Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Cotton, John (1584-1652)
COTTON, JOHN (1584–1652), nonconformist divine, son of Roland or Rowland Cotton (d. 1604), an attorney, was born at Derby on 4 Dec. 1584 (baptised at St. Alkmund's, Derby, 15 Dec. 1584). After passing through Derby grammar school under Richard Johnson, he is said to have entered Trinity College, Cambridge, 'about the age of thirteen;' he was admitted scholar on 16 April 1602, and attained distinction. His name occurs as B.A. in 1604. Graduating M. A. in 1606 he removed to Emmanuel College, was elected fellow not later than 1607, became dean, and was a successful tutor and catechist. His first religious pressions had been due to the preaching of William Perkins [q. v.], some time after whose death (1602) a sermon by Richard Sibbes [q.v.] proved a turning-point in his career. His funeral oration (10 Feb. 1609) for Robert Some [q.v.], master of Peterhouse, had gained him great repute, increased by a university sermon at St. Mary's. A second (1611 ?) university sermon drew a large audience, expecting learned nights ; a plain evangelical discourse was coldly received, but moved John Preston [q. v.] to seek his counsel and to forsake medicine for divinity.
In 1612 the parishioners of Boston, Lincolnshire, petitioned for him as their vicar and carried their point, the corporation as patrons electing him on 24 June 1612 (according to Cotton Mather, by the mayor's casting vote, twice given in error) against another candidate who had influential support, and despite the opposition of William Barlow (d. 1613) [q.v.], bishop of Lincoln, who had a nominee of his own, Simon Biby, and objected to Cotton as too young, the real objection being his puritan tendency. His concio ad clerum on taking (1613) his B.D., and his divinity act, with William Chappell [q.v.] as opponent, added to his Cambridge repute. The Boston corporation made him frequent donations, and an annual grant of 10l., the living being small. His definite repugnance to the 'ceremonies' did not begin till 1615. For his disuse of them he was cited before his diocesan, Richard Neile [q.v.], who suspended him. Thomas Leverett, his agent, took the case to the court of arches on appeal, and succeeded in removing the suspension by some 'piously subtile' influence with one of the proctors ; for Cotton did not conform, though tempted by the offer of better preferment. He is said even to have disused the common prayer book, and his opinions advanced to congregational views of church government. John Williams (1582-1650) [q.v.], lord-keeper and bishop of Lincoln, who respected him for his learning, indulged Cotton's nonconformity with the sanction of James I. Subsequently Williams complained that people came from other parishes to receive the communion from Cotton without kneeling ; in a letter of 31 Jan. 1624-5 Cotton denies that this was the case. James Ussher [q.v.] consulted him on theological points ; a letter from Cotton (31 May 1626) in Ussher's correspondence deals with predestination. His preaching in the morning was homiletic exposition of biblical books ; in the afternoon a catechetical lecture. He took theological pupils ; Preston, 'the greatest pupil-monger in England,' sent his divinity students to complete their studies with Cotton ; among them were Thomas Hill (d. 1653) [q. v.] and Samuel Winter [q. v.] ; he had others from Holland and Germany. He was assisted by a ' town preacher,' an office filled from 1629 by his cousin, Anthony Tuckney [q. v.]
In September 1630 he was attacked by ague, which disabled him for a year ; from February 1631 he was the guest of Theophilus Clinton, fourth earl of Lincoln. In 1633 one Johnson, who had been punished by the Boston magistrates for some offence, gave information against two of them in the high commission court for nonconformity. He was questioned about Cotton, who was cited before the commission. He came up to London, but, on the advice of John Dod [q.v.], 'kept himself close.' His friends found they could not protect him, and Edward Sackville, fourth earl of Dorset [q.v.], counselled flight. At a private conference several puritan divines urged him to conform ; his arguments brought them to his own position. Among them were John Davenport [q.v.], Thomas Goodwin [q.v.], Philip Nye [q.v.], and Henry Whitfield [q.v.] In a letter to Williams (7 May 1633) he intimated his resignation of his vicarage ; the date of resignation, as entered in the corporation records, is 8 July. A fine of 50l. was imposed on Cotton, but not till 3 March 1633-4, when he had left England.
