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Puritan Memoirs - Mr. John Cotton

Puritan Memoirs - The Life and Death of Some Reformed Ministers

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The life and death of Mr. John Cotton.

THIS renowned minister of the New Testament was born at Derby, December 4th, 1585, and educated first at Trinity, then Emanuel college, Cambridge, in the last of which he was chosen fellow. Under the awakening sermons, preached by the famous Mr. Perkins, he had received some convictions of sin; but still his prejudice and enmity against true holiness, and particularly against this holy man’s preaching, were so inveterate, that when he heard the bell toll for Mr. Perkins’ funeral, he greatly rejoiced that now he was delivered from his heart searching ministry. The recollection of this depravity of soul, when he afterwards became acquainted with the gospel, had almost broke his heart. The ministrations of Dr. Sibbs was the means of awakening and leading him to the knowledge of Christ and the love of the truth; yet for three years he was held under the most painful apprehensions, before he experienced that placid serenity of soul that springs from the faith of the gospel. After this important change, Mr. Cotton had to preach at St. Mary’s church, where the wits of the various colleges attended, in hopes of a flowery sermon, garnished with all the literary embellishments and learning of the university. But, to their great astonishment and mortification, he gave them a very judicious and impressive discourse on repentance, pointing the arrows of conviction against the strong holds of conscious guilt and corruption. Most of the students were chagrined and disappointed; nor could they avoid manifesting their disapprobation of the sermon. It was, nevertheless, the means of converting the celebrated Dr. Preston, then fellow of Queen’s college; and from this time forward the greatest friendships intimacy, and affection, subsisted between these distinguished individuals.

On leaving the university, Mr. Cotton was chosen minister of Boston in Lincolnshire; but bishop Barlow, suspecting him to be infected with Puritanism, endeavored to prevent his settlement. This learned prelate could make no open charge against him, only that he was young, and On that account wanting in the gravity, experience, and authority necessary amongst so numerous and factious a people. Indeed Mr. Cotton had such a mean opinion of himself, that he went into the bishop’s sentiments, and intended to return to the college. His numerous friends, however, anxious to have him settled amongst them, plied the bishop, and having persuaded him of his great learning and ministerial talents, he at last granted their request.

Mr. Cotton met with a more favorable reception than could have been expected, and for a considerable time things went on very agreeably; but the troubles occasioned by the Arminian controversy became, so great in the town, that he was obliged to exert all his abilities, authority, and influence, to allay them. On this occasion, it is said, that Mr. Cotton so triumphantly established the scripture doctrines of election, particularly redemption, effectual calling, and the final perseverance of the saints, that the foundations of Arminianism were destroyed; and the disputes ceasing, it was never more heard of.

Mr. Cotton now entered into the matrimonial state; and it is remarkable, that on the day of his marriage, he, for the first time, obtained that assurance of his interest in the Redeemer, which he never lost till the day of his death. This worthy servant of Christ, having been about three years at Boston, began to examine into the corruptions of the church, and to scruple conformity to its ceremonies and superstitions; nor did he keep Ms sentiments to himself. Whatever he discovered to be truth, he boldly declared; and such was the influence of his opinions, and so obvious were the avowed grounds on which he held them, that almost all the inhabitants of Boston and neighbourhood became nonconformists. But complaints were soon lodged against him with the bishop, and he was suspended from his ministry. During his suspension, he was promised considerable preferment if he would conform to the ceremonies, though but in one act; but he refused to pollute his conscience for any such worldly considerations. He did not continue long under suspension; but was soon after restored to his beloved work of preaching. This storm having blown over, he had rest for many, years, and, during the calm, was always abounding in his spiritual labors; and there was so pleasing a reformation among the people of Boston, that superstition and profanity gave way to practical religion and godliness, which soon abounded in every corner of the town. The mayor and most of the magistrates became puritans, and the ungodly party sunk into insignificance.

