Cotton Mather and the Salem Witch Trials

Cotton Mather was born on February 12, 1663, in Boston, USA, to Increase Mather. He was grandson to Richard Mather and John Cotton, thus his first name, Cotton.

He was to become a leading Congregational minister of Boston’s Old North church, the most celebrated New England writer of his day, and one of the founders of Yale University. Altogether he wrote about 450 books!

His scientific papers won him “a coveted election to the Royal Society of London in 1713” – indeed his studies in inoculation “may be said to mark the beginning of preventive medicine in the Western world” (Who’s Who in Christian History, page 461). He persuaded Zabdiel Boylston to inoculate against smallpox and supported the unpopular inoculation even when his life was threatened.

These days, however, he is remembered mainly for the role he played in the infamous Salem witch trials when teenage girls began accusing various folk in the community of being witches. As a result 20 people were hung and about 200 imprisoned. And Cotton Mather wrote in defence of these proceedings.

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The whole process began when four daughters of a Boston mason, John Goodwin, complained of sudden pains. Mather suspected that witchcraft may be the cause, particularly suspecting an Irish washerwoman named Mary Glover. His book “Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions” (1689) outlined his beliefs on the matter.

When a court was set up to investigate the situation, three of the five judges were from Mather’s congregation and were influenced by Mather to respect what was called ‘spectral’ evidence and the confessions of the witches.

The number of those who confessed increased, prompting Mather to conclude that a veritable army of devils had been sent against them. He preached on August 4, 1692, that the Last Judgement was imminent. On August 19 ex-minister George Burroughs was executed by hanging, on Gallows Hill. However, Burroughs successfully quoted the Lord’s Prayer, which was thought impossible by a witch. Mather insisted on the execution, because Burroughs had been found guilty at trial.

Mather’s involvement in these proceedings mired his reputation and takes focus from his many worthy achievements as a man of God impacting the culture of his day.

An interesting comment in his diary reveals something of the Puritan zeal in those days. He tells us how the Lord helped him preach for three hours at a young people’s meeting – despite the fact he only had one hour for preparation. “And a good day it was!” he adds (Prophets of the Soul, by J. Gray, page 25).

His religious leadership and political influence continued in the spirit of his forefathers, to advance learning and education and to make New England a cultural centre. He hoped to become president of Harvard, which did not happen, but was one of the moving spirits in the founding of Yale.

Cotton Mather died on 13 February – the day after his 65th birthday – in 1728.

Find hundreds of succinct Church History posts at: http://chrisfieldblog.com/topics/ministry/church-history

This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com

Robert William Dale at Carr’s Lane Birmingham

Robert William Dale was born in London, UK, on December 11, 1829. Bobbie’s father made hat trimmings and his mother was determined that he would be a preacher. In his mid teens he engaged in philosophical discussions, being an assistant school-master at age fourteen. He came to faith in Christ through reading James’s “Anxious Enquirer” on his knees, coming to a total confidence in Christ’s atoning work.

Dale began preaching at fifteen, showing the potential of a great preacher. During his preparation for ministry he learned literary style from Henry Rogers, who wrote for the Spectator. The brilliant Birmingham preacher, George Dawson, exemplified for Dale commitment to social ideals from the pulpit.

Dr John Angel James, pastor of Birmingham’s important Carr’s Lane Congregational Church for fifty years, saw Dale as a worthy replacement. When Dale achieved his MA from London University, Dale was made assistant pastor, then co-pastor with Dr. James. When James died in 1859 Dale was made sole pastor at Carr’s Lane, holding that position for 36 years.

During that time he became a major force in English Congregationalism – and through his writings his influence circled the globe.

He threw himself behind the Moody-Sankey revival in 1875. He encouraged a young Campbell Morgan. He wrote volumes on Bible doctrine, which made him a household name in the Christian world of his day. Many key figures were greatly influenced by Dale, including a young Andrew M. Fairbairn, the future principal of Mansfield College, Oxford, who went to Birmingham to meet the author of sermons that profoundly impacted him.

Dale was Birmingham’s greatest preacher and one of the world’s most influential voices in the pulpit. He blended the theism of his Puritan roots, with deep personal experience of God, from the revivalism of Wesley. He eloquently resisted the message of the Tractarian movement, which sought to elevate the authority of the church. Dale also resisted the moral view of the work of Christ, popularised in Bushnell’s Vicarious Sacrifice, which saw Christ’s work as to influence men, not to pay the penalty demanded by God.

Dales Theology, however, had some insufficient elements, for which he is criticised, including belief that sinners are annihilated, rather than punished eternally in hell. However, he came to his thoughts from a sincere attempt to be Biblical and to create a consistent theory of salvation. He was keen to see theory developed to support what we know to be Biblical fact.

Dale was also active in civic matters, leading to his involvement in politics as well. He also did much to promote education, along with his extensive writings, which were published around the world. He travelled to Australia, America and Palestine.

