Birth: early Dec 1584 Derby, Derbyshire, England5,5
Baptism: 15 Dec 1584 baptized at St. Alkmund's Church, Derby, Derbyshire, England5,5
Death: 23 Dec 1652 Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts6,2,3,6,2,3
Burial: 28 Dec 1652 King's Chapel Burying Ground, Boston, Massachusetts6,6
Religion: Christian/Puritan & Founder of the Congregational Church
Education: Bachelor of Arts 1603 at Trinity College; Master of Arts 1606; Bachelor of Divinity 1612 at Emmanuel College, Cambridge University
Degree: Jan 1603- Bachelor of Arts, Trinity College, Cambridge University; 1606- Master of Arts, Trinity College, Cambridge; 1612- received Bachelor of Divinity, Emmanuel College, Cambridge University
Degree: Jan 1603- earned Bachelor of Arts, Trinity College, Cambridge University; 1606- earned Master of Arts, Trinity College, Cambridge; 1612- received Bachelor of Divinity, Emmanuel College, Cambridge University
Birth: 18 Dec 1644 Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts24,24
Death: 29 Jun 1650 Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts
Introduction: Rev. John Cotton was born English and died English ending a life that spanned Tudor & Stuart Eras, the English Civil War, Cromwell’s Protectorate and the establishment of the Commonwealth.
With this said, Rev. John Cotton is claimed as a one of America’s Founding Fathers because he was the preeminent Puritan and Congregational leader of New England. The majority of what has been written about Rev. John Cotton focuses primarily on his contribution to American religious life. The following article discusses the life and legacy of John Cotton in the broader context of history using anecdotal sources to discover the man behind the Puritan.
Family Origins: Rev. John Cotton has been linked to both the line of Henry III and the Cottons of Landswade, Cambridgeshire. Although evidence exists making both lines possible, neither has been conclusively proven and the specific origins of John Cotton’s family remain somewhat of a mystery.
The Cotton name came into common use after the Norman invasion of 1066 and directly relates to the Norman penchant for building fortified castles. As Norman fortresses dotted the British landscape, towns sprang up to support these castles and became known as cottage towns or cot towns. The vernacular of the time more commonly used cot than cottage and cot town was soon contracted to cotton or coton. In Norman parlance, a person from the cottage town became known as de’cotton or de’coton. Thus, Jean de’coton was “John of the cottage town”.
As the use of surnames became widespread, a large number of English families took Coton, Cotton, Cotten or Coten for their family name because over 30 place names in Britain contain some form of coton, cotton, cotten or coten. For example, the village of Coton just west of Cambridge near the American Cemetery dedicated to volunteer American airmen who died serving the United Kingdom during the Battle of Britain in World War II.
John Cotton’s Father: Roland Cotton, Esq. of St. Giles, Cripplegate, London was an Inner Temple lawyer born circa 1550. In the words of Cotton Mather, “His immediate progenitors being, by some injustice, deprived of great revenues, his father, Mr. Roland Cotton, had the education of a lawyer bestowed by his friends upon him, in hopes of his being the better capacitated thereby to recover the estate, whereof his family had been wronged; and so the profession of a lawyer was that unto which this gentleman applied himself all his days.”
Tales of lost wealth and injustice obviously made a lasting impression for this story to have been passed down through the family to John Cotton’s grandson, Cotton Mather. Yet, John’s father seems to have abandoned his quest for legal restitution in the London courts when he moved north to Derby and married Mary Hulbert (or Hurlbert) at St. Alkmund’s Church on 16 August 1585.
Roland fathered four children with Mary and all were baptized in St. Alkmund’s as follows: Mary on 1 Sept. 1583, John on 15 Dec. 1584, Roland on 17 March 1588, and Thomas on 19 May 1594. Roland died on or before 21 April 1604 as his burial was recorded in the St Alkmund’s register.
Sepult est Rolandus Cotton, legis peritus erat vir pius honestus. Aprilus 21.
[Roland Cotton, legal expert, was buried; he was a pious and honest man. April 21]
Derbyshire Beginnings: On 4 December 1584, in Derby, England, the wife of Rowland Cotton gave birth to a son, John. It is known that Rowland Cotton and his family were orthodox members of St. Alkmund’s Church in Derby; but it is not known whether Roland Cotton and his family had Puritan leanings even though Roland’s son, John, would later become an eminent Puritan minister.
Being a lawyer, Roland Cotton must have wanted John to follow him into law, as he spared nothing in obtaining the best education possible for his son. From 1593 to 1597, John Cotton attended the Derby Grammar School headed by Richard Johnson who had earned two degrees from Trinity College, Cambridge University. Trinity College was renowned for training the brightest legal minds in the realm and it seems likely that Roland Cotton and School Master Richard Johnson were preparing young John for entry into Trinity College to study law.
Trinity College, Cambridge: In 1598, John Cotton matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge University as a sizar, the lowest of all the classes of paying students. As a result, he was expected to share a bed and do menial tasks such as waiting on tables and running errands. At the time John was only thirteen years old but his father had no other choice because he was a struggling lawyer. For his first four years at Cambridge, John pursued the quadrennium of undergraduateship: 1st year- Rhetoric, 2nd & 3rd years- Logic, and 4th year- Philosophy. These studies were carried out primarily in Latin by means of conferences and readings with his college tutor and by attending university lectures. His proficiency was measured through four disputations in Latin: two of which he would be the respondent and two of which he would be the opponent. The successful conclusion of this program was a Bachelor of Arts degree. Students wanting to continue their studies entered the triennium of bachelorship by obtaining mastery of Greek, Astronomy and Perspective.
Outside the classroom, John Cotton was exposed to some of the most radical political and religious thought of the era, as Cambridge University had long been a hotbed of Puritanism verging on rebellious separatism. As a result, Cambridge walked a thin line to avoid being declared seditious while it also enjoyed an atmosphere of intellectual freedom existent nowhere else in the realm.
Exposure to this environment taught John Cotton an important political lesson that he carried with him his entire life: “how to disagree and yet conform; how to oppose and yet be with; how to practice what one believed and yet maintain favor”.
While an undergraduate, John Cotton also learned important religious lessons outside of the classroom. In contrast to Cambridge, Derby sermons were relatively orthodox and John’s religious upbringing was more a matter of rote memorization than critical thinking. At Cambridge, John Cotton was exposed to the greatest religious minds of the time. The teachings of John Calvin were popular at Cambridge and young John was steeped in principles of Puritanism that would last him a lifetime. Calvin’s doctrines as preached from the pulpit of William Perkins challenged John by planting seeds of doubt regarding his own personal salvation that he would wrestle with for years to come.
In the year 1602, John Cotton was 16 years old when he completed his Bachelor of Arts and looked forward to a fellowship at Trinity College to continue his studies. However, Thomas Neville, Master of Trinity, had engaged in an extensive building campaign that required him to draw on his own financial resources after having depleted college funds available for fellowships. Fortunately, Roland Cotton’s law practice was flourishing and he could better provide for his son. But rather than continue at Trinity and depend on his father, John Cotton decided to accept a fellowship at Emmanuel College knowing full well that a commitment to Puritanism was required.
Emmanuel College, Cambridge: In retrospect, it is no small coincidence that John Cotton was born in 1584, the very same year that Emmanuel College was established at Cambridge University by Sir Walter Mildmay. For as will be seen Emmanuel College played as profound a role in the life of John Cotton as it did in the course of Anglo-American history.
Queen Elizabeth challenged her Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Walter Mildmay, over the formation of Emmanuel College by saying, “Sir Walter, I hear you have erected a puritan foundation.”
Sir Walter replied, “No, madam, far be it from me to countenance anything contrary to your established laws, but I have set an acorn, which when it becomes an oak, God alone knows what will be the fruit thereof.”
John Cotton’s years at Emmanuel College (1603-1612) brought him increasing recognition as a scholar. In 1606, he successfully defended his Masters Thesis on Calvinism before the President of Cambridge University and faced William Chappell, a fellow of Christ’s College and the most out spoken opponent of Calvin at Cambridge. As his reputation grew, John Cotton was entrusted with tutoring younger students and he viewed himself primarily as a scholar and teacher.
Laurence Chaderton said of John Cotton: “by his School-stratagems he won the hearts and minds of his Pupils both to himself, and to a desire of Learning: they were to each the prophets, and the sons of the prophets: his Pupils were honourers, and lovers of him: and he was a Tutor, a friend, and a Father unto them”.
From 1608 to 1612, John Cotton assumed various duties as catechist, head lecturer, and dean and was ordained in the established church in 1610. Thus, John started his pastoral career and developed an elaborate style of preaching that attracted a wide audience in Cambridge. In another part of town, Richard Sibbes preached in a plain style to far smaller audiences. Though John Cotton had declared himself a Puritan upon entering Emmanuel College, privately he wrestled with doubts. Finally in 1612 at age 27, while attending a sermon preached by Sibbes, Cotton experienced a full conversion to Puritanism after having been fifteen years at Cambridge University.
Reborn in the Calvinist theology of Sibbes, Rev. John Cotton also assumed a plain style of preaching. Sibbes was not only a powerful theologian; he was what his colleagues called a “physician of the soul”. John first used his plain style in a sermon at St. Mary’s Church. In attendance was John Preston, an Aristotelian scholar and fellow of Queen’s College who despised ministerial work as being beneath him. Amazingly, Cotton’s sermon converted Preston such that Preston became known for his remarkable Christian piety and later became a celebrated Puritan preacher and Master of Emmanuel College. Upon learning of the marvelous effects his sermon had on Preston, John Cotton’s doubts vanished and he was fully confirmed in his Puritanism.
A Marriage of Significance: On 3 July 1613, John Cotton married Elizabeth Horrocks at Balsham in Cambridgeshire and his life was forever changed. As related by his grandson, Cotton Mather, “Settled now in Boston, his dear friend, Mr. Bayns, recommended unto him a pious gentlewoman, one Mrs. Elizabeth Horrocks, the sister of James Horrocks, a famous minister in Lancashire, to become his consort in a married estate. And it was remarkable that on the very day of his wedding to that eminently virtuous gentlewoman, he first received the assurance of God’s love unto his own soul, by the spirit of God, effectually applying his promise of eternal grace and life unto him, which happily kept with him all the rest of his days: for which cause he would afterwards say, ‘God made that day, a day of double marriage to me!’ The wife, which by the favour of God he had now found, was a very great help unto him, in the service of God; but especially upon this, among many other accounts, that the people of her own sex, observing her more than ordinary discretion, gravity and holiness, would still improve the freedom of their address unto her, to acquaint her with the exercises of their own spirits; who, acquainting her husband with convenient intimations thereof, occasioned him in his publick ministry more particularly and profitably to discourse those things that were everlasting benefit.”
This development in the life of John Cotton is of profound and intimate consequence. For the first time in his life a fear of God was replaced by the love of God in the institution of holy matrimony. After 28 years of life, John Cotton finally knew the love of a woman and this love was to stay with him throughout his life and eventually found expression in his work. Perhaps the best known of works is a catechism entitled, “Milk for Babes Drawn out of the Breasts of Both Testaments. Chiefly for the spiritual nourishment of Boston Babes in either England (new or old): but may be of like use for any Children.”
St. Botolph’s Church, Boston, Lincolnshire: In July of 1612 a delegation of five from Boston, Lincolnshire visited Cambridge University looking for a prospective vicar for St. Botolph’s church. They chose John Cotton after learning that he was the best preacher at Cambridge University. At the outset of his ministry, John was little concerned with forms but concentrated his efforts at preaching the word of God. It was said that at St. Botolph’s there was a “feast of preaching.” The demand was so great to hear the new vicar that he began a Tuesday lecture to augment his Sunday sermons.