Mr. Cotton, after having examined the controversy with conscientious impartiality, was decidedly of the opinion, that it was unlawful for any church to enjoin rites and ceremonies, for which neither Christ nor his apostles had left either precept or example: That a bishop, according to the New Testament, was appointed to no larger a diocese than one congregation; and that the keys of government and discipline were put into the hands of every congregational church. The public worship of God at Boston was therefore conducted without the fetters or formality of a liturgy, or the use of any of those vestments and ceremouies which had been invented by the folly, and were now imposed by the commandments, of men. Many of his people united together as a Christian church, and enjoyed the means of grace, and the fellowship of the gospel, upon congregational principles, by entering into covenant with God and one another, to follow the Lord Jesus in all the purity of gospel worship.

Mr. Cotton was celebrated for his ministerial talents, and had acquired a very distinguished reputation. He was loved and highly respected by the best men, and hated and feared by the worst. He was much esteemed by bishop Williams, who, when keeper of the great seal, recommended him to the king as a man of singular abilities, great learning, piety, and usefulness; on which his majesty, notwithstanding his nonconformity, allowed him to continue in the exercise of his ministry. The celebrated archbishop Usher had the highest opinion of him as a minister, a man, and a scholar, and kept up a friendly correspondence with him. He was likewise held in great estimation by the earl of Dorset, who kindly promised him, that if at any time he stood in need of a friend at court, he would use all his interest and influence in his behalf; yet, in the midst of so much honor and applause, his unassuming modesty and humility remained unimpaired.

Having preached at Boston almost twenty years, Mr. Cotton found, that it would be impossible for him, without conforming, to continue his ministrations. The storm of persecution, he saw, was gathering in the horizon of the church, and wisely withdrew from its fury. A son of belial, a debauched fellow, of depraved principles and wicked practices, to be revenged on the magistrates of Boston, for sentencing him to condign punishment for his crimes, brought forward complaints against them and Mr. Cotton in the high court of commission, and swore that neither the minister nor the magistrates of the town kneeled when receiving the sacrament, nor observed the ecclesiastical ceremonies. Letters missive were immediately sent down, by the influence and authority of bishop Laud, to apprehend and bring Mr. Cotton before the commission; but he concealed himself. Great intercessions were made for him by the earl of Dorset and others; but finding all to no purpose, the earl sent him word, that providing his crimes had been those of drunkenness, adultery, blasphemy, or any such trifling faults (In 1634 the mayor of Arimdel imprisoned a clergyman for his notorious drunkenness, and other misbehavior; and though confined but one night, the mayor, for this act of justice, was both fined and censured by the high commission at Lambeth. —Huntley’s Prelates, page 161), he could have easily procured his pardon; but seeing he was guilty of nonconformity and Puritanism, crimes so enormous that they could never be forgiven, flee, says he, for your safety. It must therefore have been from painful experience that M» Cotton afterwards complained, that the ecclesiastical courts are dens of lions; that all who have had to do with them have found them markets for the sins of the people, cages of uncleanness, and roosting places of birds of prey, the tabernacles of bribery, forges of extortion, and fetters of slavery, a terror to all good men, and a praise to them that do evil!

Mr. Cotton, perceiving that there were now no hopes that he should ever enjoy his liberty in his own country, resolved to transport himself to New England. Upon his departure from Boston, he wrote a very pious and modest letter to the bishop of Lincoln, signifying his resignation of the living. His resolution to expatriate himself was the result of mature and deliberate consideration, and founded on substantial grounds. He observed that the door of public usefulness was apparently for ever shut against him in his native land: That when persecuted in one city or country, our Lord commands his servants to flee to another; and wishing to enjoy the ordinances of the gospel in their scriptural purity, he considered the resolution be had taken to he the path of present duty. Accordingly, taking farewell of his numerous friends at Boston, he travelled in disguise to London, where, on his arrival, several eminent ministers of his acquaintance proposed a conference, with a view to persuade him to conform and remain at home. To this he freely consented; and after all their arguments in favor of conformity had been delivered, he answered the whole to their full satisfaction; then delivering his arguments for nonconformity, and his reasons for removing to a foreign land rather than conform to the prelatical impositions, they were so well satisfied, that in place of bringing Mr. Cotton to their views, they all of them espoused his opinions, and from that day forward, Mr. (afterwards Dr.) Thomas Goodman, Mr. Philip Ney, Mr. John Davenport, Mr. Henry Whitefield, and some others, became avowed nonconformists; for which they were all afterwards driven into a foreign land. Speaking of this conference, Mr. Davenport, one of Mr. Cotton’s antagonists, tells us, “That their reasons for wishing to confer with him, rather than any other, on these weighty points, were their knowledge of his approved godliness, his great learning, candor, and mild disposition, whereby he could bear, with equanimity of temper, the arguments of others who might differ from him in their opinions. Nor were we in the least disappointed, says he, in our expectations; he answered all our arguments with the most conclusive evidence fyom scripture, composure of mind, and mildness of spirit, constantly adhering to his own principles, and, with the greatest clearness of judgment and expression, removing every objection that had been started against them.”

