Cotton Mather (1663-1728), Puritan clergyman, historian, and pioneering student of science, was an indefatigable man of letters. Of the third generation of a New England founding family, he is popularly associated with the Salem witchcraft trials.
Cotton Mather recorded the passing of an era. The Massachusetts Bay Colony had been a radical, Bible-based community of "saints," whose existence as an example to the rest of the world was to be safeguarded till Christ's second coming by the strictest tutelage of educated clergymen in all civil as well as ecclesiastical matters. In Mather's lifetime the separation of church and state and the development of the frontier and of a society absorbed in business and profits greatly increased popular apathy toward the church. The rise of democracy within the Colonies is seen in the disintegration of orthodox creeds and practices. American-born colonists felt estranged from Europe and its culture and turned to nature and to reason for the sources of their new identity. Rationalism and evangelism vied to replace orthodoxy.
Mather was both behind and ahead of his times. As an internationally known scholar and innovative scientist, he was ahead of his New England contemporaries. In his theories of child rearing his emphasis on indirection, persuasion, and rewards considerably anticipated the future. But on questions of ecclesiastical organization and in all matters relating to Harvard College, he adhered passionately to past example. He deplored New England's decline and eagerly anticipated a future day when all people would be brought to judgment and Christ's kingdom come.
Born in Boston on March 19, 1663, Cotton was the eldest son of Increase and Maria Mather and grandson of Richard Mather, the first minister of Dorchester, and of John Cotton, probably the most learned of first-generation American theologians. Increase Mather was minister to the Second Church in Boston, agent of the colony to England, and nonresident president of Harvard College from 1685 to 1701. He was the most productive man of letters of his generation. Cotton was a partner in all his father's endeavors.
Having made remarkable progress in Latin and Greek, Cotton was admitted to Harvard at the age of 12. He had begun studying Hebrew and showed great interest in philosophy and science. He read avidly. His father conferred Cotton's first degree at the age of 16. Cotton soon took up the study of medicine and, as a young man, attended meetings organized by Increase for scientific experimentation and discussion. At 19 he received his master's degree. He was made a fellow of Harvard College in 1690 and was involved in the affairs of the college throughout his life. One of his bitterest disappointments was that he was never asked to be its president.
Disappointment and bereavement marked Cotton Mather's life. In 1686 he married Abigail Philips; they had nine children. She died in 1702. In 1703 he married the widow Mrs. Elizabeth Hubbard; they had six children. She died in 1713. His last wife, Mrs. Lydia George, whom he married in 1715, went insane. Of his fifteen children, only six lived to maturity and only two survived him. Three widowed sisters depended largely on him, and he was burdened by severe financial problems.
Overly jealous where family pride was concerned, Mather dealt rancorously with opposition. Anxiety and depression, no doubt, contributed to an already impulsive and dictatorial nature. But his was a complex temperament. He was deeply introspective. When very young he began to read Scripture daily and to develop habits of prayer. His efforts to do good works and to perfect Christian attitudes lasted a lifetime. Tireless on behalf of any worthwhile project, he was both pragmatic and susceptible to change. His early bitter denunciations of other sects later gave way to a spirit of tolerance. His will to overcome reversals can be seen in his triumph over stammering—a childhood affliction so severe that he doubted his fitness for the pulpit. By his own efforts he corrected his stammering and in 1685 was ordained at the Second Church. He served as assistant minister until his father's death in 1723, when Cotton became minister.
A Many-faceted Career
For a time the Mathers dominated the life of Massachusetts colony. When Increase went secretly to England in 1688 to plead for the restoration of the Massachusetts charter, Cotton was left not only with the spiritual leadership of the Second Church but with responsibility for heading the opposition at home to James II, specifically to his representative, Governor Edmund Andros. Cotton was a ringleader in the "Happy Revolution," as he called it, of 1689, which fortunately for the insurgents coincided with the deposition in England of James II. In 1692, after a period of provisional government by magistrates who had served under the old charter, Increase, unable to regain that charter, returned to Boston with a new charter and a new governor, Sir William Phips. Both the new charter and Governor Phips's policies proved unpopular, and from this time on the Mathers' power declined.
