Home  »  Volume XV: English COLONIAL AND REVOLUTIONARY LITERATURE EARLY NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART I  »  § 6. The Second Generation: the Theocratic Group—the Mathers; the Democrats—John Wise

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

III. The Puritan Divines, 1620–1720

§ 6. The Second Generation: the Theocratic Group—the Mathers; the Democrats—John Wise

The fibre of the emigrant leaders had been toughened by conflict with old-world conservatism and turned radical by the long struggle with an arrogant toryism. By a natural selective process the stoutest-hearted had been driven overseas, and the well-known words of William Stoughton, “God sifted a whole Nation that he might send choice grain over into this wildernes,” were the poetic expression of a bitter reality. But seated snugly in the new world, in control of church and state, the emigrant radicalism found its ardour cooling. The Synod of 1637 set a ban upon Antinomianism and other heretical innovations, and thereafter Massachusetts settled down to a rigid orthodoxy. The fathers had planted, was it not enough for the sons to water and tend the vine, and enjoy the fruit thereof? And so the spirit of conservatism took possession of the native generation, the measure of excellence being accounted the fidelity with which the husbandmen revered the work of the emigrant pioneers. Translated into modern terms, it means that the native ministers, having inherited a system of which they were the beneficiaries, discovered little inclination to question the title deeds to their inheritance, but were mainly bent on keeping them safe. To preserve what had been gained, and as far as possible to extend the Presbyterian principle, became their settled policy; and so in all the life of New England—in the world of Samuel Sewall, as well as in that of Cotton Mather—a harsh and illiberal dogmatism succeeded to the earlier enthusiasm.

The indisputable leader of the second generation was Increase Mather, son of Richard Mather, and father of Cotton, the most vigorous and capable member of a remarkable family. After graduating at Harvard, he entered Trinity College, Dublin, where he proceeded Master of Arts. He spent some years in England, preaching there to the edification of many, until the restoration of Charles sent him back to America to become the guilding spirit of the New England hierarchy. He was by nature a politician and statesman rather than a minister, the stuff of which frocked chancellors were made; and he needed only a pliant master to have become another Wolsey or Richelieu. He liked to match his wit in diplomacy with statesmen, and he served his native land faithfully and well in the matter of wheedling Dutch William into granting a new charter to Massachusetts. A natural autocrat, he was dictatorial and domineering, bearing himself arrogantly towards all underlings, unyielding in opposition to whoever crossed his will. And in consequence he gathered about his head such fierce antagonism that in the end he failed of his ambitions, and shorn of power he sat down in old age to eat the bread of bitterness.

Skill in organization was the secret of his strength. In no sense a creative thinker, wholly lacking in intellectual curiosity and therefore not given to speculation, he built up a compact hierarchical machine, and then suffered the mortification of seeing it broken to pieces by forces that lay beyond his control. If the theocratic ideal of ecclesiastical control of secular affairs were to maintain itself against the growing opposition, the ministers must fortify their position by a closer organization. They must speak as a unit in determining church policies; above all they must guard against the wolves in sheep’s clothing who were slipping into the pulpits to destroy the flocks. To effect such ends Synods were necessary, and Increase Mather was an ardent advocate of Synodical organization. He prompted the calling of the “Reforming Synod” of 1679–80, served as Moderator, dominated the debates, and drafted the report; and the purpose which underlay such work was the substitution of a Presbyterian hierarchy for the older Congregationalism. The church must dominate the state; the organized ministers must dominate the church; and Increase Mather trusted that he could dominate the ministers—such in brief was the dream of this masterful leader of the second generation.

The source of his power lay in the pulpit, and for sixty-four years the Old North Church was the citadel of Mather orthodoxy. His labours were enormous. Sixteen hours a day he commonly studied. Among many powerful preachers he was reckoned “the complete preacher,” and he thundered above his congregation with an authority that must have been appalling. His personal influence carried far, and doubtless there were many good men in Boston who believed—as Roger Williams said of John Cotton—that “God would not suffer” Increase Mather “to err.” Those whom his voice could not reach his pen must convince, and the busy minister set a pace in the making and publishing of books which only his busier son could equal. He understood thoroughly the power of the press, and he watched over it with an eagle eye; no unauthorized or godless work must issue thence for the pollution of the people; and to insure that only fit matter should be published he was at enormous pains to supply enough manuscript himself to keep the printers busy. The press was a powerful aid to the pulpit in shaping public opinion, and Increase Mather was too shrewd a leader not to understand how necessary it was to hold it in strict control. He was a calculating dictator, and he ruled the press with the same iron hand with which he ruled the pulpit. He was no advocate of freedom, for he was no friend of democracy.

Of the odium which an obstinate defence of a passing order gathered about the name of Mather, the larger share fell to the lot of Cotton Mather, whose passionately distorted career remains so incomprehensible to us. One may well hesitate to describe Cotton Mather; the man is unconceivable to one who has not read his diary. Unlike Increase, he was provincial to the core. Born and bred in Boston, his longest trips into the outer world carried him only a few miles from the Old North Meeting-house, where for years he served as co-labourer with his father. Self-centred and self-righteous, the victim of strange asceticisms and morbid spiritual debauches, every circumstance of his life ripened and expanded the colossal egotism of his nature. His vanity was daily fattened by the adulation of silly women and the praise of foolish men, until the insularity of his thought and judgment grew into a disease. His mind was clogged with the strangest miscellany of truth and fiction; he laboured to acquire the possessions of a scholar, but he listened to old wives’ tales with an amazing credulity. In all his mental processes the solidest fact fell into grotesque perspective, and confused itself with the most fantastic abortions. And yet he was prompted by a love of scientific investigation, and in the matter of inoculation for smallpox showed himself both courageous and intelligent.

