Misunderstood Puritans, John Cotton, and Scandal in 17th-Century New England: An Interview with Sheila McIntyre and Len Travers

Randall Stephens

John Cotton was one of the most ambitious and bedeviled Puritan ministers of late-17th century New England. He was pastor of the Wethersfield, Conn., church in his early twenties. He lost the pulpit as the result of a sex scandal and subsequently worked as an Indian missionary on Martha’s Vineyard. He regained some prominence as pastor of the Plymouth church, but was again brought low by scandal. He finished out his career as a minister in Charlestown, SC, dying in that outpost from yellow fever in 1699.

Lucky for historians, Cotton was an impressive letter writer who hungered for news from Boston and abroad. His missives and those he received tell us much about the religion of the era, wars, relations with Native Americans, Puritan family life, and much more.

Sheila McIntyre
(SUNY Potsdam) and Len Travers (UMass Dartmouth) have edited The Correspondence of John Cotton Junior (Colonial Society of Massachusetts and the University of Virginia Press), which contains roughly 400 letters written by Cotton or sent to him from 1662 to 1699. It’s a fascinating read, though the free-form spelling and abbreviations of the age take some getting used to. McIntyre and Travers provide a wonderful intro. All in all, the volume will help us rethink who the Puritans were.

I spoke to McIntyre and Travers in late January about the insights they gained and their view of John Cotton and his era.

Randall Stephens: John Cotton was a prodigious letter writer. In this regard, how unique was he among his contemporaries?

Sheila McIntyre: I discovered John Cotton's letters while working on a dissertation on letter-writing habits in early New England, so I can put his correspondence into pretty clear context. Most New Englanders of his education and class wrote letters regularly. (Lots of NEers who didn't have formal schooling or money did, too, just not as often.) However, aside from elite merchants, government officials (the Governor, for example) and some other prodigious correspondents (such as Cotton Mather or Samuel Sewall), Cotton's letter collection is incredible—both in size, and in the kinds of things he wrote about. His relative isolation in Plymouth combined with prestigious family connections give his letters power—he used his considerable network to help his rural community stay informed, and he shared news broadly (both by mouth & pen) even when he shouldn't have always been so candid. His letters reflect on every aspect of his professional, pastoral, and personal life—and the lives of many of his friends, neighbors, & enemies. Among the more than 400 17th-century correspondents I have read, he is my favorite—gossipy, authentic, candid, and smart.

RS: What picture of 17th-century New England do Cotton's letters give us?

SM: The best part of this letter collection is that it invites readers into the 17th century—a period of American history that is hobbled by stereotype more than most. If modern Americans remember anything about the Puritans, it's that they ate turkey with Indians and burned witches. John Cotton forces us to flesh them out—to let them be real people, not as unlike us as we might think. The 17th century is a wonderfully liminal world between medieval and modern: their "world of wonders" (to use religious historian David Hall's phrase) includes both science and magic. Cotton's world is small and huge at the same time: he writes about his neighbors' marital troubles AND the Glorious Revolution, often in the same letter. He is a passionate missionary, fluent in native languages and devoted to the native nations, but at the same time, he seemed not to flinch when Metacomet's son was sold into slavery to pay for the sins of his father. I'd like to think he disagreed with that cruel punishment, but he did not share any doubt in the letter.

Most importantly, Cotton was a loving husband and devoted father—he offers a powerful corrective to the image we have of loveless marriages & stern Puritan parents. Despite the apparent adultery (the only Puritan minister in NE I have found who was so convicted) Joanna & John were clearly and demonstrably in love. New England law would have allowed her to divorce him after the sexual scandal, but she chose to remain with him.

