Short yet brimming. Solemn yet warm. Seasoned yet insightful.
Cotton Mather is a familiar and contemptible name. It is a name associated with the infamous Salem Witch Trials invoking negative images of early colonial New England and its Puritanical rigidity. As certain as Michael Servetus’ name is to be brought up in a conversation about Calvinism, Mather’s name is guaranteed to be cited to destroy the credibility of American Puritanism (and I have experienced this on multiple occasions). But is it that simple? Should Mather be judged solely on the basis of this single event where his own involvement may have been grossly exaggerated? Should the influence of the American Puritans as a whole be suppressed because of the tarnished reputation of one of their prominent ministers? Should Christians in the 21st century disassociate themselves from this man and the movement he was apart of? These are some of the questions that Nate Pickowicz addresses in “The Forgotten Cotton”—his introduction to Cotton Mather’s Manuductio ad Ministerium or DIRECTIONS FOR A Candidate OF THE MINISTRY.
Recognizing that Mather is probably the most vilified person in American church history, Pickowicz argues that Mather’s tarnished reputation is the result of a massive hatchet job—a malicious campaign to disparage not only the man but his Bible, theology, and Gospel. He shows how this prejudice against Mather began in his own time, was continued later by the Unitarians, and the torch was passed on to modern liberal historians. The common motive behind all these different periods of defamation was not justice for the alleged occultists, but the eradication of the biblical, historical, reformed theology of the Puritans. This should make the reformed Christian in the 21st century skeptical of any claim that Mather was nothing but some barbaric, witch-hunting bigot. This is not to deny that he was an imperfect man in his day, but to realize that his faults have been grossly over-exaggerated with an ill intent. Pickowicz effectively argues his point and makes a compelling case for the relevance of Cotton Mather—the reformed minister. If we can get over the initial fear and discomfort of associating with him, there will be much to recover from Mather and other American Puritans. I believe that the book itself verifies this claim.
DIRECTIONS is an introduction to the office of the Christian minister. Mather presents the pastorate as an unavoidably solemn office and effectively does so by beginning the book with a chapter on the contemplation of death: “I advise you to consider yourself as a dying person” (37). This sentiment continues throughout the rest of the book. From beginning to end, it is vibrantly theological. Mather continually proposes the glory of God as the regular and perpetual aim of the minister’s life: “That I may truly live, Oh! May the life of God, and of His Christ be thus manifested in me!” (47). He emphasizes the sufficiency of Scripture, the sovereign grace of God, and declares the Doctrines of Grace to be the articles on which the church stands or falls. Further, this is a passionately Christ-centered book. He shows that the Father and the Spirit glorify Christ and argues that the minister must also magnify the excellencies of Christ, not only in his sermons, but in his life: “Yea, let the motto upon your whole ministry be: CHRIST IS ALL” (155).
Combating ministerial mediocrity, Mather presents a ministry that is devoutly industrious. Arguing with the two greatest commandments, he calls the pastor to be faithful where he is, but encourages him to steadily expand his circles of influence beyond what he first imagined: “Think: What good is to be proposed and promoted here!” (62). Instead of chasing after fleeting vanity, he pleads with the minister to promote the kingdom of God and the welfare of men as much more valuable investments. Further, combating intellectual laziness, he prescribes a ministry that is rigorously academic. On top of the biblical languages, He calls for a familiarity with Latin in particular and sciences such as rhetoric, logic, metaphysics, ethics, poetry, natural philosophy, mathematics, world history, and church history. Mather encourages this breadth and versatility not to boost self-esteem, but to bolster the ministerial skill in the duties that naturally require a certain depth of concentration, comprehension, coherence, and cogency. Another unique aspect of the book is that it proposes a ministry that is intentionally holistic. Rather than a compartmentalized ministry that breeds complacency, hypocrisy, or pride, Mather calls for a pastor to be faithful in his public ministry of preaching and teaching, his inter-personal ministry of counseling and catechizing, and his personal ministry of worship and introspection.
To be completely honest, this is a seasoned book. It is replete with Latin phrases translated in the footnotes. It is filled with antiquated reading recommendations that are unfamiliar and out of print. It is awkward at times and comical at others—he recommends horse riding for exercise and water for the diluting of strong beer. But even with all of this, I found Mather to be aptly insightful. All of his principles—his MAXIMS of PIETY—translate well to our day (worship, responsibility, self-control, moderation). You can expect to find very practical advice from a seasoned pastor regarding personal health, study habits, preaching skills, conflict resolution, and dealing with criticism. I was deeply encouraged and motivated to carry on the mission with a greater devotion and zeal for God’s glory and man’s eternal welfare.
Written toward the end of his life, Mather’s DIRECTIONS carries not only the personal touch of a Pauline epistle to a young Timothy, but a discernible weight and earnestness. It is a shame that it ever fell out of print. Its antiquity, solemnity, warmth, and versatility will provide you with a unique reading experience that will captivate your attention and bring clarity and conviction to your ministry. DIRECTIONS is now a strong contender once again fighting for its rightful place on your shelf next to other classic books on the Christian ministry such as Spurgeon’s or Still’s, Baxter’s or Bridges. As I read through the book, all the taint and tarnish of Cotton Mather’s reputation began to fade away. Could this be a comeback for the Mathers and the American Puritans? It is too early to tell, but I certainly do hope so.