One of my favorite bibliographies is a series on the works of the Mather family. Lawrence Wroth gives an admirable summation of the project when he reviewed the bibliography of Cotton Mather published in 1940 in the “Notes for Bibliophiles” column of the New York Herald-Tribune on October 6, 1940 [I’ve scanned some images from our copy, which was given to us by William G. Mather]:
In a brief work of 1927, “The Mather Literature,” Mr. Holmes presented eloquently a justification of the task to which he had set his hand. The Mathers were the apologists of New England Congregationalism, and that institution was the mold in which were set the life and thought of the Puritan commonwealths. The study of the works of that family of writing men was important to the understanding of New England’s contribution to American culture. Upon that basis the Mather bibliographies were conceived.
Those who have made use of Mr. Holmes’s “Increase Mather” have come to regard that book almost as the classic example of the manner and degree in which bibliography may serve the study of history. That estimate of its worth, expressed more than once and by many scholars in recent years, may be repeated as a comment upon his newly published bibliography of Increase’s son. In its highest employment, bibliography is not a mere listing and describing of titles, but a process in the study of texts. It involves consideration of the history of those texts as expressions of the human spirit, and calls for the minute examination of the forms in which the texts have been transmitted. In purpose and accomplishment the Mather bibliographies fulfill the requirements of this definition to an extent that puts them close to the top in the list of American essays in literary history.
Not every reader of today appreciates, or wants to learn to appreciate, the importance of the purely religious and ecclesiastical writings of Cotton Mather. Students of his period, however, realize that the attempt in these and similar writings to justify the ways of God to man formed the hard core of New England’s intellectual development. It was also an element of relaxation in the lives of the people, the intellectual pastime as well as the serious business of a community which for a time based its political state upon its ecclesiastical and doctrinal system. Cotton Mather made the last stand of the hierarchy against a levelling spirit in the citizens which was slowly creating resentment against ecclesiastical dominance in public affairs, but he recognized that an age of new conceptions in science could not tolerate a state of changelessness in social conditions.He remained an old-fashioned Calvinist, but he saw that religion “had become much more a matter of practical conduct and of tangible results than abstract contemplation of a transcendent divinity.” He was ready to cast out the old scholastic logic, but he could not recommend the use of Locke’s “Essaye of Humane Understanding.” As his grandfathers had done he hated and fought the Arian and Arminian heresies, but he contravened the dearest principles of the older generation by advocating in church practice the free and open communion of all Christian people. An upholder of the older order in matters of doctrine, he not only accepted the new experimentation in science but advanced more than half way to meet it. He uttered no effective protest against the witchcraft madness, but he made smallpox inoculation a common practice of his community in the face of learned opposition. These elements in the complex personality of Cotton Mather are brought by Professor Perry Miller in the note which he has provided for Mr. Holmes’s entry of the “Manuductio ad Ministerium” of 1726.
It stands out in Mr. Holmes’s annotations of the several titles that the student of American historiography must take into account the contributions of Cotton Mather to the New England record.
The “Magnalia Christi Americana: or the Ecclesiastical History of New England,” of 1702, is perhaps the most ambitious American literary production of the Colonial period. One would even call it a great book except that it lacks the quality of magic which inheres in great writing, the quality that sends us back to Fuller’s “Worthies of England,” an analogous work, simply to taste the flavor of words and to wonder again at the depth of richness the human mind can attain.