By 1615, John was drawing a salary of one hundred pounds a year and was well respected as a teacher and scholar in his parish. During this year he first practiced nonconformity but did so in a somewhat covert way. His method was identifying the elect, forming them into a tight group in order to participate in ceremonies that were not offensive to Puritans. This group, consisting of the well-to-do portion of the parish and became a congregation within a congregation that entered a covenant with the Lord and each other “to follow after the Lord in the purity of his Worship.”
This congregation soon drew protests from those outside the elect and these protests soon reached the bishop’s court in Lincoln and led to Cotton’s suspension as vicar of St. Botolph’s. However, Rev. Cotton had friends in the magistrate that used their “charms and pious subtlety” to advocate their vicar a conforming minister and got him reinstated to the pulpit at St. Botolph’s.
Meanwhile, John Preston’s career was rising rapidly at Cambridge’s Queens College. Preston continued to highly regard John Cotton and began sending the vicar of St. Botolph’s some of his best and brightest Cambridge students to join the Cotton household for seasoning under John’s private tutelage. Several of these students were destined to become influential during Oliver Cromwell’s protectorate.
Francis J. Bremer says, “John Cotton fully incorporated his pupils into the life of his household. Every morning and evening they gathered with his family and servants for Scripture readings and prayer. Sabbath observance began on Saturday evening and ended with a psalm and prayers after Sunday supper.”
John Cotton soon opened his home tutorials to the public and started lecturing Sunday afternoon and on Wednesday and Thursday mornings. In the 1620s some noblemen were involved in a fen-draining project near Boston. Though Royalist Protestants, they admired the now famous Boston preacher, John Cotton, and attended his lectures. Among these well-wishers were Edward Sackville (the Earl of Dorset), Dudley Carleton (the Viscount of Dorchester) and Robert Bertie (the Earl of Lindsey).
Rumblings of Non-conformity: On a night in April of 1621 the noted Anglican minister, Robert Sanderson, was scheduled to preach the Bishop’s Visitation Sermon. Shortly before he was to arrive, St. Botolph’s Church was vandalized with stained glass windows broken, ornaments torn down, and statues demolished. Moreover a cross was severed from the town mace, that the mayor carried every Thursday and Sunday to church. The royal authorities were notified and the uproar came to the attention of the Bishop of Lincoln, George Montaigne, who promptly suspended Rev. John Cotton for nonconformity. The vandals were never discovered.
Meanwhile, John Preston had become Master of Emmanuel College and had a friend, John Davenant, Master of Queens College, who was conformist enough to obtain an appointment for John Cotton with Bishop Montaigne. During the interview the Bishop, known for being lenient, was impressed with John Cotton’s mild manners and learning and so determined that Cotton had nothing to do with vandalizing St. Botolph’s and the vicar’s suspension was removed.
In the late 1620s, most Puritan ministers were not as fortunate as Rev. Cotton and came under attack from Bishop Laud’s campaign to oust Puritans from the Anglican Church. John Cotton was a respected name in Puritan circles. From conservative Archbishop Ussher to liberal Roger Williams, Puritans sought out Cotton’s advice, while in Lincolnshire, the 3rd Earl of Lincoln held Rev. Cotton in high esteem.
Many of these Puritans considered establishing a plantation in New England. During two conferences in Lincolnshire (one at Tattersall, the home of the 3rd Earl of Lincoln; the other at Sempringham, the home of the earl’s son), John got the impression that a number of Puritans (including Samuel Skelton, the chaplain of the Earl of Lincoln) favored non-conforming in the new colony without separating from the Anglican Church. Later in 1629, Cotton was upset to hear news that members of the Naumkeag (Salem) Church would not commune with members of the Church of England and appeared to be following the ways of Plymouth separatism. Rev. Samuel Skelton was the first minister of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in Naumkeag (Salem) and Rev. Cotton wrote him a letter admonishing him for going the way of Plymouth and refusing to commune with his Anglican brethren.
Farewell Sermon to Winthrop’s Fleet: In 1630 John Cotton was invited to deliver a farewell sermon at Southampton to the largest number of English yet to migrate to the colonies in America. Heading the list of those to whom John addressed his sermon were John Winthrop governor-to-be of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and Lady Arbella Johnson, daughter of the 3rd Earl of Lincoln.
The flagship of Winthrop’s fleet had been christened Arbella in honor of Lady Johnson. John Cotton’s sermon was entitled, ‘God’s Promise to His Plantation’, and was based on II Samuel 7:10 of the Geneva Bible. In his sermon John provided a scriptural basis for Puritans establishing a new home in America. “Also I will appoint a place for my people Israel, and will plant it, that they may dwell in a place of their own, and move no more.”
Rev. Cotton ended his sermon with an admonishment not to follow in the path of Naumkeag (Salem, Massachusetts) and cautioned Winthrop’s fleet as follows: “Forget not the wombe that bare you and the brest that gave you sucke. Even ducklings hatch under a henne, though they take the water, yet will still have recusre to the wing theat hatched them: how much more should chikens of he same feather, and yolke?”
Following the fleet’s departure, word came to Lincolnshire that Bishop William Laud succeeded in having been elected Chancellor of Oxford University in spite of opposition from the Bishop of Lincoln who controlled the votes of a number of Oxford Colleges including Lincoln, Balliol, Brasenose and Oriel. In contrast to Cambridge University’s being Puritan and Separatist, Oxford University was a pillar of conformity and Anglican orthodoxy. In Puritan circles, it was becoming obvious that William Laud coveted the position of Archbishop of Canterbury and was now well positioned to secure the post. As a result, it was unclear as to how long Puritanism could continue in Lincolnshire under the protection of the Bishop Lincoln and Boston’s Puritan aldermen.
Illness, Death & Renewal: In 1630, the same year the Winthrop fleet sailed for America, both John Cotton and his dear wife, Elizabeth, became gravely ill with tertian ague (malaria) caused by the mosquito-infested fens of Lincolnshire. Sir Theophilus Clinton, the 4th Earl of Lincoln, opened his manor as a hospital to John and Elizabeth while also providing sanctuary from the continued onslaught against Puritanism by Bishop Laud. Sir Theophilus Clinton was a staunch Puritan and one of the few British aristocrats who sat in Cromwell’s Parliament. The Cottons remained under the Earl’s care for nearly a year; while John slowly recovered, his beloved Elizabeth did not and she died in 1631.
