The Shields of the Churches: New England’s Governors

“The governour sometimes made his own private purse to be the publick: not by sucking into it, but by squeezing out of it . . .”

Summary Overview

Cotton Mather, a third-generation Massachusetts Bay leader descended from two of the original colonizing families, took it upon himself to write a history of New England. The book, from which this article is excerpted, was named Magnalia Christi Americana, or, The Ecclesiastical History of New England from Its First Planting, in the Year 1620, unto the Year of Our Lord 1698. Mather sought to relate the historical events in the colony to his articles of faith. Thus, this was not a history in the modern sense of the word, but rather an interpretation of what had happened. The text was divided into seven books, and this excerpt is from the second book, which contains brief biographies of the colony’s civic leaders. William Bradford and John Winthrop, founders of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies, respectively, are the foci of the passages in this article. The text greatly helps scholars understand the sentiments of that era, as well as giving some information not available elsewhere.

Defining Moment

With the exception of New Hampshire, all of the colonies in what is known as New England were founded because of religious disputes. For Massachusetts Bay, the disputes had originated in England with the Church of England and the Puritans who opposed its tenets. To escape religious persecution, the Puritans traveled to the New World to establish a place where they could practice their own faith peacefully. By the 1690s, three generations of Puritan settlers had lived in the colony. Without adequate records, much of the colony’s history would soon be lost. The Mather family, especially Cotton’s father, Increase Mather, believed that God had given New England to the colonists as a new Promised Land. Cotton Mather also held this view and wrote his history of the region with this perspective in mind. Thus, he wrote what could be called an ecclesiastical history.

Believing that the New England colonies were God’s gift to the Puritans, they believed that God expected the colonists to live devout lives that conformed to the tenets of Puritan faith. They also believed that many of the calamities that had touched the colonies were God’s punishment for not living up to his required standards. The 1690s, when this text was being written, brought renewed warfare with American Indians. Although the fighting was instigated by the French rather than tribal dissatisfaction with European encroachment, for Mather, the violence was a sign of God’s displeasure. Mather believed that religious fervor had declined throughout the colony and needed to be revived. One means to counteract this decline was to remind the people of what their ancestors had done to make their way of life possible and of the type of faithful living that Mather believed had been the norm.

The book’s 1702 edition was printed in London, not only because of London’s superior printing technology, but also because it was a means of sharing the worldview of New England with England and the rest of the colonies. This was important because, in 1689, colonial leaders in Boston had revolted successfully against the governor, who had been appointed by King James II. James and his predecessor Charles II had revoked all the original charters, changing the governing of the colony to direct rule by the king’s governor. The colonists in Boston sent the governor back to England and reinstated their charters without English reprisals. The sentiments that led to the revolt continued in the region, and Boston became the center for anti-English sentiment up to the Revolutionary War. In line with this thought, Mather’s history clearly declared the colonists’ specialness and their superiority to the English.

Author Biography

Born on February 12, 1663, in Boston, Massachusetts, Cotton Mather was the oldest child of Increase and Maria Cotton Mather. As a member of a highly educated family, Cotton was given a classical education very early. While only twelve, he was admitted to Harvard College, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He was ordained in 1685 and became the assistant minister at the Second Congregational Church of Boston, where his father was minister. Although he occasionally disagreed with his father, Mather followed his father’s religious views, which blended a conservative theological position with advocacy of emerging scientific understandings. Shortly after Mather became the associate pastor, his father accepted the presidency of Harvard and he became the church’s pastor. This was his official vocation for the remainder of his life.

Mather was a prolific writer of sermons and histories. During the 1690s, his major works were the history of the colony and texts reflecting on and supporting the Salem witch trials. The Salem witch trials were the first major controversy that mixed his political and theological interests. A political supporter of the head of the witchcraft tribunal, Mather always maintained that the trials were justified and properly conducted, although he warned its judges against the admittance of spectral evidence (a statement by a prosecution witness describing how the defendants used evil spirits against the witness). Nonetheless, his traditional theology fully accepted the existence of witches, evil spirits, and demonic possession.

In the early eighteenth century, Mather continued to advocate a mixture of liberal and conservative values. He persuaded Welsh merchant Elihu Yale to fund a new college, believing that Harvard was becoming too liberal. At the same time, he advocated the use of inoculations to stop the spread of smallpox, even though most New England doctors were opposed to the practice. He wrote substantially about his observations of nature and was elected to the Royal Society of London in 1713. He wrote a medical text that included an understanding of the then-controversial germ theory of disease. He tried to modify traditional theological positions with the new theology coming from the Enlightenment, although he always remained theologically very traditional. Much of his later theological writing focused on millennialism, the time when the Second Coming of Christ would occur. The book he was writing when he died on February 13, 1728, was an attempt to demonstrate that traditional Christian thought could work in harmony with new philosophical and scientific thought. In many ways, this was an autobiography of his intellectual journey.

