Cotton, John

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Cotton, John

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December 4, 1584

Derby, Derbyshire, England

December 23, 1652

Boston, Massachusetts

Puritan clergyman

"Democracy I do not conceyve that ever God did ordene as a fitt government eyther for church or commonwealth."

John Cotton.

John Cotton was a prominent clergyman in the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the seventeenth century. After introducing Puritanism (a religious philosophy that stresses strict moral and spiritual codes) to a church in England, he emigrated (moved from one country to another) to the New World (the European term for North America and South America) and continued his religious activities. He arrived in Massachusetts in 1633 and quickly became an influential leader of the colony. As a preacher he was interested in both religion and politics, arguing against those who believed the two should remain separate. He participated in many of the major political and religious conflicts that took place in the colony, including the trial of religious heretic (one who violates the laws of the church) Anne Hutchinson (see entry).

Becomes a preacher in England

John Cotton was born at Derby, Derbyshire, England, on December 4, 1584, to devoutly Christian parents. His father, Roland Cotton, was a wealthy lawyer. Little is known about Cotton's childhood, except that he attended DerbyGrammar School from 1593 to 1597. As a young man Cotton showed a natural ability for scholarship. In 1597, when he was only thirteen, Cotton began attending Trinity College at Cambridge University. He received a bachelor of arts degree in 1603, and a master of arts degree in 1606.

Cotton's preaching inspires revolution

In addition to altering the liturgy of the Church of England (the official religion of England, also known as the Anglican Church), John Cotton sought to change Puritan doctrine. He focused mainly on the belief that good works earn salvation, known as the Covenant of Works. In a radical move, Cotton claimed that it was possible to obtain salvation through direct revelation from God. Therefore, he advanced what was known as the Covenant of Grace. This turned out to be a popular doctrine because it freed believers from having to do good works to earn salvation. Instead, they could claim that God had given them the means for eternal salvation. Cotton urged his followers to adhere to the doctrine of good works whether or not they had received divine revelation from God.

After emigrating to Boston in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1633, Cotton continued preaching the Covenant of Grace. One of his most enthusiastic followers was Anne Hutchinson, who believed strongly in the doctrine. She even began to hold private meetings in Boston, during which she advanced her own extreme version of Cotton's teachings. Hutchinson believed that individuals who had received direct revelation from God were completely free from having to do good works. The Covenant of Grace now bordered upon Antimonian heresy, which freed Christians from the moral law of the Old Testament. It was still a popular doctrine, however, and Hutchinson had a massive following that threatened the very foundation of Puritan society in Massachusetts.

After mastering Hebrew, Cotton was awarded a fellowship to Emmanuel College at Cambridge University in 1603. Founded by a Puritan, Emmanuel College was the most Puritan of any college in the Cambridge system. At Emmanuel, Cotton served as a dean and head lecturer, and became an influential preacher at St. Mary's Church. During the six years he spent at Emmanuel College, he claimed to have experienced a religious conversion to Puritanism after witnessing the preaching of Richard Sibbes. On July 13, 1610, Cotton became a priest in Lincoln, England, and in 1613 he received a bachelor of divinity degree. In July of the same year, Cotton married Elizabeth Horrocks.

Alters liturgy to favor Puritanism

On June 24, 1612, Cotton was elected vicar (a Church of England official) of St. Botolph's Church in Boston, a port city in Lincolnshire. Although he was only twenty-seven at the time, he had already gained a reputation as an inspiring preacher. Around 1615 Cotton began to alter the liturgy (the accepted way to worship) of the church toward Puritanism. He did this by abandoning certain ceremonies and practices of the Church of England, in favor of the simpler Puritan ways. Cotton was respected by many of the parishioners at St. Botolph's, but only a few accepted his conversion to Puritanism. He was eventually replaced by an assistant who followed the traditions of the Church of England. Meanwhile, Cotton was permitted to continue preaching Puritanism at St. Botolph's.

