The Merging of Calvinist Thought and Enlightenment Values in Cotton Mather’s Essay “The Triumph of the Reformed Religion in America”

Within “The Triumph of the Reformed Religion in America,” Cotton Mather represents his roots of Puritanism as well as transitioning towards more enlightenment thought. His essay centers on a minister named Eliot who seeks to save the natives by means of learning their language (Mather 63). In this way, Eliot would be able to teach his religion to them. Though Mather’s Christian views should be founded on Calvinistic values, it seems that his enlightenment thinking has changed the tone of his view on Christianity. He creates an almost idealistic story about a man with seeming divinity in a world filled with the depraved. The mix of his religion and thinking create a sort of hybrid religion with the love of doing good from Calvinist thought and the free will of enlightenment thinking.

The negative description that Mather provides of the natives describes a Calvinist viewpoint. Mather uses his description to emphasize, not only the differences of their peoples, but also the key places in which the natives do not abide by his religious principles. Mather discusses first the extent of their sins, emphasizing their depravity. He stresses the natives relation to beasts by saying that “their clothing is but skin of a beast” in one place (60). He goes on to describe that they are barely covered as well and in another part, he compares how they paddle their ships to that of a dog (62). Mather describes Eliot as learning the Indian language partly because they would never give up their beastly way of living to learn Eliot’s language (63). This indicates that they are more closely linked to beasts and thereby dehumanizes them by portraying them as practically animals. It also implies that they are so closely linked to animals that they do not even recognize their depravity and thus needed Eliot to guide them. One of the examples of their depravity that he gives is by talking about their torture and cannibalism. Mather seems to reflect Calvin values here by implying that the Indians are so far from God and so caught in original sin that they cannot even see the need to know God or even realize their sinful natures.

Mather also stresses men’s slothful nature which goes against the Puritan work ethic. He describes their religion which is not only polytheistic but closely tied into nature where there are Sun and Moon Gods and even fire is given a sort of God (61-62). The fact that the natives live within nature also is another example that goes against Calvinistic values since the Puritans valued the sense of community in the cities. Also, their distance from God is emphasized by the use of demons to help them in different aspects of their lives (62).

Although Mather focuses on the ways in which the natives lack Calvin values, his enlightenment thinking shows how he seeks to understand the logic and learn from the natives. At one point while talking about the slothful nature of the men, he considers how the women doing the work could factor in on the women’s ease of childbirth (61). He also describes the various resources of copper, iron, and timber of which the natives have access to but do not use (60-61). The extent in which Mather describes the natives lack of use of these materials shows his want to understand the natives better and to formulate reasons about their lack of knowledge. It also seems to imply that part of their lack of knowledge stems from the fact that they do not know God.

Also by extensively describing the abilities that Mather’s people have that the Indians do not, seems to go against Calvinist values by portraying a sense of pridefulness. Mather describes how the Indians did not use metal weapons, the type of currency they used that was nothing more than trinkets, the way they prepared their food, their medicines, and how they did not know what a ship was until the Europeans came (60-61). With all of these descriptions, he seems to be stating that his people are far superior because of their advancements. At one point Mather even states, “They live in a country where we now have all the conveniences of human life” (60). Which is another way a pointing out that the natives are not quite human. Mather’s portrayal of Eliot delves away from the traditional view of a Calvinist as well. Painting Eliot in such a bright light highlights the idea of human perfectibility rather than depravity. Not once in the essay does it seem to focus on any flaws that Eliot could be perceived to have. Instead, Mather turns Eliot into almost a form of messiah for the natives. Mather does so by comparing the Indians to the Israelites and the statement that a deliverer will save them by coming to turn ungodliness from them (62). Though it can be argued that this is meant to refer to Jesus, Mather seems to imply that the deliverer for these Indians is Eliot who is working hard to learn their language and help them. Throughout this essay there also does not seem to be any mention of predestination; Mather seems to be suggesting that a person can become good and choose to follow God. The fact that Eliot seems to be choosing to help the natives rather than being forced to is an example of this.

