‘Forget not the wombe that bare you, and the brest that gave you sucke’: John Cotton’s sermons on Canticles and Revelation and his apocalyptic vision for England
Chi, Joseph Jung Uk
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The tumultuous events that erupted in Scotland and England c.1637 – 1650 sparked tremendous interest in John Cotton. As a result he turned to two Biblical books, Canticles and Revelation, to determine whether those events that transpired across the Atlantic Ocean were of apocalyptic significance. Cotton’s exegetical findings concluded that prophetic fulfilment was indeed unfolding and more importantly that the glorious millennium foretold in Scripture was imminent. As the leading polemicist of New England’s Congregational way, Cotton infused his defence of this controversial church polity with apocalyptic importance. However, he did not make the case for the exclusive role of the colonies in the grand scheme of eschatological reformation but New England’s support for reform in his native country, England. This dissertation continues the revision of scholarship that moulded Perry Miller’s Errand into the Wilderness thesis into an exclusive selfconsciousness of divine intentions for the New England colonies by arguing for England’s prominence in Cotton’s eschatological vision. In the process, Cotton’s ecclesiology will be presented in an eschatological context. Moreover, this thesis demonstrates that Cotton understood New England’s experiment with non-separating congregational ecclesiology as contributing to English reformation. Chapter One examines the only pre-migration source that concentrated on prophetic themes, Cotton’s sermons on Canticles, which were preached sometime during the 1620s. Cotton presented an optimistic outlook on the church’s future based on the recognition of a godly remnant he believed existed in his own parish of St. Botolph’s as well as others scattered throughout England. Cotton recognized that a lingering presence of popery threatened England’s covenantal standing with God and that the faithful remnant upheld the nation’s covenantal commitment to Biblical purity and obedience. Chapter Two re-examines the events surrounding Cotton’s expulsion from England. A careful assessment demonstrates that Cotton’s only desire was to remain in England at any cost, particularly in fear of being cast a separatist. However, Cotton became convinced of the legitimacy of exile to New England through the belief that from America Cotton could continue in active service to the English church. Though Cotton did not reject England’s role in apocalyptic fulfilment, Cotton came to see Congregationalism as the primary agency through which Antichrist would be defeated and the millennial church ushered into history. This is clearly seen when Cotton returned to preach from Canticles a second time in the 1640s with the added accent on soteriology and piety. Chapter Three argues that Cotton used Scotland’s resistance against Charles I and prelacy to exhort England towards adopting Congregationalism. Cotton praised the Scottish Covenanters for their resistance against prelacy, which Cotton identified as the image of the beast from Revelation, in the Bishops’ Wars and the National Covenant. Through those events, Cotton demonstrated that God’s apocalyptic strategy for the Antichrist’s demise had resumed. However, Cotton also took the opportunity to demonstrate that the Kirk’s Presbyterianism resembled prelacy’s hierarchical and national structure and exhorted England to adopt New England’s Congregationalism. Chapter Four demonstrates that Cotton was overwhelmed with optimism in the early 1650s based upon the signs of apocalyptic providences in the purging of Parliament, Charles I’s execution and England’s victory over Scotland at Dunbar in September 1650. To Cotton, Cromwell’s victory at Dunbar was the indisputable sign that divine providence stood in favour of Congregationalism over Presbyterianism and that God’s presence endured with England.