Last time, I began a new series on Antebellum American thought with a column on the influence of Francis Bacon’s call for reading the “book of nature” alongside the “book of Scripture,” a very influential idea on both sides of the ocean through the mid-nineteenth century. This time, we focus on colonial New England, where Increase Mather and his son Cotton Mather gave Americans food for thought, enriched with plenty of Bacon.
The Mathers on Comets as Instruments of Divine Judgement
Two brilliant comets appeared over Boston in November 1680 and August 1682. The first is now known as the Great Comet of 1680, while the second turned out to be Halley’s Comet--after Halley (in 1705) successfully predicted its return in 1758. Both were seen as divine omens by the Puritan leader Increase Mather, influential pastor of the North Church in Boston and later president of Harvard College. The astronomer and preacher Samuel Danforth had already interpreted two earlier comets (in 1652 and 1664) as warnings to repent. Mather did likewise in two sermons, Heaven’s Alarm to the World (Boston, 1681) and The Latter Sign Discoursed of (Boston, 1682), and a treatise, Kometographia, or, A Discourse Concerning Comets (Boston, 1683). Railing against women who “have the Attire of an Harlot,” who “lay out their Hair, and wear their false Locks, their Borders, and Towers like Comets, about their heads,” and the great “multitude of Licensed Drinking-Houses (and Town-dwellers frequenting them),” he warned that “the Voice of God in Signal Providences, especially when repeated and Iterated [a reference to the multiple comets], ought to be Hearkned unto” (quoted by Genuth, cited below).
There was nothing untypical about Mather’s approach to comets, vis-à-vis any other topic on which he wrote. A few years earlier, he had published An Earnest Exhortation to the Inhabitants of New-England (1676), interpreting King Philip’s War as divine punishment meted out to unfaithful Christians. A few years later, he published An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences (1684), a work that Robert Boyle read with appreciation, not only because his thoughts on writing natural histories were mentioned favorably in the preface, but also for its “divers[e] memorable Passages of divine Providence” The Correspondence of Robert Boyle, vol. 6, p. 132).
Lieve Pietersz Verschuier, Cometa de 1680 de Roterdã (ca. 1680). One of the brightest comets ever seen, the Great Comet of 1680 continues to inspire apocalyptic interpretations on the part of some even today.
Increase’s son, the even more influential Cotton Mather, took a similar but not identical view. Although he briefly mentioned Halley’s Comet in The Boston Ephemeris (Boston, 1683), written before he turned twenty-one, he withheld offering an interpretation until many years later. In December 1719, the northern lights shone brilliantly over Boston in a rare display of their splendor, and Mather responded immediately with a pamphlet, A Voice from Heaven. An Account of a Late Uncommon Appearance in the Heavens (Boston, 1719). There he presented comets as fiery abodes for sinners—literally, heavenly hells—and warned against immorality and the dangers of Arianism.
The Christian Philosopher: Cotton Mather Channels Robert Boyle
Significantly, comets were highly visible in one of Mather’s most important books, The Christian Philosopher [pdf] (London, 1721), the first major effort by an American to engage ideas and information from the Scientific Revolution of the previous two centuries. For example, he reported Halley’s “Calculations, upon which he ventures to foretell the Return of Comets,” while calling attention to Halley’s observation that “some of them have their Nodes pretty near the annual Orb of the Earth,” allowing for the possibility of close encounters with consequences. He also cited Isaac Newton’s view “That the Bodies of Comets are solid, compact, and durable, even like those of the other Planets,” but enormously hot from the Sun’s heat, producing vapors throughout the Solar System that might influence the Earth.
Concerning the meaning of comets, this time Mather hedged his bets a little. On the one hand, he suggested the possibility that “the Appearance of Comets is not so dreadful a thing, as the Cometomania, generally prevailing, has represented it.” On the other hand, he quoted the view of the Scottish physician George Cheyne, “that these frightful Bodies are the Ministers of Divine Justice, and in their Visits lend us benign or noxious Vapours, according to the Designs of Providence,” so that “the Divine Vengeance may find a Seat for the Punishment of his disobedient Creatures, without being put to the expence of a New Creation” (The Christian Philosopher, ed. Solberg, pp. 50-53; italics in all quotations in this column are Mather’s).
I should say more about the title of this book. The word “scientist” did not exist then; “philosopher” or “virtuoso” were the closest equivalents. Indeed, Mather originally planned to name his book The Christian Virtuoso, mimicking a work of the same title by Robert Boyle. The subtitle of Boyle’s work spelled out precisely why Mather wanted to do this: “SHEWING, That by being addicted to Experimental Philosophy, a Man is rather Assisted, than Indisposed, to be a Good Christian.” For some reason Mather changed his mind about borrowing Boyle’s title, but his opening sentence is nothing more than a paraphrase of Boyle’s subtitle, coupled with a reference to Romans 12:1: “The Essays now before us will demonstrate, that [natural] Philosophy is no Enemy, but a mighty and wondrous Incentive to Religion, which will carry with it a most sensible Character, and victorious Evidence of a reasonable Service.” Like Boyle, Mather believed it was the duty of the Christian philosopher to “discharge also the Office of a Priest for the Creation, under the Influences of an admirable Saviour” (p. 7).
Title page of Cotton Mather’s The Christian Philosopher, the work that “introduced the Enlightenment to America,” as his modern editor (Winton U. Solberg) succinctly states. Solberg describes this book as “the first comprehensive treatise on all the sciences known at the time” by an American author, adding that Mather tried “to demonstrate the harmony between religion and the new science associated with the illustrious name of Sir Isaac Newton” (The Christian Philosopher, ed. Solberg, pp. xi-xii). Mather was, like Boyle, a fellow of the Royal Society.
In short, the Christian philosopher was to read the “book of nature” as a preamble to the “book of Scripture.” Mather used almost this very language himself, attributing the source of the metaphor to the great John Chrysostom, who “mentions a Twofold Book of GOD; the Book of the Creatures, and the Book of the Scriptures: GOD having taught first of all us by his Works, did it afterwards by his Words. We will now for a while read the Former of these Books, ’twill help us in reading the Latter: They will admirably assist one another” (pp. 17-18, with Greek letters removed). As we shall see, Mather’s approach garnered a substantial American following over the next 150 years.
The series continues in two weeks, when we examine the teaching of science, including the important new field of natural history, in early American colleges.