Document Analysis

Cotton Mather considered himself a man with a special mission: to call the people of New England back to the true form of the Christian faith and to unite all Christians in order to hasten the Second Coming of Christ. In most of his more than four hundred publications, this was the focus. The work that conveyed his beliefs most clearly was Magnalia Christi Americana. Through this highly stylized work, he proclaimed the superiority of the New England Puritans to their contemporaries. In addition, he presents them and their leaders as at least on par with those in the Bible who were seen as God’s chosen people. Thus, when he describes the lives of the colonial leaders, he does not compare them to other secular leaders, but rather with Old Testament leaders and prophets who assisted in the creation and continuation of the Jewish state in the Promised Land. For Mather, New England was the new Israel selected to inaugurate Christ’s kingdom.

Mather begins his biography of William Bradford by describing the area around Plymouth as a wilderness. Drawing an analogy to Moses’s strong leadership when he led the Israelites across the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula, Mather asserts that the same type of leadership was needed when the Pilgrims arrived in 1620. However, the wilderness in which the Pilgrims settled was not an arid desert. There were fertile fields and only a small population of American Indians in the area. While the original settlers believed that the prepared fields were a miraculous gift from God, by Mather’s time, it was understood that the fields had been vacant because much of the local American Indian population had died during the preceding five years, from smallpox or other European diseases. However, from Mather’s perspective, this does not lessen the fields’ status as a gift from God. As described elsewhere, Mather saw the native population as agents of the devil and demon worshippers. Thus, to him, it was perfectly natural that their population would be decimated in order to provide for the English who settled there.

In the opening seven sections regarding Bradford, Mather gives a short biography of him from birth through the first two years of the colony’s history. That section concludes by recording his service as governor for thirty-one of the first thirty-six years of the colony’s existence. Mather notes that during the hard times of the first few years, it was Bradford who had established the communal system of caring for one another, as well as making certain that he did not have any more than the least of the others. This is one reason why Mather calls him a “worthy person.” Despite the strict discipline Bradford had to impose upon the community, Mather affirms, “The people had never with so much unanimity and importunity still called him to lead them.”

As one of the leaders who sought the charter for the colony, Bradford could have asked for some type of compensation for giving up any claim to the colony’s lands. However, when asked to sign over his rights to the colony’s government, Mather states, “He willingly and presently assented . . . reserving no more for himself than was his proportion.” An earlier statement that Bradford had given up “friends, houses and lands for the sake of the gospel” is not hyperbole. Orphaned at a young age, Bradford inherited the resources to have a comfortable income for his entire life. Raised by extended family members, who were not religiously observant, he was derided when he became devout. Leaving his home, he joined the Pilgrim community about the time they were moving to the Netherlands. Bradford gave up his rights to his English property and related income to join them. When it became clear that the group would have to leave Europe to find peace, Bradford stepped up to work through the many legal and administrative details necessary to establish a colony. When they left the Netherlands for England and then the New World, he and his wife, Dorothy, had to leave their four-year-old son behind. Ultimately, Bradford was reunited with the child. When they arrived in the New World, Dorothy Bradford drowned after a fall from ship. Thus, Bradford’s support for the community had cost him much. His willing service to God’s cause, in Mather’s view, was the source of his popularity and relative material prosperity, including a second marriage to Alice Carpenter Southworth.

In section 9, Mather recalls some of the attributes and disciplines that allowed Bradford to do well as a leader. Throughout the previous sections, Mather had described many of Bradford’s accomplishments. Here, this “person for study” is analyzed. According to Mather, Bradford’s linguistic skills were phenomenal. He could speak Dutch almost as well as English, due to his years spent in the Netherlands after the Pilgrims fled England. He also spoke French, which he acquired while learning about the silk trade. In addition to studying Latin and Greek, which were traditional topics in a classical education, he pressed to learn the Hebrew language purely for religious reasons, in order to read the Old Testament in its original language.

The last section describes the period just before Bradford’s death. After being sick for several months, he had a religious experience. In his New Testament writings, the apostle Paul described being taken up to the seventh level of heaven and experiencing the presence of God. This is how Mather understands what Bradford experienced, and to him, it was another affirmation that the founding leaders of Massachusetts Bay Colony had been as close to God as biblical leaders were. Mather records that Bradford was at peace when he died. He then concludes with nonbiblical classical affirmations, which he applies to Bradford.

