Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather

Article excerpt

The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather. By Rick Kennedy. [Library of Religious Biography.] (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2015. Pp. xiv, 162. $17.00 paperback. ISBN 978-0-8028-7211-1.)

A biography of Cotton Mather has not appeared since Kenneth Silverman's award-winning study, The Life and Times of Cotton Mather (New York, 1984). The Mathers were a topic of interest at the time, as evidenced also in Robert Middlekauff's earlier work, The Mathers (New York, 1971), a multigenerational study of Richard, Increase, and Cotton, followed by Michael G. Hall's biography of Increase Mather, The Last American Puritan (Middletown, CT, 1988). After a hiatus in Puritan studies in the 1990s, the gyre has turned, and interest in the Mathers-especially Cotton-is growing, helped in part by the work of a team of editors and students under the leadership of Reiner Smolinski to make available some of his manuscript corpus, including the massive "Biblia Americana." Smolinski himself will be publishing a more detailed intellectual biography of Mather in the near future.

Thus Rick Kennedy's lively take on Cotton Mather's extraordinary life is very welcome. Kennedy's biography is not merely a placeholder to satisfy Matherphiles until Smolinski's book appears; rather, it reflects and advances the revisions of this seemingly ubiquitous individual that are underway. It does so in the brief, popular, annotation-free format that characterizes Eerdman's Library of Religious Biography, of which this is the latest installment, steered for decades by Mark Noll. What is provided here, in other words, is not your grandfather's Mather.

Although there is recognition of Mather's role in prosecuting the Salem witch trials, Kennedy points to ways in which Mather anticipated and provided a basis for modern evangelicalism, including his innovative educational psychology; his adherence to "social learning," in which phenomena reported by credible witnesses were accepted as true ("knowledge, like politics, was a fellowship" [p. …

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