Friday, March 6, 2015

The Puritan Files: Cotton Mather

From the December 2011 E-Block.


A reader has requested a look at a unique and (for us) obscure topic, that of Puritan theology. Though I very much enjoy studying early American history, I must admit that this is indeed a topic most obscure to me; most of the observations I make here will be fresh, and I suspect many will be naive or even outright wrong. However, we will do out best to evaluate what we read in terms of what I know of Biblical interpretation.

To begin, we will have a look at a small item by Cotton Mather (1689) titled (in short form) Soldiers Counselled and Comforted (hereafter SCC). The particular interest in this work arises from a brief analysis by Susan Niditch, in which she gave a less than positive perspective on SCC as one which related a prejudicial view of Native Americans, and used the Bible in an unjustified way to support militarism.

To begin, it should be noted that most of SCC can be regarded as non-controversial. The bulk of it reads like a devotional, encouraging the soldier to be on guard for their souls and trust God; in that respect, much of it could be retitled (e.g., Plumbers Counselled and Comforted) and read little differently. It is the last third of SCC in which most of the critical theology is offered, and without doubt there is much, qualitatively speaking, about which questions can be raised, though not all to the same degree.

27-8: This section encourages the soldier to be courageous in battle and not entertain cowardice. One might argue that this sort of thing might tend to warmongering; on the other hand, in principle, this sort of exhortation would have its rightful place even in a war that few would deny is just (e.g., at the risk of invoking Godwin's Law, the war against Nazi Germany).

Niditch expressed particular concern about Native Americans being referred to here as "murderers". Mather does indeed use that designation, and calls down vengeance upon them. But it is not clear whether Niditch is objecting simply to the use of such strong language, or whether she is charging Mather with misguided falsehood (Does she think the story is one sided, or exaggerated?). 

Apart from consideration of historical matters outside our scope, we cannot answer this question fairly, though it is easily suspected that Mather was using loaded language to inspire negative impressions about the enemy his readers were soon to be at war with.

32: Here Mather reminds the soldier that "you are fighting for the defence of and succour of the blessed thrones which our David, our Jesus, has here erected for himself." And in this we do encounter some problematic theology, which we see repeated in other ways as well: There is an implication that in some way, God specially represents those for whom the soldier fights -- at this early date, not America as a nation, but New England. Moreover it is said that the soldier fights "that the churches of God may not be extinguished, and the wigwams of the heathen swarming in their room: you are fighting that the children of God may not be made meals or slaves...", and assurance is given that "you have with you, the Hosts of the Lord; the very Angels are your Companions in your present Enterprise." (33)

And so it goes, for the next few pages; a highly dualistic "us vs them" template, matched with "good vs evil" in turn -- to the point that Mather even refers to his readers as the "New English Israel." It is this attitude Niditch made much over, and arguably, some would say, rightly so. And yet as well, I am presently suspicious of too literalist a reading of a text like SCC, especially given that we found Niditch previously taking certain Biblical texts too literally. Are Mather's assurance to the soldiers the manifestations of foaming hatred? Or are they no more than the exhortations of an earnest preacher, speaking in the "trash talk" of his time and place?

If they are the former, then of course, we manifestly have a series of theological problems. Arguing that God is on "our side" in some war is exhortational nitroglycerin. If you think God is on your side, like Mather, then you had best be very, very sure that He is before saying so -- and using that as a rallying point. 

By the same token, if, like Niditch, you think that's inappropriate and that God doesn't take sides, you had also better be sure that He is not before condemning those who say otherwise. The long and short of it is that prudence dictates silence in terms of claiming the allegiance of God, certainly until you know what is what.

I am certainly not here to argue that Mather was right or wrong, or that Niditch was right or wrong to use Mather as a bad example of what she wished to illustrate. Neither of them provide any sustained argument to make such points, and as such, neither fulfills their responsibility to the uninformed reader by themselves.

And yet, two questions arise. One, again, is whether Mather expected to be taken literally and seriously, or whether he is engaging the "trash talk" of his day -- expecting as well that his Native American opponents would likewise exhort themselves with the assurance that their god or gods were on their side, and that all the hosts of heaven would surely fight for them. Second, it should be asked whether a critique like Niditch's misses the point. Let us say that Mather lived in alternate universe where Christianity did not exist. Should we suppose that he would be able to find no other religious or even secular text to validate and assure his readers? Would he not call Native Americans nasty names? A criticism like Niditch's seems to presume that without the Bible to call on, Mather's soldiers would have peacefully extended an olive branch to the local sachem, and all would have been well from then on.

So as we examine Puritan theology further, one thing we will look for is this idea of God being "on our side" -- what justification is given? To what extent is this idea of Mather's readers as an "Israel" defined out and justified? How is the Bible used? Mather's SCC doesn't present so much as an argument beyond "we good, they bad," and we may agree that this isn't enough by any stretch to rationally defend the notion that "God is on my side, especially in these particulars."

In close, I might briefly note something of the concept of a new Israel, as Mather alludes to, but does not define. There are some who have argued for a "replacement theology" in which America is a new Israel. I have rejected that view; the new covenant is not theocratic, but is "signed" with each member of the Body of Christ. While this may have certain implications for how we conduct our daily lives, even in politics and war, it does not mean we can expect to be subject to the Deuteronomic blessings (or curses, for that matter) as a nation. To what extent, if any, later authors we visit offer or defend such notions, remains to be seen.

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