Mather then replicates for John Winthrop what he did for Bradford. Just as Mather compares Bradford with Moses, John Winthrop is portrayed as similar to Nehemiah, a leader of the Israelites just after the Babylonian Exile. Carrying the analogy further, Mather implies that Boston, the city Winthrop helped found, is “our American Jerusalem.” Just as Tobiah and Sanballat questioned whether Nehemiah could adequately rebuild Jerusalem and its wall, Mather indicates that some questioned the undertaking of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and its new capital. Reminding the reader (in Latin) that everyone tends to attack a leader when things are rough, Mather states that Winthrop overcame this by “doing the part of a neighbour,” rather than acting like a dictator. Thus, for Mather, Winthrop surpassed anything Nehemiah did because Winthrop gave up “a thousand comfortable things” in order to assure success.

As this text begins with section 6, it should be noted that the previous five sections deal with Winthrop’s early life and his discussions with other leaders regarding how to govern the colony. Winthrop believed that during the process of settling into the new land, leniency should be used in administering the laws. Since the majority of the other founders disagreed, Winthrop moved closer to their position. However, even in doing this, Winthrop was not willing to act like the officials in England in relating to the others in the community. His manner of living was quite simple. He did not have fancy food prepared for his meals, and Mather recounts, “Water was commonly his own drink.” Since Winthrop did serve wine, Mather asserts that his choice of lifestyle was not a result of an opposition to nicer things; rather, Winthrop lived a simple life because it was necessary for the good of the community.

Although Winthrop served for many years as a civic leader and governor, none of those discussions or accomplishments is included in Mather’s biography of him. He had even been involved the religious controversies that led to some colonists establishing Rhode Island and Connecticut, but these incidents are left out as well. Rather, as was Mather’s style, the text focuses on Winthrop’s personal qualities. In the early days of the colony, survival was not assured. Thus, Mather depicts some of the ways in which Winthrop assisted the community to survive. Mather writes about Winthrop’s special care for the widows and children of deceased ministers, “whom he always treated with a very singular compassion.” In yet another biblical allusion, Winthrop is compared with the patriarch Joseph, as the one to whom the community could turn when food was in short supply. Mather writes that Winthrop “continued relieving of them with his open-handed bounties, as long as he had any stock to do it with.” Continuing with the theme of Winthrop as God’s special servant, Mather refers to an instance when Winthrop gave a hungry man the “last handful of the meal in the barrel” just as a supply ship “arrived at the harbour’s mouth, laden with provisions for them all.”

Mather further illustrates Winthrop’s character with additional examples of his giving spirit. Thus, Mather passes on the events of the opening of Winthrop’s third term as governor. Winthrop indicated that, as governor, he had received various gifts and payments from people and towns, which he had taken to be polite, even though he was not certain it was proper. As his third term opened, Winthrop stated he would no longer accept these gifts and payments, which meant that he would pay his own expenses as he traveled within the colony on the colony’s business. Mather also describes Winthrop sending family members to various homes in the colony at mealtime to understand who was doing well and who was not. Section 6 ends with an unusual story of a man in need who stole wood from his neighbors. Winthrop’s solution to this was to tell the man that if he needed wood to take some of Winthrop’s, thus addressing both men’s needs and choosing not punish a man for trying to survive.

Section 7 of this text addresses the political struggles that Winthrop faced. For Mather, all opposition to Winthrop’s leadership was based upon the imperfect nature of human beings. In Mather’s mind, Winthrop was fortunate not to have the same failings as most other people; he encountered “this envy from others, but conquered it, by being free from it himself.” Earlier in the text, Mather comments on Winthrop’s “unspotted integrity” and “profound humility.” However, beyond the normal human imperfection, Mather makes it clear that certain individuals were leading the effort to keep Winthrop out of office. From other sources, Winthrop appears to have been a good and honest leader but not the picture of perfection Mather describes. Religiously, Winthrop was moderate to slightly liberal and thus was attacked by both conservative and ultra-liberal clergy. Mather correctly notes that “sermons were preached at the anniversary Court of election” in an attempt to keep Winthrop from being reelected.

