By Jeremy Dibbell
We received a long-awaited and much-anticipated package in today’s mail: a copy of the first volume of Cotton Mather’s Biblia Americana, just published by Mohr Siebeck/Baker Academic. This volume (of ten) marks the first publication of this weighty and important work, edited by a team of extremely dedicated editors headed up by Reiner Smolinski, Professor of English at Georgia State University.
The manuscript of Mather’s Biblia Americana, which comprises some 4,500 pages over six volumes, is in the collections of the MHS, so understandably we’re thrilled to see this project bear its first fruits in this volume, which covers Mather’s commentary on the book of Genesis. It and the future volumes will certainly be a great help to us here in the library as well as to the scholars around the world who will now have access to a well-edited, carefully-annotated version of the text.
Mather’s work is, as Smolinski describes it in his erudite and thorough introduction to the volume, “the oldest comprehensive commentary on all the canonical books of the Bible to have been composed in British North America” (p. 3). It “represents one of the great untapped resources in American religious and intellectual history,” Smolinski writes, as Mather’s “scriptural interpretations reflect the growing influence of Enlightenment thought in America as well as the rise of the transatlantic evangelical awakening.”
This is hardly your run-of-the-mill biblical commentary. Mather poses rhetorical questions about the verses he annotates, and uses a stunningly broad range of source texts to explore the topics at hand. As Smolinski notes, this often leads Mather far beyond “the more conventional concerns of biblical philology and academic theology,” as he tackles questions of natural philosophy and particularly topics of specific interest to American readers (such as religious customs, cultural practices, and medicinal treatments). Having sifted through “literally hundreds of different tomes” (a list of which Smolinski provides), Mather intended his work to be a “clergyman’s personal encyclopedia (in the absence of a college library), a one-stop shop where educated readers could interface with Pagan antiquity, Newtonian science, and Old-Time Religion” (p. 6).
Alas, and despite years of trying, Mather never found a publisher to take on the project, though certainly not for lack of effort on his part (a process recounted ably by Smolinski in his introduction).
A hearty congratulations to Reiner Smolinski and his team for their hard work on this volume (and on those to come)!
If you’re interested in the editorial project, you can learn more at the project website.