, about 1615, to observe certain ceremonies prescribed by the legally authorized ritual, and in 1632 action was begun against him in the High Commission Court. He thereupon escaped, disguised, to London, lay in concealment there for several months, and, having been deeply interested from its beginning in the colonization of New England, he eluded the watch set for him at the various English ports, and in July 1633 emigrated to the colony of Massachusetts Bay, arriving at Boston early in September. On the 10th of October he was chosen “teacher” of the First Church of Boston, of which John Wilson (1588–1667) was pastor, and here he remained until his death on the 23rd of December 1652. In the newer, as in the older Boston, his popularity was almost unbounded, and his influence. both in ecclesiastical and in civil affairs, was probably greater than that of any other minister in theocratic New England. According to the contemporary historian, William Hubbard, “Whatever he delivered in the pulpit was soon put into an order of court, if of a civil, or set up as a practice in the church, if of an ecclesiastical concernment.” His influence, too, was generally beneficent, though it was never used to further the cause of religious freedom, or of democracy, his theory of government being given in an oft-quoted passage: “Democracy, I do not conceyve that ever God did ordeyne as a fitt government eyther for church or commonwealth. … As for Monarchy and aristocracy they are both for them clearly approved, and directed in Scripture yet so as (God) referreth the sovereigntie to himselfe, and setteth up Theocracy in both, as the best form of government.” He naturally took an active part in most, if not all, of the political and theological controversies of his time, the two principal of which were those concerning Antinomianism and the expulsion of Roger Williams. In the former his position was somewhat equivocal—he first supported and then violently opposed Anne Hutchinson,—in the latter he approved Williams's expulsion as “righteous in the eyes of God,” and subsequently in a pamphlet discussion with Williams, particularly in his Bloudy Tenent, Washed and made White in the Bloud of the Lamb (1647), vigorously opposed religious freedom. He was a man of great learning and was a prolific writer. His writings include: The Keyes to the Kingdom of Heaven and the Power thereof (1644), The Way of the Churches of Christ in New England (1645), and The Way of Congregational Churches Cleared (1648), these works constituting an invaluable exposition of New England Congregationalism; and Milk for Babes, Drawn out of the Breasts of Both Testaments, Chiefly for the Spirituall Nourishment of Boston Babes in either England, but may be of like Use for any Children (1646), widely used for many years, in New England, for the religious instruction of children.

See the quaint sketch by Cotton Mather, John Cotton's grandson, in Magnalia (London, 1702), and a sketch by Cotton's contemporary and friend, Rev. Samuel Whiting, printed in Alexander Young's Chronicles of the First Planters of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay from 1623 to 1636 (Boston, 1846); also A. W. McClure's The Life of John Cotton (Boston, 1846), a chapter in Arthur B. Ellis's History of the First Church in Boston (Boston, 1881), and a chapter in Williston Walker's Ten New England Leaders (New York, 1901).  (W. Wr.)