- The Christian Philosopher
Poor Cotton Mather! For well over two centuries now he has been a popular icon of unctuous self-righteousness, superstitious fanaticism, and dogmatic intolerance. Nor has endorsement of this stereotype been confined to casual laypersons who know of Mather only from lurid accounts of Salem witch-hunting. Scholars who ought to know better often buy into it. Perry Miller, the doyen of early American studies, consistently wrote of Mather in a particularly unsympathetic manner. More odious, as Professor Solberg reminds us (p. xciii), was the treatment by historians at a Florida planetarium who in 1982 put together a short film on early European and American doomsday predictors which included segments on Mather the astronomer. When these segments appeared, a projector was programmed to flash the words “Feel Free to Boo and Hiss” on the planetarium’s dome—an invitation which audiences, presumably, gleefully accepted.
Mather deserves better than this, and Winton Solberg’s critical edition of The Christian Philosopher goes a long way towards rehabilitating the Puritan divine. Along with recent studies such as Kenneth Murdock’s edition of Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana (1977) and Kenneth Silverman’s masterful The Life and Times of Cotton Mather (1984), Solberg’s study painstakingly presents us with a detailed account of a man who undoubtedly was one of the most important literary figures in early America.
Mather published The Christian Philosopher in 1721, seven years before his [End Page 167] death and eight years after being named to the Royal Society of London. The book was both the culmination of a lifetime of learning as well as a calculated effort on Mather’s part to show that his election to the prestigious Royal Society was deserved. The book is the first attempt by an American-born author to take a comprehensive look at the “new learning” associated with that period known since as the Enlightenment. Mather was an omnivorous reader and an equally thorough observer of natural phenomena, and he welcomed the scientific interpretations of reality offered by such savants as Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, and John Ray. In the mind of Mather, such explanations posed no challenge to the Christian worldview. On the contrary, he concluded, they supported it by providing clear and indisputable evidence of design in nature. The Christian Philosopher (or, in more contemporary jargon, The Christian Scientist) is Mather’s attempt to defend this thesis. It is an exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting!) compendium of data gleaned from the natural realm which, in Mather’s judgment, irrefutably points to the existence of a grand Designer. Although Mather explicitly claimed that his primary goal in writing the book was to demonstrate that atheism is contrary to reason, he also penned one of the New World’s first systematic Enlightenment documents.
One of the difficulties in reading The Christian Philosopher traditionally has been the sheer breadth of learning that went into its composition. Mather cites over four hundred books, includes hundreds of allusions to classical and scriptural sources, and so inundates the reader with evidence in support of his fundamental design argument that it is quite easy to lose one’s way. Professor Solberg has considerably lightened these burdens with his critical edition. He prefaces Mather’s text with a masterful 115-page introduction which places the work in its historical context as well as analyzes its methodology and arguments. Moreover, his edition includes 170 pages of endnotes, biographical notes, biblical references and a recapitulation of Mather’s own sources. Finally, Solberg supplies almost each page of Mather’s text with footnotes that identify literary or scriptural allusions and translate Mather’s liberal use of Greek and Latin quotations.
Solberg’s edition of The Christian Philosopher will prove, I’m confident, to be the definitive text. It is an invaluable reference tool for the specialist, but it can also serve as a friendly and intriguing introduction for the layperson. Convinced Puritan-bashers who read this study may still regard Mather’s worldview with distaste, but I suspect that Solberg’s sensitive...