John Cotton (1584-1652)

By Joel R. Beeke

John Cotton is remembered as “the patriarch of New England.” He was born in Derby on December 4, 1584, the son of a lawyer, Roland Cotton, and Mary Hurlbert. His parents were sympathetic to Puritanism. Cotton entered Trinity College, Cambridge, at the age of thirteen, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1603. He was not yet converted. He said later that he inwardly rejoiced when he heard death bells toll for William Perkins, for Perkins’s strong preaching on human sin and divine judgment “laid siege to and beleaguered [Cotton’s] heart.”

Cotton became a fellow in the more Puritan­minded Emmanuel College, Cambridge, under Laurence Chaderton, where he earned his master’s degree in 1606. During the next six years, according to his friend and biographer, Samuel Whiting, Cotton was “head lecturer and dean, and catechist,” and “a diligent tutor to many pupils.” In the midst of those years, Cotton was converted under the ministry of Richard Sibbes, whose sermons convinced him that he had been building his salvation on intellectual prowess rather than on Christ alone. Through Sibbes’ sermons on regeneration, Cotton embraced God’s promises of salvation.
Cotton’s conversion had private and public consequences, for he could no longer use the elegant pulpit style that had impressed others. Denying his natural inclinations, he opted for Perkins’s method of plain style preaching.

Cotton obtained a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Emmanuel College in 1610, and later that year was ordained at Lincoln. In 1612, he became vicar of the large parish church of St. Botolph’s in Boston, Lincolnshire, at the age of twenty­seven, and remained there for twenty­one years. According to Cotton Mather, Cotton was brought to full assurance of faith on the day he married Elizabeth Horrocks, shortly after his installation at St. Botolph’s. On that day, Mather said, Cotton “first received that assurance of God’s love unto his own soul, by the Spirit of God, effectually applying His promise of eternal grace and life unto him which happily kept with him all the rest of his days; for which cause, he would afterwards often say, ‘God made that day, a day of double marriage to me!’” (Magnalia, 2:237).

During his years at St. Botolph’s, Cotton’s Nonconformity cost him brief suspensions from his ministry in 1615 and 1621, but his supportive relations with his diocesan bishops and the Boston community helped lift those suspensions. Cotton’s preaching (twice on the Sabbath as well as in the early morning on Thursdays and Fridays and on Saturday afternoons) and ministry defeated the local Arminian faction, helped Reformed believers grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ, and assisted numerous colleagues and theological students who were vexed by the bishops’ policies or were seeking deeper insight into various doctrines. For example, James Ussher spoke at length with Cotton about the doctrine of predestination. John Preston had his theological students complete their ministerial preparation under Cotton. William Ames sent some German students to Cotton from Franeker. Other students from the continent, such as Maximiliaan Teellinck (the oldest son of Willem Teellinck, father of the Dutch Second Reformation), came to live with and study under Cotton. John Norton, who would later be Cotton’s successor in Boston, New England, and his first biographer, said that “Cotton answered many letters that were sent far and near, wherein were handled many difficult cases of conscience, and many doubts by him cleared to the greatest satisfaction” (Abel being Dead yet Speaketh, 1658).

Anthony Tuckney, a cousin of Cotton’s wife, was appointed assistant to Cotton in 1629. Tuckney would eventually succeed Cotton at St. Botolph’s and would also serve as a member of the Westminster Assembly. The timing was providential, for the following year, both Cotton and his wife were disabled for a year from malaria. Elizabeth died from it in 1631.

Theophilus Clinton, fourth earl of Lincoln, hosted the Cottons while they were sick. At his manor, Cotton became well informed about the colonization of New England. His interest had already been piqued, as can be seen in the farewell sermon he preached to John Winthrop’s company just before they departed for America.

After his wife’s death, Cotton travelled extensively throughout Europe while recuperating. Increasingly, he realized how good he and his church had it in the midst of growing ecclesiastical persecution of Nonconformity. But Cotton’s turn to suffer oppression would soon come. Shortly after he married Sarah Hawkridge, widow of John Story, in 1632, Cotton was summoned to appear before William Laud’s Court of High Commission. He escaped, however, to London, where he remained in hiding for several months, as he contemplated his future. On the way to London, he consulted the venerable John Dod, who said, “I am old Peter, and therefore must stand still, and bear the brunt; but you, being young Peter [Cotton was already forty­seven years old], may go whither you will, and ought, being persecuted in one city, to flee unto another.”

Thomas Goodwin and John Davenport tried to persuade Cotton that conforming was not an evil, but in their discussions Cotton actually persuaded them that conformity was no longer an option. Cotton was deeply interested in the colonization of New England from its beginnings through his friendship with John Davenport and John Winthrop. Eluding the watch set for him at various English ports, he emigrated to the colony of Massachusetts Bay in July 1633 with his colleague, Thomas Hooker. He arrived in Boston early in September.

Cotton was joyfully received in New England and quickly given the most important position in the largest church of the colony. On October 10, he was chosen to be teacher of the First Church of Boston, of which John Wilson (1588–1667) was pastor. In the first year of Cotton’s ministry, the church took in 117 new members. Winthrop commented, “More were converted and added to that church than all the other churches in the Bay” (Journal of John Winthrop, p. 106).

Cotton was very popular in Boston. His influence, both in ecclesiastical and in civil affairs, was probably greater than that of any other minister in New England at the time. According to the historian William Hubbard, “Whatever he delivered in the pulpit was soon put into an order of court, if of a civil, or set up as a practice in the church, if of an ecclesiastical concernment.” Vernon Parrington commented, “The New England which the immigrant generation bequeathed to its sons bore upon it the marks of John Cotton’s shaping hand more clearly than those of any other minister” (Main Currents in American Thought, p. 27).

