Special Collections & Archives Blog

During November 2011...

Magnalia Christi Americana, by Cotton Mather (1702)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011 5:00 pm

I WRITE the Wonders of the CHRISTIAN RELIGION, flying from the Depravations of Europe, to the American Strand: And, assisted by the Holy Author of that Religion, I do, with all Conscience of Truth, required therein by Him, who is the Truth it self, Report the Wonderful Displays of His Infinite Power, Wisdom, Goodness, and Faithfulness, wherewith His Divine Providence hath Irradiated an Indian Wilderness.

These opening lines of Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana set the tone for his epic and exhaustive account of 17th-century Puritan New England. Running to nearly 700 pages in printed form, the Magnalia includes biographical sketches of civic and religious leaders, a history of Harvard College, arguments over church polity and discipline, descriptions of the threats and hardships (Indian attacks, Roger Williams, witches, Anne Hutchinson) endured by the Puritan faithful, and many accounts of the signs and “wonders” experienced by the colonists as evidences of God’s direct intervention in human affairs. For Mather, human history was merely a manifestation of the epic struggle between God and the forces of evil. The Magnalia is, Michael P. Winship observes, “the last great document in the orthodox providential tradition” [74].

Cotton Mather (1663-1728) was the third generation of a dynasty of Puritan ministers in North America. His grandfathers, Richard Mather and John Cotton, were prominent ministers and founders of the New England colony. His father Increase Mather was also an important religious leader, minister of Boston’s Second Church, President of Harvard College, and the colony’s official envoy to the English monarchs James II and William and Mary. Cotton, the eldest son, was from a young age acutely conscious of the family expectations. After receiving degrees from Harvard and the University of Glasgow, Cotton Mather joined his father in ministry at Second Church in Boston.

Map of New England included in the first edition of the Magnalia Christi Americana

In 1693 Cotton Mather recorded in his diary that in July of that year he “formed a Design, to endeavour, THE CHURCH-HISTORY OF THIS COUNTREY.” Encouraged by his fellow-clergy, Mather says that he set himself “to cry mightily unto the Lord, that if my Undertaking herein might bee for His Glory, Hee would grant mee His Countenance and Assistance in it. (However, I did not actually begin this Work, till the latter End of the year.)” The young Rev. Mather worked on his “Church-History ” (as he always referred to it) for the next four years. Finally in August of 1697 he records in the diary a special thanksgiving for “the singular Favour of the Lord unto mee, in upholding, and assisting mee, to finish my CHURCH-HISTORY.”

Mather had published many sermons and small pamphlets with the local Boston printers. But a work the size of the Magnalia was beyond the capabilities of any printing operation in North America. If his manuscript was to be published, it would have to be sent to London. This was not a small undertaking. Since Mather likely had no extra copy of his lengthy manuscript, he did not want to send it across the ocean unaccompanied. It was not until June of 1700 that Mather recorded:

I this Day put up my Church-History, and pen down Directions about the publishing of it. It is a work of near 300 sheets; and has lain by me, diverse Years, for want of a fitt Opportunity to send it. A Gentleman, just now sailing for England, undertakes the care of it; and by his Hand I send it for London. O my Lord Jesus Christ, lett thy Good Angels accompany it!

The gentleman in question was Mather’s friend Edward Bromfield, who delivered the manuscript to Rev. John Quick, a Presbyterian minister and friend of Increase Mather. But London publishers were skeptical about the rather unwieldy manuscript. Mather worked himself into a state of great anxiety about it, but finally in June 1701 he heard from Bromfield that a sympathetic printer, Robert Hackshaw, had been found who was willing to finance the publication. In fact Hackshaw offloaded the printing, along with a large stock of inferior paper from his warehouse, onto another publisher, Thomas Parkhurst.

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.”[46]

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.

Warren, Austin. “Grandfather Mather and His Wonder Book” The Sewanee Review Vol. 72, No. 1 (Winter, 1964), pp. 96-116.

