Just over three hundred years ago the American Puritan pastor Cotton Mather completed a book of historical reflection he had worked on “in snatches” for a little more than four years. Toward the end of 1693 he became convinced that in order to facilitate a spiritual reformation in the life of the American church—and those abroad—a survey of the heretofore untold “mighty works of grace” needed to be made public. Though it would not be published until 1702, Magnalia Christi Americana is clearly marked by the concerns of the fin de sciecle—or end of the century—in which it was written.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Then, as now, the speculations of men ran to the frantic and the frenetic. Ecstatic eschatalogical significance was read into every change of any consequence—be it of the weather or of the government. Apocalyptic reticence was chided as faithlessness, while practical intransigence was enshrined as faithfulness. Fantastic common wisdom replaced ordinary common sense, and plain selfish serenity replaced plain selfless civility.
Mather wrote three hundred years ago, but he wrote in a time very much like our own. What he wrote was a jeremiad—a stern warning. It is a mode of address that we would do well to hear and heed. Though his subject was a survey of the ecclesiastical history of New England—from the founding at Plymouth, the establishment of culture at Boston, and the erection of institutions like Harvard to the desperate struggles of the frontier, the disputations of heretics like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, and the wars against the Indians—his purpose was the restoration of the original vision of the pioneers who had come to America to “set a city on a hill.” He desired, first and foremost, to revive the traditions of the “New England way” and the fervor of the old “errand into the wilderness.” His fear was that the growing prosperity of the land had “softened the resolve and hardened the hearts” of the “heirs of the Pilgrims and Puritans.”
Reading Magnalia Christi Americana is thus satisfying on several levels. First, it affords readers insight into the colonial era unclouded by the palimpsests of modern skeptics and cynics—instead, the remarkable achievements of our Pilgrim and Puritan fathers is confirmed through the lens of faith.
Second, it reveals the breadth and depth of the spiritual foundations upon which American liberty was based—freedom was clearly not conceived in a worldview vacuum.
Third, it recasts the image of American education—its character and its purpose—by recalling the remarkable early days of classical and covenantal learning at Harvard and Yale.
Fourth, it presents a lucid literary approach to the task of writing history—one that became a model of moral philosophy for many of America’s finest historians and writers in the years to come.