Ward Cotton

Ward Cotton, minister of the First Church of Hampton, New Hampshire, was the tenth child of the Reverend Rowland Cotton (A.B. 1685) of Sandwich, Massachusetts, where he was born on September 8, 1711. His mother, Elizabeth, was a sister of Governor Gurdon Saltonstall (A.B. 1684) of Connecticut and the widow of John Denison (A.B. 1684).

After the death of Rowland Cotton in 1722, Elizabeth took the children to Newton where they lived with her son, the Reverend John Cotton (A.B. 1710), until the following June, when they removed to Boston. Writing to Tutor Nathan Prince (A.B. 1718) shortly after the admission of Ward to college, she showed that thrift which has always been such an admirable characteristic of the Saltonstalls but so deplorably lacking in the Cottons:

You Cant but think Sir I am passionately pleased that providence has so ordered it my little Son should be under the Care, of A Gentleman, I have so great And just A value for. . . .

Sir I put him under Your watch & Care, praying You would warn him to keep no evil Company, to take to no wicked practice. There are bad examples in every place. . . . If it ben’t to Late; I should be glad if he might get in with my Nephew, Mr Nathaniel Saltonstall to whom I have Lent a bed ever since he went to Colledge. If he Canot, I must be Obliged to take the Bed from him, which I am very Unwilling to do.

Mrs. Cotton died in 1726, but Ward was well taken care of by others. The First Church of Boston gave him £10 from the James Penn legacy and the college gave him 6 from the Saltonstall scholarship. His Uncle Theophilus Cotton (A.B. 1701) had left 20 toward his education, and Uncle John of Newton reached into his pocket for the rest of the costs. Ward was a peaceful lad and remained in residence, on and off, until February, 1733/4. When taking his M.A. he argued the negative of the Quaestio, “An Articulorum ad Salutem necessariorum, numerus completus cognosci possit?”

In 1730 Cotton began keeping the Marshfield school, and on April 18, 1731, he joined the First Church of that town. On May 24, 1730, those members of his father’s old congregation who did not like the preaching of his successor, Benjamin Fessenden (A.B. 1718), had invited Ward to come and preach to them, but Fessenden reproachfully offered him the use of the town pulpit instead. Cotton was cautious about this call, but the separates were so determined to obtain his services that two years later they were still putting pressure on one of the leading clergymen of Boston to make him accept:

You would pleas to Incoridg and promote Mr. Ward Cottons coming to settle with the disatisfied in Sandwich acording to their call. . . . They have put them selves to uncomon Charg about building a meeting house being quite weary with liveing as they have done the last sevrion years past.

Cotton had by this time left the Old Colony and gone to New Hampshire, where in July, 1731, he preached at Hampton. Thence he went to Sherborn, Massachusetts, where he gave such satisfaction as a preacher that he received an apparently unanimous call from church and congregation on October 12, 1732. In September, 1733, he was called back to Hampton to assist the Reverend Nathaniel Gookin (A.B. 1703), whose wife was a Cotton. When Gookin was well enough to take his own services, Ward preached in neighboring pulpits; but the old minister’s health was failing so rapidly that the town gave the young preacher a formal call on March 12, 1733/4, and the church concurred on May 9. His contract provided that he should receive a house and land, and a salary of 100 in paper money plus 20 in provisions. He accepted and was ordained on June 19, the ordination sermon being preached by his Uncle John. Parson Gookin died on August 25, leaving Ward the sole minister of the east or first church of Hampton, the oldest church in New Hampshire.

Cotton frequently went back to Boston to preach in the pulpits of the great churches and to renew his old friendships, and in that town on October 17, 1734, he was married to Joanna, the youngest daughter of William Rand, an apothecary, and his wife, Sarah Cotta. George Whitefield, the English revivalist, visiting the Hampton parsonage on September 30, 1740, left this picture of it and its mistress:

Took Ferry immediately after Sermon [at Newbury], and with the Rev. Mr. Cotton, Minister of the Place, who came to fetch me, went in a chaise to Hampton, where I was pleased to see more Plainess in Mr. Cotton’s House than I had seen in any Ministers House since my arrival. His wife is one that serveth. Oh that all ministers wives were so.

Cotton was in sympathy with Whitefield’s revivals and encouraged such a movement in his own church. He was one of the ministers who in 1743 signed without reservation the clerical resolution approving the Awakening. His one printed discourse suggests that he was meek and doubtful of his powers, which New-Lights rarely were, but tradition relates that he was such an ardent preacher that he had to instruct one of his deacons to warn him when he was becoming too excited by kicking the pew. His subscriptions for books quite definitely place him. He bought the Chronological History of Thomas Prince, which was too scholarly to interest most New-Lights, but he showed his sympathy for the Awakening by subscribing for Jonathan Edwards’ life of Brainerd and not for Charles Chauncy’s attack on the revival. When the revival in New Hampshire got out of hand, and the excesses of Joseph Adams (A.B. 1742) threatened to destroy the churches, he joined the other established ministers in combatting them.

