Guest Post: Cotton Mather and the Enlightenment in New England: Redefining the Holy Spirit

Philipp Reisner received his PhD from and teaches as a lecturer in the American Studies  Department at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany. He approaches research multidisciplinarily and is particularly interested in New English and American literature, cultures, and theologies. His first book, Cotton Mather als Aufklärer. Glaube und Gesellschaft im Neuengland der Frühen Neuzeit, deals with the theological role that the New English theologian Cotton Mather (1663–1728) played in the context of early modern society and was published in the Reformed Historical Theology series with Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht in 2012.


My book Cotton Mather als Aufklärer. Glaube und Gesellschaft im Neuengland der Frühen Neuzeit examines Cotton Mather’s writings, identifying him as participating in Enlightenment thought through his various societal roles as pastor, physician, politician, and scientist. Mather studies have become an important part of early modern studies, not least because they touch on so many disciplines—such as natural and life sciences, philosophy, history, philology, and theology—and the ways these disciplines were transformed throughout the early eighteenth century. His oeuvre is currently undergoing revision, attention being drawn to his theology through the first publication of his Bible commentary Biblia Americana; this revision tends to reinterpret him as an early evangelical. It has not been fully recognized to what extent this reinterpretation depends on his pneumatology. In my book, I examine his pneumatology in his Bible commentary and his many publications in order to show how Mather’s redefinition of the Holy Spirit posits itself in relation to the unfolding of Enlightenment thought.

In Cotton Mather’s writings, the Holy Spirit was reframed and renamed as reason and as Nishmath Hayyim, which is the Hebrew term for the breath of life from Genesis 2:7. These permutations of the Holy Spirit led to the development of moral maxims as a universal form of inspired ethics. Mather’s more soteriological writings published around 1700 gave way to more pneumatological ones in the 1720s. In two texts on this topic from each of these periods, A Man of Reason (1718) and Reasonable Religion (1700)[1], Mather renames the Holy Spirit “Reason”: “There is in every Man an admirable Spirit. In that Spirit, there is a Faculty called Reason. ’Tis that Faculty which is called, Prov. 20.27. The Spirit of a Man, which is the Candle of the Lord.” Reason means divine inspiration: “There is a Reasonable Spirit in Man, and the Inspiration of the Almighty has given him an understanding; and there are certain Principles of Reason, which every Man does naturally and ordinarily bring with him into the World.”[2] His redefinition of the Holy Spirit in its engagement of Old Testament passages thus testifies to the transformation of his biblical hermeneutics for which these shifts in pneumatology are essential.[3]

Mather is well aware that theologically, the Holy Spirit is more remote than in apostolic times.[4] Nevertheless, he emphasizes the effectiveness of the Holy Spirit in humans: “Ever [sic] now and then, we have a passage of that importance; 1 Cor. 11.13. Judge in your selves. And, Act. 4.19. Whether it be Right, Judge ye.” This indwelling of the Spirit is explained with reference to reason: “Such Things had never been spoken, if this were not incontestable; That if we shake off the Government of Reason, we shake off the Government of our Great Creator, who has put Reason into us, as the Grand Instrument of His Government over us.”[5] Transforming the Holy Spirit into reason, besides taking on new emphasis, thus potentially partly restores the Spirit from its postapostolic diminishment, though under a different name. These two texts, A Man of Reason (1718) and Reasonable Religion (1700), mark two steps in this development. They illustrate the transformation of the relationship between faith and reason, which had been redefined during the Reformation.