He died at the age of 76 (March 13, 1895) and all Birmingham and England mourned his passing. Thousands lined the streets and stood outside his funeral service to honour this man who had lived a life of amazing energy and versatility and a life of great achievement.

This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com

Richard Baxter Preaches with the Puritans

Richard Baxter was born on November 12, in 1615. The place was Shropshire, England.

Born to parents who had little regard for education, Baxter was largely self-educated, suffered with various bodily infirmities, and knew the reality of persecution in his lifetime … but nevertheless he was to become “one of the foremost Puritan spokesmen within the Church of England”.

Richard Baxter has been described as “one of the most successful preachers and pastors of the Christian church” (Who was Who in Church History, by E. Moyer).

During his education at a free school and then the royal court he became disgusted at the frivolity he saw around him. He left to study divinity and was ordained into the Church of England ministry at age 23. There he found common ground with the Puritans, who at that time were a faction within the church who opposed the church’s form of government. The Puritan movement was at that time splintering into factions.

Baxter did his best to avoid the disputes between Anglicans, Congregationalists, Presbyterians and other denominations, promoting cooperation between local ministers where he could. He was fond of saying, “In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity”.

However Baxter held strong personal convictions, even being opinionated in his theology.

Ordained by the Presbyterian Church, he served as minister at Kidderminster from 1641 until 1660. But “The Act of Uniformity” of 1662 put an end to his official ministry. This Act demanded that every clergyman must give “unfeigned consent and assent” to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and accept ordination by a bishop, among other issues.

Suffice to say Baxter – and something like 2000 others – refused to bow the knee to this attack on religious freedom and were ousted from their parishes. He stood for liberty of conscience in worship and church government. And it cost him his freedom. Twice, in 1685 and again in 1686, he was imprisoned for continuing to preach although ‘unlicensed’ to do so – this latter time for two years.

He penned over 160 books – many of them best sellers in his day, and some still being re-printed more than 400 years later … and he had 60 written against him! (Heroes of the Faith, by F. Ballard, page 24).

Because of his moderate stand he became a peacemaker during the English Civil Wars, believing in the monarchy but wanting their powers limited. He was chaplain to the Parliamentary army, but then helped to restore the King.

Several classics came from his pen. The Saints’ Everlasting Rest was one of the most widely read books of the century. A Call to the Unconverted later influenced the young Spurgeon, as he tells us in his autobiography. Reformed Liturgy was written in a mere two weeks in response to a question about what deviations should be permitted from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. His Christian Directory contains over one million words. The Reformed Pastor is his autobiography and his pastoral guide, and is still widely read today.

Theologically Baxter is described as, wait for it, Latitudinarian! He saw society as a large family under a loving father, and in his theology, he tried to balance the extremes. He eventually registered himself as “a mere Nonconformist“, which was a technical term for those who were “not Anglican”. He broke with the Church of England mainly due to disempowerment of parish clergy.

One of his most famous sayings bears repeating – “I preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man pleading with dying men.”

On 8 December, 1691, Richard Baxter went home to “the Saints’ Everlasting Rest”.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.

John Milton Applies His Talents to His Faith

John Milton died on November 8, 1674. He is described as “the greatest poet of Christian themes England has produced”.

Born to a family of means in London on 9 December, 1608, his Christian convictions were most probably invoked through his mother, Sarah, who is described as a very religious person. His genius for poetry revealed itself at an early age. His paraphrase of Psalm 136 was written when he was 15 years of age …
Let us with a gladsome mind
praise the Lord for He is kind …

Originally it had 24 stanzas.

Milton considered himself destined for ministry, and was first taught languages by his father, then was schooled at St Paul’s School and Christ’s College Cambridge. After a year at Cambridge he was suspended for a fist fight with his tutor. Milton held his beliefs firmly. He was not particularly liked by the other students. At Cambridge he composed “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” on Christmas Day 1629.

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After graduation he spent time at home, engaged in literature, and then went to the Continent where he met many notables, including Galileo (then under house arrest by the church), the Pope’s nephew Cardinal Barberini and Calvinist theologian Giovanni Diodati.

Milton returned to London and was then caught up in the English Civil War. He became secretary to Oliver Cromwell writing political treatises to counter critical works originating on the Continent. He also wrote several prose works from a Puritan perspective including pamphlets against the episcopy.

At the age of 44 he became totally blind – but continued to write political treatises.

Then – in later life – he turned back to poetry.

His epic work, Paradise Lost, in which he “sought to justify the ways of God to man” was published in ten volumes in 1667. The copyright was sold for 5 pounds Sterling at a time when Milton’s finances had taken a turn for the worse.

Milton’s blindness made huge demands on his creativity. He would compose verses at night and commit them to memory, then dictate them to his daughters or other assistants in the morning.

Many of Milton’s religious views were at variance to Puritan theology, including his disbelief in the divine birth.

