Mather finally saw a copy of his published work on 30 October 1702. He “sett apart this Day, for solemn THANKSGIVING unto God, for His watchful and gracious Providence over that Work.” But he could not help being somewhat disappointed in the final product. The folio volume was indifferently printed in two columns on cheap paper, and it was riddled with errors. Mather included an errata sheet in some of the copies sold in North America, but most copies remained uncorrected. Some of Mather’s critics took him to task for errors that were in fact the fault of his printer.
From Mather’s Life of John Eliot, a description of Eliot’s Indian missions and the second edition of his Algonquin Bible
The Magnalia Christi Americana received a mixed reception on both sides of the Atlantic. Many readers praised it, but others thought the work was outdated in both style and substance before it was even published. And indeed, many of the “wonders” that Mather recounted as evidence of God’s providence would be explained away by the next generation as natural phenomena.
Mather’s style was not the “plain” Puritan idiom admired by future literary historians, but a very late Baroque style– wordy, ornamental, studded with metaphor and with classical and Biblical allusions. Many of his contemporaries accused him of being overly pedantic, and later readers tended to agree. Writing in the North American Review in 1818, William Tudor famously described the Magnalia as “a chaotick mass of history, biography, obsolete creeds, witchcraft, and Indian wars, interspersed with bad puns, and numerous quotations in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew which rise up like so many decayed, hideous stumps to arrest the eye and deform the surface.”
The Magnalia Christi Americana was not published again until 1820, when it appeared in its first American edition. American writers of the mid-19th century in particular had a love/hate relationship with the Magnalia. Hawthorne, Poe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and many others borrowed Mather’s source material as they formed a mythology of America’s origins. But they tended to see Mather as at best quaint and credulous, and at worst an example of all that was wrong with the Puritan forefathers– most notably the vanity, religious intolerance, and misogyny that led to the Salem witch trials debacle.
An unbiased reading of Mather’s work suggests that this is not quite fair. In the accounts of the Salem events in particular, Mather comes across in the Magnalia as a bit defensive but also genuinely conflicted.
Excerpt from Mather’s Life of William Phips, describing the situation in Salem
Mather was not unaware of the changing intellectual currents of his day. He had a keen interest in the new pursuit of natural science: he considered giving up the ministry to study medicine at one point, and he campaigned for controversial smallpox inoculation during an outbreak in Boston. But he remained firmly committed to the theological outlook of his grandfathers, the first generation of New England Puritans. This tension is evident in Mather’s sprawling, messy, flawed, but fascinating book. The Magnalia is, as Kenneth Murdock observes in his introduction to the 1977 scholarly edition, “a completely idiosyncratic document, one which none of Mather’s contemporaries could, or would, have written.”
Wake Forest’s copy of the first edition was part of the library of Charles Babcock, which was donated to the University in the 1970s. It also bears the bookplate of Charles Bruce, (1682-1747). Viscount Bruce’s amassed a large personal library, the catalog of which was published in 1733, one of the first published catalogs of private libraries in Britain.
Bercovitch, Sacvan. “New England Epic: Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana”, ELH Vol. 33, No. 3 (Sep., 1966), pp. 337-350.
Mather, Cotton, and Kenneth Ballard Murdock. Magnalia Christi Americana: Books I and II. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1977.
Winship, Michael. Seers of God: Puritan Providentialism in the Restoration and Early Enlightenment. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.