Cotton took an active part in three major theological and political controversies of his time. First, he was at the centre of the antinomian controversy that swirled around Anne Hutchinson. Hutchinson, who had followed Cotton to the New World and to Boston, claimed to adhere to Cotton’s emphasis on the primary of grace and divine sovereignty in conversion, and accused all the other New England ministers (except her newly arrived brother­in­law, John Wheelwright) of preaching a covenant of works rather than the covenant of grace. Enthusiastically embracing the doctrine of immediate revelation, she asserted that assurance of faith is experienced by inner feelings of the immediate testimony of the Holy Spirit rather than the evidence of good works. She thus downplayed the need for sanctification and for the law as a rule of life. This gifted woman attracted many believers into her fellowship and managed to cause friction between Cotton and other ministers, even to the point that some of the ministers, particularly Thomas Shepard, began to question Cotton’s orthodoxy. Cotton initially seemed to support Hutchinson and a few of her ideas, particularly a clerical overemphasis on sanctification as evidence of election and on preparationism. Cotton clearly embraced both of these doctrines, but felt uncomfortable with the amount of emphasis they were receiving among the New England clergy.

Hutchinson’s aberrational views were gradually brought out into the open, however, and when she openly lapsed into mysticism, Cotton sided with the other ministers against her. That became evident when Cotton’s fellow clergymen presented him with a list of questions to clarify his views in relation to Hutchinson, after which the synod detailed a list of Hutchinsonian errors. The controversy ended dramatically with Hutchinson’s trial and conviction both by the colony’s general court and by the Boston church, which led to her banishment from the colony.

Second, Cotton debated extensively with Roger Williams on such issues as the separation of church and state and the liberty of individual conscience. Williams maintained that the biblical precedent for the spiritual authority of the state was no longer valid after the coming of Christ because it had only been symbolic. Cotton responded that such an argument could be used to deny divine sanction of all civil government. Cotton also rejected Williams’ attempt to deny the religious power of the state, because he believed that without that power there could be no reformation. If Williams had his way, Cotton reasoned, there would be no ecclesiastical means to root out heresy, which would tempt God to destroy all of society. Cotton believed that punishment for false doctrine, however sincerely believed, was permissible after several admonitions, for then one, having been better instructed, “is not persecuted for cause of conscience, but for sinning against his own conscience.” Cotton tried to fend off Williams’ banishment, yet ultimately approved of it as “righteous in the eyes of God.” Ultimately, his banishment was a great relief for nearly all concerned.

Third, in 1646, Cotton was one of a committee of three chosen to frame a model of church government. The choice was no surprise for he had already written The Way of the Churches of Christ in New England (1641) and The Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Power Thereof (1644). These books, which went through several printings, were used extensively by the Independents at the Westminster Assembly. After being attacked by Robert Baillie, a Scottish attendee who advocated a Presbyterian settlement for England, Cotton responded in 1648 with his The Way of Congregational Churches Cleared, in which he presented New England Congregationalism as steering between strict independency and Presbyterianism. All of these writings were followed up with a final call to accommodation in Cotton’s Certain Queries Tending to Accommodation (1655). No New England minister was as influential as Cotton in promoting congregational church practice.

Cotton wrote nearly forty works in his lifetime, many of which have never been reprinted. His catechism, Milk for Babes (1646), bound with the New England Primer, became standard fare for New England children down to the late nineteenth century. His Exposition upon the Thirteenth Chapter of Revelation (1655) dealt with millennial issues, and together with The Pouring Out of the Seven Vials (1642) and The Churches Resurrection (1642), strongly opposed Roman Catholicism. These writings and others often touched on issues transpiring in England with which Cotton always stayed abreast.

Cotton was equally known for his Christ­like humility. For example, when one of his parishioners admonished him that his preaching had become dark or flat, Cotton responded, “Both, brother, it may be both: let me have your prayers that it may be otherwise.” That kind of humility sustained him in many conflicts. It also helped him maintain peace among his colleagues and made him very influential in fostering the New England way. Whether as an overseer of Harvard College, or writing on issues of the day in New England, as in The Grounds and Ends of the Baptism of Children (1647) and Singing of Psalms a Gospel Ordinance (1646), Cotton was a leader among leaders and a towering force to be reckoned with by any who opposed his views.

Cotton remained at First Church until his death on December 23, 1652. John Wilson was at his side in his last moments, praying that God would lift up the light of His countenance upon his dying colleague. Cotton’s replied, “He hath done it already, brother.” He then committed his children to God’s gracious covenant as their never­ failing portion, after which he requested to be alone. He died a few hours later.
Cotton was survived by his second wife, Sarah (who subsequently married Richard Mather), and several children. One son, Seaborn, so named because he was born on their voyage to America, graduated from Harvard and became a minister at Hampton, New Hampshire, for twenty­six years. Another son, John, Jr., became minister at Plymouth, Massachusetts and Charleston, South Carolina. He preached to the Indians and revised John Eliot’s Bible translation. A daughter, Mariah, married Increase Mather, and was the mother of Cotton Mather. Increase and Cotton Mather, both noted New England theologians, took up Cotton’s mantle.

Editor’s note: this biography, and the others in previous issues of the Quarterly are now published in Meet the Puritans. In this 897­page volume, Dr. Beeke and Mr. Randall Pederson have produced an encyclopaedia of Puritan worthies, choice extracts from their writings, together with a guide to modern reprints of their works. This spiritual treasure cannot be recommended highly enough.

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