- A Singular Man Cotton Mather Reappraised
As Cotton Mather was a very distinguished man, Grandfather took some pains to give the children a lively conception of his character. Over the door of his library were painted these words—BE SHORT—as a warning to visitors that they must not do the world so much harm, as needlessly to interrupt this great man’s wonderful labors. On entering the room, you would probably behold it crowded, and piled, and heaped with books. There were huge, ponderous folios and quartos, and little duodecimos, in English, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chaldaic, and all other languages, that either originated at the confusion of Babel, or have since come into use.
All these books, no doubt, were tossed about in confusion, thus forming a visible emblem of the manner in which their contents were crowded into Cotton Mather’s brain. And in the middle of the room stood a table, on which, besides printed volumes, were strewn manuscript sermons, historical tracts, and political pamphlets, all written in such a queer, blind, crabbed, fantastical hand, that a writing-master would have gone raving mad at the sight of them. By this table stood Grandfather’s [End Page 475]chair, which seemed already to have contracted an air of deep erudition, as if its cushion were stuffed with Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and other hard matters.Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Famous Old People,” 93
biblia americana and the mather project
Since Cotton Mather’s death in 1728, those multitudinous “manuscript sermons, historical tracts, and political pamphlets,” written in Cotton Mather’s “fantastical hand” and strewn across his library table, have been bought, sold, inherited, transferred, tucked away—some surely lost—and preserved, piecemeal or intact, in one form or another, by private parties or by archives and manuscript libraries around the world. Now, at long last, going on three hundred years later, all the extant specimens of Cotton Mather’s writing will be collected and catalogued in an enormously ambitious, international publishing enterprise involving not only the “wonderful labors” of “this great man” but also the written labors of the entire Mather Dynasty: Richard, Increase, and Cotton. Its organizers describe “the Mather Project” in these words:
In focusing on the Mather Family, a renowned dynasty of Puritan ministers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, our aim is similar to that of the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University and its online database of The Works of Jonathan Edwards: to stimulate interest in the intellectual contributions of some of the foremost founders and leaders of the New England Way and to provide access to the unpublished and select number of published family papers of Richard Mather (1596–1669), Increase Mather (1639–1723), and Cotton Mather (1663–1728).(Smolinski et al.)
In recent years, the printedworks of the Mathers (about seven hundred titles) have been made available electronically through such companies as Early English Books Online(Chadwyck-Healey), Eighteenth-Century Collection Online(Gale), and Readex(NewsBank). The Mather Project intends to locate, transcribe, annotate, and introduce the many unpublished(and some selections of the published) writings of the Mathers. The project will then make these previously unpublished works available in a searchable online database. 1
The current Mather Project has emerged as an extension of an earlier, and [End Page 476]still under-way, large-scale enterprise: the publication of Cotton Mather’s hitherto unpublished Biblia Americana, the first American, comprehensive, chapter-and-verse commentary on the King James Version of the Bible. Cotton Mather gave it this subtitle: “The Sacred Scriptures of the Old and New Testament Illustrated,” and he worked on it tirelessly, indeed gleefully, over thirty-five years, at times writing his commentaries, his “illustrations,” on a daily basis. He attempted unsuccessfully to find a publisher. Its sheer...