Mather’s descriptions include describing him as a man of honor worthy of Homer, humble, and charitable (79-60). Even towards the end of Eliot’s life Mather describes Eliot as becoming “more heavenly, more savoury, more divine” (65). Even though in the end Eliot was an old man ready to die, Mather describes how his grace increased and despite his age, he continued to work (65). This portrayal emphasizes the Puritan work ethic as even at a time in his life where he could have retired, Eliot chose not to be idle. Another way in which Mather describes him is a “perfect and upright man” (65). This description completely negates any sort of original sin that in the Calvinist view would be hanging over Eliot’s head.

Eliot also seems to have more free will. Mather practically implies that it was Eliot who decided to seek out the natives and not God’s will that he went by saying, “This was the miserable people which our Eliot propounded unto himself to teach and save!” (62). In this way Mather is suggesting that it is Eliot’s own desire that causes him to want to help the natives; it is his choice rather than the act of a higher being. Eliot himself seems to have Calvinistic views by his humble nature, however, the fact that he sees the natives as stupid and senseless and wishes to teach them, reflects the seeking of knowledge of the enlightenment period. While learning the Indian language, Eliot seeks to compile it in a form that others could read and learn from as well, giving a source of knowledge to others.

Besides learning their language, the other thing Eliot seeks to do before preaching to them is civilize the natives. He believed that he could not convert them before he had civilized them (62). This sort of thinking seems to combine the Calvin ideal of introspection and that of enlightenment thinking. To become civilized is a way of becoming more aware of oneself, while the act of being civilized also involves the gaining of knowledge. In this way, Mather is saying that in order to know God a person must have a knowledge and understanding of

Eliot also seems to have more free will. Mather practically implies that it was Eliot who decided to seek out the natives and not God’s will that he went by saying, “This was the miserable people which our Eliot propounded unto himself to teach and save!” (62). In this way Mather is suggesting that it is Eliot’s own desire that causes him to want to help the natives; it is his choice rather than the act of a higher being. Eliot himself seems to have Calvinistic views by his humble nature, however, the fact that he sees the natives as stupid and senseless and wishes to teach them, reflects the seeking of knowledge of the enlightenment period. While learning the Indian language, Eliot seeks to compile it in a form that others could read and learn from as well, giving a source of knowledge to others.

Besides learning their language, the other thing Eliot seeks to do before preaching to them is civilize the natives. He believed that he could not convert them before he had civilized them (62). This sort of thinking seems to combine the Calvin ideal of introspection and that of enlightenment thinking. To become civilized is a way of becoming more aware of oneself, while the act of being civilized also involves the gaining of knowledge. In this way, Mather is saying that in order to know God a person must have a knowledge and understanding of themself.

Throughout his essay Mather maintains a firm outlook of the difference of the natives and his own people as well as showing elements of Puritan and Enlightenment thinking. Despite the fact that Mather disagrees with the values of the Natives and their viewpoints, his reasoning and logic allow him to look at their culture without judgement. For the most part he simply describes the differences of his own culture and theirs and emphasizes the ways in which Eliot sought to help them. He uses the descriptions of the natives and Eliot’s personality as a sort of contrast of what is not a Calvinist value and what is. The Indians represent the negative side; they aren’t innately good and they seem to be viewed very heavily with apriori thinking while Eliot represents the positive and also seems to be an example of posteriori thinking. He does not represent then in his own life, but in the way that he seems to think he can nurture the Indians and turn them into civilized saints. Eliot also represents a sort of combination of the Enlightenment and Puritan values. He follows the religion of the Puritans but has developed the free will, knowledge and good nature of the Enlightenment age.

Work Cited

Mather, Cotton. “The Triumphs of the Reformed Religion in America: Or, The Life of the Renowned John Elliot” The Pearson Curstom Library of American Literature. Eds. John Bryan, et al. Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2007. 58-66