The loss of Elizabeth weighed heavy on John Cotton who was now 46 years of age and childless after eighteen years of marriage. Being alone in the world, John resolved to travel and improve his health by visiting Puritan friends throughout the land. In John Cotton’s absence, his late wife’s cousin, Anthony Tuckney, presided over St. Botolph’s in relative safety because Tuckney still conformed though later he would convert to Puritanism and become Master of St. John’s College at Cambridge University.
During his travels, John Cotton grew to appreciate the fortunate position he and his congregation enjoyed under the protection of both the Bishop and the Earl of Lincoln. Elsewhere, William Laud openly hunted Puritans, summoned them to the High Court and imprisoned them where they were often subjected to mutilation by cropping their ears or branding their faces to serve as an example to other Puritans.
A year after the death of his beloved wife, Elizabeth, John Cotton again experienced the love of a good woman when his St. Botolph parishioners matched their Vicar with the daughter of the mayor of Boston, Sarah Hawkredd. Sarah had been widowed four years earlier at the age 30 when William Story, her husband of eight years, died leaving her with a daughter, Elizabeth, then age 6.
Sarah had been a dear friend of John’s first wife, Elizabeth, and was fourteen years younger than John when the two of them wed in St. Botolph’s Church on 6 April 1632. By all accounts, Sarah Hawkredd was an amazing woman who would soon abandon her childhood home to flee England with her new husband. Sarah bore seven children for John Cotton and outlived all three of her husbands to die in 1676 at Dorchester, Massachusetts at the age of 76.
A Summons to the High Court: Soon after remarrying, John learned from Puritan friends in London that he was to be summoned to the High Court for nonconformist Puritan practices and would surely end up being imprisoned.
From the time Crown Prince Charles ascended to the throne in 1624, Bishop Laud had ingratiated himself to the monarch through preaching the divine right of the king. Two days after the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633, the king, Charles I, greeted William Laud in the following manner: “My Lord’s Grace of Canterbury, you are very welcome.”
Now that Laud had become too powerful for John Cotton’s friends in high places to be of any assistance, John went into hiding and sought advice from the venerable Puritan, John Dodd, who convinced him to leave England. John Cotton ruled out Holland as a destination after talking with an old Emmanuel College colleague , Thomas Hooker, who had just returned from the Lowlands. Hooker was considering sailing to New England in response to pleas from former parishioners that had settled there. When John Winthrop received word John Cotton had gone into hiding, he urged Rev. Cotton to join him as a large Lincolnshire contingent had already settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
On 7 May 1633, John resigned his ministry to the Bishop of Lincoln as follows: “The Lord, who began a year or two ago to suspend, after a sort, my ministry from that place (St. Botolph’s) by a long and sore sickness, the dregs whereof still hang about me, doth now put a further necessity upon me wholly to lay down my ministry there, and freely to resign my place into your Lordship’s hands.”
A New Beginning: On a June morning in 1633, despite an all port watch for Puritans on the run, John Cotton, his wife Sarah, and her daughter, Elizabeth, managed to elude the authorities and board the Griffin, that was anchored off the Downs ready to set sail for America. John Cotton was 48 years old at the time he boarded the Griffin. His new wife, Sarah was 34 years old and eight months pregnant with John’s first child. Although a new life awaited them in Massachusetts; so too did a number of Rev. Cotton’s parishioners and Cambridge associates that had already migrated to New England. Rev. John Cotton, however, was the most eminent and scholarly Puritan to yet bless the shores of the New World and many anxiously awaited his arrival in anticipation of the new stature he would bestow upon the Colony.
Having achieved the highest of academic accolades at Cambridge University; having been Vicar of St. Botolph’s Church; and having experienced the joy of God’s love and the love of his first wife in “a double marriage” to then have lost his wife of eighteen years to a shared illness; John Cotton’s life had indeed been blessed but was now at a crossroads. After having lived three quarters of his life in England, he was fleeing to America with a new wife and an uncertain future. And, although he had been fortunate enough to live beyond the normal life expectancy of the 17th Century, John Cotton had yet to become a father when his new wife, Sarah delivered a son while still at sea aboard the Griffin. Appropriately, this son was later christened Seaborn.
Boston, Massachusetts: Originally called Shawmut Trimontaine, Boston was renamed in honor of Boston, Lincolnshire that had been the home of many early Bostonians like Lady Arbella Johnson, daughter of the 3rd Earl of Lincoln. The naming took place at General Court held in Charlestown on 7 September 1630. It is interesting to note that, as detailed as Governor Winthrop’s personal diary was, this particular event was not mentioned and the first time Winthrop referred to Boston was about a month later to record that a goat had died there from eating Indian corn. When Winthrop’s diary was later published, the editor remarked, “Here is proof that the name of our chief city of New England was given not, as is often said, after the coming of Mr. Cotton, but three years before.”
Winthrop’s Diary records the 4 September 1633 arrival of the Griffin as follows: SEPT. 4. “The Griffin, a ship of three hundred tons, arrived (having been eight weeks from the Downs)… In this ship came Mr. Cotton, Mr. Hooker and Mr. Stone, ministers, and Mr. Pierce, Mr. Haynes (a gentleman of great estate), Mr. Hoffe, and many other men of good estates. They got out of England with much difficulty, all places being belaid to have taken Mr. Cotton and Mr. Hooker, who had been long sought for to have been brought into the high commission; but the master being bound to touch at the Wight, the pursuivants attended there, and, in the meantime, the said ministers were take in at the Downs. Mr. Hooker and Mr. Stone went presently to Newtown, where they were to be entertained, and Mr. Cotton stayed at Boston.”