Parson Cotton was one of the advocates of the reannexation of Hampton to Massachusetts, but after the final determination of the line between the provinces, he joined in the formation of a convention of the Congregational ministers of New Hampshire, which would do away with the need of an annual journey to Boston. From 1749 to 1757 he was clerk of this convention, and in 1759 he preached the formal convention sermon. With his associates he was active in pressing for the establishment of the institution which was to become Dartmouth College. He was now a man of some distinction, and many of the Harvard men who traveled the great northern road made a point of visiting him. David Sewall (A.B. 1755) has recorded one such visit with Tutor Flynt (A.B. 1693):

Mr. Flynt intended to call and dine with Parson Cotton of Old Hampton; and, as we came to the road that led from the post-road to Cotton’s house, we met the parson and his wife walking on foot. Upon which Mr. Flynt informed Mr. Cotton that he intended to have called and taken dinner with him; but, as he found he was going from home, he would pass on and dine at a public-house. Upon which, says Mr. Cotton:

“We are going to dine, upon an invitation, with Doctor Weeks, one of my parishioners; and Mr. [Nathaniel] Gookin [A.B. 1731] and his wife, of North Hill, are likewise invited to dine there; and I have no doubt you will be as welcome as any of us; and, besides, the Doctor has a son who he intends shall enter college next commencement; and I will with pleasure introduce you to Doctor Weeks.”

This glimpse of life in Hampton seems to have been typical. There were, indeed, riotous public meetings when the creation of a new parish compelled the division of the ministry lands, but the parson avoided participation in the quarrel and retained the affection of his people. In 1746 they would not permit him to go to Louisbourg as chaplain of the Massachusetts committee of war, and when inflation upset values, they increased his salary to 560. This was little enough, but he had some real estate, particularly in the new town of Orford. He was chosen as one of the spokesmen of the town when it appealed to the General Assembly for help during the smallpox epidemic of 1758.

Cotton’s usefulness as a pastor was terminated by a paralytic shock which impaired his moral judgement. An ecclesiastical council meeting on October 22, 1765, accepted the charges made against him and advised that he be dismissed. This was done on November 12, 1765, but the following June he was readmitted to the church on his confession of error. He showed no resentment for the treatment which he had received when writing on March 20, 1767, from Epping to his sister Joanna, widow of John Brown (A.B. 1714), at Cambridge:

You have doubtless heard that we are removd from Hampton to Greenland. . . . We Removd from Hampton Dec. 3d with all our Household stuff which filld six Carts to Greenland There being no provision made for our tarrying att Hampton any longer. . . . I have of Late been exercised with almost an universal Rheumatism ·So that I am almost Helpless. . . . I may but get safe to Heaven, for I am quite weary of this world ·I Long to be preaching which always was my beloved work. Would your neibors accept of a months preaching if they could have it gratis.

The opportunity he was longing for did occur when he was invited to supply the vacant pulpit of what is now the Manomet Congregational Church at “Monymet Pond” in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Chandler Robbins (A.M. 1760) of the First Church invited Parson Cotton to exchange with him on November 30, 1768,12 but as Cotton was that morning walking down the street, a few feet from the steps of the meetinghouse, he was struck with an apoplectic fit and died within a few moments. His body lies on Burial Hill. So far as we know, he had only three children: (1) Isabella, b. 1735; d. July 31, 1752. (2) Elizabeth, b. Aug. 24, 1737; m. Dr. Ebenezer Fiske of Epping, June 24, 1756. (3) Sarah Cotta, b. Oct. 19, 1739; m. Dr. Ichabod Weeks of Greenland on October 30, 1760; d. July 24, 1770. A century ago there was a portrait of him at Nottingham, New Hampshire. His widow is said to have married four more times, three of the participants being Jonathan Gilman of Exeter, Ezekiel Morrill of Canterbury, and Joseph Baker of Pembroke, New Hampshire.


Ministers Must Make Full Proof of Their Ministry. . . . Preach’d at the Ordination of . . . John Brown [A.B. 1741] . . . in Hingham. . . . Boston, 1747. 30 pages. AAS, BA, BPL, HCL, JCB, MHS, NYH, WLC.


From: Sibley, John Langdon. Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University: Vol. 1 – 1642 to 1658, Cambridge: Charles William Sever, University Book Store, 1873. 8:562-566

  1. Misc. Mss. (Mass. Hist. Soc.), 71.J.50.
  2. George Leonard to J. L. Sibley (Harvard University Archives), Apr. 25, 1857.
  3. Eldad Tupper to Benjamin Colman, Colman Mss. (M. H. S.), May 27, 1732.
  4. John Cotton, Ministers of the Gospel, Boston, 1734.
  5. Boston Gazette, Oct. 21, 1734, p. 3. The vital records give the date as September 12.
  6. Continuation of the Rev. Mr. Whitefield’s Journal from his Return to Georgia to his Arrival at Falmouth, London, 1741, p. 33.
  7. Christian History, I (1743), 166.
  8. Joseph Dow, Tuck Genealogy, Boston, 1877, p. 39.
  9. Boston Evening-Post, Apr. 6, 1747, p. 2.
  10. Proc. M. H. S. XVI, 7.
  11. Misc. Mss. Bound (M. H. S.), Mar. 20, 1767.
  12. Massachusetts Gazette, Dec. 8, 1768, p. 1; New-Hampshire Gazette, Dec. 9, 1768, p. 3. The church records give the date as the 27th.
  13. New-Hampshire Gazette, Aug. 3, 1770, p. 3.