Jeremiads Are More Fun Than You Might Expect

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If you tap ‘Author: Cotton Mather’ into the JCB catalog, the effect is rather like opening the door of an over-stuffed cupboard and having the contents drop on your head — out falls a total of 235 works. Surely no other JCB author can compete with this — indeed, it’s been claimed that Cotton Mather published more titles than any other writer in history, though most of them are just single sermons or lectures.

One of these is a book misleadingly titled The Short History of New-England, which was published in Boston in 1694. It makes no attempt to provide any sort of coherent history but is in fact a sermon delivered to the General Assembly of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, and its running title is Memorable Passages, relating to New-England (which is more accurate by dint of being more vague). As the date suggests, the work is primarily preoccupied with trying to draw a moral from the witchcraft crisis of two years before, with some reflections on the Massachusetts ‘revolution’ of 1689 and the new charter which came into effect just as the Salem tragedy began to unfold.

The book takes its text from Ezekiel 22:30: ‘I sought for a MAN among them, that should make up the HEDGE, and stand in the GAP, before me, for the Land, that I should not Destroy it. . . ‘. Mather melodramatically stops here, explaining that ‘The Rest I will not Now Read unto you, as Wishing and Hoping, that it may Never be fulfilled in our Eyes!’ (If you can’t take the suspense, the verse concludes: ‘but I found none.’)

The sermon is an example of the jeremiad, where New Englanders are taken to task for their backsliding by their ministers, but the form can be more exuberant and virtuosic than that glum agenda suggests. Mather plays all sorts of riffs on his controlling metaphor of a damaged hedge. Indians can sneak through that gap, he tells us, devils too, and worst of all, vices. Serpents come in and crawl and coil about us; wasting fevers find their way through, not to mention sexual defilements, and death itself. And sorceries. The word for hedge can mean ‘wall’ in Hebrew, he explains, and he visualizes it as a breakwater that has been breached, allowing the sea to cast up mire and mud. It is also a city wall, over which the heads and hearts of malefactors should be thrown to purify the community within.

I was researching a novel set at the time of the Salem witchcraft, and Mather’s little book provided me with the exact title I needed: The Gap in the Hedge. Without vulgarizing the issue, it evokes something of the ominousness of an M.R. James ghost story; more importantly it catches the sense shared by all those concerned, whether judges, accusers, or victims, that the cultural and spiritual boundaries established for the Christian plantation of New England had in some way broken down, and that a profound change was beginning to overtake their society. Mather’s elaborate explication of the Biblical metaphor also provided my book with a perfect epigraph, particularly as it concludes: ‘So then, there is a most Solemn and Weighty CASE; indeed, the more Solemn and Weighty, because it is OUR OWN, Case: where-with I am now to Entertain you.’ I remember wanting to shatter the scholarly quiet of the JCB reading room by waving my fists above my head and shouting out, ‘Yes!
–Richard Francis, Hodson Trust-John Carter Brown Fellow, Fall 2013