“Cotton’s conversion by Sibbes and his shift to Sibbes’ plain evangelical style of preaching was affirmed when John Preston knocked on his door to tell Cotton how his sermon had enabled “God to speak effectually unto his heart”. Prior to his conversion, Preston studied music, medicine and astronomy and “thought it below him to be a minister” as he “held the study of Divinity to be a kind of honest silliness”.6 After his conversion, Preston and Cotton became friends for life and Preston, later, made annual trips to Boston, Lincolnshire to visit Cotton and regularly sent him near fledgling students for finishing.
“In light of the tenets of Calvinism, conversion surpassed ordination in importance for Preston, Cotton, Sibbes and Baynes. Their mutual affirmation of election to sainthood reinforced each individual’s conviction of his election and sustained their advocacy of Calvinist principles. Thus, Baynes, Sibbes, Cotton and Preston formed a successive line of spiritual kinship or godly mafia in which Paul Baynes begat Richard Sibbes, who with William Perkins, begat John Cotton, who begat John Preston, who begat Thomas Shepard and so on. Francis Bremer writes, “Knit together by the thread of grace and a legacy of shared experiences, members of this communion formed a network of friends who were determined to maintain their unity as they labored together to advance the reform cause. Brought together by shared doctrines or temperament, the Puritans of early Stuart England formed a fellowship of faith that set them apart from their peers.” from JOHN COTTON An Intimate Investigation of His Life and Times by Barry Arthur Cotton.
Understanding an ancestor who lived in the 17th century is not easy in today’s world. John Cotton was born in 1584 and attended Cambridge University- first a Trinity College and then Emmanuel College. In 1610, Cotton was ordained a priest of the Church of England and in 1612 he reported that he had been converted under the guidance of Richard Sibbes and, in turn, he inadvertently converted John Preston.
To understand John Cotton’s “conversion”, it has been necessary to understand that in the 17th century, the Church of England adhered to the doctrine of predestination. “Between 1560 and 1625 the doctrine of predestination was accepted without question by virtually all of the most influential clergymen in England, Puritan and nonpartisan alike.”1 As a result, most people lived in angst over election to salvation. Unconditional election is one of five tenets of Calvinism- the other four are: total depravity of the human condition, limited atonement, conversion by irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints. The Church of England’s position on predestination, authored by Archbishop John Witgift in the Lambeth Articles of 1595, affirmed Calvinism. Both the Church of England and its attendant Puritans embraced the teachings of John Calvin and the concept of predestination.
Ironically, the 3rd great granddaughter of John Cotton, Lydia Cotton Jackson, married Ralph Waldo Emerson, junior pastor of the Second Church of Boston and father of Transcendentalism. In contrast to Calvin’s doctrine of Predestination, Transcendentalism taught that divinity pervades all nature and humanity and transcendentalists held progressive views on feminism and communal living. At the time, both the First and Second Church of Boston were Unitarian and rejected the traditional Calvinist doctrines of original sin, total depravity, predestination and the trinity as unbiblical. Unitarians asserted the unity of God and rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. Under the influence of Transcendentalism, they also adopted positive doctrines of the nature of humanity and the possibility of continuing moral, spiritual and intellectual growth.
Equally ironic is the fact that although John Cotton is attributed as one of the founders of the Congregational Church, the First Church of Boston and Harvard College, the Unitarian movement split these institutions as some 250 of New England’s original parish churches formally took the name Unitarian, having been in fact Unitarian already for 50 or 75 years. By mid 19th century the Calvinist and the Unitarian heirs of the Puritans had gone their separate ways. In general, the church was called Unitarian if its members now had a Harvard graduate in their pulpit. It was called Calvinist if its minister was a graduate of Andover or Yale.
1 Durston, Christopher, and Jacqueline Eales. 1996. The Culture of English Puritanism, 1560-1700. Edited by Christopher Durston and Jacqueline Eales. Macmillan. 7