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.