Although some church authorities protested, no action was ever taken against Cotton for his nonconformity. He spent a total of twenty years at St. Botolph's, and throughout most of this time he preached Puritanism. Cotton received considerable leniency from the bishop and apparently gained further protection from King James I. Even when a group of Puritans vandalized the church in 1621 by breaking stained glass windows and defacing monuments, Cotton was not accused in connection with the incident. After being summoned to appear before the Court of High Commission in 1632, however, he fled to London. Finally, on May 7, 1633, he resigned as vicar of St. Botolph's Church.

Becomes prominent figure

After Elizabeth Cotton died in 1630, Cotton married Sarah (Hawkridge) Story two years later. He then set his sights on emigrating to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He had become interested in the colony when he delivered a sermon in 1630 to a group of Puritans that included John Winthrop (see entry), who were going to Massachusetts. In July 1633 the Cottons left England for the New World on board the Griffin. On the voyage Sarah gave birth to their first son, whom they named Seaborn. Other prominent members of the group included John Haynes, Edmund Quincy, and Thomas Hooker. The Griffin anchored at Boston, Massachusetts, on September 4.

Excerpt from "God's Promise to His Plantations" (1630)

Before moving from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1633, John Cotton wrote "God's Promise to His Plantations." Drawing from passages in the Bible, he compared doing God's work to planting a garden. Cotton's metaphor appealed to his fellow Puritans, who used it to describe their mission in starting colonies in North America. Following is an excerpt from the work:

Quest[ion]. What is it for God to plant a people?

Answ[e]r. It is a Metaphor taken from young Impes; I will plant them, that is, I will make them to take roote there; and that is, where they and their soyle agree well together, when they are well and sufficiently provided for, as a plant suckes nourishment from the soyle that fitteth it.

Secondly, When hee causeth them to grow as plants doe, in Psal. [Psalms] 80. 8, 9, 10, 11. When a man growes like a tree in tallnesse and strength, to more firmnesse and eminency (prominence), then hee may be said to be planted.

Thirdly, When God causeth them to fructifie [bear fruit]. Psal. 1.5.

Fourthly, When he establisheth them there, then he plants, and rootes not up.

But here is something more especiall in this planting; for they were planted before in this land, and yet he promiseth here againe, that he will plant them in their owne land; which doth imply first, That whatever former good estate they had already, he would prosper it, and increase it. . . .

Source: Gunn, Giles. Early American Writing. New York: Penguin Books, 1994, pp. 102–03.

Interested in both politics and religion, Cotton quickly became a prominent figure in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. As a leader, he was involved in most of the controversial issues and major conflicts that took place at the time. For instance, when the Antimonian controversy disrupted the colony, Cotton participated in Hutchinson's prosecution for heresy. (Antimonianism stated that Christians were free from the moral obligations of the Old Testament, the first part of the Bible. This view was considered heresy, or violation of Puritan church laws, which relied on the Bible as the source of the Word of God.) At first he was on Hutchinson's side. However, after realizing that she had no other supporters, Cotton joined the prosecution. Hutchinson was excommunicated (excluded from the rights of the church) and banished from the colony in 1638. Cotton was also involved in two disputes with Roger Williams (see entry). In the first, he disagreed with Williams's belief that all Puritans must officially renounce (refuse) the Church of England. In the second, Williams asserted that colonial magistrates (officials entrusted with the administration of laws) should have no power over the religious choices of individuals. Believing that it was impossible to separate religion and politics, Cotton argued that magistrates should have secular (not specifically religious) as well as religious authority. This power would give magistrates absolute power over their citizens.

Cotton was an industrious colonial leader, and was known for his tireless energy. He felt that a serious scholar should work twelve-hour days, and he conducted church services that lasted six hours. In addition to his preaching duties, he wrote many books on the methods and theories of Puritanism. One important work was The Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven (1644). Probably the most widely read of his books was The Way of the Churches of Christ in New England (1645). He defended his books against critics with The Way of the Congregational Churches Cleared (1648). Cotton's catechism (religious instruction book), Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes in Either England (1645), became a popular manual for bringing up children in New England. Considered one of the best defenders of Puritanism, Cotton was invited to England in 1643 to attend the Westminster Assembly. He decided not to go. After becoming the Congregational leader in New England in 1646, he was chosen to create a new model for church government, but his plan was not accepted.