The complete titles of these two publications reveal how religion changed in the face of rationalism. Reasonable Religion: Or, the Truth of the Christian Religion, Demonstrated; The Wisdom of Its Precepts Justified: And the Folly of Sinning against Those Precepts, Reprehended: With Incontestable Proofs, That Men, Who Would Act Reasonably, Must Live Religiously (1700) sets out to prove the ongoing relevance of religion, while A Man of Reason: A Brief Essay to Demonstrate, that All Men Should Hearken to Reason; and What a World of Evil Would Be Prevented in the World, If Men Would Once Become so Reasonable (1718) defends Matthew 7:12 as a moral maxim of more universal value, potentially transcending denominations and faiths, in accordance with the enlightenment spirit: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”

In Reasonable Religion, Mather adopts the new language of reason: “But that our Exhortations may be rendred [sic] the more Irresistible & Ungainsayable, Behold, the Form wherein they now arrive unto us. Instead of saying, Shew your selves Regenerate Christians, we will only say, Shew your selves Rational Creatures.[6] Transforming Isaiah 46:8 (“Shew your selves men”) into ‘Shew your selves Regenerate Christians’ is typologically balanced. Replacing ‘Christians’ with ‘Creatures’, a term which occurs more often in the Old Testament, Mather seems both to respond to the re-emphasis on Old Testament theology in the early seventeenth century and to reinterpret the frequent reference to “creatures” in the Book of Revelation in the sense of the natural philosophy of his time.[7] This is evident in the eschatological implications of this term in Ezekiel, which are partly transferred to the natural sciences.[8] “Secularization” is hence to be understood as realization, not elimination, of the Kingdom of God in the world, the terminological transformations of which only seemingly imply a change. In this sense Mather’s writings, in opposition to theories of secularization, confirm the position of sacralization as it was laid out in the writings of Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) und Talcott Parsons (1902–79).[9]

Since New England society no longer constituted itself through congregations based on public accounts of conversion experiences after the synod of New England churches in 1662,[10] ‘reason’ as a vague term denoting the influx of the Holy Spirit, under the influence of European Pietism, replaced the terminology of conversion. Mather foregrounds this new terminology in opposition to the sensualism of British Empiricism, which he fought—among many other anti-spiritualist theories (like materialism)—for theological reasons. His partaking in Enlightenment thought thus ultimately reveals the Enlightenment to have been a theological phenomenon.


[1] Cotton Mather, Reasonable Religion, Boston, MA 1700; Cotton Mather, A Man of Reason, Boston, MA 1718. Biblical quotations are from the King James Version.

[2] Cotton Mather, A Man of Reason, 3.

[3] Jan Stievermann, Prophecy, Piety, and the Problem of Historicity: Interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures in Cotton Mather’s Biblia Americana, vol. 179 of Beiträge zur historischen Theologie, Tübingen, 2016, 52; 190; Brett Malcolm Grainger, “Vital Nature and Vital Piety: Johann Arndt and the Evangelical Vitalism of Cotton Mather,” Church History 81.4 (2012): 868; 871.

[4] Cotton Mather, India Christiana, Boston, MA 1721, 71; p. 69 promises that the return of the Holy Spirit will complete the Reformation.

[5] Cotton Mather, A Man of Reason, 8.

[6] Cotton Mather, Reasonable Religion, 3–4.

[7] Cf. Revelation 4:6–9; 5:6–14; 6:1; 6:6; 7:11, 8:9; 14:3; 15:7; 19:4.

[8] Cf. Ezekiel 1:5; 1:13–15; 1:19–22; 3:13; 10:15–20.

[9] Émile Durkheim, Die elementaren Formen des religiösen Lebens, 1912, translated by Ludwig Schmidts, Frankfurt a.M. 1981; Talcott Parsons, Action Theory and the Human Condition, New York, NY 1978; see also Von der Säkularisierung zur Sakralisierung: Spielarten und Gegenspieler von Vernunft in der Moderne; Festschrift für Karl Helmer zum 75. Geburtstag, ed. Gaby Herchert, Berlin, Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Berlin, 2011; Peik Ingman et al., eds., The Relational Dynamics of Disenchantment and Sacralization: Changing the Terms of the Religion Versus Secularity Debate, The study of religion in a global context (Sheffield, UK, 2016).

[10] James L. Breed, Sanctification in the Theology of Cotton Mather, Diss. Aquinas Institute, 1980, 239.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: