First Edition of Cotton Mather's Biblia Americana
Prof. Dr. Jan Stievermann
At present Prof. Stievermann and a group of young scholars (of Theology and American Studies) are completing the edition of Volume Five of Cotton Mathers Biblia Americana. Volume Five includes Mather’s commentaries on the Biblical books of the Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, The Song of Solomon, Isaiah and Jeremiah. The Biblia, never before transcribed or published, is a comprehensive English-speaking Bible commentary from colonial British North America, produced by the famed Puritan theologian Cotton Mather (1663-1728) between 1693 and 1728.
Cotton Mather: The Most Influential North American Theologian of his Time
This edition of the Biblia Americana as a whole is certainly one of the most important and promising interdisciplinary projects now underway in early North American Studies. The primary significance of the Biblia is that Cotton Mather in his exegetical works sought to harmonize new insights emerging from the nascent field of historical biblical criticism, the natural sciences, and revolutionary philosophical ideas of the early Enlightenment with a traditional Biblical worldview and Reformed Orthodox doctrines. Thus researchers examining the cultural, religious or literary history of America as well as Europe can equally profit from this academic edition of the Biblia (http://matherproject.org/).
The heir/scion/descendant of one of the most important Puritan clergy families of New England, Cotton Mather was arguably one of the most influential and productive theologians in British North America of his time. In his lifetime he published more than 400 writings, including a series of extensive and well-known works in various academic fields at the time, such as his account of American church history, Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), or his compendium of physico-theology, The Christian Philosopher (1721). Nevertheless, it was the Biblia, which he worked on for more than three decades until his death in 1728, that he always regarded as his most important endeavor and the summation of his lifework. Tragically, despite repeated attempts, Mather failed to find either a wealthy patron or sufficient subscribers for the publication of his magnum opus which required a high initial financial investment. Today the 4,561 handwritten folio pages of the Biblia reside in the archives of the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS).
The Biblia Americana: An Encyclopedic Archive Documenting the Intellectual History of the Early Enlightenment
When considered as a whole, the Biblia can be seen as a forum for the central intellectual debates of the time period – also in Europe – and thus serves as an almost encyclopedic archive of intellectual history. An academic edition of this work therefore benefits not only American cultural, religious, and literary historians but is also highly valuable for scholars working in primarily European contexts in disciplines such as theology and particularly for those focusing on comparative and interdisciplinary issues. As reactions to the first volume’s publication have shown so far, the project has met with a very broad and enthusiastic reception internationally and is widely viewed as a pioneering research project.
In the fields of North American cultural, religious, theological, and literary history, the Biblia project make possible a host of new research projects. So far there have been only a handful of limited analyses of the contents of the Biblia, based on readings of just a few manuscript pages. A much deeper and more comprehensive analysis of the Biblia is only now beginning in the course of the work on the edition. The nineteen essays in the anthology edited by Smolinski and Stievermann, published as Cotton Mather and Biblia Americana – America’s First Bible Commentary: Essays in Reappraisal (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2010), have already begun pointing out new directions for prospective academic work in this area as well.