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.
© by Barry A. Cotton
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- 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
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- 5 Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana, Boston, 1702
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- 23 Augustine Jones, The Life and Work of Thomas Dudley, Houghton, Mifflin and Co., The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1899