William Bradford Institute
for Study of the
Early Settlement of America

John Cotton

by Sargent Bush.
American National Biography
American Council of Learned Societies
February, 2000.

Cotton, John (4 Dec. 1584-23 Dec. 1652), clergyman, was born in Derby,
Derbyshire, England, the son of Roland Cotton, a lawyer, and Mary Hurlbert. A
serious and talented student, he matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge, at
the age of thirteen. He received his B.A. in 1603 and his M.A. in 1606, the year
he became a fellow at Emmanuel College. He remained there until 1612, serving as
lecturer, catechist, dean, and tutor while acquiring a reputation as both an
able disputant and a remarkable preacher. At first his preaching was in the
learned and ornate style, but after being spiritually affected in 1609 by the
preaching of Richard Sibbes, he adopted the plain Puritan style. Although this
change was received with dismay by many of his admirers in Cambridge, it was
responsible for the conversion of John Preston, later master of Emmanuel and an
eminent Puritan divine. Cotton was ordained in 1610, and in 1613 he received the
B.D. His first call was as vicar of St. Botolph's Church in Boston,
Lincolnshire, where he served from 1612 until shortly before his departure for
New England in 1633. In 1613 Cotton married Elizabeth Horrocks, sister of a
Lancashire minister. During his Lincolnshire ministry, Cotton ran an informal
seminary for recent Cambridge graduates. Young Dutch and German exiles from the
war on the Continent also lived with the Cottons, so that, as his contemporary
John Norton noted, Cotton "had his house full of Auditors." Although an opposing
faction disapproved of his strict Calvinist beliefs and Puritan practice, he
became notable among his fellow Puritans for his ability to avoid stern
ecclesiastical punishment despite his nonconformity in prescribed forms of
worship, such as making the sign of the cross, wearing the surplice, and
kneeling to receive communion. Cotton endured temporary suspensions by
successive bishops in 1615 and early 1621, but the protection of influential
citizens such as the Boston alderman Thomas Leverett, together with Cotton's own
posture as an earnest seeker after God's truth, led each time to his
restoration. Samuel Ward, a well-known Cambridge Puritan, said he envied Cotton
above all others "for he does nothing in the way of conformity, and yet hath his
liberty, and I do everything that way, and cannot enjoy mine."

By the end of the decade, Cotton's ministry was increasingly threatened, partly
because his shield, Bishop John Williams, was not well liked by King Charles.
Cotton's early interest in New England colonization was signaled by his
Southampton departure sermon, Gods Promise to His Plantation (1630), to the
founding migrs of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, led by John Winthrop. The end
of Cotton's Lincolnshire ministry may have been delayed by a long bout of ague
in 1630-1631. In April 1631 Cotton's wife died, after a childless marriage of
eighteen years. Cotton married Sarah Hawkredd Story, widow of William Story, in
April 1632. They had six children. One daughter, Maria, married Increase Mather
and became the mother of Cotton Mather.

Though he had friends among the titled gentry, they were no longer able to
protect him from the increasing ecclesiastical pressure to conform. He went into
hiding in the fall of 1632 and was temporarily separated from his new wife and
her ten-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. Reunited before the end of the year, they
were concealed by Puritan friends, including John Dod. Early in 1633 Cotton was
cited to appear before the Court of High Commission. During this period, Cotton
is said to have converted John Davenport, Thomas Goodwin, Philip Nye, and Henry
Whitfield to nonconformity. On 7 May 1633 Cotton resigned his vicarage in
Boston, regretting that "neither my bodily health, nor the peace of the church
will now stand with my continuance there." The crucial issue of conformity had
been the central factor, as he explained to Bishop Williams: "howsoever I doe
highly prize and much prefer other mens judgment and learning, and wisdome, and
piety, yet in thinges pertaining to God and his worship, still, I must (as I
ought) live by mine own fayth, not theirs." Along with Puritan ministers Thomas
Hooker and Samuel Stone and their families, Cotton sailed for New England on the
Griffin on 13 July 1633. During the voyage, Sarah delivered their first child,
aptly named Seaborn Cotton.

