The Mathers of New England

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]:

Some fifteen years ago there was announced a plan for the preparation and eventual publication of a bibliography of the writings of the Mather family of New England. The work was to comprise in six volumes a description of all the titles that came from the pens of Richard, Increase and Cotton Mather, and such of the sons, brothers and cousins of these as might claim to be occasional men of letters. The sponsor of the project was William Gwinn Mather, of Cleveland, owner of the second largest collection of Mather writings in existence; the work of compilation was to be carried through by Mr. Mather’s librarian, Thomas J. Holmes, with George Parker Winship as consultant in the planning and execution of the undertaking. Not always are bibliographical projects carried out to the full measure of their original proposals, but in the case of the Mather bibliography it becomes apparent that performance is catching up with promise. In 1931 there was issued in two volumes Mr. Holmes’s bibliography of Increase Mather, and now, completing the second stage of the broadly conceived plan, there has appeared in the last month, under Mr. Holmes’s editorship, a study in three volumes ($15) from the Harvard University Press entitled “Cotton Mather, a Bibliography of His Works.”

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.

The text of the Cotton Mather bibliography is supported by aids to its use in the form of lists of owners, tables of symbols, tables showing the relative strength of the twenty largest Mather collections, a chronological list of the writings, appendixes, and indexes in several kinds. The bibliographical descriptions of each of the 468 editions and issues of the writings follow the approved method, and the locations of known copies placed after each title rest upon a canvass of eighty-five libraries and private collections of the United States and England. These, of course, are the elements expected in any full-dress bibliography. Here they assume a special character because in recording the features of a book Mr. Holmes has the faculty of giving weight to the minute while avoiding the trivial, and his knowledge of the processes of bookmaking add a special authority to his collections and his analyses of irregularities. The characteristic of his work most to be praised, however, is the vital quality of the annotation with which the entry of each title concludes. The scale upon which his sponsor has planned the bibliographies permits Mr. Holmes space for extended extracts from the books themselves, from the Cotton Mather Diary and from a large number and variety of contemporary and modern sources. By these and by his own reflective comment he seeks to re-create the conditions and circumstances which brought the work into being, to relate it to the life of the community in which it was written and published, and to show its place in the life and development of the author himself. The work thus becomes an entity that stands by itself as a new element in American 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.

Mr. Holmes has been fortunate in his collaborators. Perry Miller’s note on the “Manuductio” has already been mentioned. The “Christian Philosopher,” which represents “the first extensive use of Newtonian ideas in the American colonies” carries a note on the sources of the book by Theodore Hornberger, of the University of Texas. Kenneth B. Murdock, of Harvard, who has written the life of Increase Mather and is the authority on the biography of the Mathers, evaluates the “Magnalia” and urges, persuasively, greater attention to it as a book to be read for enjoyment. Lloyd A. Brown, curator of maps in the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan, comments with the peculiar erudition of “map-men” upon the map of New England that accompanies the “Magnalia.” A catalogue of known Cotton Mather manuscripts is supplied, with commentary, by William Sanford Piper; Mather’s newspaper contributions have been listed by the late George Francis Dow; and the full indexes of the book made by George W. Robinson.
It has been the intention of this review to imply that the Holmes bibliographies of Increase and Cotton Mather are not far from being the chief monuments of American bibliography. Perhaps it is better that the words should be said forthrightly. Our admiration for the knowledge, skill and noble industry of Mr. Holmes is unbounded. We join him in thanking Mr. Mather for the twenty years of support of the project that has resulted in the two bibliographies, and finally we express our appreciation of the manner in which the Harvard University Press has carried through a difficult and complex piece of bibliographical printing.

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