Living under the shadow of his father, he was little more than a reduced copy of the Mather ambitions, inheriting a ready-made theology, a passion for the ideals of the emigrant generation, an infallible belief in the finality of the Mather conclusions. The masterfulness of old Increase degenerated in the son into an intolerable meddlesomeness; and in the years of reaction against ecclesiastical domination the position of Cotton Mather was difficult. He was exposed to attack from two sides; the tories with whom he would gladly have affiliated, and the democrats whom he held in contempt, both rejected the archaic theocracy. As his meddlesomeness increased, the attacks of his enemies multiplied, wounding his self-esteem bitterly—“having perhaps the Insults of contemptible People, the Assaults of those insignificant Lice, more than any man in New-England,” as his son testifies. “These troublesome but diminutive Creatures he scorn’d to concern himself with; only to pity them and pray for them.” He would die willingly, he believed, to save his erring people from their sins, but he obstinately refused to be dictated to by them.

Of the content of his innumerable writings the accompanying Bibliography will give sufficient indication. A man of incredible industry, unrestrained by any critical sense, and infatuated with printer’s ink, he flung together a jumble of old saws and modern instances and called the result a book. Of the 470 odd titles, the Magnalia alone possesses some vitality still, the repository of much material concerning early days in Massachusetts that we should not willingly lose. “In his Style, indeed,” according to a contemporary critic, “he was something singular, and not so agreeable to the Gust of the Age. But like his manner of speaking, it was very emphatical.” The emphasis, it must be confessed, is now gone from his pages, and the singularity remains, a singularity little agreeable to the gust of today.

The party of conservatism numbered among its adherents every prominent minister of the greater churches. The organization propaganda of the Mathers spread widely, and in 1705 a group of men put forth a series of “Proposals” looking to a closer union of the churches, and greater control of the separate congregations by the ministerial association. Seven years later John Wise, pastor of the second church of Ipswich, published his Churches Quarrel Espoused, and in 1717, his Vindication of the New England Churches. The two works were a democratic counterblast to the Presbyterian propaganda, and stirred the thought of the churches so effectively as to nullify the Proposals, and put an end to all such agitation in Massachusetts.

Posterity has been too negligent of John Wise hitherto. Although possessed of the keenest mind and most trenchant pen of his generation of Americans, he was untainted by any itch of publicity, and so failed to challenge the attention of later times. Nevertheless, what we know of him is to his credit. An independent man, powerful of body, vigorous of intellect, tenacious of opinion, outspoken and fearless in debate, he seems to have understood the plain people whom he served, and he sympathized heartily with the democratic ideals then taking shape in the New England village. Some explanation of his democratic sympathies may be discovered in his antecedents. His father was a self-made man who had come over to Roxbury as indented servant—most menial of stations in that old Carolinian world. There he doubtless taught his son independence and democratic self-respect, which stood John Wise in good stead when he later came to speak for the people against the arbitrary tax of Andros, the encroachments of the Mathers, or the schemes of the hard-money men.

When, in response to the challenge of the Presbyterians, he turned to examine critically the work of the fathers, he found in it quite another meaning than Cotton Mather found. It was as a radical that he went back to the past, seeking to recover the original Congregational principle, which, since the conservative triumph in the Synod of 1637, had been greatly obscured. The theme of his two books is the same, a defence of the “venerable New-English constitution”; but the significance of them in the history of democratic America lies in the fact that he followed “an unbeaten path,” justifying the principles of Congregationalism by analogy from civil polity. Seemingly alone amongst the New England clergy of his day he had grounded himself in political theory; and the doctrine upon which he erected his argument was the new conception of “natural rights,” derived from a study of Puffendorf’s De Jure Nature et Gentium, published in 1672. This was the first effective reply in America to the old theocratic sneer that if the democratic form of government were indeed divinely sanctioned, was it not strange that God had overlooked it in providing a system for his chosen people? But Wise had broken with the literal Hebraism of earlier times, and was willing to make use of a pagan philosophy, based upon an appeal to history, a method which baffled the followers of the old school. They found difficulty in replying to such argument:

  • That a democracy in church or state, is a very honourable and regular government according to the dictates of right reason, And, therefore … That these churches of New England, in their ancient constitution of church order, it being a democracy, are manifestly justified and defended by the law and light of nature.
  • With the advance of the democratic movement of modern times, the life and work of John Wise take on new interest. After a spirited contest lasting for three-quarters of a century, theocratic Puritanism merged in ecclesiastical democracy. For two generations it had remained doubtful which way the church would incline. Dominated by gentlemen, it was warped toward Presbyterianism; but interpreted by commoners, it leaned towards Congregationalism. The son of a plebeian, Wise came naturally into sympathy with the spirit of radical Separatism, bred of the democratic aspirations of the old Jacobean underlings; and this radical Separatism he found justified by the new philosophy, as well as by the facts of the New England village world. The struggle for ecclesiastical democracy was a forerunner of the struggle for political democracy, which was to be the business of the next century; and in justifying his ecclesiasticism by political principles, John Wise was an early witness to the new order of thought.