John Cotton (1584-1652) was the leading clergyman of New England's first generation, a leader in civil and religious affairs, and a persuasive writer on the theory and practice of Congregationalism.
John Cotton was born in Derby, Derbyshire, England. His father, Roland Cotton, was a lawyer and ardent Puritan; his mother was a deeply religious woman. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, as a sizar in his thirteenth year, and earned a scholarship to Emmanuel, where he remained for 7 years, taking his bachelor of arts degree in 1603 and his master of arts in 1606. From childhood he had been inclined to the scholar's life, and he remained at Cambridge for 7 more years, taking a bachelor of divinity degree in 1613. Only one other first-generation New Englander held this advanced degree.
During his long experience in the cloistered Cambridge University life, Cotton had learned, in addition to his impressive fund of knowledge—biblical, theological, and ecclesiastical—certain political lessons as well, to be remembered to the last day of his life; among them how to disagree and yet conform, how to be true to his own convictions and yet at the same time to be safe. He saw both sides of every question in every controversy of his career, and when he took his own position with regard to any one of the issues involved, it would be, in his own words, "a middle way." To approach his mature life with this practical political secret in mind is to find the apparent enigmas about Cotton disappearing.
Aged 29, Cotton became the vicar of the church of St. Botolph in Boston, Lincolnshire. Conscientious Puritan that he was, from the beginning of his 20-year pastorate there, he substituted many simpler forms in the liturgy and succeeded in carrying most of his congregation with him in these changes. He escaped suspicion and remained presumably safe through the employment of a lecturer, a complete conformist, who conducted the more formal services, which would be more closely watched for strict conformity. Under the eye of Archbishop Laud, however, no service would go unwatched, concealment would not be so easy, and suspicion did come.
Escape to America
In the spring of 1632 Cotton received a summons to the Court of High Commission. Knowing what was ahead, he did not appear but went into hiding. On May 7 he sent his resignation from the post of vicar at St. Botolph's to the bishop of London and remained in hiding. Later, with his newly married second wife, he embarked in disguise for New England. He was a close friend of John Winthrop, had preached the farewell sermon at Southampton to the vanguard of Winthrop's company in 1630, and had kept in touch with the New England Boston happenings since that date. His first thought for immediate escape had been Holland, but Thomas Hooker's report had changed his plan.
Cotton arrived in Boston on Sept. 4, 1633, and on Sept. 30 was made teacher of the Boston church, a post which he continued to hold for the 19 years he had yet to live. Through these years he was a leading figure in civil as well as religious affairs. Among pulpit men he was the most learned in America, not so eloquent as Thomas Hooker of Hartford and not so persuasive as John Davenport of New Haven, but these two men were his nearest rivals. He stood at the top.
One of Cotton's early civil services was the preparation of an abstract of the laws of New England which was, however, rejected by the colony in favor of one nearer to the Mosaic code. During his first 10 years he had a prominent part in the two controversies which rocked New England to its deepest foundations, the exile of Roger Williams and the heresies of Anne Hutchinson. The Williams controversy unearthed the basic question of the relation between church and state. Magistrates are God's deputies and their power goes as far as life and death, said Cotton. Roger Williams declared that a man's religious loyalties are untouchable by civil power. They were speaking for a future neither man would live to see. In the Anne Hutchinson controversy Cotton was in one of the most uncomfortable situations of his life. At the synod called to list her errors, he split hairs with the accusing brethren over scriptural interpretations to justify his own orthodox preaching; at her trial before the church he strenuously tried to guide her in an orthodox path, only to be obliged to turn against her at the end. This was no doubt a sad moment for him. He had tried to save her and orthodoxy at the same time, but it could not be.
Cotton's printed record is impressive. His exposition of early Congregationalism's purpose and practice is probably his most valuable contribution to American religious history. Among the several titles which illuminate this subject are The Keyes of the Kingdom of Heaven (1644), The Way of the Churches of Christ in New England (1645), and The Way of Congregational Churches Cleared (1645). A statement of his religious views called forth by the Anne Hutchinson controversy in 1636 appears in Sixteen Questions of Serious and Necessary Consequences Propounded unto Mr. John Cotton with His Answers (1644). The best volume for the two overlapping debates with Roger Williams is The Bloudy Tennent Washed and Made White in the Bloud of the Lambe (1644), together with The Controversie concerning Liberty of Conscience in Matters of Religion (1646, 1649). Perhaps the most familiar title in his long list is Milk for Babes, Drawn out of the Breasts of Both Testaments (1646), which contains the substance of 100 sermons and recalls the discipline of uncounted children over three generations.
In his own day Cotton was of great importance. But in the long view of 3 centuries he was not a great man. He belonged to the 17th century and within tight limits. He did not see the changes that were already at work within his own Boston. He had no sympathy with the common man. But the world of willing obedience to authority would not be the world of the future in America. For these reasons his life and thought probably reveal more of what lay behind America's history in its first chapter than those of any other public man of his generation.
Further Reading on John Cotton
Two early accounts of Cotton are by his grandson, Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana: The Ecclesiastical History of New England (2 vols., 1702), and by his friend Samuel Whiting, Concerning the Life of the Famous Mr. Cotton, which can be found in Alexander Young, Chronicles of the First Planters of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay from 1623 to 1636 (1846). The best modern study is Larzer Ziff, The Career of John Cotton (1962). There is an extensive treatment of Cotton in Perry Miller, Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, 1630-1650 (1933). Studies devoted to particular aspects of Cotton's life are Emery Battis, Saints and Sectaries (1962), which recounts Cotton's involvement in the Anne Hutchinson controversy, and Irwin H. Polishook, Roger Williams, John Cotton and Religious Freedom (1967), which attempts a balanced view of the Williams-Cotton controversy.
Additional Biography Sources
Norton, John, Abel being dead, yet speaketh: a biography of John Cotton, Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1978.