A "New" Cotton Mather?

If his most recent biographer dubbed Cotton Mather "America's national gargoyle" (Kenneth Silverman), there is little of this ghoulish caricature to be found in Biblia Americana. Quite to the contrary, a completely different Mather emerges from the more than 4,500 ms. pages (folio) of this document: an urbane, erudite scholar philosopher who has long transcended narrow partisan exegesis by incorporating in his commentary the landslide philosophical innovations of his age. In doing so, he not only demonstrated that American scholarship easily matched that of his European peers but also created a unique record of the hermeneutical, philological, and scientific debate then raging in Europe. His Biblia Americana is the product of his lifelong endeavor to synthesize and--if possible--to reconcile this new, threatening scholarship with his abiding faith in the authority of the bible. Tellingly, Mather does not necessarily seek to refute those who destabilize its authority, but allocates ample space to each combatant, as if to provide a forum for Enlightenment discourse. In Biblia Americana, Mather shows unmistakable signs of Enlightenment skepticism--a form of Pyrrhonism that he valiantly seeks to redress by reconciling wherever possible the bible with all available modern insights into the natural sciences. In the philosophical battle between Cartesian rationalism and British empiricism, Mather combined "elements of empirical and rationalist thought with theosophic speculations and Millenarian interpretation of Scripture" to meet the intellectual challenges of his time. He compiled an encyclopedia of universal knowledge in the tradition of the 18th-century French Encyclopedists. That is why Mather's commentary surpasses those of his contemporaries Patrick, Poole, and Henry. Biblia Americana more than lives up to Robert Boyle's call for a scholar-theologian to address the philosophic advances of his age in a biblical commentary: "I cannot but hope, that when it shall please God, to stir up Persons of a Philosophical Genius, well furnished with Critical Learning, and the Principles of true Philosophy, and shall give them an Hearty concern for the Advance of His Truths, these men will make Explications, & Discoveries that shall be admirable" (Boyle qtd in Mather's Bonifacius [1710], p. 200). How seriously Mather seemd to take Boyle's call to arms is evident throughout Biblia Americana. In fact, in a missive to Dr. John Woodward of the Royal Society of London, Mather confesses his secret obsession with his American Bible: Referring to himself in the third person (ostensibly to appear as a disinterested observer), Mather complains that in spite of all his duties of composing sermons, ministering to the largest congregation in English America, and publishing more than 200 books, "neither these, nor any other obstructions could retund his passion for the Favourite Work of his, Biblia Americana" ("Letter to Dr. John Woodward, Nov.17, 1712," in David Levin, "Giants in the Earth," W&MQ , 3rd Ser., 45, No. 4 [Oct. 1988]: 760).