Less than a week after arriving, John and Sarah Cotton were admitted as members of the church of Boston, and their son, Seaborn, was baptized. The pastor of the Church of Boston, John Wilson, had received his Masters from King’s College Cambridge but later lost his fellowship for nonconformity. Prior to migrating with Winthrop, Wilson had studied more than he had preached. On 10 October 1633 while the Church of Boston kept fast, John Cotton was selected teacher and a friend of Cotton’s from Boston, Lincolnshire, Thomas Leverett, was selected as ruling elder.
In December of 1633, John Winthrop reflected on the impact Rev. John Cotton already had made on Boston and the surrounding areas of Charlestown and Newtown when he penned the following in his Journal: “It pleased the Lord to give special testimony of his presence in the Church of Boston, after Mr. Cotton was called to office there. More were converted and added to that church, than to all the other churches in the bay. . . divers profane and notorious evil persons came and confessed their sins, and were comfortably received into the bosom of the church. Yea, the Lord gave witness to the exercise of Prophecy.”
Sir Henry Vane the Younger: Two years after Rev. John Cotton arrived in Boston and a month after his wife gave birth to John’s first daughter, a ship (the Abigail) arrived from England carrying one of the unique personages in Anglo-American history. Sir Henry Vane the Younger was young, aristocratic and charismatic. Though raised in luxury, he held Puritan views, which caused his removal from Oxford University. His father was Comptroller and Treasurer of the Royal Household for Charles I. Frustrated with his son’s beliefs, Sir Henry Vane the Elder sought the advice of the king, who recommended the boy have an audience with the Archbishop. But Laud was no match for young Vane and soon lost his temper, at which young Harry contemptuously tossed his long curls aside and departed ending the interview.
John Cotton took Vane into his Boston home just as he had taken in students while vicar of St. Botolph’s. In young Harry, John Cotton found the son a man of his years should have enjoyed. At the time, John Cotton was 50 years old and Harry was all but 23. Young Sir Henry built an addition on the Cotton House at his own expense and would later leave this addition to Seaborn Cotton, Rev. Cotton’s first-born son, who was then but a babe of two. Besides sharing Puritan views and intellectual curiosity both men also happened to be enemies of William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
On 25 March 1636, Sir Henry Vane was chosen Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony by the General Court, which consisted of the freemen of the colony and met annually to elect a governor, deputy governor and eighteen assistants or magistrates. During the same election, John Winthrop and Thomas Dudley were elected councilors for life as a result of Rev. John Cotton’s recommendation, “that a certain number of magistrates should be chosen for life.” John Cotton served as religious advisor to the General Court and was often asked to serve on court appointed councils.
In October of the same year, a controversy started that would result in Vane’s return to England. A woman by the name of Anne Hutchinson was at the center of the controversy. Although the controversy was supposedly religious in nature, Mrs. Hutchinson seems to have posed a threat to some in authority and the whole affair was sordid enough that a historian as eminent as Robert Winthrop was reluctant to discuss the matter. “… the story of Mrs. Hutchinson and the Antinomian Controversy belongs to another writer, and is gladly left to him.”
John Cotton was at the very center of the controversy because Anne Hutchinson had been a member of his St. Botolph’s parish in England and she and her family of twelve followed him to New England where she eventually was tried for heresy and banished.
Governor Vane sided with Anne Hutchinson at her trial; and by doing so, angered Winthrop who manipulated re-election as governor. In turn, Vane packed his things, willed his portion of the Cotton house to Seaborn Cotton and returned to England August 1637. Governor Winthrop gave orders for his “honorable dismission” with “divers vollies of shot.” Robert C. Winthrop, LL.D, past president of the Massachusetts Historical Society says, “There was so much that was noble in Vane’s character, and so much that was sad in his fate, that it is pleasant to remember that Winthrop afterwards makes record that ‘he (Vane) showed himself in later years a true friend to New England, and a man of noble and generous mind.’ A friendly correspondence was kept up between him (Vane) an Winthrop as late as 1645, and their relations were cordial and affectionate.”
Sir Henry Vane the Younger headed Long Parliament from November 1640 to 1653 and stood against Cromwell’s dissolution of Parliament. After Cromwell’s death and Parliament invited Charles II to occupy the throne, Sir Henry Vane was deemed too dangerous to live and was executed in the Tower of London on 14 June 1662 in one of the most attended executions in British history.
John Harvard: In 1627, Emmanuel College, under the leadership of John Preston, accepted John Harvard to a Bachelors program from which he graduated seven years later in 1631. As Preston sent many Emmanuel College graduates to Rev. John Cotton for further study, he may have discussed this possibility with young Harvard who continued for five more years at Emmanuel. By the time John Harvard received his Masters of Arts Degree in 1636, Rev. Cotton already had fled England for America.
During the same year, he married Anne Sadler of Ringmer, Sussex and inherited an estate of nearly £1,600 from his mother. John Harvard’s mother, Katherine Rogers, was born at Stratford-upon-Avon to Thomas Rogers a well to do butcher, malster and grazier who undoubtedly knew William Shakespeare and his younger brother, Edmund. Katherine married Robert Harvard and later John Elleston of London and both husbands left her sizeable estates.
With the promise of accommodations and teaching post “as best as Charlestown could provide”, John Harvard purchased over £200 in books using his new inheritance and set sail for New England in the spring of 1637. Unfortunately however, Harvard died of a short illness within a year of his arrival in Charlestown; and although he left no written will, Harvard made a verbal disposition of his property such that half of his estate and all of his library would go to the new college being proposed for the Newe Towne.
In 1639, a year after his death, John Harvard’s contribution to the new college was recognized by naming the new school Harvard College. A stain glass window in the Emmanuel College Chapel at Cambridge University commemorates the role John Harvard played in helping to fund the founding of America’s first university.
Harvard College: Josiah Quincy, past President of Harvard University, says in his History of Harvard University, “The General Court appointed twelve of the most eminent men of the colony to take order for a college at Newtown, all of them names dear to New England, on account of their sacrifices, their sufferings and virtues.” Of the twelve, six were magistrates and six were clergy. The most influential of these were John Winthrop, Thomas Dudley and Rev. John Cotton. To these, the name of Sir Henry Vane must be added as he was governor and head of the court that first proposed a college in 1636.