Transformed by conservativism

Historians are certain that Cotton was one of the finest colonial leaders of his day. They also note, however, that much of his potential was limited by the narrowly conservative environment in Massachusetts. For instance, Cotton began his career by defying the Church of England, but in the New World he became a conformist (one who adhered to the teachings of the Church of England). Eventually he formed the belief that colonial magistrates should have absolute power over citizens and, further, that magistrates should be allowed to use executions to preserve order. In addition, Cotton rejected democracy and the power of the common man. He agreed with other colonial leaders such as Winthrop, who contended that government should be run by a small, elite group. Cotton remained active in both politics and religion until the end of his life. In late 1652 he caught a cold while preaching to students at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Developing serious respiratory problems, he gave his last sermon on November 21, 1652. He died a month later in Boston.

For further research

Gunn, Giles. Early American Writing. New York: Penguin Books, 1994, pp. 102–03.

Johnson, Allen, and others, eds. Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribner, 1946–1958, pp. 460–62.

Ziff, Larzer. The Career of John Cotton: Puritanism and the American Experience. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1962.

Cotton, John

views updated May 14 2018


Nationality: British. Born: London, 7 March 1925. Education: University of London, B.A. (honors) 1956. Military Service: Royal Naval Commando in the Far East, 1942–46. Family: Married Peggy Midson in 1948; two sons. Career: Teacher with the Middlesex Education Authority, 1947–58; head of the English Department, Southall Grammar Technical School, Middlesex, 1957–63; headmaster, Highfield Comprehensive School, Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, 1963–85. Founder, with Ted Walker, and editor, 1962–72, Priapus magazine; editor, The Private Library, 1969–79. Since 1975 publisher, Priapus Press. Chair, 1972–74, 1977, and treasurer, 1986–89, The Poetry Society, London. Awards: Arts Council award, 1971. Appointed Deputy Lieutenant of the County of Hertfordshire, 1989. Address: 37 Lombardy Drive, Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire HP4 2LQ, England.



Fourteen Poems. Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, Priapus, 1967.

Outside the Gates of Eden and Other Poems. Bushey Heath, Hertfordshire, Taurus Press, 1969.

Ampurias. Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, Priapus, 1969.

Old Movies and Other Poems. London, Chatto and Windus-Hogarth Press, 1971.

Columbus on St. Cominica. Rushden, Northamptonshire, Sceptre Press, 1972.

Preludes: San Martin. Northamptonshire, Sceptre Press, 1973.

Roman Wall. Richmond, Surrey, Keepsake Press, 1973.

Photographs. Oxford, Sycamore Press, 1973.

Kilroy Was Here: Poems 1970–74. London, Chatto and Windus-Hogarth Press, 1975.

Places. Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, Priapus, 1976.

Fragments 11, 12, and 13. Knotting, Bedfordshire, Sceptre Press, 1976.

Powers. Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, Priapus, 1977.

A Berkhamsted Three, with Fred Sedgwick and Freda Downie. Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, Priapus, 1978.

Piers. Leicester, New Broom Press, 1979.

A Letter for a Wedding. Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, Priapus, 1980.

Somme Man. Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, Priapus, 1980.

Wishful Thinking. Leicester, New Broom Press, 1980.

Poems for a Course, with Wes Magee. Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, Priapus, 1980.

The Totleigh Riddles. Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, Priapus, 1981.

Catullus at Sirmio. Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, Priapus, 1982.

Day Book Continued. Leicester, New Broom Press, 1982.

The Highfield Write-a-Poem, with Bevis Cotton. Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, Priapus, 1982.

Day Book. Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, Priapus, 1983.

The Storyville Portraits. West Kirby, Merseyside, Headland, 1984.

