Black Sheep: The Rev. John Cotton Jr. Story

Is black sheep a fair description of Rev. John Cotton, Jr.? His father, after all, condoned casting Anne Hutchinson out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, branded as a heretic. And his nephew Cotton Mather famously celebrated the Salem Witch Trials. Still, those sins seemed pardonable in their day, whereas John Cotton Jr.’s ultimately were not.

The younger Cotton, born Jan. 15, 1639, seemed fitted for greatness at the start of his life. His father, Rev. John Cotton, Sr., had befriended John Winthrop while in England and blessed his voyage to America.

The elder Cotton was a celebrity minister in England, but his Puritan leanings eventually put him in the crosshairs of England’s established church. Facing certain punishment, he fled to America, where his old friend helped him win the coveted pastorate of Boston’s First Church.

The Elder John Cotton

Cotton became a pillar of Puritan society, ultimately helping push Anne Hutchinson into exile for her beliefs (albeit reluctantly). But he died when his son and namesake was only 13.

John Cotton, Jr., then attended Harvard. At the age of 20, he traveled to Connecticut to stay with Rev. Samuel Stone, a friend of his father. It may have been through Stone’s intercession that the young Cotton was offered the pulpit at Wethersfield.

Newly married, the young minister found the Wethersfield church more than he could handle. To be fair, the Wethersfield church was in a bit of an uproar before Cotton’s arrival. A dissident faction of the congregation had split off. The remaining congregation was still divided.

john cotton jr.

John Cotton Sr. (by John Smibert) and Cotton Mather (artist unknown).

Gov. Thomas Welles, a long-standing political leader in Connecticut, belonged to Cotton’s parish. Upon Cotton’s arrival in Wethersfield, Welles promptly died, and he left his estate (more than 1,000 pounds worth) in the hands of young Cotton as executor.

A Sinful Rash

The estate was a sticky one.  Welles left most of his fortune to one grandson. He gave his second wife the use of his house while she lived. But the rest of the clan – his children and her children from a first marriage – only received small bequests, if anything.

Court records show Cotton repeatedly forcing members of the family into line with the will. Whether this created his problems, or merely added to them, isn’t clear. He noted that Governor Welles daughter was guilty of “sinful, whorish practices.”

His congregation, meanwhile, had little better to say about him. They accused him of improper relations with women of the congregation. An inquiry cleared him of the charges. But it didn’t clear him of having too hot a temper to minister to a congregation. He was guilty of speaking “A sinful rash of unpeaceable words of a high sustaining nature.”

More Trouble

While he dodged more serious consequences in Connecticut, Cotton’s troubles were not over. In 1664, the First Church of Boston, where his father had been pastor, was clamoring for him to answer charges about his behavior. He wouldn’t escape punishment so easily at his home parish. He was excommunicated “for lascivious unclean practices with three women and his horrid lying to hide his sin.”

After making public confession and apology, however, Cotton was readmitted to the church roughly a month later.

His career in tatters, Cotton turned to family friends for a landing spot. This time on Martha’s Vineyard. From 1666 to 1678, Cotton worked on the island with Thomas Mayhew, trying to convert the Indians there to Christianity. Even there he butted heads with others, and was chastised for his mercurial temper. Nevertheless his time in the wilderness helped bleach the stains of scandal from his reputation, and Cotton was again called to a church – this time in Plymouth, Mass.

In 1677 he would take the pulpit. And he managed to keep the Congregation for 30 years. During this period, Cotton was restored to much of his former glory. He occasionally spoke in Boston and retained the wary affection of his nephew, Cotton Mather.

In 1692, at the height of the Salem witch trials hysteria, Cotton shared joyous news with his uncle: “Our good God is working of miracles. Five witches were lately executed, impudently demanding of God a miraculous vindication of their innocency. Immediately upon this, our God miraculously sent in five Andover witches, who made a most ample, surprising, amazing confession of all their villainies, and declared the five newly executed to have been of their company.”

Time To Go

As always, however, John Cotton’s weaknesses would out. In 1697, charges were raised against him once again for philandering, this time with a married woman – Rebecca Morton. Cotton sought dismission from the church – essentially a release from his duty with a clean recommendation. The church declined, and heard charges against him. Cotton denied any wrongdoing. The charges against him, he said, were put up by political enemies who resented his support of the Massachusetts Charter of 1692, which pushed Plymouth under Boston rule.

In the end, the church voted to retain Cotton, but he was so weakened he knew he had to leave.

“This was for his notorious breaches of the seventh commandment (adultery) and undue carriage in choosing elders,” diarist Samuel Sewell noted in his diaries.  Sewall also reported that the clergy was far from satisfied with how long the church had turned a blind eye toward Cotton’s misbehavior.

Increase Mather, John Cotton’s own brother-in-law, led the criticism, Sewell said. He wrote, “That they had dealt too favorably with Mr. Cotton.”

Favorable treatment or not, Cotton was on the move one last time. There were signs of distress in his marriage, by this point, with Cotton’s wife Joanna spending much of her time in Sandwich, Mass. Cotton spread the word that he was seeking work. To his disappointment, the only call came from Charleston, S.C.

Determined to carry on his ministry, Cotton traveled south. But he died there of yellow fever in 1699.

This story updated in 2022.

Thanks to The Collected Letters of John Cotton, Jr., 1640-1699.

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