John Cotton was the leading figure among the first-generation of Puritan divines in Massachusetts. The son of a prominent lawyer, he was born in Derby, England, and received his education at Trinity College, Cambridge. After graduation he was elected a fellow at Trinity and later became dean at Emmanuel College, at the time a hotbed of Puritan nonconformity.
Following his own conversion in 1612, Cotton became the vicar of a church at Boston in Lincolnshire. During his 21-year ministry, he became increasingly critical of the Church of England and an outspoken advocate of independent congregational governance. The Anglican hierarchy was uneasy with Cotton’s views and in 1632 took action against him by attempting to enforce ceremonial conformity.
In 1633, Cotton removed himself from the growing controversy and sailed with his family for Boston. At First Church, he ministered to the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay community, including notable dissenters. Cotton was an early defender of Anne Hutchinson and she regarded him as the only true ministerial representative of God in the colony.
However, as charges of heresy mounted against her, Cotton withdrew his support and urged her banishment. Cotton also locked horns with Roger Williams, who challenged the power of civil officials to control secular and religious issues. Cotton left no doubt about his opposition to Williams’ views by stating that democracy was inappropriate for governing commonwealths and churches.
Despite these controversies, Cotton was one of the most widely admired men in Massachusetts. The majority in the community agreed with his views and looked to him for leadership.
Cotton was a prolific writer. His most widely known work, The Way of the Churches of Christ in New England (1645), remains an excellent source of information about early Congregationalism. Milk for Babes, Drawn out of the Breasts of Both Testaments (1646), was a popular catechism used for decades for the instruction of Puritan children.
In 1636, the General Court asked Cotton to compile existing New England laws into a single document. The result of his labors, the Mosaic Code, was judged to be far too stringent and was rejected by Massachusetts authorities. However, the New Haven colony would later use Cotton’s work as the basis of their highly structured legal system.
John Cotton was regarded as the father of Congregationalism in America and a staunch supporter of the enforcement of religious principles by civil officials. His conservative views reflected those of the community in the early years of Massachusetts Bay, when feelings still ran strong that this group of New World Puritans was the only hope against Satan's advances.