Dust. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Starwheel Press, 1986.

Oh Those Happy Feet. Hatch End, Middlesex, Poet and Printer Press, 1986.

The Poetry File. London, Macmillan, 1988.

Here's Looking at You Kid: New and Selected Poems. West Kirby, Merseyside, Headland, 1990.

That's It. Ipswich, The James Daniel Daniel John Press, 1994.

Poetry (for children)

The Crystal Zoo, with U.A. Fanthorpe and L.J. Anderson. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1985.

The Biggest Riddle in the World, with Fred Sedgwick. London, Mary Glasgow, 1990; with Hey!, as Two by Two, 1990.

Hey! with Fred Sedgwick. London, Mary Glasgow, 1990; with Biggest Riddle in the World, as Two by Two, 1990.

First Things. Walton-on-Thames, Nelson, 1993.

Oscar the Dog and Friends. Harlow, Essex, Longmans, 1994.

Christmas Riddles: For Young Friends. Berkhamsted, Priapus Press, 1997.

The Sukey Poems: For Young Friends: Christmas 1998. Berkhamsted, Priapus Press, 1998.


British Poetry since 1965. London, National Book League, 1973.

Editor, I Am the Song (poetry for young people). Walton-on-Thames, Nelson, 1996.


Critical Studies: In Poetry Book Society Bulletin 69 and 84 (London), 1971, 1975; by Anne Cluysenaar, in Stand (Newcastle upon Tyne), xiv, 1, 1972; by Fred Sedgwick, in Hertfordshire Countryside (Hitchin), December 1979; interview with Moira Andrew, in School's Poetry Review, 1984.

John Cotton comments:

Overstatement is the obvious and inherent danger in writing a piece of this kind. I expect I may not avoid it! Basically I write as a way of exploring what I experience and what I think and feel about that experience. I explore my emotions and attitudes and, of course, the language in which I express them. If I succeed in this, it is for others to judge. But personally I find the process itself of immense value.

Yet if it sounds pretentious to go on to say that my pursuit of the art constitutes an exploration of that area, that borderline, between our wish to make things last forever and our consciousness that they never can. That in this it is a way of comprehending and reconciling ourselves to the universal mutability of things, ideas, and concepts.

That the serious side of our work, and frequently the comic side, is an extension of our quarrel with God. Then I can only plead that is the nearest I can get to an explanation of what I attempt to do.

Having gone thus far, I may as well compound things by saying that with Aristotle I look upon one of the purposes of our fictions as a means of bringing or finding some sort of order to the plethora of disparate experiences to which we are all subjected.

In mitigation, I would quickly add that while I take the art seriously I do not take myself so.

*  *  *

John Cotton's work strikes one as utterly English. The poems seem rooted in the attributes of decency and compassion, and there is evidence of a square-shouldered stance in the face of the inevitable enemy. English, yes, even though Cotton ranges far for his subject matter—outer space (in "Report Back"), New Orleans (in The Storyville Portraits), or Spain (in Kilroy Was Here). Despite this wanderlust, Cotton remains the careful, considerate, and deliberate poet with feet firmly planted on the English landscape.

He prefers a "natural" line length, which can look untidy and unformed but which reads well. A resonant tone echoes through the poems whatever their lengths. He is adept with the brief landscape sketch ("Moorland Signals") and the extended sequence, as, for instance, in Day Book, thirty-two "fragments." While reluctant to let himself go on the page, there is, nevertheless, occasion for humor, for the belly laugh, for the sensual, as in "Old Movies":

   And their apartments,
   vast as temples,
   full of unused furniture,
   the sideboards bending with booze,
   and all those acres of bed!
   She, in attendance, wearing
   diaphanous, but never quite
   diaphanous enough, nightwear.