Winship, Michael. Seers of God: Puritan Providentialism in the Restoration and Early Enlightenment. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Reel Life – restored

Wednesday, November 30, 2011 10:46 am


A few weeks back, I was happy to begin some work on Special Collections materials in Preservation. I grabbed a few likely suspects off the shelf and opened one: this was a thick volume of bound magazines entitled Reel Life: A Weekly Magazine of Kinetic Drama and Literature. This project by Mr. Clarence Herbert New was like many of his projects- it seemed like the most important thing in the world to him and must be thoroughly documented. For some perspective, it would be a little like this: pretend that one day I was walking across the magnolia quad and had a great idea. I then wrote that idea on a magnolia leaf, because there just isn’t a stack of paper available on the mag quad, right? I would then proclaim to the world that I had this great idea and wrote it on a magnolia leaf! You get the picture. Mr. New has documented his idea for the masthead of “Reel Life” by drawing a draft of the first page. On this draft page, Mr. New wrote that this idea came to him and he wrote it on a piece of driftwood at Rockaway Point,NY in a tent on August 11,1913. (we must know the exact day and time!)
Here is a draft of the masthead for Reel Life:

The magazine documented the newly developing moving picture business. It is filled with ads for for the 1913 Edison Kinetoscope, coming attractions at theaters, scenes and reviews of current films and all sorts of film related products. Mr. New must have been quite a fellow!

In terms of preservation, I stabilized the text block, re-attached any loose pages and then re-attached the loose text block to the covers so this piece of history can be used by researchers. This is the catalog record in ZSR.

Biblical Recorder microfilm now online and searchable!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011 5:35 pm

The Wake Forest University Special Collections and Archives department is pleased to announce that the Biblical Recorder microfilm is now online and searchable! Thanks to a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of the federal Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) as administered by theState Library of North Carolina, a division of the Department of Cultural Resources, our microfilmed issues of the Biblical Recorder from 1834-1970 weredigitized, made searchable, and put online. This resource is one of our most highly used collections, and we are proud that it is now more accessible.

The Biblical Recorder is the official journal of the North Carolina Baptist Convention. Thomas Meredith, and early pastor who was instrumental in the formation of the state convention, founded the newspaper under the name of the Baptist Interpreter. The name was soon changed to the Biblical Recorder and Journal of Passing Events, and ultimately shortened to theBiblical Recorder. Readers can trace trends in social, cultural and religious views from 1833 until now, and gain a better understanding of how Baptist practices and attitudes have changed over the years.

The Biblical Recorder staff and Board of Directors in Raleigh were supportive of this effort from the beginning, and featured an article in their recent issue that will inform all current readers of the new resource as well.

We have already had a lot of positive comments and feedback from researchers who have used the online resource, as well as inquiries as to how the project took shape and what the process was from beginning to end. We are excited to have this available online, and eventually hope to have the funding to complete the remaining film from 1971-present. Please explore the site.

What Are You Working On?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011 4:15 pm

Today’s “what are you working on?” post features another of our hard working and dedicated student assistants, Nate. In his second year of service in Special Collections and Archives, Nate can be found on any given day assisting Beth in rare books, digitizing manuscript collections, or generally being our “Jack of all trades.” Today he is working on helping relocate hundreds of linear feet of church and biographical files for our upcoming construction.We appreciate all of the hard work Nate and all of the student assistants do for us, we would not be a success without you. Thanks, Nate!

ABCs of Special Collections
Collection News
Digital Projects
News & Events
Rare Book of the Month
University Archives
What Are You Working On?
a day in the life of a librarian American Indians American Revolution archives Arthur Conan Doyle Baptist book repair workshops botany Charles Dickens Christmas detective fiction Documentary Film Edgar Allan Poe Elizabeth Blackwell Engraving gift books Harold Hayes herbal home movie day illustrations Ireland James Joyce John White Laurence Stallings Mary Shelley Maya Angelou medieval manuscripts poetry preservation mold programs Rare Book of the Month Rare Books Roanoke Shakespeare Sherlock Holmes Special Collections Strand Magazine Theodor deBry Thomas Hariot Travel Narratives Venice W.B. Yeats W.J. Cash wake forest Writers' Lives
April 2015
March 2015
February 2015
January 2015
December 2014
November 2014
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
July 2014
June 2014
May 2014
April 2014
March 2014
February 2014
January 2014
December 2013
November 2013
October 2013
September 2013
August 2013
July 2013
June 2013
May 2013
April 2013
March 2013
February 2013
January 2013
December 2012
November 2012
October 2012
September 2012
August 2012
July 2012
June 2012
May 2012
April 2012
March 2012
February 2012
December 2011
November 2011
October 2011
September 2011
August 2011
July 2011
June 2011
May 2011
April 2011
March 2011
February 2011
January 2011
December 2010
November 2010
October 2010
September 2010
August 2010
June 2010
May 2010
April 2010
March 2010
December 2009
November 2009
April 2009
March 2009
February 2009
October 2008
September 2008
July 2008
April 2008
January 2008
December 2007
November 2007
October 2007

Powered by WordPress.org, protected by Akismet. Blog with WordPress.com.