The Mathers Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals 1596-1728 [Book Review]

Title: The Mathers – Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals 1596 – 1728
Author: Robert Middlekauf
ISBN: Library of Congress Catalogue Number – 79 – 140912
Copyright: 1971 by Oxford University Press, Inc.
Published: 1971, pgs. 440

Again just another random book pulled off the shelf to read. This one was borrowed or given to me years ago and like so many of my other books they just lie dormant until I get around to reading them. I usually try and stay thematic with my reading, covering large chunks on certain subjects. Early American History up to and including the Revolution is where I am at now.

What else can I say other than great book! I love the fact that it covers three generations of Puritans. While the author’s intent was to present more of the intellectual side of the three Mathers (Hence the title) what we got in addition to that was an enlightening glimpse into the time and religious mood of the first two centuries of New England. It is shocking to see how far we have digressed and even more interesting how shocked THEY were in seeing how far they fell.

The repeated theme from Richard, Increase and Cotton Mather was the need for reform, a return to holiness and striving in a dogmatic and determined way to restore purity to the church and way of life. The way I see it there will always be a contest between the people of God and the world. We see this in some of the letters of the early church Corinthians would be a good example of the moral deviancy that was creeping into the church. The way I see it when this contest ceases then the church ceases to be the church.

The gist of the book while highlighting the intellectual side, which was significant in itself, the author also points out what I believe to be the bedrock for their lives, their love God. This love translated into action or a life of holiness. The author states that “their general calling as Christians affected everything they did and thought and felt, but their particular calling as ministers were hardly les important. “…the two cannot be separated, for the voice of God was clearly heard in both.” Pg 8 These three Puritan giants showed their determination in living as close to God and as purely as possible while at the same time showing others how to do the same.

Modern Christianity seems to have taken a turn at some point and modern Christians are hardly distinguishable from those of the world. For the Puritan, living a holy life was everything and in everything. They would be flummoxed by today’s Christian culture.

While the book is broken down into three sections, with each section covering the three Mathers I wanted to highlight a couple of the chapters that stood out for me, The Invisible World and The Psychology of Abasement.

The Invisible World

Increase had a view for the world, looking beyond what is tangible and looking at the invisible. His approach to that end of things did not go beyond the realm of scripture, but rather, “approached scientific study with the traditional Puritan assumptions about nature as an extension of God’s wisdom and power.” An approach I understood was taken by many leading up to Darwin and following. Of course the Great Debate of 1860 and the Great Monkey Trial of the 20th Century put “science” above the religious and so on it goes.

The Mathers were not ignorant of the natural world and did contemplate things we would consider scientific. Man’s desire to explore, study and learn about world around them is innate and will, I believe, lead them to acknowledge the handiwork of God the natural world.

The Salem Witch trials, which happened to be addressed in this work, are a stigma against Puritanism and to some degree religion in general.

Without going into the lengthy details regarding the hysteria surrounded this event, suffice it to say that Increase was not intimately involved in the trials, nor did he witness the hangings. He and a number of other ministers did not think the trials were following procedure and at some point was consulted regarding the bedlam surrounding the witches and their trials. It was through his counsel and wisdom that the whole grizzly business had eventually stopped. Many who were imprisoned were released and relative calm restored. Increase had stated that it “was better for witches to escape detection than that one innocent person be punished.”

The Psychology of Abasement

For those not aware the Puritans were Calvinistic (Predestinarians) in their Soteriology and that formed the basis for what they believed. This framed their approach to life and things.

Much of the chapter dealt with the psychology of conversion, the limiting factors with pride, self will, and self righteousness being hindrances to conversion.

It seems the heart of much of the discussion centered on what was called preparationism, which is the belief that the unregenerate would take “certain moral actions before grace was infused into them”. Cotton Mather did not agree with this. He said it was a “mistake for men to even talk about preparing themselves.” He believed this put too much focus on self and its works.

Mather taught that men couldn’t even look to Christ unless they were first enabled to do so. The suggestion that prayers might then be made to pray for the power to begin to see Christ as a redeemer (Similar to our praying for God to open the hearts of sinners) and if there was a desire to be saved followed by affections towards Christ then it was understood that that came by God’s enabling. It was stressed that all men should seek Christ and his mercy. This is the same appeal we make today particularly during evangelistic campaigns.

Mather believed that if a man desired to be saved you could be certain “that his affections had been reconstructed, and if the affections then the entire set of rational and sensible faculties must have been reborn before hand – for desire was always changed after these faculties.”

Conversion of the soul is an important subject as God has called us to be ministers of reconciliation, understanding its nature and fruit goes a long way in helping us to prepare as we face the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Time to bring this one to a close, I went longer than intended. Happy day and happy reading all – Tim