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Introduction

 

 

 

Existing Scholarship on "Biblia Americana" and Points of Departure:

        o comprehensive assessment of "Biblia Americana" exists to date. One of the earliest discussions of this manuscript is Theodore Hornberger's 1938 article "Cotton Mather's Annotations on the First Chapter of Genesis," University of Texas Publications 26 (1938): 113-21, in which the author demonstrates how Mather's corpuscularian (atomistic) creation account he had inherited from Edmund Dickinson gave way to the Newtonian cosmologies of William Whiston, Thomas Burnet, Richard Bentley, and Thomas Pyle. In contextualizing Mather's commentary on Genesis, Hornberger illustrates how Mather's biblical hermeneutics was increasingly influenced by the scientific debate then raging in Europe. Trend-setting as this article could have been, Hornberger's study did not strike a responsive cord until the appearance of Otho T. Beall and Richard Shryock's 1954 publication "Cotton Mather: First Significant Figure in American Medicine," Publications of the American Antiquarian Society 63 (1954): 35-274. Here the authors establish how Mather's "Curiosa Americana" and The Christian Philosopher (1720/21), and more specifically his medical handbook The Angel of Bethesda are significant mostly in so far as these works popularized and disseminated cutting-edge scientific discoveries and their debates in English North America. Following in their steps, Gordon W. Jones, M.D., edited Angel of Bethesda and published this important work in 1972. Jones, however, continued the pattern already established by his predecessors and turned to "Biblia Americana" only when it provided insight into Mather's contribution to the medical debate. Even on that score, "Biblia Americana" has attracted only passing attention from Mather's modern biographers. Neither Barrett Wendell (1891), Abijah Marvin (1892), Ralph and Louise Boas (1928), nor Babette Levy (1979) paid any attention to Mather's "Biblia Americana" beyond fleeting references to its title. Robert Middlekauff (1971) and David Levin (1978) provide much needed background on the beginnings and purpose of Mather's biblical commentary, but a detailed analysis goes clearly beyond the intent or scope of either of these fine biographies. Kenneth Silverman (1984) sheds much new light on the growth of "Biblia Americana" and on Mather's ultimate failure to attract subventions from subscribers, but Silverman's accomplished biography draws on "Biblia Americana" mostly as a source text for Mather's life. More recently, John S. Erwin's The Millennialism of Cotton Mather (1991) and Michael P. Winship's Seers of God: Puritan Providentialism in the Restoration and Early Enlightenment (1996) build on the work of their predecessors, but are clearly preoccupied with different issues. Perhaps the most useful, albeit brief, discussion of "Biblia Americana" appears in Winton U. Solberg's superb contextual introduction to his new edition of Cotton Mather's The Christian Philosopher (1994). Solberg briefly sketches Mather's lifelong endeavor to harmonize contemporaneous scholarship with his own interpretations, but "Biblia Americana" merely functions as a reference work for Mather's anthology of Enlightenment science, The Christian Philosopher. Cheryl Rivers' unpublished Columbia University dissertation "Cotton Mather's Biblia Americana : Psalms and the Nature of Puritan Scholarship" (1977) takes a major step in the right direction, but is restricted to an examination of Mather's annotations on the book of Psalms.

        My own interest in Mather's contribution to the hermeneutical debate in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries grows out of my ongoing work with the Mather family papers. I am arguing that as a hermeneutical defense of revealed religion, Mather's interpretative discourse seeks to negotiate between orthodox exegesis of the bible as the Word of God and the new philological and historical-contextual challenges to the Scriptures by such scholars as Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, Isaac de La Peyrère, Baruch Spinoza, Richard Simon, Henry Hammond, Thomas Burnet, William Whiston, Anthony Collins, and Isaac Newton. "Biblia Americana," like "Triparadisus" (1726/27), marks a decisive break from the hermeneutical positions Mather had inherited from his intellectual forebears. For instance, his commentaries on "Isaiah," "Daniel," "Romans," "2 Peter 3," and "Revelation" ("Biblia") reveal that in his old age Mather joined the historicist and allegorist camps of such revisionists as Grotius, Hammond, John Lightfoot, Richard Baxter, etc. on the premillennialist mainstay of the conversion of the Jews, while at the same time employing the scientific theories of Ray, Durham, Boyle, Burnet, Whiston, and Newton to support orthodox literalism on such issues as the creation of the universe, the conflagration of the earth, and the corporeal existence of the soul. I am particularly interested in the intersections between the scientific theories of the day, the philological challenges to the bible as text, and the new biblical hermeneutics sponsored by Grotius, Hobbes, Spinoza, Boyle, Toland, Tillotson, Newton, Simon, and Leclerc to demonstrate how Mather's continual revisions and readjustments reveal his increasing involvement in Enlightenment discourse. The reason why "Biblia Americana" became such an unwieldy project is not solely because it became encyclopedic in scope over the nearly four decades of its composition or because it was eclipsed by the popular commentaries of his day, but because Mather could not keep up with the rapid pace of exegetical developments that necessitated constant reconsideration and accommodation in his "Biblia Americana." Although the Yale edition of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (25 + vols.) has secured Edwards' position as English America's foremost philosopher theologian of the eighteenth century, "Biblia Americana" demonstrates that Cotton Mather need not take a backseat to his Northampton colleague. In "Biblia Americana," Mather emerges as an Enlightenment scholar par excellence who provides a forum for the free exchange of philosophic ideas. He belongs to the camp of early Enlightenment critics who, in the philosophical battle between Cartesian rationalism and British empiricism, combined elements of empirical and rationalist thought with theosophic speculations and Millenarian interpretation of Scripture to overcome the skeptical challenge of his time.

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