Biography: John Cotton (1584-1652)

JOHN COTTON (1584-1652), leading Puritan clergyman in New England, defender of Congregationalism, and millenarian theologian, was born in Derby, Derbyshire, England, where he attended Grammar School from 1593-1597. At age 13, he enrolled at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he received his first degree in 1603. His knowledge of Hebrew was so proficient that he was awarded a scholarship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, the nursery of Puritanism, where he received his A.M. degree in 1606. He remained at Cambridge until 1612, first serving as tutor, then as head lecturer, dean, and catechist, receiving his B.D. in 1613. Cotton’s abilities were held in such high esteem that he was chosen vicar of St. Botolph’s, in Boston, Lincolnshire, at the age of 27, where he remained as an effectual preacher until 1632. In 1615, Cotton introduced a congregational system of worship, altered Anglican liturgy, abolished genuflection and the wearing of surplices—all apparently with little opposition from church authorities. All along, John Cotton was in close contact with John Winthrop and other members of the Massachusetts Bay Company. When Winthrop’s company departed for the New World, Cotton traveled to Southampton and preached his famous farewell sermon Gods Promise to His Plantation (1630). In 1632, William Laud, Bishop of London, summoned Cotton to the Court of High Commission. Cotton immediately knew for whom the bell tolled and went into hiding. In 1633, he embarked for Boston, in New England, in the company of Thomas Hooker, Edmund Quincy, and John Haynes—all soon to become prominent leaders.

John Cotton’s fame had preceded him. Shortly after his arrival he was chosen teacher of the First Church of Boston, with John Wilson as pastor. Cotton retained his position until his death in 1652. During the Antinomian Controversy involving many of his own parishioners (1636-38), Cotton eventually distanced himself from Anne Hutchinson, John Wheelright, and Gov. Henry Vane, but offered to resign and to return to England. When the separatism of Roger Williams (later founder of Rhode Island) became a threat to the Bay Colony, Cotton opposed Williams’ break with the Church of England and maintained that even though church and state were two separate entities, the magistrates acted as the protectors of the church. In 1642, he declined an invitation from England to represent New England’s interest at the Westminster Assembly in London. John Cotton and Thomas Hooker also turned down an invitation to attend the Cambridge Synod (1646-49) to represent the Independents in the debate over the framing of a new model of church government in England. In his stead, Cotton sent his Way of the Congregational Churches Cleared (1648) to speak on New England’s behalf. Four years later, while preaching at Harvard College, Cotton caught pneumonia and died in late 1652. Cotton’s widow married the Rev. Richard Mather, whose son Increase in turn married Cotton’s daughter Maria, who became the mother of Cotton Mather in 1663.

Of his many sermons, tracts, and exegetical works, several stand out. In 1640, he published The Whole Book of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Meter, a new translation of the Psalms, which evidently served as a model for the famous Bay Psalm Book (1640). His work on church membership was published as The Keyes of the Kingdom of Heaven (1644), and his defense of congregationalism appeared as The Way of the Churches of Christ in New England (1645) and The Way of the Congregational Churches Cleared (1648). In 1646, he published a popular catechism Milk for Babes, which remained in standard use for many years. His Bloudy Tenent, Washed (1647) is Cotton’s response to Roger Williams’ charges of persecution for liberty of conscience, in The Bloudy Tenent, of Persecution (1644). The selection reprinted below is Cotton’s famous farewell sermon preached at the departure of the Winthrop fleet in Southampton in 1630. Gods Promise to His Plantation (1630)—courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society—is an ideological justification for engaging in such a risky venture, a promotional tract to encourage emigration, and a typological argument for possessing the wilderness. Like Winthrop’s famous Model of Christian Charity (1630), John Cotton’s sermon is central to the Puritan experiment in the New World.