Rick Kennedy is Professor of History at Pt. Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, California. This interview is based on his new book The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather (Eerdmans, 2015)
JF What led you to write The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather?
RK: The central theme of my career since doing my MA degree in 1982-83 has long been trying to understand the lives and thinking of 5 dead guys: two brothers, a father and son, and an immigrant hero to them all, the Brattles, Mathers, and Charles Morton. They lived entangled lives at a transitional time when Harvard College, Reformed churches, and Puritan culture were in trouble. Cotton Mather was the quirkiest but most dynamic of the group. I used to like him the least of the 5, but now appreciate him. He grows on you. Eerdman’s was fishing for a short, easy-to-read biography, and Barry Hankins at Baylor recommended that they talk to me.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of the book?
RK: When, during 1698-1707, events in Boston exposed that imperial Protestantism was broad and shallow, Cotton Mather rose to his greatest fame and influence as a populist leader widely revered for promoting a deeper, more biblical and hot-spirited Christianity. He was the populist leader when a twist occurred in New England Protestantism that we look back to as the beginning of the American evangelical tradition.
JF: Why do we need to read the book?
RK: Cotton Mather is widely misunderstood in popular culture and academia. Marvel Comics characterizes him as a be-muscled time-traveling evil “witchslayer.” Prime time TV has him as a tortured and sex-starved star in “Salem.” Back during his own lifetime lies were published about him whipping the crowd to a frenzy at a witch execution and publicly massaging a teen-age girl’s bare breasts. E. Brooks Holifield, one of our best in the history profession, has recently shown that there was a type of conspiracy to undermine Cotton Mather’s reputation by the leaders of Congregationalism in the early 19th century. In the 20th century, Cotton became even more so the Puritan everybody loves to hate. Cotton deserves to be remembered for the Pastor-Scholar that he was, for being the truly good man that was much beloved by his congregation and neighbors in the North End of Boston.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
RK: When I went to college in the 1970s I wanted to be a cross between Cat Stevens and James Taylor. That quickly did not work out. I checked out being a forest ranger, but the major was full. I walked out onto the street, 18 years old, needing to declare a major. At Cal Poly San Luis Obispo everybody had to have a major. The literature department was up hill. The history department was down hill. I turned right and walked down the hill.
JF: What is your next project?
RK: I am part of a team of editors publishing, in Germany and America, ten volumes of Cotton Mather’s unpublished Biblia Americana. We are led primarily by Reiner Smolinski who will soon publish the Yale University Press intellectual biography of Cotton Mather. That book will knock the socks off all of us, because, frankly, Cotton Mather is very much at the center of most everything going on intellectually and spiritually in colonial New England.
JF: Thanks, Rick!