Constructing Knowledge from Religion, Science, and Sensory Experience: Cotton Mather, Jupiter Hammon

Originally posted on my WordPress Blog.

In this post I want to look at how all three of these writers create competing and complementary epistemologies based around sensory experiences, religious belief, and scientific knowledge, considering the varying ways each writer integrated the natural world into their understandings of Christianity and their beliefs on race and slavery. In discussing these ideas, I will draw on my reading from last week, Ian Finseth’s Shades of Green.

Cotton Mather

Mather’s argument in “The Negro Christianized” concerning why slave owners should Christianize their slaves fits with the environmentalist explanations of racial difference that reinforced notions of racial inferiority and superiority (See Finseth 38-39). Although Mather takes pains to repeatedly stress that black slaves are human (“Yea, if thou dost grant, That God hath made of one Blood, all Nations of men, he is thy Brother too”), he couples this with describing slaves as “the most Bruitish Creatures” that are less evolved than, and therefore inferior to, white Europeans (who Mather points out are descended from their own barbarous ancestors). Mather’s argument about how the English are descended from the “Barbarous” Britons suggests that he believed at least to some extent in the idea that the human species had the potential to progress or evolve forward. Mather also uses an environmental explanation to account for variations in skin color of humans:

The biggest part of Mankind, perhaps, are Copper-Coloured; a sort of Tawnies. And our English that inhabit some Climates, do seem growing apace to be not much unlike unto them. As if, because a people, from the long force of the African Sun & Soil upon them, (improved perhaps, to further Degrees by maternal imaginations, and other accidents,) are come at length to have the small Fibres and Veins, and the Blood in them, a little more Interspersed thro their Skin than other People, this must render them less valuable to Heaven then the rest of Mankind? Away with such trifles. (643)

Taken together, these two ideas in Mather’s essay could be viewed as an early precursor (or at least bears an interesting resemblance) to Emerson’s “providential biology” or “anthropocentric developmentalism” (See Finseth p. 196). Mather certainly isn’t going so far as to advocate the same ideas as Emerson, which included “first, that collective human ascent would involve the mingling and eventual unification of racial ‘stock,’ and secondly, that racial union superseded national union as a means of realizing humanity’s full potential” (Finseth 189). Nonetheless Mather’s essay contains interesting glimpses at suggestions of racial fluidity, even while simultaneously upholding and advocating a paternalistic view of slavery.

Jupiter Hammon

Within Hammon’s prose and poetry, the recurring references to the sky and to different kinds of sight or vision illuminates how Hammon’s epistemology combined religious teachings and beliefs with sensory experiences of the natural world. Throughout his work Hammon makes numerous references to the sky. It appears that this preoccupation might have originated from Psalm 103:11 (“For as the heavens is high above the earth, so great is his mercy towards them that fear him”), which Hammon quotes in “A Winter Piece” when giving evidence to prove “a principle of fear and love to God,” a principle that runs throughout Hammon’s work. Reference to the sky can be found in the following instances:

  • “An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatly”

“The bounteous mercies of the Lord, / are hid beyond the sky”

  • “A Poem for Children with Thoughts on Death”

“Their souls shall leap beyond the skies, / And live among the just”

“The Blessed Jesus rends the sky, / and makes his power known”

“Then shall you hear the trumpet sound, / and rend the native sky, / Those bodies starting from the ground, / In the twinkling of an eye”

  • “A Dialogue Entitled The Kind Master and the Dutiful Servant”

“My Servant, Heaven is high above, / Yea, higher than the sky”

By emphasizing the physical and spatial dimensions of the sky (the sky can have things hidden behind and above it, the sky can be rent or torn), Hammon depicts the sky as a physical manifestation between humans and heaven that can easily be observed and contemplated, as opposed to a more abstract, metaphysical conception of heaven. A related comparison could be made with Hammon’s use of images of shores and seas throughout his work, which are given religious meaning and significance, but also represent the very real physical world in which Hammon lived (Hammon lived most of his life on Lloyd’s Neck, Long Island, NY, in homes right next to the shore of Lloyd Harbor and extending out to the Long Island Sound). This integration of the natural and supernatural reveals how the natural world helped to vivify the theological underpinnings of Hammon’s writings.

Similarly, Hammon presents two competing ideas of sight or vision: one based on direct, sensory experience and the other on “seeing” through the precepts of the Bible. In “An Address to the Negroes of the State of New-York,” when imploring his readers not to trifle with God and the existence of Heaven and Hell, Hammon warns “It would make you shudder, if you hear others do it, if you believe them as much as you believe any thing you see with your bodily eyes” (860). He repeats the phrase “bodily eyes” in the next paragraph: “If you could see [the Devil] with your bodily eyes, would you like to make an agreement with him to serve him, and do as he bid you?” (860). Attaching the word “bodily” to eyes implies that Hammon deliberately wished to draw a distinction between earthly, physical sight and spiritual belief.

The “bodily eyes” contrasts to a different type of seeing that Hammon refers to in “A Dialogue Entitled The Kind Master and the Dutiful Servant.” In a stanza spoken by the master, Hammon writes: “This is the work of God’s own hand, / We see by precepts given; / To relieve distress and the land, / Must be the pow’r of heav’n.” Here, sight is built off of the precepts of religious teachings and belief. Privileging seeing “by precepts given” lends support to Hammon’s belief in Providence and his argument that slaves should obey their masters and trust that God “in his own time and way” will make them free. Although Hammon clearly favors religious faith over sensory experiences, his reliance on metaphors that evoke the senses as a way of demonstrating religious belief inadvertently reaffirms sensory experience as central to the way he constructed knowledge.

Phillis Wheatley

Ian Finseth argues that imagination, in Wheatley’s “On Imagination,” “enacts a phenomenological emancipation that transforms the visible quotidian world […] by recreating the everyday world as a pastoral landscape […] to which the speaker envisions her escape” (69). Along with evoking the pastoral, Finseth writes, imagination “underlies the speaker’s cognitive relationship to nature: her intellectual ability to transcend the immediate material world and attain a superior vantage point from which to contemplate its secrets” (70). Finseth’s analysis of Wheatley’s poetry focuses primarily on one poem “On Imagination,” but his analysis proves insightful when applied to two of Wheatley’s other poems not mentioned in Shades of Green: “To the University of Cambridge, in New-England” and “Thoughts on the Works of Providence.” These poems combine Wheatley’s use of the pastoral with scientific and religious thought.

In "Thoughts on the Works of Providence,” Wheatley blends this kind of scientific knowledge with a pastoral ideal of nature that “appears harmonious, fair, and good,” in which plants and flowers are “As clear as in the nobler frame of man, / All lovely copies of the Maker’s plan.” In addition to her engagement with pastoral imagery in this poem, Wheatley’s display of scientific knowledge, including astronomy and pathology, testifies to Wheatley’s human subjectivity by demonstrating “a capacity to master nature cognitively while responding to it aesthetically” (Finseth 70). In “To the University of Cambridge, in New-England,” Wheatley blends scientific study (“mark the systems of revolving worlds”) with religious imagery (“ye sons of science ye receive / The blissful news by messengers from heav’n, / How Jesus’ blood for your redemption flows”). The second stanza of “Thoughts on the Works of Providence” combines science and religion: “Ador’d for ever be the God unseen, / Which round the sun revolves this vast machine, Though to his eye its mass a point appears: Ador’d the God that whirls surrounding spheres.” In these two poems, Wheatley isn’t so much transcending the “immediate material world,” as Finseth argues. Rather, she embraces the material world and scientific study as a way of unlocking the world’s secrets, which she figures in religious language.