His domestic life was sad. His first wife, 17 year old Mary Powell, who married him when he was twice her age, left him after “a few weeks” then returned two years later (1645) and bore him three daughters.

After her death he re-married (1656), but his second wife died two years later.

At the age of 58 he married again to a much younger woman, despite the opposition of his daughters, and this third wife seemed to bring him peace in his last eight years.

His last manuscript, A Treatise of Christian Doctrine, in Latin, was not found until about 150 years after his death. It reveals Arian views – and a willingness to tolerate polygamy … (Chambers Biographical Dictionary).

Paradise Lost is controversial in its Christian message, subtly presenting Satan as the real hero of the poem. Romantic poet William Blake stated that Milton is “a true Poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”

Find hundreds of succinct Church History posts at: http://chrisfieldblog.com/topics/ministry/church-history

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.

Matthew Henry Gives Us His Grand Commentary

This is the day that Matthew Henry was born in a Welsh farmhouse in Shropshire, England, close to the border of England and Wales, in 1662.

His father, Philip, had been ejected from his church for refusing to ‘bow the knee’ to the king’s demands. His non-conformist views would not allow him to recognize the king as “Head of the Church” nor be compelled to use the Prayer Book. Submitting to ordination by a bishop was also anathema to him.

Along with nearly two thousand other ministers, Philip Henry had refused to submit to the Act of Uniformity, which had come into effect on 24 August 1662 and was radically opposed to all that Puritans like Henry stood for.

So young Matthew grew up in a godly home where Christian principles and conscience were adhered to – regardless of the consequences.

Matthew apparently suffered from a weak constitution during his childhood. But what he lacked in physical health he made up for in spiritual vigour. There is credible evidence that he could read the Scriptures when only three years old. His conversion took place before he turned eleven. Ion Henry’s words, one of his father’s sermons ‘melted’ him and caused him to ‘enquire after Christ’.

Taught at first by his father, an excellent educator, Matthew gained further education from nonconformist schools and at one time studied law. But he kept his focus on the ministry calling, taking occasion to preach where ever he could. The dissenters of Chester liked what they heard and invited him to be their minister.

Henry began his ministry with Presbyterian ordination on 9 May, 1687. Over the course of the next two decades his Chester congregation increased to more than 350 members. Not surprisingly, his success as a pastor caused other churches to seek him as their minister.

His first wife died in childbirth, in 1689. The following year he wed Mary Warburton – and all three children born to them died in infancy.

For 25 years he ministered at Chester. After rejecting many calls by other churches he finally chose to pastor a dissenting church in Hackney, London, so he could be closer to printers, in view of the large commentary he was composing.

Ill health plagued him. He suffered from diabetes and repeated attacks of kidney stones.

In June, 1714, while on a preaching tour of Cheshire, he was thrown from his horse and taken to the house of a nearby parson, where he died the following morning, 22 June, 1714, aged 52.

While Henry wrote a number of worthy works, his memory lives on in his monumental Commentary, The Exposition of the Old and New Testaments. Henry had begun this massive work in November 1704. By the time of his death ten years later, the project had got as far as the end of the book of Acts. It would be finished by a number of ministers after his death.

The commentary is quintessentially Puritan. It focuses on biblical spirituality and is alert to the need to glorify God in the whole of life. It is also chock-full of the terse and piquant aphorisms that the Puritans delighted to use to penetrate the hearts of their hearers and readers. Here are a few examples:
‘God’s grace can save souls without preaching, but our preaching cannot save them without God’s grace, and that grace must be sought by prayer’ (on Ezekiel 37:1-14).

‘Ministers may be serving Christ, and promoting the great ends of their ministry, by writing good letters, as well as by preaching good sermons’ (on Acts 18:7-11).

‘It is easier to build temples than to be temples to God’ (on 2 Chronicles 24:1-14).

‘The pleasures of sense are puddle-water; spiritual delights are rock water, so pure, so clear, so refreshing — rivers of pleasure’ (on Exodus 17:1-7).

‘The beauty of holiness is that which the grave, that consumes all other beauty, cannot touch, or do any damage to’ (on Psalm 49:6-14).

George Whitefield, we are told, read Henry’s commentary through four times … on his knees!

Spurgeon speaks of Matthew Henry’s Commentary as “first among the mighty” – and recommends that every minister of the gospel should read it through “once at least”.

Charles Wesley (1707-1788) was so moved by Henry’s comments on Leviticus 8:35 that he based one of his most famous hymns on them. Henry had written: ‘we have every one of us a charge to keep, an eternal God to glorify, an immortal soul to provide for, needful duty to be done, our generation to serve; and it must be our daily duty to keep this charge, for it is the charge of the Lord our Master, who will shortly call us to an account about it’. Gripped by this comment, Wesley sat down to write “A charge to keep I have”.

One does not have to agree with everything this great Puritan said to be blessed indeed by his Scriptural reflections.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.