- “Confined unto a Low Chair”Reading the Particulars of Disability in Cotton Mather’s Miracle Narratives
In his Election Day sermon to the General Assembly of Massachusetts Bay on May 27, 1696, Cotton Mather prophesied the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God: “The Tidings which I bring unto you, are, That there is a REVOLUTION and a REFORMATION at the very Door, which will be vastly more Wonderful, than any of the Deliverances, yet seen by the Church of God” (Things 33−34). The evidence for this vision was drawn in part from scriptural calculation of the promised end of the Roman church, but Mather also saw prelusive glimmers of the millennium in recent wonderful events. Now that the “Antichristian Apostasy” was plainly doomed, he had reason to believe God’s miraculous power was returning to the world: “For there seems as if there were an Age of Miracles now Dawning upon us” (36). As in the last great age of miracles, in the days of the early church, these wonderful works were making themselves known in the very bodies of the faithful:
Persons who have had their Limbs miserably disjointed, Persons that have had Inveterate Palseyes, Incurable Fistula’s, Desperate Leprosies; These Persons, as they have been Reading the Ancient Miracles of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Spirit of Christ hath wonderfully given them, the Faith of His doing the like for them; and Behold, they have … been by the like Miracles, perfectly and presently recovered out of all their Maladies.(36)
Mather was at pains to avoid the appearance of “meer Conjecture” (35) in his prophecy, and these miraculous healings offered immediate, visible evidence to bolster millennial hopes. Just as the “Ancient Miracles” had sealed and certified Christ’s divinity in his days on earth, so now they presaged his return. The passage above attempts to reproduce the wonder of viewing [End Page 53] the miracle, and so to evoke in the reader a sense of harmony and divine simplification: “Behold, they have … been by the like Miracles, perfectly and presently recovered.” In Mather’s account these afflicted bodies, with all their bewildering array of disjointed limbs, palsies, fistulas, and leprosies, are resolved by miraculous power into the singularity of perfect and present recovery. Yet there is a difference between witnessing a miracle and experiencing it in narrative form. In the moment of its action the supernatural event itself entirely effaces the human physical particulars that went before. Palsies, fistulas, and the like vanish without a trace in the perfection of recovery. This power of annihilation is beyond the reach of narrative re-creation. The impaired bodies that were transformed by miracle, in their arresting variety and particularity, have left a distinctive trace—what I will call the particulars of disability. These particulars remain in the text, available for our continuing consideration. In this essay, I read such archival traces as contributing to, and helping to construct, an important early American discourse of disability, rooted in the exercise of Protestant piety. Close attention to these particulars of disability in Mather’s miracle narratives has two central benefits. First, it reveals how Mather framed disability as a theological and spiritual category, rooted in humanity’s collective responsibility for original sin. Second, it makes it clear that Mather’s interpretive strategies can obstruct and narrow our reading of early American disability, even as they provide the material for it. The response that I propose to these obstructions is a turn back to those same particulars of impairment, using the analytical perspective provided by contemporary disability studies to read them against and outside Mather’s exhortations. Mather’s sermon appeared in print later in 1696, under the title Things for a Distress’d People to Think Upon. In that text he expanded on these wondrous events by appending seven narratives of recent miraculous cures of Protestants in France and England. Perhaps the most famous account in Mather’s appendix of miracles was the story of a French girl named Mary Maillard, whose instantaneous healing had been chronicled in a number of English publications in the preceding years.1 Maillard was the daughter of Huguenot refugees who had...