28 October 1636 the General Court headed by Governor Henry Vane decided that the good people of Massachusetts, through their representatives, would give £400 to the establishment of a place of education “whereof £200 would be paid the next year, and £200 when the work is finished, and the next Court to appoint where and what building.”
15 November 1637, “The College is ordered to be at Newetowne.”
27 November 1637, “For the College, the Governor, Mr. Winthrope; the Deputy, Mr. Dudley; the Treasurer, Mr. Bellingham; along with Mr. Cotton (and others) that these or the greater part of them, whereof Mr. Winthrope, Mr. Dudley, or Mr. Bellingham, to be always be one, to take order for a College at Newetowne.” In addition, Mr. Nathaniel Eaton, a graduate of Trinity College Cambridge, was appointed first professor and master of Harvard College.
2 May 1638, “It is ordered, That Newetowne shall henceforth be called Cambridge.”
11 May 1638, nearly three acres were granted “to the professor and to the Town’s use forever, for a public school or college; and the use of Mr. Nathaniel Eaton as long as he shall be employed in that work; so that at his death, or ceasing from that work, he or his shall be allowed according to the charges he hath been at, in building or fencing.” And so, Nathaniel Eaton commenced teaching at the college in 1638.
14 September 1638, John Harvard died in Charleston at age 31.
18 March 1639, in recognition of John Harvard’s endowment, “It is ordered, That the College agreed upon formerly to be built at Cambridge shall be called Harvard College.”
4 September 1639, Mr. Nathaniel Eaton was censured for beating an assistant teacher, Nathaniel Briscoe, with a cudgel by striking him over two hundred blows. The next day, other teachers and students testified to similar beatings and the “ill and scant diet of his boarders” to which Mrs. Eaton confessed that she served students skimpy portions of bad food but denied any knowledge of goat dung being added to their hasty pudding. The Court fined Mr. Eaton £40 and “debarred him from teaching children within our jurisdiction.” Eaton fled to Virginia before it was discovered that he had taken over £200 and receive £500 in cash for worthless bills of exchange. As a result, the court seized his estate and the college was closed for a year.
23 September 1642, the first commencement at Harvard College took place as “nine bachelors gave good proof of their proficiency in the tongues and arts.” The General Court decided that magistrates and teaching elders of the six nearest churches would be governors of the college and most of these dined with the students at commencement.
27 December 1643, “By order of the General Court all the magistrates and the teaching elders of the six nearest churches were appointed to be forever governors of the college, and this day they met at Cambridge and considered of the officers of the college, and chose a treasurer, H. Pelham, Esq., being the first of that office.”
The Colony & The Crown: In the year 1640, John Cotton turned 55 and his wife, Sarah gave birth to their second son, John Cotton Jr. Sir Henry Vane was knighted by Charles I and headed the Long Parliament. The King’s campaign against the Scots had bogged down and Parliament was asked to raise taxes to fund the war. In turn, Parliament asked for church reform. As a result, the colony was no longer in danger of losing its royal charter. Rev. Cotton gave a Christian teleological interpretation to these events in an unforgettable sermon based on the 16th chapter of the Book of Revelation. Cotton was convinced that the purpose of the great American migration was to provide a model for church reform and his congregation was told that the time of the Fifth Vial was upon them and that the second coming of Jesus Christ would be nigh.
In the year 1642, Maria Cotton, the mother of Cotton Mather, was born to John and Sarah Cotton; while across the Atlantic, King Charles was forced to flee London for Hampton Court when the English Civil War broke out. Three New Englanders, John Cotton, Thomas Hooker and John Davenport were asked to the Westminster Assembly to discuss the nature of these possible church reforms and were urged “to come ovar with all possible speed, all or any of them” towards “the seatlinge and composeing the affaires of the church.” Perhaps sensing the coming chaos, none of the three went to England. None-the-less, Rev. John Cotton made a valuable contribution of his book, The Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, which gave birth to the Congregational Way. At Westminster an opponent of this work referred to John as “the prime man of them all in New England.”
From 1643 to 1650 Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans maintained close ties with their English brethren as the crown was undone and Cromwell came to power. Archbishop William Laud went on trial in 1645 and was beheaded in the tower of London. During this same period, John Cotton’s third son, Roland was born and Anne Hutchinson was murdered by Mohegan Indians that raided her cabin Pelham Bay, New York.
By 1646 enough New Englanders had become attracted to Presbyterianism that the General Court called a Synod of Churches at the request of Congregational ministers. The purpose of this gathering was to establish a correct form of church government. When the Synod opened at Cambridge in September 1646, three ministers were appointed to prepare a model of church government: Ralph Partridge, Richard Mather and John Cotton. This same year Charles surrendered his crown ending the Civil War.
In 1648, John Cotton turned 63 and the Cambridge Platform was finalized by Richard Mather who relied heavily on Cotton’s Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Across the Atlantic, Parliament voted to bring Charles I to trial.
Endings & Beginnings: From 1649 to 1659 the pace of English history accelerated so rapidly that the Massachusetts Bay Colony could hardly follow the upheaval from afar. On 19 January 1649, the trial of Charles I started and on 30 January 1649, Charles was beheaded. In New England, a small pox epidemic ravaged Boston and took John Cotton’s eldest daughter, Sarah and his youngest son, Roland. John’s grief found an outlet in poetry and he composed a poem for each child in Greek. A touching verse from the poem for Sarah follows:
“Pray, my dear father let me now go home!”
Were the last words you spoke to me alone.
Go then, sweet Sarah, take thy Sabbath rest,
With thy great Lord, and all in heaven blest.
The following year in 1650, tea was introduced to England for the first time and at a thanksgiving sermon in the Church of Boston, Rev. John Cotton reviewed the causes of the civil war and justified the trial and execution of Charles I to his congregation.
