Of Angels and Puritans

Geoff ChapmanFound, Linked0 Comments

A strange and memorable thing. After outpourings of prayer, with the utmost fervor and fasting, there appeared an Angel, whose face shone like the noonday sun. His features were those of a man, and beardless; his head encircled by a splendid tiara; on his shoulders were wings; his garments were white and shining; his robe reached to his ankles; and about his loins was a belt not unlike the girdles of the peoples of the East.

This detailed depiction was written, in Latin, by none other than Cotton Mather, arguably one of New England’s most renowned and learned Puritan ministers.  Recorded in his diary probably in 1685, Mather’s vision of a winged, beardless angel sporting a “splendid tiara” is surprising, virtually unprecedented. Puritan divines like Mather usually read portents and wonders negatively, as signs of God’s displeasure. They could accept that devils came to earth. Angels or God’s direct intercessions were another matter. Cotton’s father, Reverend Increase Mather (the first president of Harvard College and a prominent Boston minister) warned that angels must never be worshipped, and of this much he was sure: “[T]he Angelical Nature is invisible to bodily eyes.” Yet despite his father’s reservations (and no doubt even his own), Cotton Mather saw an angel in glorious splendor.

Cotton Mather is easy to charicature, and his involvement in the Salem witch trials certainly calls into question his discernment. Nevertheless, the expectations and thoughts of a 17th Century Puritan minister concerning the role of angels in Christian life are quite illuminating for those interested in Reformed perspectives on the issue.  You can read more from this fascinating article by Elizabeth Reis here: http://www.common-place.org/vol-01/no-03/reis/

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