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.

At the start of his life, Cotton would seem fitted for greatness. 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.

Cotton became a pillar of Puritan society, ultimately helping push Anne Hutchinson into exile for her beliefs (albeit reluctantly). His son, meanwhile, attended Harvard, and at the age of 20 traveled to Connecticut to stay with Rev. Samuel Stone, a friend of John Sr. (John Cotton Sr. died in 1652). 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 has split off. The remaining congregation was still divided.

john cotton jr.

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

Among Cotton’s parishioners was Thomas Welles, a long-standing political leader in Connecticut. 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.

The estate was a sticky one. Most of Welles’ fortune he left to one grandson. His second wife was given use of his house while she lived. But the rest of the clan – his children and her children from a first marriage – were given 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. He was accused of improper relations with women of the congregation. An inquiry cleared him of the evil deeds, but not of being too hot tempered to minister to a congregation. He was guilty of speaking “A sinful rash of unpeaceable words of a high sustaining nature.”

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.”

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 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, recording “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, South Carolina.

Determined to carry on his ministry, Cotton traveled south. But he died there of yellow fever in 1699. Hat tip to: The Collected Letters of John Cotton, Jr., 1640-1699.



  1. Nancy Lamontagne

    March 19, 2017 at 10:28 am

    Such interesting history. Should be mandatory reading for today’ s students. History will repeat itself if it is forgotten. we need to look back remember and learn.

  2. Edith Douglas

    March 19, 2017 at 11:07 am

    Something is wrong with the print of the story in my download. Only on your file.

    • Viola F Hayhurst

      March 19, 2017 at 2:40 pm

      …. interesting take on the Oligarchy of the Boston Puritans – which was the most extreme to come to the new world and simply not tolerated by the more liberal puritans — such as the Rev. Stephen Bachiler and his family. While the Rev. in disgust left the colony over a huff over his final marriage, it was his grandchildren that sided with the Quakers in Sandwich. Of course– butting heads with the Puritans who levered a fine on everyone that refused to attend their Meeting House in Sandwich. My own grandfather to the nth, Daniel Wing, one of the Rev.’s grandsons — turned Quaker — used an old English law to get himself declared dead in his 40’s so that he would not be forced into poverty by these fines. But the reading does as often is the case slight the so critical 1620 landing at Plymouth, “the one hundred Pilgrim Fathers who sailed to New England on the Mayflower in 1620” . The colony consisted of equal numbers of Saints and Strangers and was much more of a true democracy than the Oligarchy extremes of Boston — who’s culture is still so prevalent then and now in the USA.

    • Eugene Rossi

      March 19, 2017 at 3:03 pm

      True, but those extremes are generally ignored for one reason or another. The Sunday school version that is usually taught in schools and churches seems to paint them all as heroes of freedom and Conservative/Libertarian values when in reality most people today would not have been welcomed by many of the Puritans. I’m by no means a scholar, but I’m sick and tired of people trying to white wash history to advance one political agenda or another.

  3. Diane Tufts

    March 19, 2017 at 2:37 pm

    Related to my husband & kids.

  4. Viola F Hayhurst

    March 19, 2017 at 2:43 pm

    … just acting like a normal English male: not the only one that shared this honor ! Some Winthrop descendants were so distressed by the Puritan Extremes that they went back to England as Tories !

  5. His failures weren’t nearly as spectacular, but here’s another…lesser…Mather who ended up slumming it in Connecticut as well:

  6. Pingback: Nora Saltonstall Defies Dad, Cares for the Wounded - New England Historical Society

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