Frances J. Bremer says of the upheaval in England, “New Englanders continued to look eagerly for news from England, relying on reports from proven friends to help them sift fact from rumor and thus to understand the nature of the debates and changes in the motherland. Both before and after the execution of the king, New Englanders cast their lot with their English Puritan friends. When Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector, the Massachusetts General Court instructed its agent in England, John Leverett, “to take the first convenient opportunity to let his Highness understand how thankfullie we accept and at all tymes readilie acknowledge his Highness favour and clemencie towards us.”
John Cotton corresponded with Cromwell, to whom he conveyed his belief that, “the Lord hath set you forth a vessel honour to his name, in working many and great deliverances for his people, and for his truth.”
In 1651, Seaborn Cotton graduated from Harvard College; and across the Atlantic, Charles II was crowned King of Scotland while Cromwell was hold up ill in Edinburgh recovering from the Battle of Dunbar. Later in September, after the Battle of Worcester, Cromwell wrote to John Cotton, “Surely, Sir, the Lord is greatly to be feared, as to be praised! We need your prayers in this as much as ever. How shall we behave ourselves after such mercies? What is the Lord a-doing? What prophecies are now fulfilling? Who is a God like ours?”
In November 1652, John Cotton crossed the River Charles by boat to preach a sermon to the students of Harvard College entitled, “Thy Children shall be taught of the Lord.” The return voyage was bitterly cold and John Cotton became ill from exposure on the river. Upon leaving his study an evening or two later, he told his wife, Sarah, “I shall go into that room no more.” and took to his bed where he remained ill for over three weeks before he died on December 23, 1652 at age 67. During his illness, President Dunster of Harvard paid John a visit to ask to ask his blessing by saying, “I know in my heart, they whom you bless shall be blessed.” When Rev. Wilson asked that God lift up the light of his countenance on the dying man, John replied, “God hath done it already, brother!”
Rev. John Cotton was buried in the Burying Ground of King’s Chapel. His tomb reads: Here lyes entombed the Bodyes of the famous Reverend & Learned Pastor of the First Church of Christ in Boston. John Cotton aged 67 years. Deceased December the 23, 1652.
Early in 1653, Cromwell became Lord Protector of the realm and on April 20th, he burst into the chambers of Parliament saying, “I will put an end to your prating. You are no Parliament. I say you are not Parliament. I will put an end to your sitting.”
Sir Henry Vane, leader of the Parliament, cried out, “This is not honest, yea it is against morality and common honesty.”
To which Cromwell famously replied, “O Sir Henry Vane, Sir Henry Vane, the Lord deliver me from Sir Henry Vane.”
In 1654, Seaborn Cotton married Dorothy Bradstreet, daughter of Governor Simon Bradstreet. Anne Bradstreet, his wife, was New England’s most famous poet and author of The Tenth Muse.
In 1656, Sarah (Hawkredd/Story) Cotton married for a third time taking Rev. Richard Mather for her husband and Increase Mather, Richard’s son, graduated from Harvard College. The same year, Dorothy, Seaborn’s wife, gave birth to the Cotton’s first granddaughter, Dorothy.
In 1657, John Cotton Jr. graduated from Harvard College. In England, Oliver Cromwell turned down an offer of the crown of England.
In 1658, Oliver Cromwell died and Seaborn’s wife, gave birth to the Cotton’s first grandson, John.
In 1659, Richard Cromwell, the son of Oliver Cromwell resigned as Lord Protector under pressure from Sir Henry Vane.
In 1660, Parliament made Charles II king against Vane’s protests while in Guilford, Connecticut, John Cotton Jr. married Joanna Rossiter, daughter of Dr. Brian Rossiter.
The descendents of Rev. John Cotton were many and became distinguished clergymen, teachers, scholars, soldier, statesmen and politicians. Among these, the Mather line descends from the marriage of Increase Mather and Maria Cotton. Their first son, Cotton Mather memorialized his grandfather, John Cotton in his work, the Magnalia Christi Americana.
1 Everett H. Emerson, John Cotton, Twayne Publishers, New York, 1965
2 Larzer Ziff, The Career of John Cotton: Puritanism and the American Experience, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1962
3 Samuel Whiting, “Concerning the Life of the Famous Mr. Cotton, Teacher of the Church of Christ at Boston, in New-England”, Chronicles of the First Planters of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, Ed. Alexander Young, C. C. Little and J. Brown, Boston, 1846
4 John Norton, Memoir of John Cotton, Ed. Enoch Pond, Perkins & Marvin, Boston, 1834
5 Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana, Boston, 1702
6 Benjamin Brook, “John Cotton, B. D.: The Lives of the Puritans, Vol.3, Soli Deo Gloria Publications, Morgan, PA, 1996 Reprint
7 Elizabeth Leeham-Green, A Concise History of the University of Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 1996
8 Kenneth W. Kirkpatrick and John A. Brayton, “Cottoniana, or ‘That Cotton-Pickin’ Somerby”, The New Hampshire Genealogical Record, Vol. 16, No. 4, October 1999
9 Francis J. Bremer, Congregational Communion: Clerical Friendship in the Anglo-American Puritan Community, 1660-1692, Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1994
10 A.W. M’Clure, The Life of John Cotton, Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, Boston, 1846
11 David D. Hall, The Antinomian Controversy, 1636-1638: A Documentary History, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 1968
12 James K. Hosmer, The Life of Young Sir Henry Vane: Governor of Massachusetts, Houghton, Mifflin and Co., Boston & New York, 1889
13 Luciu R. Paige, History of Cambridge, Massachusetts 1630-1877, H.O. Houghton & Company, Boston, 1877
14 Paul L. Ford, The New-England Primer: A History of Its Origin and Development, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, 1897
16 John B. Threlfall, FASG, “Thomas Bradbury’s Cotton Ancestry”, The American Genealogist, Vol. 57
17 Justin Winsor, The Memorial History of Boston, Volume I of IV, James R. Osgood & Company, Boston, 1881
18 Mary C. Crawford, St. Botolph’s Town, An Account of Old Boston in Colonial Days, L.C. Page & Company, Boston, 1901
19 Samuel Drake Adams, Old Landmarks and Historic Personages of Boston, 1st Edition by Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1872; reprinted by Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc. Rutland, Vermont, 1975
20 Fredrick L. Weis, The Colonial Clergy and The Colonial Churches of New England, Genealogical Publishing Co., Baltimore, 1977
21 Edmund S. Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop, Little, Brown and Co., Boston & Toronto, 1958
22 John Winthrop, The Journal of John Winthrop 1630-1649, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England, 1996
23 Augustine Jones, The Life and Work of Thomas Dudley, Houghton, Mifflin and Co., The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1899
1. La Verne C. Cooley, A Short Biography of the Rev. John Cotton and a COTTON GENEALOGY of His Descendants, Published Privately in Batavia, New York 1945, Vol. I.
