Seaborn Cotton, John Cotton & Nathaniel Gookin
Address at the Dedication of a Memorial Stone to the Above,
by the New Hampshire Society of Colonial Dames,
at Hampton, September 8, 1910
By Alfred Gooding, Minister of the South Parish, Portsmouth, N.H.*
From the Granite Monthly Vol. 42, pgs. 283-5 (1910)
With all these great responsibilities resting upon him how important it was that the old time minister should be a man of education as well as of natural ability. The early settlers of New England realized this, and in 1636 Harvard College was founded by them for the express purpose of providing for the churches a learned ministry. They said "After God had carried us safe to New England and we had builded our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, reared convenient places for God's worship, and settled the civil government; one of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity: dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust." (New England's First Fruits, 1643.) Even in the smallest and remotest towns the preacher was sure to be a graduate of Harvard College. With a single exception every one of my predecessors in Portsmouth was a Harvard or Yale graduate; and these three ministers in Hampton, whom we commemorate today, had taken the degree at Harvard when they were settled here.
The first of these admirable examples of the Puritan minister was Seaborn Cotton, son of a famous father, John Cotton, of the First Church in Boston. He was born at sea, August 12, 1633, on the ship Griffin which brought his parents to America. In a list of Harvard graduates of the year 1651, given in Cotton Mather's "Magnalia," his name appears ingeniously Latinized as "Marigena Cottonus." I like the name both in its English and its Latin form. In an age when the Bible was the chief source of personal names so that the Historian Cleveland could say of Cromwell, only a few years later, that "he hath beat up his drums clean through the Old Testament -- you may know the genealogy of our Saviour by the names of his regiment. The muster-master hath no other list than the first chapter of St. Matthew." In such an age what originality, what a sense of the poetic and the fitting, was shown by the parents who named their child, born at sea, "Seaborn."
I wish that we knew the details of his ministerial life. He was settled in Hampton in 1657 at a salary of sixty-five pounds (afterwards increased to eighty pounds), a parsonage and the use of a farm of two hundred acres. No sermon by him exists in print. He apparently kept no record of church affairs or statistics; only a few memoranda of events, a membership list and the like, were found among his papers. What a pity that a ministry of thirty-one years should have been so scantily recorded. The only contemporary mention of him that we have is a brief word by his nephew, the famous Cotton Mather, who says in his "Magnalia" that he "was esteemed a thorough scholar and an able preacher," and that he especially abominated the Pegagian heresy. He married twice and had a noble family of eleven children.
At the death of Seaborn Cotton, in 1686, his oldest son, John Cotton, was invited to take his father's place as minister in Hampton. He did so temporarily but could not be persuaded to become permanent pastor until ten years later. Perhaps he objected to the idea of hereditary office in the ministry, but after the lapse of ten years he yielded to the urgent wishes of the people and entered upon a happy and successful ministry of thirteen years, terminated by his sudden death caused by apoplexy in 1710. It was said of him by a writer in the Boston News Letter that "he was very much and deservedly beloved and esteemed . . . for his eminent piety and great learning, his excellent preaching, his Catholic principles and universal charity, his profitable, pleasant, virtuous and delightful conversation, and for his generous hospitality to strangers. . . . He was an honor to his country where he was born and the college where he was bred and the family from whence he came." He married Anne Lake and brought up a family of eight children. Unlike his father he could not bequeath his ministry at Hampton to a son, but he did the next best thing -- he proved his successor with a wife in the person of his oldest daughter, Dorothy. Nathaniel Gookin who became the minister in Hampton in 1710, married Dorothy Cotton, and of their thirteen children Nathaniel, Jr., was subsequently settled over the church at North Hampton -- a curious instance of the transmission of the pastoral office in the same community from one generation to another of the same family for nearly a hundred years.
Nathaniel Gookin was a graduate of Harvard in the class of 1703, and was ordained at Hampton, November 15, 1710. One of my predecessors, Rev. William Emerson, then settled at Newcastle, gave the right hand of fellowship on that occasion. We have a portrait of him by which he appears to have been a man of remarkably noble and dignified bearing, qualities characteristic also, it is said, of Mr. Gookin, of whom the governor of the Province once declared that he had never met a man of such extraordinary dignity. There are extant printed copies of the sermons which he wrote on the occasion of the great earthquake in 1727, the first of which he delivered only a few hours prior to the event, from the text, "The day of trouble is near." In this sermon he expresses a foreboding that something terrible is about to happen. In the evening came the violent shock which threw the people of the town into the utmost terror. Afterwards recalling the sermon of their minister they felt that he was possessed of the gift of true prophecy, and, though not to his own liking, he became commonly known as "The prophet." On his tombstone we read that "he was a judicious divine, a celebrated preacher, a most vigilant and faithful pastor, a bright ornament of learning and religion, an excellent pattern of piety, charity and hospitality." He died in 1734 at the age of forty-eight.
To the memory of these three excellent ministers it is truly fitting that a stone should be erected by a society many of whose members trace their ancestry back to men like the Cottons who represented in those early days the cause of learning and piety. To them and their people religion was the supreme interest of life. No theme was so absorbing as the profound problems of theology. Hour after hour the people sat upon backless benches in the icy atmosphere of a New England winter and the unshaded glare of a New England summer, while the preacher discussed the obscure intricacies of the freedom of the will, or set forth the remote purposes of the Almighty. We view with amazement their powers of physical and mental endurance. Who of us could stand through a prayer lasting from two to three hours in a temperature so low that the bread upon the Communion Table froze solid? Fortunately conditions have changed and we are no longer required to worship God in such discomfort and danger. But we cannot refuse our tribute of respect and admiration to those who endured the hardships of a primitive life and never faltered in their faithfulness and piety; and we do well to celebrate the memory of their spiritual leaders, such men of learning and character as they whose useful lives we have briefly recalled here this morning.