In place of the real reasons for the struggles facing Winthrop and the colony, Mather dismisses all opposition as manifestations of jealousy, saying, “Indeed, his right works were so many, that they exposed him unto the envy of his neighbours.” In addition, for Mather, there were those “unto whom it was almost essential to dislike every thing that came from him.” Thus, all opposition to Winthrop’s leadership is understood by Mather to be the result of the failings of others. Politically, issues ranging from the location of the capital to how much decoration should be allowed in private homes established an ongoing divide between Winthrop and others. Mather ignores all of these matters in explaining why Winthrop was elected governor only twelve of the twenty years he lived in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Comparing those who opposed Winthrop to the sharp attacks of leaders and crowds in sixteenth-century Florence who opposed the Medici family’s rule, Mather asserts that Winthrop’s patience and essential goodness allowed him to survive and serve the community.

In a text to teach young ministers key points in communicating the gospel, Mather stated that one should be entertaining while teaching the religious truths. In these biographies of the early Massachusetts Bay leaders, he followed his own advice by using a fancy, outdated style to attract attention, while teaching readers his understanding of the truth. As in all parts of Magnalia Christi Americana, documenting religious truths in the lives of the leaders was essential to Mather. Many see the biographical sections of this work to be patterned after the hagiographies of the Middle Ages. Hagiographies were stylized biographies of saints, written not only to inspire the reader, but also to demonstrate that the saint (or colonial leader, in this case) was truly chosen by God for the tasks undertaken. Mather believed this was the case for Bradford and Winthrop.

The use of this antiquated form for the biographies may seem to be an unusual choice. To many scholars, Mather’s apparently strange mixture of beliefs and styles was the result of New England’s (and his own) ongoing transition from a medieval worldview to one reflecting the opening stages of the Enlightenment. While the stylistic flourishes may be simply a rhetorical device, Mather did believe in the divine guidance given the early colonial leaders and the divine purpose for the colonies in New England. With Boston as the American Jerusalem, the colonists were not only to live Christian lives, but also to lead in transforming the world in order to fulfill ancient prophecies and usher in the Second Coming of Christ. Only enlightened leaders could move people in that direction, and Mather made it clear that the early colonial leaders had been just such persons.

Essential Themes

Cotton Mather viewed the world through the lens of religion. While this might not be unexpected for an ordained minister, he went beyond seeing the world as a manifestation of God’s creative power to viewing himself in the midst of a movement that would bring the world closer to God. Just as he believed that his spiritual ancestors had come to the proper understanding of how to relate to God, he believed that his political ancestors had created what could be the perfect setting in which to live a Christian life. The settlements of Plymouth and the Massachusetts Bay colonies were, in Mather’s view, ordained by God as the first steps toward fulfilling prophecies prior to the Second Coming of Christ.

Because of these understandings, Mather viewed the early political leaders of the two colonies as God’s tools. As Mather viewed the Bible, a parallel series of events was the settling of the Promised Land by the Jews and the restoration of the community after the Babylonian Exile. Thus, just as Moses was chosen by God to lead the Jewish people to Israel, Mather saw William Bradford as chosen by God to lead the Pilgrims to Plymouth. Similarly, Nehemiah was chosen by God to be the spokesperson guiding the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile and John Winthrop was chosen by God to build the new Jerusalem, Boston. The biblical figures were larger than life in not only their closeness to God but in their concern for their people and the goodness of their lives. Theologically, Mather believed that just as Christianity had superseded Judaism, the colonial leaders superseded the biblical leaders of the Old Testament. Bradford and Winthrop are portrayed by Mather as examples of goodness and compassion for the colonists to emulate. With proper support from the people, Mather asserts that the colonial leaders could bring to fruition the necessary events to allow the Second Coming. For him, Pilgrim and Puritan leaders were prophets for their day, living a life closer to perfection than had the Jewish prophets. Mather wrote Magnalia Christi Americana to demonstrate the specialness of these leaders and the colonists.


  • Mather, Cotton. Magnalia Christi Americana, or, The Ecclesiastical History of New England from Its First Planting, in the Year 1620, unto the Year of Our Lord 1698. Ed. Thomas Robbins. Hartford: Andrus, 1853. Print.
  • Silverman, Kenneth. The Life and Times of Cotton Mather. New York: Welcome Rain, 2001. Print.

Additional Reading

  • Abrams, Dennis. Cotton Mather. New York: Chelsea, 2010. Print.
  • Mather, Cotton. Diary of Cotton Mather. 2 vols. New York: Unger, 1969. Print.
  • The Mather Project. Georgia State University, 2011. Web. 11 June 2012.
  • Middlekauff, Robert. The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals, 1596–1728. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999. Print.
  • Wendell, Barrett. Cotton Mather: A Biography. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1992. Print.