Mr. Cotton having fully resolved to cross the Atlantic, John Winthrop, Esq. governor of the new plantation, procured him letters of recommendation from the church at Boston to their brethren in New England; and having finished his arrangements, he took shipping the beginning of June 1633, and landed in New England in the beginning of September following. Mr. Hooker and Mr. Stone, both driven out for their nonconformity, were his companions on the voyage. Mr. s Cotton was delivered of a son about a month after their embarkation, who, from the place of his birth, was named Seaborn. On their arrival, the town, which, on account of its three hills, had hitherto been called Trimountain, was changed to Boston, out of respect to Mr. Cotton, who came from Boston in Old England. Immediately after their arrival at Boston, this famous puritan divine was chosen colleague to Mr. John Wilson, minister of that place; and his labors, both as a preacher and politician, were of unspeakable advantage to the town. It was greatly owing to his wisdom and influence that in a few years Boston became the capital of the whole province. The civil and ecclesiastical constitutions, prior to his arrival, were both lamentably out of order, ill digested, and indistinct; but by his vigorous and judicious efforts, order and arrangement were soon introduced into every department, and harmony and prosperity were the happy consequence of his labors. About 1642, when the Episcopal power in England began to decline, several of the leading members of both houses of parliament earnestly pressed him to return to his native country; but considering the peace, liberty, and safety he enjoyed in his retreat, as well as the field of action and usefulness in which he was engaged he was unwilling again to venture his shattered hark on the tempestuous ocean, and so remained at Boston till his death.

About this time numerous Antinomian tenets began to be propagated in New England, especially at Boston, which raised a dreadful confusion amongst the people. Mr. s Hutchinson, arid Mr. Wheelwright her brother, were at the head of this party; and some of our historians do not. hesitate to affirm, that Mr. Cotton himself had drunk in some of their wild fancies; others deny the charge, and endeavor to prove the whole a malicious slander to blacken his reputation. It is agreed by all of them, however, that, in ‘1646, at the synod of Cambridge, he openly declared against all these opinions, as being some of them blasphemous, some heretical, some erroneous, and all of them incongruous. At this synod, Mr. Cotton, Mr. Richard Mather, and Mr. Ralph Partridge, were each of them appointed to draw up a form of church government, with the view of drawing up one from the whole at the next meeting of synod; which was done accordingly.

This learned divine, though removed to New England, still maintained a correspondence with many persons of distinction in his native country, and amongst the reef with Cromwell, the protector; one of whose letters, written with, his own hand, dated October 2d, 1652, is here inserted verbatim, for the satisfaction of the inquisitive reader. Addressed thus:

To my esteemed friend Mr. Cotton, pastor of the church at Boston in New England.

“Worthy sir, and my Christian friend,

“I received yours a few days since. It was welcome tcv me, because signed by you, whome I love and honor in the Lord: but more tosee some of the same grounds of our actinges stirringe in you, that have in us to quiet us to our worke, and support us therein, which hath had greatest difficultye in our engagement in Scotland, by reason wee have had to do with some whoe were (I verily thinke) godly; but, through weaknesse and the subtiltye of satan, involved in interests against the Lord and his people. With what tendernesse wee have proceeded with such, and that in synceritye, our papers (which I suppose you have seen) will in part manifest, and I give you some comfortable assurance off. The Lord hath marvellously appeared even against them; and now againe, when all the power was devolved into the Scottish kinge and malignant partye, they invadinge England, the Lord rayned upon them such snares, as the inclosed will shew, only the narrative is short in this, that of their whole armie, when the narrative was framed, not five of their whole armie returned. Surely, sir, the Lord is greatly to be feared as to be praised. Wee need your prayers in this as much as ever; how shall we behave ourselves after such mercyes? What is the Lord a doeinge? What prophesies are now fulfilling? Who is a God like ours? To know his will, to doe his will, ai’e both of him.

