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Smolinski, Reiner, and Jan Stievermann [Eds.]
Cotton Mather andBiblia Americana – America’s First Bible Commentary. Essays in Reappraisal.
Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2010. XIX, 593 S. m. Abb. gr.8°. Lw. EUR 119,00. ISBN 978-3-16-150341-2.
John W. Rogerson
Cotton Mather was born in Boston, New England in 1663, educated at Harvard, and ordained in 1685 to his father’s North Church (Congregational) in Boston, which he served until his death in 1728. He was a prolific writer, but his magnum opus, the Biblia Americana, remained unpublished. Begun in 1693 and worked on until his death, it was a monumental exercise in the tradition of the Commonplace Book. It was not a conventional commentary in the modern sense; it did not comment on the biblical text verse by verse. Instead, it dealt with questions and problems raised by the text as and when these occurred, and it did so in the form of questions and answers. It drew upon an astonishingly wide range of sources including not only works of biblical scholarship but of geography, natural sciences and classical sources, to name only some. It eventually amounted to 4,500 double-spaced folio pages in six volumes, and this was the main barrier to its publication. The capital costs of publication were prohibitive. The fact that the commentary was not published posthumously was due to its size, but also to the fact that M.’s reputation was tarnished by his association with the notorious Salem witchcraft trials. Later evaluations of M.’s writings accused him of racial attitudes towards black slaves and North American Indians. The volume under review has been issued in connection with a project to publish the Biblia Americana, the first volume of which, on Genesis, appeared in 2010 published jointly by Mohr Siebeck and by Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Two very long and important chapters by J. Stievermann deal with the biographical aspects of M.’s life and address the charges that have been popularly brought against him. The concluding chapter, on M.’s attitude to race issues, shows that he rejected the then prevalent view that Indians belonged to the race of pre-Adamites, were therefore connected with the devil, and could not hope for salvation. M., on the basis of his study of Genesis and other passages, firmly advocated the unity of the human race and that any member of it could belong to the elect. His attitude to slavery was that advocated by the English Puritan Richard Baxter, that prisoners of war and criminals could be deprived of their freedom, but that the slave trade amounted to man-stealing, and was condemned in the Bible. This belief was backed up by M.’s exegesis of Genesis 10, the table of the nations, which did not appear to allow for the existence of the New World, something that had given rise to the pre-Adamite thesis. M. linked the ancestors of the Indians to the Scythians, and assumed that there had been a land bridge between Asia and America that enabled animals and humans to pass into the New World.
Several essays on various aspects of M.’s interpretation of the Bible reveal a man who, although living on the edge of the then learned world, was determined to play a central part in its discussions. Although German had not yet overtaken Latin in importance for scholarly information and debate, it was numbered among M.’s languages. He was abreast of all the developments in the emerging critical study of the Bible, and determined to defend the Bible’s integrity against its despisers. To this end, he partly agreed with the ›public scribes‹ theory of the composition of the Old Testament advanced by Richard Simon. The Pentateuch and parts of the prophetic books had not reached their final form until the time of Ezra. This in no way impugned the authority of the Bible. Another dis-pute with which M. engaged (discussed by R. Smolinski) was that of the possible Egyptian origin of aspects of Old Testament religion. He was not averse to mild rationalisation. He described the story of the sun standing still at the command of Joshua as ›a poetical hyperbole‹.
Although M. embraced a moderate Enlightenment position he had, like his contemporaries in Britain and the Continent of Europe a strong sense of the reality of a supernatural world, and this af- fected his views on witchcraft. An essay by Paul Wise shows how M.’s practice of prayer and fasting and his recording of death-bed ecstasies reinforced his convictions of the reality of a supernatural world. M. himself believed that he had been visited by an angel when he was twenty-two. With regard to witchcraft, the key biblical passage was that of the Witch of Endor conjuring up the ghost of Samuel, in 1 Samuel 28. To deny that this had happened was to impugn scripture. What had happened was that a witch had produced not the ghost of Samuel but an apparition that resembled Samuel. This belief caused M. to warn the judges at the Salem trials to treat with caution witnesses who said that they had seen par-ticular persons practising witchcraft. The witnesses could easily be deceived by the dark forces at work. This essay importantly shows that M.’s views on witchcraft were not, in fact, any different from those of contemporary divines in Britain and Europe, and there is an appendix of writings on the subject by such divines.
M. was a pre-millenarian, that is, he expected the thousand-year rule of Christ upon earth to begin in his lifetime, and was con- vinced by the calculations of William Whiston that the Second Coming would occur in 1716. An essay by D. Komline explores this theme and shows how M.’s belief that the Second Coming needed to be prepared for by a uniting of the churches led to M.’s call to churches in Britain and Europe to unite around a number of ›maxims‹. (O. Scheiding explores the contacts between M. and the German pietist August Hermann Francke). M. never relaxed his pre-millenarian beliefs, although they were modified by the outbreak of the Arian controversy in Britain in the early part of the eighteenth century, a controversy that persuaded M. that his hoped-for unity could not be realised. Other essays include a comparison of M. with Jonathan Edwards on the Letter of James, his attitude to gender issues and his use of Euhemerism.
The publication of the Biblia Americana is a major contribution to the history of biblical interpretation, but it also provides new material on the basis of which a scholar who has been misunderstood and misrepresented can be reappraised. This outstanding volume of essays achieves this end convincingly.