Here’s a deleted scene from Darkness Falls on the Land of Light involving Josiah Cotton, one of my favorite eighteenth-century New Englanders. Cotton was a cantankerous Plymouth, Massachusetts, civil magistrate and Indian preacher. For a time during the 1730s, he owned a haunted house. A decade later, he emerged as an outspoken critic of the Whitefieldian revivals.
Cotton’s annual memoirs and extensive correspondence contain vivid descriptions of the ecclesiastical chaos that enveloped the Old Colony of southeastern Massachusetts during the 1740s. He reserved his sharpest invectives for Andrew Croswell. Cotton utterly loathed the itinerating Connecticut firebrand who ignited a powerful religious revival in Plymouth during the winter of 1742. In one of his sermons, Croswell brazenly pronounced three quarters of the congregation unconverted hypocrites; and he filled the Plymouth pulpit with a motley assortment of children, women, and enslaved Africans who roused the audience into a frenzy of shrieking and convulsing bodies. Nearly one hundred people joined the Plymouth church in full communion in 1742—a figure ten times the yearly average. Newspapers and magazines carried reports of the “Great Awakening” in Plymouth throughout the Atlantic world.
Cotton watched with mounting frustration as the Congregational establishment came apart at the seams. Over the next decade, nearly every town in southeastern Massachusetts suffered through bitter church schisms. Isaac Backus settled in nearby Middleborough and organized a separate Baptist church. Radicals such as Sarah Prentice claimed to have achieved a state of spiritual perfection and bodily incorruptibility. Along the South Shore, liberal ministers peddling new “Arminian” theological doctrines drew many laypeople—including members of Cotton’s extended family—onto a path that would culminate the development of Unitarianism.
Cotton considered himself a religious conservative, a voice crying for moderation in a maelstrom of change. Yet his financial writings disclose a fascinating little secret: the judge did as much to accelerate the breakdown of New England Congregationalism as Croswell and his radical “New Light” contemporaries.
Consider this list of “Publick” and “Charitable” expenditures from Cotton’s diary and account book. The cramped, hastily scrawled entries recorded taxes paid to the province and county; gifts distributed to prisoners, paupers, Indian families, and the victims of fire and other misfortunes; and, especially, charitable contributions for the Plymouth Congregational church. As one of the town’s godliest walkers, Cotton made regular financial contributions to support minister Nathaniel Leonard. In a cash-starved economy, the judge usually paid in local bills of credit or hard currency—somewhere between one and two pounds annually. He also provided Leonard with staple goods during the lean winter months.
Cotton typically made no distinction between himself and his wife when he recorded his charitable contributions. After all, Hannah Cotton had suspended her legal identity when she married Josiah in 1708 and, thus, owned no property to bestow on individuals or institutions. But on May 6, 1742—just two months after Croswell’s raucous fortnight in Plymouth—the judge inscribed a curious entry of three pence for his “Wifes Contribution” at Leonard’s church. On several occasions later that summer, Cotton carefully noted “My Contribution” to the church at Jones River (now Kingston), located just north of his farm. Occasional entries for “My Wifes Contribution” continued throughout the summer and fall, including three shillings, eight pence on “Thanksgiving Day,” November 24. The next line in Cotton’s account book was even more cryptic: “My Contribution at New Meeting House.”
What did these subtle changes mean?
Shortly after Croswell’s departure from Plymouth, a small clique of disgruntled church members demanded a public meeting to discuss the recent “unusual Practices in Religious Exercises.” Cotton penned a proposal for a day of ritual fasting to heal the growing rift in the church. But minister Nathaniel Leonard refused to address their complaints. In response, Cotton and the aggrieved brethren withdrew from communion in the oldest Congregational church in New England. During the summer of 1743, a crew of eighty men constructed a new meetinghouse near the center of town and began auctioning pews; the Massachusetts General Court granted a petition to form a separate parish the following December. Nine members of Leonard’s church requested a formal dismissal to the new precinct. After a lengthy trial of probationary preachers, the separatists settled upon Thomas Frink as their minister. Boston’s Charles Chauncy, the most outspoken opponent of the Whitefieldian revivals in New England, delivered the ordination sermon.
Tucked away amid the minutiae of a sprawling account book, the records of Cotton’s charitable contributions disclose a startling revelation. Sometime shortly after Thanksgiving Day, 1743, Josiah and Hannah Cotton began worshiping in separate churches. He had become the very thing he despised: a Congregational separatist. Cotton never mentioned the split in his memoirs, but it must have been a galling experience for Plymouth’s leading revival opponent to continue supporting a church he no longer attended. For the rest of his life until his death in 1756, Josiah and Hannah spent their Sabbaths in separate meetinghouses, dividing their gifts of butter and wood, mutton and chocolate between the two ministers of Plymouth’s warring Congregational churches. No eighteenth-century text captures the costs of the Whitefieldian revivals better than these fugitive account book entries.
Cotton’s list of public and charitable contributions may be found in “The Cotton Diaries, 1733–1774,” 22–23, 33–34, 39–42, Cotton Families Collection, Pilgrim Society, Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Mass. To learn more about Josiah Cotton’s opposition to Andrew Croswell and the Whitefieldian revivals, see Leigh Eric Schmidt, “‘A Second and Glorious Reformation’: The New Light Extremism of Andrew Croswell,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 43 (1986): 214–244; Timothy E. W. Gloege, “The Trouble with Christian History: Thomas Prince’s ‘Great Awakening,” Church History: Studies of Christianity and Culture 82 (2013): 125–165; and Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2017). For Cotton’s Indian “Business” and ownership of New England’s best-documented haunted house, see the Related Articles on this website. I am currently completing a critical edition of Cotton’s major manuscript writings for the Colonial Society of Massachusetts.