“I tooke this libertye from businesse to salute thus in a word: truly I am ready to serve you, and the rest of our brethren, and the churches with you. I am a poor weake creature, and not worthye of the name of a worme; yett accepted to serve the Lord and his people. Indeed, my dear friend, between you and me, you knowe not me; my weaknesses, my inordinate passions, my unskillfullnesse, and every way unfitoesse to my worke; yett the Lord, who will have mercye on whome he will, , does as you see. Pray for me. Salute all Christian friendes, though unknown.

“I rest your affectionate friend to serve you,


Mr. Cotton was a laborious student, twelve hours he considered to be a scholar’s day. He lived under a conviction, that the servant of Christ ought not to be slothful, but fervent in spirit, and diligent in serving the Lord; and his resolution was rather to wear out than rust out. His literary talents were great. He could converse with ease and fluency in the Hebrew language. His pulpit oratory was delivered with so much judgment and gravity, that it struck his hearers with admiration; and, at the same time, so plain, that the weakest capacity might easily comprehend him. He was remarkable for practical religion and Christian benevolence, and his whole life was one continued course of piety and charity. He was blest with an uncommon share of humility, modesty, and good nature; and though often insulted by angry men, showed no resentment. A conceited ignorant man one time followed him home from church, and told him, that his preaching was become dark and flat. To whom he replied, “Both, brother; but let me have the help of your prayers that they may be otherwise.” At another time he was insulted on the street by an impudent fellow, who called him an old fool. “You are right (he replied), I confess I am so. May the Lord make thee and me both wiser than we are, even wise unto salvation.” At the request of a friend, Mr. Cotton wrote his thoughts on the doctrine of reprobation, against the objections of the Arminians. The manuscript fell into the hands of Dr. Twisse, who published a refutation of it. Mr. Cotton, not a little surprised at his being taken so short, thus expressed himself, “I hope God will give me an opportunity to consider the doctor’s labor of love. I bless God, who has made me willing to be taught by a much meaner disciple than Dr. Twisse, whose scholastic acuteness, solidity of judgment, and dexterity of argument, all orthodox divines so highly honor, and before whom Arminians and Jesuits fall down in silence. God forbid that I should shut mine eyes against any light derived from such a man, only I desire not to be condemned as a Pelagian or an Arminian before I be heard.” Mr. Cotton’s last illness was short. Having taken leave of his beloved study, he said to Mr. Cotton, “I shall enter that room no more.” He was desirous to depart from a world where all was fluctuating and uncertain, that he might enjoy the company of Christ, and his glorified saints, particularly his old friends, Preston, Ames, Hildersham, Dod, and others, who had been peculiarly dear to him while living. Having set his house in order, and taken a solemn leave of the magistrates and ministers of the colony, who visited him in his sickness, he died, December 23d, 1652, aged sixty-seven years. His remains were interred with much funeral solemnity, and great lamentation. He has been denominated an universal scholar, and a living system of the liberal arts. He was a consummate linguist, and a profound theologian. Fuller has honored him with a place among the learned writers and fellows of Emanuel college, Cambridge. Dr. Cotton Mather, the pious historian, was his grandson.

His works are, 1. The Way of Life.—2. Doubts of Predestination.—3. Exposition of Ecclesiastes and Canticles.—4. The Way of the Congregational Churches Cleared.—5. Commentary on the first Epistle of John.—6. Milk for Babes.—7. A Treatise on the New Covenant.—8. Various Sermons.—9. Answer to Mr. Ball about Forms of Prayer.—10. The Grounds and Ends of Infant Baptism.—11. A Discourse upon Singing Psalms.—12. An Abstract of the Laws in Christ’s Kingdom for Civil Government.—13. On the Holiness of Church Members.—14. Discourse on Things Indifferent.—15. The Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.—16. Answer to Mr. Cawdry.—17. The Bloody Tenet Washed and made White in the Blood of the Lamb.—18. Copy of a Letter of Mr. Cotton’s, of Boston in New England, sent in answer to certain objections made against their discipline and order there, directed to a friend in Old England.

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