As parents, John & Joanna will surprise any reader who is stuck in the "breaking the will" paradigm, which I think is misplaced. For example, on November 30, 1696, two young students at Harvard College, William Maxwell & John Eyre, drowned while skating on Fresh Pond in Cambridge. John was actually in Cambridge when it happened, and remained for the funeral: which was lavish, and heart-breaking. While John focused his letters on the details of the event, and that he was with the boys just a few hours before it happened, Joanna’s letter about their drowning, centers on her fear for her own children: “O the poor Lads from perfect Health into Eternity in a few minutes, that thought no more of it than you. Never, never, never let this Providence be forgotten by you. I can hardly bear to think how I should have born the affliction if it had been you. The Lord pity the poor Parents.” She is NOT chastising herself for loving them too much; she admits that she wouldn't be able to bear losing them (even to God's loving hands).

Cotton was a loving softie of a father, who sounds much like any modern diaper-changing dad of our own day. He worries about their health, their education, their happiness, and how he is going to pay their college tuition bills. He wrote a particularly heart-wrenching letter to Joanna in August 1694. She was at another son’s house ready to help with an imminent birth, when John visited their youngest, twelve-year-old Theophilus, who was boarding with a schoolmaster in Duxbury. Theophilus hates school. “I went in the afternoone on purpose to see Theoph: who is well, but cryed most bitterly to me for a licence to come home this day, I told him.. if he would stay till next Saturday I should be come from Bos: & perhaps you, but I left him poore lamb, with his back turned & he heavily bemoaning his condition & begging he might come home to day, My parentall bowels yearned, but I gave him noe hopes only of Sar’s visiting him one day; He sayes they carry it well to him, all amisse I could get from him was, that the boys laught at him, there are 3 or 4 Duxb: boyes & he is alone & it may be they all set themselves to afflict him & his tender, proud spirit cannot beare it.”

Sounds to me like John is the one who cannot bear it!

RS: How did ministers like Cotton interpret King Philip's War and natural disaster? What does that tell us about Puritan religion in this era?

SM: What strikes me is that different people interpreted catastrophes differently, and often not as we might expect. Some of Cotton's correspondents referred to the Providential interpretation (God is punishing wayward NE), but Cotton himself rarely does. His innate "journalist" orientation leads him to focus on gathering details, and sharing those details. In his letters about KPW or the later Northern Wars of the 1680s & 1690s, he is most concerned with getting the names, dates & numbers straight, so he can reassure local families (his devotion to pastoral care trumps pretty much everything). He is less concerned with the typology of what it all means. His nephew, Cotton Mather, for example, described the devastating earthquake in Jamaica in 1692 as punishment for Port Royal's "sodom of wickedness." Cotton didn't echo that in his retelling. He certainly praises God's mercy when he shares good news about someone's health or a returned captive from the native wars, but he doesn't seem to focus on God's smiting hand.

Perhaps it is his own sinfulness that moderated his words, but I see forgiveness as the most powerful theme of his life—even after the second adultery scandal, his congregation voted to keep him on as pastor. After his death, most of the comment was on his redemption, not his sinfulness.

I think that Puritanism has been miscast as harsh & unforgiving—perhaps because scholars sometimes focus on the prescriptive literature (sermons & tracts) rather than on descriptive evidence (like Cotton's letters). Cotton's life exemplifies the welcoming embrace of early Congregationalism—apparently God and Cotton's congregation forgave him, it was the Boston ministers who couldn't.

RS: John Cotton suffered from political and personal scandals that shaped his ministry. How much can we know about the personal lives of ministers like Cotton from the evidence that has survived?

SM: As pieces of evidence, personal letters simply have a power unlike any other documents from that period—the early New Englanders breathe, cry, worry, rejoice, betray confidences, scheme, suffer, and fall in love in these letters. They become people, rather than the cardboard black hats American schoolchildren make in November.