At times Cotton can be clumsily poetic ("Did the grey climacteric beast have to choose"), but instances of such overwriting are rare. More common is a clear diction, a feeling that each poem knows exactly where it is going. His later work has darkened, and human situations are presented without camouflage, as in the moving "The Night Ward." Here Cotton spells out without stridency or blather the dread experienced by those being stalked by death. The observations are sharp, the compassion palpable:

   The drip measures it
   As it feeds down into the arm,
   Spelling out its fractions
   By the bobbing of a small plastic ball.
   Listen. You might just hear it.
   God help the heart that is as quiet.
   We wait for dawn from the trenches of our beds.

Cotton not only moves but also entertains the reader. He is not one to stick with gloom, and past experiences in the cinema and poems such as "The Westerners" are packed with incident and good lines. Like the washing on the line in "Moorland Signals," Cotton's poems are "a bright bunting/of challenge to the grey power &"

—Wes Magee

John Cotton

views updated May 21 2018

John Cotton

John Cotton (1584-1652) was the leading clergyman of New England's first generation, a leader in civil and religious affairs, and a persuasive writer on the theory and practice of Congregationalism.

John Cotton was born in Derby, Derbyshire, England. His father, Roland Cotton, was a lawyer and ardent Puritan; his mother was a deeply religious woman. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, as a sizar in his thirteenth year, and earned a scholarship to Emmanuel, where he remained for 7 years, taking his bachelor of arts degree in 1603 and his master of arts in 1606. From childhood he had been inclined to the scholar's life, and he remained at Cambridge for 7 more years, taking a bachelor of divinity degree in 1613. Only one other first-generation New Englander held this advanced degree.

During his long experience in the cloistered Cambridge University life, Cotton had learned, in addition to his impressive fund of knowledge—biblical, theological, and ecclesiastical—certain political lessons as well, to be remembered to the last day of his life; among them how to disagree and yet conform, how to be true to his own convictions and yet at the same time to be safe. He saw both sides of every question in every controversy of his career, and when he took his own position with regard to any one of the issues involved, it would be, in his own words, "a middle way." To approach his mature life with this practical political secret in mind is to find the apparent enigmas about Cotton disappearing.

Aged 29, Cotton became the vicar of the church of St. Botolph in Boston, Lincolnshire. Conscientious Puritan that he was, from the beginning of his 20-year pastorate there, he substituted many simpler forms in the liturgy and succeeded in carrying most of his congregation with him in these changes. He escaped suspicion and remained presumably safe through the employment of a lecturer, a complete conformist, who conducted the more formal services, which would be more closely watched for strict conformity. Under the eye of Archbishop Laud, however, no service would go unwatched, concealment would not be so easy, and suspicion did come.

Escape to America

In the spring of 1632 Cotton received a summons to the Court of High Commission. Knowing what was ahead, he did not appear but went into hiding. On May 7 he sent his resignation from the post of vicar at St. Botolph's to the bishop of London and remained in hiding. Later, with his newly married second wife, he embarked in disguise for New England. He was a close friend of John Winthrop, had preached the farewell sermon at Southampton to the vanguard of Winthrop's company in 1630, and had kept in touch with the New England Boston happenings since that date. His first thought for immediate escape had been Holland, but Thomas Hooker's report had changed his plan.

Cotton arrived in Boston on Sept. 4, 1633, and on Sept. 30 was made teacher of the Boston church, a post which he continued to hold for the 19 years he had yet to live. Through these years he was a leading figure in civil as well as religious affairs. Among pulpit men he was the most learned in America, not so eloquent as Thomas Hooker of Hartford and not so persuasive as John Davenport of New Haven, but these two men were his nearest rivals. He stood at the top.

One of Cotton's early civil services was the preparation of an abstract of the laws of New England which was, however, rejected by the colony in favor of one nearer to the Mosaic code. During his first 10 years he had a prominent part in the two controversies which rocked New England to its deepest foundations, the exile of Roger Williams and the heresies of Anne Hutchinson. The Williams controversy unearthed the basic question of the relation between church and state. Magistrates are God's deputies and their power goes as far as life and death, said Cotton. Roger Williams declared that a man's religious loyalties are untouchable by civil power. They were speaking for a future neither man would live to see. In the Anne Hutchinson controversy Cotton was in one of the most uncomfortable situations of his life. At the synod called to list her errors, he split hairs with the accusing brethren over scriptural interpretations to justify his own orthodox preaching; at her trial before the church he strenuously tried to guide her in an orthodox path, only to be obliged to turn against her at the end. This was no doubt a sad moment for him. He had tried to save her and orthodoxy at the same time, but it could not be.