Although Cotton, who arrived at the new Boston in September, was well
established as an intellectual and spiritual leader of the Puritan movement, his
career as a published author lay ahead of him. In the years following
emigration, his writings began to be published, especially in the 1640s as the
Puritans gained positions of authority in church, university, and state. His
sermons retained an audience in old as well as New England. Early sermon series
appeared as The Way of Life (1641), A Brief Exposition of the Whole Book of
Canticles (1642), Christ the Fountain of Life (1651), A Brief Exposition . . .
of Ecclesiastes (1654), and A Practical Commentary . . . upon the First Epistle
Generall of John (1656). Works written and preached by Cotton in New England
included An Exposition upon the Thirteenth Chapter of the Revelation (1655) and
The Powring Out of the Seven Vials (1642), both millennialist and vehemently
anti-Catholic works. As was common with popular preachers of this era, Cotton's
sermons were often taken down in shorthand or other abbreviated form by auditors
whose notes were later published without the author's knowledge or permission.
Soon after arriving in Boston, Cotton was chosen teacher of the first church in
Boston, of which John Wilson was already pastor. Cotton thus enjoyed a prominent
position in the only church in what was to become the principal town of New
England. His reputation for piety, learning, and insight, together with the
respect paid to the minister in a community based on a desire to worship "in the
purity of the ordinances," gave him immediate influence. He was therefore in an
uncomfortable and unaccustomed position when he sided with those accused of
"antinomianism" in the years 1636-1638. John Wheelwright, a Lincolnshire
minister who had arrived after Cotton; Anne Hutchinson, Wheelwright's
sister-in-law and a Lincolnshire follower of Cotton who led discussions in her
home at which she presented a theology of "free grace"; and Henry Vane, a
gentleman who lived in Cotton's house and was elected governor of the colony for
one year, 1636-1637, led numerous followers in Boston's first church in
dismissing the importance of good works as primary evidence of saving faith
while emphasizing the belief that an individual's access to God's grace is
direct, thus minimizing the role of the minister as the mediator between the
sinner and God's mercy. Wheelwright and Cotton were opposed by most of the
clergy in the colony, including especially Wilson, Hooker, Thomas Shepard, and
Peter Bulkeley, as well as the magistrates and sometime governors John Winthrop
and Thomas Dudley. Cotton's thoughts on the central issue appear in his sermons
in The New Covenant (1654) and its longer version, A Treatise of the Covenant of
Grace (1659). His retrospective construction of the controversy is in The Way of
Congregational Churches Cleared (1648), a response to the Scottish churchman
Robert Baillie's anti-Congregationalist attack in A Dissuasive against the
Errours of the Time (1645). During a 1637 synod, Cotton became aware that the
antinomian faction, while claiming him as their chief authority, held opinions
that were "blasphemous: some of them, heretical, many of them erroneous." He
distanced himself from Hutchinson and Wheelwright, both of whom were exiled from
the colony following court trials during 1637 and 1638. Correspondence as late
as 1640 shows Cotton still trying to persuade Wheelwright to soften his
outspoken charges that ministers and magistrates overemphasized works at the
expense of grace and to admit that he did "overvalue . . . an heretical and
seditious faction." It was a period of unaccustomed agitation that put Cotton in
the minority and on the defensive in the area in which he had been assumed to be
a preeminent authority--the life of the spirit.

He eventually recovered from his sense of personal loss and pain to resume a
position as key spokesman for the New England polity. In the 1640s many in
England wrote to New England asking for clear statements on church practice,
often implying or stating disagreement with what they saw as overly strict
requirements for membership in New England churches. Cotton himself had opposed
the separatism of Roger Williams, who was banished from the colony in 1635.
These two strongly principled men engaged in a debate about toleration and
conscience known as the "Bloody Tenent Controversy," named after the chief
published products of the debate, Williams's The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution
(1644), Cotton's reply, The Bloudy Tenent, Washed and Made White in the Bloud of
the Lamb (1647), and Williams's final rejoinder, The Bloody Tenent Yet More
Bloody (1652). In this involved and protracted debate, Cotton argued that when a
dissenter publicly disagrees with generally held views of the community, it is
sometimes necessary that the dissenter be punished, as Williams was.

Along with John Davenport and Thomas Hooker, Cotton was invited by members of
Parliament to return to London to represent New England in the Westminster
Assembly, an invitation all three declined. Cotton did help to define what
became known as the New England Way. Although Cotton's draft, The Keyes of the
Kingdom of Heaven (1644), saw several printings, it was his The Way of the
Churches of Christ in New-England (1645) that he wanted to represent his views.
While this work and The Grounds and Ends of the Baptisme of the Children of the
Faithfull (1647) were meant to satisfy the inquiries of brethren in his "native
countrey" about New England church practice, he wrote also for his neighbors in
their everyday lives, including his catechism for children called Milk for
Babes: Drawn Out of the Breasts of Both Testaments (1646) and Singing of Psalmes
a Gospel-Ordinance (1647). The latter remains the chief statement on the use of
the psalms in worship by a Puritan of his generation. He also had a major role
in the translation of the psalms by several New England ministers, which
produced the Bay Psalm Book (1640), the first book published in America.
Cotton corresponded with a wide array of contemporaries. Although only a small
portion has survived--about one hundred letters to and by Cotton--we know of
many other letters through his own and his contemporaries' references to them.
He sometimes complained of having his time and energies sapped by his multiple
duties, including his need to reply to many letters. He wrote that it is "a
foolish conceit of ignorant people, that think Ministers and Schollers eat the
bread of idleness" or "come easily by their living. No calling more wasteth and
grieveth him that is occupied therein, then theirs doth" (A Brief Exposition of
. . . Ecclesiastes, p. 33).