While Cotton is certainly only one man, his letters include information about many, many other ministers, and his dedication to mentoring younger clergy (particularly in SE Massachusetts) is impressive. It was hard to be a minister in 17th cent NE - the pay was poor, the expectations high, and the job security pretty low. Many found themselves alone & overwhelmed on the frontier—they had a long way to fall after the heady intellectual days at Harvard together, part of a vibrant scholarly community. After graduation, many then found themselves out in rural parishes, hoping the Congregation remembers to deliver firewood. Better than any other kind of evidence, letters let us in to their lives—the lived experience of the Puritan faith

Len Travers: Sheila and I go round and round on this one—what was Cotton supposed to have done; was he really guilty, etc.—but I have always felt there is more to this case than meets the eye. You won’t find this all in the book, so this is an exclusive of sorts, but consider the following. First, it appears that Cotton’s first pulpit may have been a poisoned one from the start. Wethersfield, CT was already a troubled town by the time Cotton arrived there in 1659. This was the period of the so-called “half-way” church membership controversies that bedeviled many New England communities. Only months before Cotton’s Wethersfield ministry, some townsmen, disgusted with the church’s changing baptism policies, quit Wethersfield entirely and, along with Hartford dissidents, formed the Connecticut River town of Hadley, in Massachusetts. Not all of the dissenters had gone, however, and Cotton was bound to end up in the crosshairs of one faction or another. One of those complaining against Cotton in 1662 actually told the investigating committee there was a lingering “Judgment or Curse of god” on the town, that now “Would not Remove frome Wetherfield whilst mr Cott aboad ther.”

Second, and significantly, members of the Welles family also feature prominently in the complaint against Cotton. Thomas Welles, the governor of the colony, had named the new pastor, Cotton, the administrator of his will, also in late 1659. When Welles died a few months later, his estate was valued at £1,070—a sum well worth fighting over.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. Welles divided almost everything between his widow and his favored grandson, leaving his own children specifically in the lurch as to anything more from his estate. The widow was his second wife, and had children of her own from a previous marriage—you can guess where her share would ultimately go. Cotton, all of 20 years old, was responsible for carrying out the terms of the will, and in fact brought one of Welles’s sons to court to force him to comply therewith.

Things only went downhill from there; only three months before the scandal that starts off our book, Welles’s children had in turn brought Cotton to court to complain of his handling of the estate. So there were already hard feelings between the Welles family and Cotton—what effect did these have on their willingness to lodge complaints of a sexual nature against Cotton shortly afterward?

As the correspondence reveals, the Connecticut investigators cleared everyone of sexual misconduct (Cotton was not the only one), or at least had no verifiable evidence of such, but somehow, two years later, the Boston church saw fit to excommunicate Cotton for alleged “lascivious uncleane practices with three women.” Three women? How did that happen? And who were these unnamed women?

And lastly, I have to ask myself how Cotton’s mentor, Samuel Stone, could have permitted him to set foot in the minefield of that Connecticut town in the first place. Granted Cotton did not help matters, flinging reckless counter-accusations, but the inexperienced young preacher was clearly out of his depth. There is just too much we don’t know about this pivotal moment in Cotton’s life, but I suspect that sex may have had much less to do with it than initially appears.

Just sayin' . . .


Hello, I did read about Quakers and Puritans, about the foundation of USA and especially Pennsylvania, and I found it very interesting. Otherwise in order to help some bad things to be part of history and not present, you can find something about a petition which could interest you in the top right-hand corner at the following address: http://eternal-cartesian.blogspot.com/ . Sincerely for a better world
Manlius said…
What an interesting post! Thanks.
John Fea said…
Thanks for the post, Randall. Good to see Sheila's work featured. (And some 17th century British-American religious history!) Readers should also check out her work on letter-writing. She had a great essay in the New England Quarterly several years back.
Phil said…
Glad to see this in print; looks like a fantastic volume.

Clergy-congregation conflict is a most fascinating topic for both 17th and 18th century Am. religious history (and of course in more recent times as well).
Anonymous said…
Great post - I bought the book - the subject is an ancestor of mine.
Joe Cotton

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