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  • All on an American Table: Cotton Mather’s Biblia Americana
  • Mitchell Breitwieser (bio)
The Biblia Americana: America’s First Bible Commentary, A Synoptic Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. Vol. 1: Genesis, Cotton Mather. Edited by Reiner Smolinski. Baker Academic Press, 2010.

My title takes a figure from Cotton Mather’s “New OFFER to the Lovers of Religion and Learning,” a pamphlet he wrote and had printed in 1713 or 1714 to advertise the manuscript of his Biblia Americana in hopes of securing an English publisher: “Many Thousands of those Fine Thoughts, whereof sometimes One or Two, or a very Few, have enabled the Writer to find some Acceptance in setting up for Authorism, are here together set upon the Table, in order to a Feast of Fat Things full of Marrow, of Wines in the Lees well refined” (Mather, BA 32). The table was a congenial figure that allowed Mather to depict himself as a servant, bringing the work of others to us, for our sustenance and pleasure. The Biblia is not his work, done from scratch; he has only gone round selecting, gathering, sorting, arranging, and setting it all before us in an attractive array. But though he wants to present himself as one who does secondary work, a kind of sous-auteur, the humility he aims to project is impeded by his ill-concealed intimation that he does what he does so very well, and so prodigiously, that his work surpasses in quality, magnitude and importance the primary work of those who produced one or a couple of the dishes brought to the table. This tacit grandiosity is manifest within the Biblia at those moments when Mather explains that the massive selecting, gathering, and sorting from primary material was exactly the sort of work God did when assembling the vast feast of Creation. But, Mather might reply, the grandeur belongs to my time, not me; the “Feast of Fat Things full of Marrow, of Wines in the Lees well refined” in Isaiah 25:6 will be served up at history’s glorious end, and Mather’s [End Page 381] reference to that particular feast indicates his feeling that the significance of the Biblia was conferred by history, to which he was, again, a diligent servant. More an assemblage than a composition, the Biblia was designed as a kind of ark, a preserving and renewing vessel, its production, Mather felt, a vital and necessary contribution to what his time and locale required, an urgent American catalyst to history’s last act. In this conviction that the tabular form of his book was especially suited to an American task, Mather anticipates a tradition of literary compendia, a national genre.

But the Biblia can’t be said to have inspired such subsequent works because it was never published. Mather began working on it in 1693, according to Reiner Smolinski, culling and gathering Bible-related lore from his copious library, affixing summaries of relevant information and theory to the appropriate verses and chapters. By 1706, he had tried to find a publisher but failed, a fate that also befell a second attempt in 1712. Smolinski contends that Mather was naïve; he didn’t have good connections among English bookmakers, there wasn’t much of a market for such a major new commentary, and the Biblia was an already unfeasibly large manuscript, too costly to produce, too unlikely to attract a requisite number of subscribers. About “three times as big as the Magnalia” when Mather wrote to Henry Walrond in 1716, it had “cost [him] exquisite Elaborations” (Diary 416). By then, Smolinski contends, Mather “appeared resigned to accept the inevitable” (Biblia 237), though in his diary he continues to hope that God will someday present his book to the world. But, amazingly, Mather continued to work on his opus, adding in large amounts of new text, as if it had not sunk in that the size of the manuscript had played a large part in its rejection, defying the logic of the eighteenth-century book market with a text that blossomed into what a commercial mind would have considered a preposterous size. Perhaps he did so because he trusted that...


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