John Cotton (4 December 1585 – 23 December 1652) was a clergyman in England and the American colonies and, by most accounts, the preeminent minister and theologian of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Following five years of study at Trinity College, Cambridge, and another nine years at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, he had already built a reputation as a scholar and outstanding preacher when he accepted the position of minister at Saint Botolph’s Church in Boston, Lincolnshire, in 1612.
As a Puritan, he wanted to do away with the ceremony and vestments associated with the established Anglican Church and preach in a simpler, more consensual manner.
Though he felt the English church needed significant reforms, he nevertheless was adamant about not separating from it; his preference was to change it from within.
While many ministers were removed from their pulpits for their puritan practices, Cotton thrived at St. Botolph’s for nearly 20 years because of supportive aldermen, lenient bishops, and his very conciliatory and gentle demeanor. By 1632, however, the Anglican church had greatly increased its pressure on the non-conforming clergy, and Cotton was forced to go into hiding. The following year he and his wife boarded a ship for New England.
Cotton was highly sought as a minister in Massachusetts and was quickly installed as the second pastor of the Boston church, sharing the ministry with John Wilson. He generated more religious conversions in his first six months than had been made the previous year.
While early in his Boston tenure, Cotton became only peripherally involved in the banishment of Roger Williams, Williams blamed much of his troubles on Cotton. Soon thereafter, Cotton became embroiled in the colony’s Antinomian Controversy, when several adherents of his “free grace” theology, most notably Anne Hutchinson, began criticizing other ministers in the colony.
While he tended to support his adherents through much of the controversy, it was not until near its conclusion that he came to realize that many of his followers held theological positions that were well outside the mainstream of Puritan orthodoxy, which he did not condone.
Following the controversy, Cotton was able to mend fences with his fellow ministers; and he continued to preach in the Boston church until his death. A great part of his effort during his late career was devoted to the governance of the New England churches, and he was the one who gave the name Congregationalism to this form of church polity.
In the early 1640s, as the Puritans in England gained power on the eve of the English Civil War, a new form of polity for the Anglican Church was being decided, and Cotton wrote numerous letters and books in support of the “New England Way”. Ultimately, Presbyterianism was chosen as the form of governance during the Westminster Assembly in 1643, though Cotton continued to engage in a polemic contest with several prominent Presbyterians on this issue.
As Cotton became more conservative with age, he not only battled the separatist attitude of Roger Williams, but also agreed with the severe punishment, including death, of those whom he deemed were heretics such as Samuel Gorton. A scholar, avid letter writer, and author of many books, Cotton was considered the “prime mover” among New England’s ministers.
He died in December 1652 at the age of 67, following a month-long illness. His grandson, Cotton Mather, also became a prominent New England minister and historian.
Born in Derby in the county of Derbyshire, England on 4 December 1585, John Cotton was baptized 11 days later at Saint Alkmund’s, an ancient church in the city. He was the second of four children of Rowland Cotton, a Derby lawyer, and Mary Hurlbert, who was “a gracious and pious mother” according to Cotton’s grandson, Cotton Mather.
John Cotton was educated at Derby School, in buildings which are now the Derby Heritage Centre, and was taught under the tutelage of Richard Johnson, an ordained priest of the Anglican Church. Following his Derby education, he matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1598 as a sizar, the lowest class of paying student, requiring some financial assistance. Here he followed a curriculum of rhetoric, logic and philosophy, and then gave four Latin disputations for an evaluation.
He received his B.A. in 1603 and then attended Emmanuel College, Cambridge, “the most Puritan college in the kingdom”, earning an M.A. in 1606 following a course of study that included Greek, astronomy, and perspective. After receiving his M.A., he continued with his studies for another five years, this time focusing on Hebrew, theology and disputation, and was also allowed to preach during this time.
While an understanding of Latin was necessary for all scholars, his study of Greek and Hebrew gave him much greater insights into scripture.
During his time as a graduate student Cotton became recognized for both his scholarship and preaching. He also tutored and worked as a dean, supervising his juniors.
His biographer, Larzer Ziff, called his learning “profound,” and his knowledge of languages “phenomenal.” Cotton became famous at Cambridge when he preached the funeral sermon of Robert Some, the late master of Peterhouse, and developed a large following from both his “manner and matter”.
After five years, he left the university, but didn’t receive his Bachelor of Divinity degree until 1613, following the compulsory seven-year wait after his Masters.
He was ordained as both deacon and priest on 13 July 1610. In 1612 he left Emmanuel College to become the minister at Saint Botolph’s Church in Boston, Lincolnshire, described as “the most magnificent parochial edifice in the kingdom.” Though only 27 years old, his scholarly, vigorous and persuasive preaching made him one of the leading Puritans in England.
During the final decade of his life, Cotton continued his extensive correspondence with people ranging from obscure figures to those who were highly prominent, such as Oliver Cromwell.
His counsel was constantly requested, and in 1648 Winthrop asked for Cotton’s help in rewriting the preface to the laws of New England.
When William Pynchon published a book that was considered unsound by the Massachusetts General Court, copies were collected and burned on the Boston Common. A letter from Cotton and four other elders attempted to moderate the harsh reaction of the court.
Religious fervor in the Bay Colony had been waning since the time of the first settlements, and church membership was dropping off. To counter this, the minister Richard Mather suggested a means of allowing membership in the church without requiring a religious testimonial be made.
Traditionally parishioners had to make a confession of faith in order to have their children baptized and in order to participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion (Last Supper).
In the face of declining church membership Mather proposed the Half-way covenant, which was adopted. This policy allowed people to have their children baptized, even though they themselves did not offer a confession.
Concerned with church polity until the end of his life, Cotton continued to write about the subject in his books and correspondence.
His final published work concerning Congregationalism was Certain Queries Tending to Accommodation, and Communion of Presbyterian & Congregational Churches, completed in 1652. Evident in this work is that Cotton had become more liberal towards Presbyterian church polity.
Despite this flexibility, he was nevertheless unhappy with the direction taken in his mother land.
Author Everett Emerson wrote, “the course of English history was a disappointment to him, for not only did the English reject his Congregational practices developed in America, but the advocates of Congregationalism in England adopted a policy of toleration, which Cotton abhorred.”
Sometime in the autumn of 1652 Cotton crossed the Charles River to preach to students at Harvard. He became ill from the exposure, and in November he and others realized that he was dying.
He was at the time running a sermon series on the Book of Timothy for his Boston congregation, which he was able to finish, despite becoming bed-ridden in December.
On 2 December 1652 Amos Richardson wrote to John Winthrop, Jr.: “Mr. Cotton is very ill and it is much feared will not escape this sickness to live.
He hath great swellings in his legs and body”. Though the Boston Vital Record gives his death date as 15 December, a multitude of other sources, likely correct, give the date as 23 December 1652.
He was buried in the King’s Chapel Burying Ground in Boston and is named on a stone which also names early First Church ministers John Davenport (d. 1670), John Oxenbridge (d. 1674) and Thomas Bridge (d. 1713).
Exact burial sites and markers for many first-generation settlers in that ground were lost with the—probably deliberate—placement of Boston’s first Anglican church, King’s Chapel I (1686) over them; the present stone marker, placed by the church, is likely a cenotaph.