John Cotton was probably the single most important figure in the consolidation of Massachusetts Congregational Church polity, or the New England Way. ? Born in 1584 in Derby, England, Cotton was educated first at Trinity, and then at Emmanuel College, where he underwent religious conversion to Congregationalism in 1609. After receiving his bachelor of divinity degree in 1612, he accepted the vicarship of St. Botolph's Church in Boston, Lincolnshire. By that time, he was well ensconced in English Puritan circles, with connections to the Earl of Warwick and the Massachusetts Bay Company.
In addition, within his own congregation Cotton drew together a group of Puritan parishioners to hold communion privately, a harbinger of his later commitment to the Congregational Church. While at St. Botolph's, John Cotton did not fully conform to the liturgy of the Church of England, which drew the ire of Church authorities.
Tension was only intensified when radicals in his parish smashed the church's stained-glass windows in an act of religious iconoclasm. In the early 1630s, King Charles I and William Laud (the bishop of London until 1633, then archbishop of Canterbury) began a more rigorous campaign to root out nonconformity. As a result, in 1632, Cotton was summoned before the Court of High Commission, but he instead went into hiding.
Rejecting flight to the more tolerant Netherlands, Cotton opted for emigration to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. There, he became co-pastor with John Wilson at the First Church of Christ in Boston. Cotton's talents as a preacher quickly provoked a revival within the Boston church, resulting in an influx of new members.
Cotton was also an important voice in several of the debates swirling around the new colony. Reversing his previous criticism of the Salem church for its quasi-separatist practices, in a 1636 sermon, he defended the practice of limiting access to the sacraments to church members. He also helped establish the use of conversion narratives as a test for church membership and took a lead role in opposing Roger Williams.
While crucial to the establishment of New England church polity, these events paled when compared to the Antinomian Controversy. By 1636, several New England ministers had begun to question Cotton's doctrinal orthodoxy. Both Cotton and his opponents were Calvinists and believed in double predestination: that God had chosen (or elected) certain individuals for salvation through a free gift of grace and had chosen the rest for eternal damnation, based purely upon His own inscrutable will.
All the ministers equally agreed that receiving God's grace would lead one to comport oneself morally. Cotton differed with the other ministers as to whether good works could be used as evidence that one had, in fact, received grace and was, therefore, among the elect. Cotton argued that good works could not be trusted without a sense of a true saving faith in Christ (that is, one's works could be taken as evidence of salvation only after one had become certain of the experience of grace through other means).
Anne Hutchinson, who had been a frequent auditor of Cotton's sermons in England and had followed him to the New World, always maintained that her views on salvation were consonant with those preached by Cotton. Cotton himself was at first unaware how greatly they differed. He finally came to understand Hutchinson's views, and when the authorities in the colony moved against her and her followers, Cotton officially repudiated her.
He managed to work out a theological compromise with the other ministers at the 1637 synod and personally pronounced Anne Hutchinson's excommunication from the Boston church. Although tainted by the Antinomian Controversy, Cotton's reputation revived during the 1640s through his apologetics in response to English and Scottish Presbyterian attacks on Congregationalism. This debate between English and New England Puritans had begun in manuscript form during the late 1630s.
By 1642, with the English Civil War in full swing and after the convening of the Westminster Assembly to reform the Church of England, this debate entered the press. Most prominently, in 1644, Cotton published The Keyes of the Kingdom of Heaven, to which the Scottish Covenanter Robert Baillie responded with a scathing attack on Cotton and Congregationalism in A Dissuasive from the Errours of the Time. The argument continued in the press until the late 1640s, but, by then, the failure to achieve a religious settlement in England had made the question of church polity all but irrelevant.
Beginning in 1646, nonetheless, Cotton participated in the synod that produced the Cambridge Platform, which crystallized New England's church polity. John Cotton died in December 1652. Kenneth A.
Shelton See also: Massachusetts Bay Colony; Ministers and the Ministry; Puritanism. Bibliography Emerson, Everett. John Cotton.
Rev.ed. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
Sargent, Bush, Jr. Ed. The Correspondence of John Cotton. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Ziff, Larzer. The Career of John Cotton: Puritanism and the American Experience. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1962.
Presentation “John Cotton, 1584-1652 English-born American … Reverend John Cotton (1584 – 1652) Rev. John Cotton & His Descendants.