Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Cotton Mather in the Library

The following is a slightly-edited version of "Chasing Cotton Mather," which recently appeared in the in-house newsletter of the Massachusetts Historical Society. I share it here for others interested in bibliographic delights.

The MHS library staff recently received one of the most interesting interlibrary loan requests we’ve had in quite some time; on behalf of a patron, another library was seeking a copy of Cotton Mather’s Heavenly considerations; or the joy of heaven over them that answer the call of heaven, a sermon printed at Boston in 1706. WorldCat lists MHS as having the only copy, which is catalogued in ABIGAIL. Our natural first step for an early American imprint such as this is to check the Evans fiche and digital databases, but they did not contain this title (and the print version of Evans’ bibliography offers only the title and an imprint: “Boston: Printed by B. Green, 1706”). The English Short-Title Catalogue also contained no information about the sermon, so we turned to Thomas James Holmes’ bibliography of Cotton Mather’s works. Imagine our surprise at reading Holmes’ entry, which begins: “No copy of this work has survived to our time.”

Holmes reports that the title of the sermon was taken from Samuel Mather’s list of his father Cotton’s writings, and that he used the imprint assigned by Evans for his bibliographic entry. Holmes did discover that Cotton Mather had mentioned the work in his diary on 11 July, 1706; the entry there reads: “About this time, to give a further Stroke unto the Intentions of promoting early Piety, having preached a Sermon on a Lord’s-Day to my Great Congregation, with an Appendix to it, unto a great Meeting of young People assembled on the Lord’s-day Evening. The Discourse was desired by the young People, who published it. It is entituled; Heavenly Considerations. The Joy of Heaven over them that answer the Call of Heaven, or, Powerful and Wonderful Motives to Repentance and Early Piety; fetch’d from the Joy of Heaven over every Repenting Sinner on Earth.”

In the book-world, there are records of many printed works of which no copy is known to exist (think of the famous Oath of a Freeman, the first document printed in North America). According to Holmes, Heavenly Considerations was one of these lost biblio-souls. But if so, what was catalogued under that title in ABIGAIL? What was quietly residing inside a white envelope in Box 1706? Our curiosities piqued by the thrill of the hunt, a colleague and I hurried up to the stacks, where we confirmed that Heavenly Considerations is lost no more.

The tiny book hardly gives off a good first impression. Just 16 centimeters tall, in duodecimo format, containing a mere fifty-six pages, the sermon is stab-bound in nothing more than a piece of green paper. Printed as it was on thin, inexpensive paper stock, it’s a wonder that even this one copy of Heavenly Considerations survived to see its tercentenary. The sermon is severely water-stained and has suffered significant damage to the bottom corners of the first several leaves. Its title page is missing, but it can be identified by the caption title on the first extant page (signature A2), “Sinners Repenting and Heaven Rejoycing,” and by a dedicatory line: “To my YOUNG PEOPLE.” The pamphlet was priced cheaply at 7 shillings, 5 pence, and the date 1706 appears immediately preceding the text.

Evans assigned the printing of Heavenly Considerations to B. Green, the Bartholomew Green who ran a print shop on Boston’s Washington Street near the Old South Church. However, an advertisement printed on the recto of the final leaf reveals that it was in fact Bartholomew’s nephew Timothy who produced Heavenly Considerations. Timothy, who had apprenticed with his uncle (and was the son and grandson of Samuel Green Sr. and Jr., also early Cambridge and Boston printers), opened his own shop on Middle Street (now Hanover Street) in the North End in 1700. Both Bartholomew and Timothy printed other works for Mather in 1706, but a comparison of Heavenly Considerations with the layout and typography of those additional works shows that Timothy was responsible for Heavenly Considerations. In fact, Timothy even claims credit outright: when examining another of his 1706 Mather imprints - the second edition of The Religion of the Closet - I happened upon the advertisement there, which reads “There is now a Printing, and will shortly to be sold, by Timothy Green, at the North of Boston, a very Encouraging Small Book, to Repentance and Early Piety: Entituled Sinners Repenting, and, Heaven Rejoycing.…”

We have been unable to discover much about how MHS’ copy of Heavenly Considerations passed its time before coming to us, but we know that it was presented to the Society with some other Mather works around 1960 by its former owner, Benjamin Tighe. His name appears in pencil on the wrapper opposite the first page of text. The final, blank leaf is also signed by one John Clap, who wrote there (several times) “John Clap his book 1712.”

So, from a simple interlibrary loan request, we not only “re-discovered” a hidden gem in our collection, but we’ve also been able to clear up some longstanding bibliographic mysteries about the format and production of Heavenly Considerations. Our senior cataloger has added some additional notes to the ABIGAIL record, including the mention of the text in Mather’s diary, to reflect these discoveries. And what of that interlibrary loan request? We were glad to be able to provide digital photographs of the text to the other library’s patron.

We hope to be able to make a full digital version of Heavenly Considerations available fairly soon, and if/when that happens I'll certainly share it with you all.