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Boston - The Small Town With A Big Story


Barry Cotton

Reverend John Cotton is perhaps one of the best-known personalities to have lived in Boston, Lincolnshire. He served as the town’s vicar from 1612 until 1633. Cotton then became a mentor and a guide to America’s Founding Fathers after fleeing arrest in England for being Puritan. He helped in founding Boston, Massachusetts, established the first public school in North America when he created the Boston Latin School in 1635 and played a pivotal role in the founding of Harvard, America’s first university.

Painting of reverend John Cotton sat holding a book

Revd John Cotton

Stained glass showing a boat and people

The John Cotton stained glass window, St Botoloph's Church, Boston, Lincolnshire.

John Cotton was born in Derby on 4 December 1585. At the age of 13 he entered Trinity College, Cambridge and received his MA in 1606. Eight years later he was a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge and soon a distinguished university lecturer and Dean, fluent in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. In 1612, he was offered the position of Vicar of Boston by the Corporation. At that time the Bishop of Lincoln thought him ‘young and unfit to be over such a fractious people imbued with the Puritan spirit’. But John, abandoning his promising academic career, embraced the call to church ministry with enthusiasm.

Although he lacked pastoral experience, in his first full year as vicar he conducted over sixty baptisms, thirty marriages and one hundred burials, becoming respected and well-loved by his parishioners. He also found time that first year to gain his Bachelor of Divinity degree and began to embrace the Puritan principles that would be the hallmark of his life. Within a few years he started to abandon such practices as genuflection and the wearing of surplices at St Botolph’s, in direct contradiction to the church rituals being promoted by King Charles I and his leading churchman, William Laud. .

The John Cotton pulput in St Botolph’s Church

The John Cotton pulpit is named after Revd John Cotton who regularly preached from it while vicar of St Botoloph's Church.

A metal plaque remembering john cotton

John Cotton Memorial Pemberton Square, Boston MA.

In 1630, 21 of his congregation led by Thomas Dudley, Isaac Johnson, and Simon Bradstreet joined others migrating to New England. Cotton travelled to Southampton to see off the flotilla that included the Arabella as its flagship. Before the fleet sailed, Cotton preached one of his best-remembered sermons - ‘God’s Promise to His Plantation’. When William Laud became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633, Cotton’s position became untenable. He went into hiding, resigned as vicar and sailed for New England in the Griffin with four other families from his congregation. More than 166 from the Boston area eventually left the town for a new life in America.

John Cotton lived for nineteen years in Boston, Massachusetts surrounded by members of his Boston, Lincolnshire congregation who played key roles in governing Massachusetts. Four of them: Thomas Dudley, Richard Bellingham, John Leverett and Simon Bradstreet served as governors and deputy governors of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

After his death in 1652, Cotton became known as the Puritan Patriarch of New England.

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