Cotton's death in Boston acquired mythological status by being associated with a
comet that appeared in early December and disappeared shortly after his death.
One of his earliest biographers calls the comet a "monitory Apparition" and says
that Cotton himself, when asked about it on his deathbed, "thought it portended
great changes in the churches" (Norton, pp. 47, 48).

Cotton was one of the most influential leaders of the Puritan movement in
England and in the first generation of New England's settlement. He brought a
scholar's erudition to his practice as preacher, biblical interpreter,
disputant, and analyst of spiritual experience.


Cotton manuscript items, chiefly letters, are in the Boston Public Library, the
Massachusetts State Archives, the Massachusetts Historical Society, Pilgrim Hall
in Plymouth, Mass., the New England Historic Genealogical Society, the American
Antiquarian Society, the Hawthorne-Longfellow Library at Bowdoin College, the
Bodleian Library, the British Library, and the Gemeente Archief, Leyden, the
Netherlands. Additional important works include A Letter of Mr. John Cottons . .
. to Mr. Williams (1643), The Controversie Concerning Liberty of Conscience in
Matters of Religion (1646), and Of the Holinesse of Church-Members (1650).
Several writings appear in David D. Hall, ed., The Antinomian Controversy,
1636-1638: A Documentary History (1968; rev. ed. 1990). Three books are printed
in modern format in Larzer Ziff, ed., John Cotton on the Churches of New England
(1968). For complete primary bibliographies, see Julius H. Tuttle, "The Writings
of Rev. John Cotton," in Bibliographical Essays: A Tribute to Wilberforce Eames
(1924), and Everett Emerson, John Cotton, 2d ed. (1990), which gives known or
estimated dates of composition. For a thorough listing of works on Cotton up to
1975, see Edward J. Gallagher and Thomas Werge, Early Puritan Writers: A
Reference Guide (1976), pp. 59-97. The most complete treatment of his life is
Ziff, The Career of John Cotton: Puritanism and the American Experience (1962),
though three early biographies are indispensable: Samuel Whiting, "Concerning
the Life of the Famous Mr. Cotton. . . . ," in Chronicles of the First Planters
of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, from 1623 to 1636, ed. Alexander Young
(1846), John Norton, Abel Being Dead yet Speaketh; or, The Life & Death of . . .
John Cotton (1658), and Cotton Mather, "Cottonus Redivivus," in bk. 3 of
Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), first published in Johannes in Eremo (1695).
Sargent Bush has provided "John Cotton's Correspondence: A Census," Early
American Literature 24 (1989): 91-111, anticipating his edition of the letters.
See also William K. B. Stoever, "A Faire and Easie Way to Heaven": Covenant
Theology and Antinomianism in Early Massachusetts (1978), for discussion of
Cotton's theology as it relates to the antinomian controversy. Darrett B.
Rutman, Winthrop's Boston: A Portrait of a Puritan Town, 1630-1649 (1965),
contains much that is relevant to Cotton's New England career. On his relation
to the Puritan movement in England, see Bush, "Epistolary Counseling in the
Puritan Movement: The Example of John Cotton," in Puritanism: Transatlantic
Perspectives on a Seventeenth-Century Anglo-American Faith, ed. Francis J.
Bremer (1993). On the Williams-Cotton controversy, see Jesper Rosenmeier, "The
Teacher and the Witness: John Cotton and Roger Williams," William and Mary
Quarterly 25 (1968): 408-31; Sacvan Bercovitch, "Typology in Puritan New
England: The Williams-Cotton Controversy Reassessed," American Quarterly 19
(1967): 166-91; and Irwin H. Polishook, Roger Williams, John Cotton and
Religious Freedom: A Controversy in New and Old England (1967). Valuable
chapters on Cotton's thought appear in Teresa Toulouse, The Art of Prophesying:
New England Sermons and the Shaping of Belief (1987), and Theodore Dwight
Bozeman, To Live Ancient Lives: The Primitivist Dimension in Puritanism (1988).


Promoting a Greater Understanding of the Pilgrims and Puritans