Electronic Theses and Dissertations


John Cotton's Middle Way

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

M.A. in History

First Advisor

Sheila Skemp

Second Advisor

Joseph Ward

Third Advisor

Jeffrey Watt


Historians are divided concerning the ecclesiological thought of seventeenth-century minister John Cotton. Some argue that he supported a church structure based on suppression of lay rights in favor of the clergy, strengthening of synods above the authority of congregations, and increasingly narrow church membership requirements. By contrast, others arrive at virtually opposite conclusions. This thesis evaluates Cotton's correspondence and pamphlets through the lense of moderation to trace the evolution of Cotton's thought on these ecclesiological issues during his ministry in England and Massachusetts. Moderation is discussed in terms of compromise and the abatement of severity in the context of ecclesiastical toleration, the balance between lay and clerical power, and the extent of congregational and synodal authority. These issues influenced debates about Congregationalist and Presbyterian reform of the English Church and religious diversity in Massachusetts. I find that Cotton's thought and practices while in England were more inclusive of religious differences than they were in his colonial ministry because he attempted to work within the doctrinal and ceremonial parameters of the English Church and his doctrine of adiaphora . Adiaphora, also called indifferent matters, were religious practices or doctrines that led neither to salvation nor damnation. During his English ministry, Cotton taught that most of the ceremonial practices that divided many Puritans and Conformists were adiaphora and could be tolerated in his congregation. There was also a subversive element to his teachings on adiaphora since, unlike some Puritans, Cotton was not willing to submit to church demands for conformity on most indifferent matters. In New England, Cotton became part of the religious and political establishment, and his doctrine of indifferent matters narrowed, because he did not have an incentive to subvert this new order or compromise with non-Puritan colonists. Cotton supported stricter church membership rules due to the influence of Separatism and competition between Precisionist and Antinomian strains of Puritanism. Cotton's congregational thought was more moderate towards those who attained membership. Through the fusion of Separatist and Presbyterian influences, Cotton created a church that was inclusive of lay and clerical power and balanced the autonomy of congregations with synodal authority.

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