"It is uncertain where the Fates will carry me": Cotton Mather's Theology of Finance
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JENNIFER JORDAN BAKER "It is uncertain where the Fates will carry me": Cotton Mather's Theology of Finance In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, first published almost a century ago, Max Weber argued that Puritan commercial energy was fueled by the spiritual anxiety that accompanied predestinar- ían theology. Calvinist predestinarians, Weber wrote, in trying to cope with the uncertainty of their spiritual destinies, often succumbed to the temptation to see material blessings as potential manifestation ofGod's blessing. Though they insisted that prosperity was the result of—and not the cause of—salvation, Puritans strove nevertheless to prove or "justify" publicly their divine election through the industrious and profitable pursuit of a calling.' As Weber and his scholarly successors also observed, such attempts to identify providential design were vexed at the outset, because predestinarianism ultimately denied the possibility of ever discerning God's plan with any certainty; these attempts were carried out, then, both as a result of and in contradiction to their belief that spiritual fate was predetermined and immutable. Though this thesis, as I will discuss, does not apply so easily to all American Puritans, the writings of Cotton Mather show signs of the bind Weber describes. While Mather insisted that God's grace brought "prosperity" in all its forms, he also maintained that economic culture offered no clues, no consolation for the individual looking to know the status of his or her soul. As I shall argue, this bind was complicated by Arizona Quarterly Volume 56, Number 4, Winter 2000 Copyright © 2000 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004- 1 6 10 Jennifer Jordan Baker the advent of financial credit systems and paper money in the 1690s and early 1700s. The New England economy, increasingly based on intangible and abstract forms of wealth during Mather's lifetime, only made more indecipherable the workings of providential dispensation. In Mather's writings, the credit instrument aptly evokes the precariousness of human existence. The coin, which despite appearances might actually be counterfeit or debased, served as a metaphor for the human soul that never fully reveals its status as saved or damned, and the financially speculative venture, undertaken with no guarantee of success , dramatized the predestinarían's always uncertain future. Though the financial themes of Mather's writings seem at first glance to reflect worldly concerns, such works never lose sight of the spiritual; rather, they are a vexed attempt to see spiritual and financial mechanisms at work simultaneously. Mather did not look to the economic world for answers; rather, he saw its inherent uncertainty as a test of human conviction. Financial vicissitudes were part of the human crisis and required a fortitude not unlike religious conviction. As he attempted to illustrate in The Life of William Phips, despair could devastate both the spirit and the precarious financial system built on public credit. Thus, Phips, a work of hagiography with a secular bent that has been the source of scholarly speculation, posits itself as an exemplum that is both theological and economic; it ultimately offers a lesson to readers —readers of credit bills, readers of providential dispensation, and readers of the biography itself—on how to maintain faith in the face of uncertainty. I turn to Mather not in an attempt to illuminate an overall New England Puritan mindset. Indeed, as Janice Knight has argued in her recent rereading of American Puritanism, this predestinarían anxiety and its resultant work ethic was not characteristic of all Puritans. "Preparationist " theology, which emphasized performance as a sign of salvation, gained ascendancy by the turn of the century and was enshrined in Mather's eccesiastical history of New England, Magnaiia Christi Americana . This theology ultimately came to represent Puritan orthodoxy in subsequent American historiography, and yet, Knight argues, another strain of American Puritan theology, which insisted on God's immediate and unconditional granting of grace and thus undermined the necessity ofpreparation and performance on the part of the recipient, had coexisted and challenged the latter theology throughout the seven- Cotton Mather's Theology of Finance teenth century (Knight 21 ).2 Anxiety, Knight concludes, was not the hallmark of all strains of Puritan piety, and so, if my readings of...