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

§ 7. Learning of the Puritan Divines

Judged by the severest standards, the Puritan ministers were a notable group of men; the English race has never bred their superiors in self-discipline and exalted ideals, and rarely their equals in consecration to duty. Their interests might be narrow and their sympathies harsh and illiberal; nevertheless men who studied ten to sixteen hours a day were neither boors nor intellectual weaklings. A petty nature would not have uttered the lament of Increase Mather:

  • not many years ago, I lost (and that’s an afflictive loss indeed!) several moneths from study by sickness. Let every God-fearing reader joyn with me in prayer, that I may be enable to redeem the time, and (in all wayes wherein I am capable), to serve my generation.
  • From the long hours of reading they acquired a huge mass of learning; out of the many books they read they made still other books of like nature and purpose. The way of printer’s ink was the path of celebrity and authority, and the minister who had not a goodly number of volumes to his credit was an unprofitable servant, lacking ambition to glorify his Lord. Though they denied themselves in other things, they did not stint their library. In 1686 John Dunton numbered eight book-shops in the village of Boston; and in 1702 Cotton Mather described his study, “the hangings whereof, are Boxes with between two and three thousand Books in them.”

    According to present taste it was an uninviting library; works of pure literature were as lacking as books of history and political philosophy and science. Nevertheless, though their reading was narrow, the ministers in many respects were in advance of their times. For all his grotesque lack of scientific method, Cotton Mather was more nearly a scientist than any other man of his day in Boston,—a weakness which laid him open to criticism. Under date of 23 December, 1714, Sewall noted in his diary:

  • Dr. C. Mather preaches excellently from Ps. 37. Trust in the Lord, etc., only spake of the Sun being in the centre of our system. I think it inconvenient to assert such problems.
  • His membership in the Royal Society, to which he forwarded his Curiosa Americana, encouraged him to keep abreast of current scientific thought; and it was from this source that he got the idea of inoculation for smallpox, which he urged upon the people of Boston so insistently that a war of pamphlets broke out. When we remember that during ninety years only two books on medicine were published in New England—one a popular pharmacopeia and the other a hand-book on smallpox prevention—it is suggestive that within a few months sixteen papers on inoculation came from the press. In this case the minister was in advance of the physicians.