2. John Wingate Thornton, Esq., LL.B., “Genealogies: The Cotton Family,” New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Volume I; Issue No. 2, April 1847, page 164.
3. Meredith B. Colket, Founders of Early American Families: Emigrants from Europe 1607 - 1657, The Order of Founders and Patriots of America, (Revised Edition), page 82.
4. Savage, James, Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England, Genealogical Publising Co. Inc., Baltimore 1965, Vol. III of IV, page 49.
5. “St. Alkmund’s Church Register,” 1550 -1650, Derby, Derbyshire, England, Parish Record Book, Derby, England, page for 1584.
6. La Verne C. Cooley, A Short Biography of the Rev. John Cotton and a COTTON GENEALOGY of His Descendants, Published Privately in Batavia, New York 1945, Vol. I, page 19.
7. La Verne C. Cooley, A Short Biography of the Rev. John Cotton and a COTTON GENEALOGY of His Descendants, Published Privately in Batavia, New York 1945, Vol. I, page 14.
8. “St. Botolph’s Church Records,” 1500-1600, Boston, Lincolnshire, England, Parish Record Book, Boston, Lincolnshire, England, page showing; Jan., Feb., March and April 1632.
9. The Geneologist, “Additions to the Ancestry of Sarah (Hawkredd) (Story)(Cotton) Mather of Boston, Lincolnshire,” John Anderson Brayton, Volume 21, No. 2, Fall 2007.
10. John Wingate Thornton, Esq., LL.B., “Genealogies: The Cotton Family,” New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Volume I; Issue No. 2, April 1847.
11. John Wingate Thornton, Esq., LL.B., “Genealogies: The Cotton Family,” New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Volume I; Issue No. 2, April 1847, page 174.
12. A Report of the Boston Records Commissioners, Boston Births, Baptisms, Marriages and Deaths 1630-1699, Whitmore, William H. and Appleton, Willam S., Rockwell and Churchill, City Printers, Boston 1883, Document 130 - 1883, page 3.
13. A Report of the Boston Records Commissioners, Boston Births, Baptisms, Marriages and Deaths 1630-1699, Whitmore, William H. and Appleton, Willam S., Rockwell and Churchill, City Printers, Boston 1883, Document 130 - 1883, page 5.
14. A Report of the Boston Records Commissioners, Boston Births, Baptisms, Marriages and Deaths 1630-1699, Whitmore, William H. and Appleton, Willam S., Rockwell and Churchill, City Printers, Boston 1883, Document 130 - 1883, page 94.
15. A Report of the Boston Records Commissioners, Boston Births, Baptisms, Marriages and Deaths 1630-1699, Whitmore, William H. and Appleton, Willam S., Rockwell and Churchill, City Printers, Boston 1883, Document 130 - 1883, page 53.
16. La Verne C. Cooley, A Short Biography of the Rev. John Cotton and a COTTON GENEALOGY of His Descendants, Published Privately in Batavia, New York 1945, Vol. I, page 24.
17. Savage, James, Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England, Genealogical Publising Co. Inc., Baltimore 1965, Vol. III of IV, page 49, page 462.
18. A Report of the Boston Records Commissioners, Boston Births, Baptisms, Marriages and Deaths 1630-1699, Whitmore, William H. and Appleton, Willam S., Rockwell and Churchill, City Printers, Boston 1883, Document 130 - 1883, page 7.
19. Dr. James Thacher, History of the Town of Plymouth, Original Published 1835, Boston, Parnassus Imprints, Yarmouthport, MA 1972, published through a grant from the Plymouth-Provincetown 350th Anniversary Commission, page 275.
20. Lee D. van Antwerp, Vital Records of Plymouth, Massachusetts to the year 1850, Ruth Wilder Sherman, Picton Press, page 2.
21. Barbour Collection, Connecticut Vital Records: Guilford- Births, Marriages, Deaths 1639-1850, Connecticut State Library 1924, Vol. A, page62.
22. La Verne C. Cooley, A Short Biography of the Rev. John Cotton and a COTTON GENEALOGY of His Descendants, Published Privately in Batavia, New York 1945, Vol. I, pages 24 & 25.
23. A Report of the Boston Records Commissioners, Boston Births, Baptisms, Marriages and Deaths 1630-1699, Whitmore, William H. and Appleton, Willam S., Rockwell and Churchill, City Printers, Boston 1883, Document 130 - 1883, page 11.
24. A Report of the Boston Records Commissioners, Boston Births, Baptisms, Marriages and Deaths 1630-1699, Whitmore, William H. and Appleton, Willam S., Rockwell and Churchill, City Printers, Boston 1883, Document 130 - 1883, page 17.
25. Peter E. Vose, “Cotton-Vane Estate, Boston (Copied from the Original Documents),” New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Volume 36; Number 4, October 1882.
26. Robert Charles Anderson, F.A.S.G., The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England 1620-1633, New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), Vol. I-III (CD-ROM).
27. St. Botolph's Church, Boston, Lincolnshire, England, 1596 to 1613, Baptism Records for children of Anthony Hawkred, Parish of St. Botolph's Church, Leslie Mahler, Genealogical Researcher, per research notes of Mr. Leslie Mahler.
28. A Report of the Boston Records Commissioners, Boston Births, Baptisms, Marriages and Deaths 1630-1699, Whitmore, William H. and Appleton, Willam S., Rockwell and Churchill, City Printers, Boston 1883, Document 130 - 1883, page 21.