About 13 July he sailed for New England in the Griffin, accompanied by Thomas Hooker [q.v.], Samuel Stone [q.v.], Edward Hutchinson [see under Hutchinson, Anne], and others. They landed at Shawmut or Trimountain on 3 or 4 Sept. 1633; their welcome was emphasised by a change of the town's name from Trimountain to Boston. Cotton was ordained (15 or 17 Oct.) as colleague to the Boston minister, John Wilson (1588-1667), grandnephew of Sir Thomas Wilson (1560 ?-1629) [q. v.] At the same time Leverett was ordained as ruling elder. The proceedings were to form a precedent for the future. Cotton's ministry in the humble New England meeting-house was on the same plan as in the splendid church of St. Botolph, including a Thursday lecture. Keeping Sunday as a sabbath, he counted the day from evening to evening, which became the usage of New England. His guidance was sought in the consolidation of the Massachusetts government ; at the direction of the general court he drew up an abstract of those parts of the Mosaic law which were considered of perpetual obligation. Thomas Hutchinson (17111780) [q.v.] rightly describes him as 'more instrumental, in the settlement of their civil as well as ecclesiastical polity, than any other person.' His 'Abstract of the Laws of New England,' a code which made one type of religious observance compulsory, and ordained the death penalty for heretical propagandists, was printed in London, 1635, edited by William Aspinwell.
His authority was not without set-backs. The arrival at Boston, in September 1634, of Anne Hutchinson [q. v.] hampered him with a devoted follower who proved a troublesome enthusiast, and threw the colony into a ferment by her prophesyings and 'antinomian' heresies [see Winthrop, John (1588-1649)]. The first New England synod met at Newtown (now Cambridge) on 30 Aug. 1637, and sat for three weeks; Cotton, who had at first made reservations in his judgment of Mrs. Hutchinson, was brought at length to a complete condemnation of her opinions. His ideal of church government, as set out in his 'Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven,' 1644, was put in practice by the New England congregationalists. But when, in 1648, the synod had directed Cotton, Richard Mather [q. v.], and Ralph Partridge to prepare alternative schemes for reducing this ideal to legislative shape, it was not Cotton's but Mather's 'platform of church discipline' which was adopted by the synod at Cambridge (October 1648), and hence known as the 'Cambridge platform.'
In 1642 a letter, signed by four peers, over thirty members of the lower house, and some divines, had been addressed to Cotton, Hooker, and Davenport, begging them to return to England, with a view to their taking part in the Westminster assembly of divines. Cotton would have obeyed the call had the others been willing to accompany him, but Hooker would not move. A movement in favour of presbyterian government, attempted by fresh immigrants in 1643, was promptly suppressed by the general court.
The nobility of purpose which inspired 'the New England theocracy' cannot fail to be deeply impressive, but it involved an exclusiveness which easily passed into intolerance. Something may be said for the expediency of the expulsion (1635) of Roger Williams (1604 ?-1683) [q. v.], defended by Cotton in his 'Letter' of 1643. The infant colony doubtless felt that there were cases in which toleration would, to use Baxter's phrase, be 'self-murder.' But in his famous 'Bloudy Tenent' tract against persecution (1644) Williams rose high above the confused ideas of his age, and cleared the way for the full recognition of the principle of religious liberty, while Cotton in his 'Bloudy Tenent Washed' (1647) fell back upon the very principles whose application to his own case had driven him from England. How little he understood the claims of conscience may be seen in a letter written in the last year of his life, amazing for its tone of calm conviction, setting aside the remonstrances of Richard Saltonstall (1586-1658) [q.v.], and approving the treatment of Obadiah Holmes, an Oxford scholar, who in August 1651 had been publicly 'well whipped' for rebaptising an adult person at Lynn, near Boston (cf. Clarke, I11 News from New England, 1651). His consistency he bases on the futile distinction, 'we fled from men's inventions,' 'we compel' men to 'God's institutions.' Yet his own temper was placid and gentle; W r illiams, his antagonist, speaks of him with esteem. He did not live to see the terrible application of his principles, in the case of the quakers, from 1656 to 1661. Cromwell wrote to him with warm sympathy (see his letter, 2 Oct. 1652, Sloane MSS, 4156, printed in Brook).
After a brief illness, described as a complication of asthma and scurvy, he died on 23 Dec. 1652, and was buried on 29 Dec. in the graveyard of King's chapel, Boston. In 1855 a memorial brass, with Latin inscription by Edward Everett (1794-1865), was placed in the Cotton chapel at St. Botolph's, Boston. He was of sanguine complexion, middle height, and stout. He married, first (about 1613), Elizabeth (d. April 1631), sister of James Horrocks, a Lancashire divine, by whom he had no issue ; secondly (25 April 1632), Sarah Story, a widow, who survived him and married Richard Mather [q.v.] By her he had three sons and three daughters : (1) Seaborn (b. 12 Aug. 1633, d. 19 April 1686), was minister at Hampton, N.H., 1660-86; (2) John (b. 13 March 1640, d. 18 Sept. 1699), minister at Plymouth, Mass., and Charleston, S.C., was noted as a preacher to Indians, and revised the translation of the Bible by John Eliot (1604-1690) [q. v.]; his son Josiah 1680-1756) was a missionary to Indians under the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and author of an Indian vocabulary ; (3) Maria, married Increase Mather [q. v.]