Cotton's Writings

Cotton's printed record is impressive. His exposition of early Congregationalism's purpose and practice is probably his most valuable contribution to American religious history. Among the several titles which illuminate this subject are The Keyes of the Kingdom of Heaven (1644), The Way of the Churches of Christ in New England (1645), and The Way of Congregational Churches Cleared (1645). A statement of his religious views called forth by the Anne Hutchinson controversy in 1636 appears in Sixteen Questions of Serious and Necessary Consequences Propounded unto Mr. John Cotton with His Answers (1644). The best volume for the two overlapping debates with Roger Williams is The Bloudy Tennent Washed and Made White in the Bloud of the Lambe (1644), together with The Controversie concerningLiberty of Conscience in Matters of Religion (1646, 1649). Perhaps the most familiar title in his long list is Milk for Babes, Drawn out of the Breasts of Both Testaments (1646), which contains the substance of 100 sermons and recalls the discipline of uncounted children over three generations.

In his own day Cotton was of great importance. But in the long view of 3 centuries he was not a great man. He belonged to the 17th century and within tight limits. He did not see the changes that were already at work within his own Boston. He had no sympathy with the common man. But the world of willing obedience to authority would not be the world of the future in America. For these reasons his life and thought probably reveal more of what lay behind America's history in its first chapter than those of any other public man of his generation.

Further Reading

Two early accounts of Cotton are by his grandson, Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana: The Ecclesiastical History of New England (2 vols., 1702), and by his friend Samuel Whiting, Concerning the Life of the Famous Mr. Cotton, which can be found in Alexander Young, Chronicles of the First Planters of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay from 1623 to 1636 (1846). The best modern study is Larzer Ziff, The Career of John Cotton (1962). There is an extensive treatment of Cotton in Perry Miller, Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, 1630-1650 (1933). Studies devoted to particular aspects of Cotton's life are Emery Battis, Saints and Sectaries (1962), which recounts Cotton's involvement in the Anne Hutchinson controversy, and Irwin H. Polishook, Roger Williams, John Cotton and Religious Freedom (1967), which attempts a balanced view of the Williams-Cotton controversy.

Additional Sources

Norton, John, Abel being dead, yet speaketh: a biography of John Cotton, Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1978. □

Cotton, John

views updated May 23 2018


Puritan clergyman; b. Derby, Derbyshire, England, Dec. 4, 1584; d. Boston, Mass., Dec. 23, 1652. Little is known of his early years. He received the degrees of B.A.(1603) and M.A. (1606) from Trinity College, Cambridge. He was awarded a fellowship to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, a school much inclined toward Puritanism, was ordained in 1610, and received his bachelor of divinity degree in 1613. For gradually adopting Puritan forms of worship, he was forced to flee to America when Abp. William Laud came to power in 1633. In Boston, Cotton was appointed teacher of the church, a post he held until his death. He believed the state should have the power of life and death to ensure conformity. His opinion was of such importance that whatever he preached soon became part of either civil law or church practice. Besides his controversial pamphlets, he wrote on prayer, church music, and the theory and methods of New England Congregationalism.

Bibliography: c. mather, Magnalia Christi Americana: The Ecclesiastical History of New England , (London 1702), 1st Amer. ed. 2 v. (Hartford, CT 1820). p. g. e. miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (Cambridge, Mass. 1953). j. t. adams, Dictionary of American Biography, ed. a. johnson and d. malone, 20 v. (New York 192836; index 1937) 4:460462.

[e. r. vollmar]

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