His very numerous publications may be thus arranged: I. Sermons. 1. 'God's Promise to His Plantation,' 1630, 4to. 2. 'The Churches Resurrection,' 1642, 4to (sermons on 1 John v.) 3. 'The Covenant of God's Free Grace,' 1642, 4to. 4. 'Christ the Fountaine of Life. . . . Sermons on part of the Fifth Chapter of ... First . . . John,' 1651, 4to. 5. ‘A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace,’ 1659, 8vo; 1662, 12mo; 1671, 8vo (sermons) 6. ‘The Danger of not obeying the Voice of God,’ 1728, 12mo (edited by Benjamin Colman). II. Church Government. 7. ‘A Coppy of a Letter … in Answer of certain Points made against the Discipline,’ 1641, 4to. 8. ‘The True Constitution of a Particular … Church,’ 1642, 4to. 9. ‘The Doctrine of the Church to which are committed the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven,’ 1643, 4to. 10. ‘The Keyes of the Kingdom of Heaven,’ 1644, 4to; two editions same year (this treatise made John Owen (1616–1683) [q.v.] an independent). 11. ‘Sixteene Questions … with his Answers,’ 1644, 4to. 12. ‘The Way of the Churches … in New-England,’ 1645, 4to. 13. ‘Conference … with the Elders of New England,’ 1646, 8vo (reported by F. Cornwell). 14. ‘Severall Questions of Serious … Consequence,’ 1647, 4to. 15. ‘The Way of the Congregational Churches cleared,’ 1648, 4to (two parts). III. Doctrinal. 16. ‘The Way of Life,’ 1641, 4to (edited by W. Morton). 17. ‘God's Mercie mixed with His Justice,’ 1641, 4to. 18. ‘Milk for Babes,’ 1646, 8vo (a catechism). 19. ‘Singing of Psalms, a Gospel-ordinance,’ 1647, 4to; 1650, 4to. 20. ‘The Grounds and Ends of the Baptisme of the Children of the Faithfull,’ 1647, 4to (dialogue; with epistle by Thomas Goodwin, D.D. [q. v.]). 21. ‘Of the Holinesse of Church Members,’ 1650, 4to. 22. ‘The Covenant of Grace,’ 1654–55, 8vo (two parts). 23. ‘The Saint's Support and Comfort,’ 1658, 4to. IV. Controversial. 24. ‘A Modest … Answer to Mr. Ball's Discourse of Set Formes of Prayer,’ 1642, 4to (against John Ball (1585–1640) [q. v.]) 25. ‘A Letter … to Mr. Williams,’ 1643, 4to. 26. ‘A Treatise of Mr. Cotton's … concerning Predestination … with an Examination … by W. Twisse,’ 1646, 4to [see Twisse, William, D.D.]. 27. ‘The Controversie concerning Liberty of Conscience … truly stated,’ 1646, 4to; 1649, 4to. 28. ‘The Bloudy Tenent Washed,’ 1647, 4to. 29. ‘A Censure … upon … Mr. Henden,’ 1656, 4to. V. Expository. 30. ‘The … Seven Vials … Exposition of the 16th Chapter of the Revelation,’ 1642, 4to; 1645, 4to. 31. ‘A Brief Exposition … of Canticles,’ 1642, 8vo; 1648, 8vo; 1655, 8vo. 32. ‘A Practical Commentary … upon the First Epistle … of John,’ 1656, fol. 33. ‘A Briefe Exposition … upon … Ecclesiastes,’ 1654, 8vo; 1657, 8vo. 34. ‘An Exposition upon the Thirteenth Chapter of the Revelation,’ 1655, 4to; 1656, 4to. He prefaced J. Norton's ‘Orthodox Evangelist,’ 1654, 4to. Two of his tracts were published by the Narragansett Club, 1866 (ed. R. A. Guild). The Cotton Papers in the Boston (U.S.A.) Public Library fill six folio volumes.
[Life by John Norton, ‘Abel being Dead,’ &c., 1654; Clarke's Lives of Thirty-two English Divines, 1677, pp. 217 sq.; Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana, 1702; Neal's Hist. of New England, 1720; Hutchinson's Hist. of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, 1765; Brook's Lives of the Puritans, 1813, iii. 151 sq.; Young's Chronicles of New England, 1846, 8vo; Pishey Thompson's Hist. of Boston, 1856, pp. 412 sq. (portrait); Sprague's American Pulpit, 1857, i. 25 sq.; Uhden's New England Theocracy (Conant), 1858; Burns's High Commission, 1865, p. 48; Life by A. W. MacClure, 1870; Appleton's Cyclopædia of American Biography, 1888; B. Tacchella's John Cotton, B. D. (1900?); parish register of St. Alkmund's, Derby; information from the vice-master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and the master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.]