Witchcraft Trials at Salem
One of Sir William's first acts in office was the establishment of a court to try the suspected witches recently arrested at Salem. Mather had attempted to demonstrate the reality of spirits, particularly of the demonic, in his study Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions… (1689). Although he had urged vigorous prosecution of the devil's work, he suggested punishment milder than execution for convicted witches. Mather's approach was both theological and scientific. He separated himself from the trials per se and in fact warned the judges against "spectral evidences," but his advice went unheeded. In his Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) Mather declared his disapproval of the methods used in the trials. But while they were going on, he had registered no public protest.
Clearly, politics, as well as theology and science, determined the Mathers' role in the witchcraft controversy. At the judges' request, Cotton, apparently unwillingly, agreed to write an apologetical account of a few of the trials. Phips, after all, had been baptized by Cotton and was Increase's appointment. The Wonders of the Invisible World (1693) was followed in 1700 by a work sponsored by the Mathers' opponents, entitled More Wonders of the Invisible World. Compiled by Robert Calef, a man skeptical of and outraged by the witchcraft accusations, it contained, without Cotton's permission, his account, written in 1693, of his investigations of a girl he believed bewitched. Mather again had focused on supernatural phenomena; he had made no attempt to start a prosecution. But by 1700 popular feeling had risen against the Salem trials, and the Mathers were firmly identified both with the causes of the hysteria and with the political appointees who made the tragic judgments. Most 19th-century historians place full responsibility for the trials with Cotton Mather; Brooks Adams called the trials themselves the central moral issue of the 17th century. To modern scholars, however, both allegations seem to overstate the case.
Other Ecclesiastical Controversies
A combination of forces effected the wane of the Mathers' influence. A new breed of more liberal and catholic men gathered in the recently established Brattle Church, under the leadership of Benjamin Coleman. These, with others, secured the removal of Increase from the presidency of Harvard in 1701. The House of Representatives appointed Cotton president, but the electors of the college overruled their action and passed him by. Cotton then directed his attention to Yale. But when Yale's president, Timothy Cutler, resigned to join the Anglican Church in 1722, Cotton, apparently, refused the invitation to replace him. This was Cotton's last opportunity for high office.
During this period the Mathers saw the collapse of their scheme to bring more centralized control to individual congregations and to effect closer cooperation between Congregational and Presbyterian churches. Meanwhile in western Massachusetts age-old standards governing admission to membership in the Congregational Church were being eased by the powerful Northampton minister Solomon Stoddard. The Mathers directly challenged Stoddard but were unable to curb him. A series of revivals under Stoddard prepared the soil in the Connecticut valley for Stoddard's grandson, Jonathan Edwards, and for the coming of the Great Awakening.
Pioneer Scientist and Intellectual
Although the Mathers maintained standfast attitudes toward many cultural and ecclesiastical changes, they were in the intellectual vanguard of the Colonies. Cotton corresponded with men of learning around the world. In 1710 he was awarded a doctorate of divinity by the University of Glasgow. In 1713 he had the great honor of being elected to the Royal Society of London. He and Increase were among the first in the Colonies to advocate inoculation against smallpox and were threatened and maligned for so doing. Undismayed (even by a bomb thrown through the window of Cotton's house), the Mathers succeeded, with Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, in putting the project into effect.
Career as a Writer
Despite disfavor, Cotton's activities continued. He wrote in seven languages and also mastered the Iroquois Indian language. In his lifetime 382 of his works were published. These took many forms: history, sermons, biography, fables, books of practical piety, theological and scientific treatises, and verse. Often pedantic and heavily embellished with simile, metaphor, and learned reference, his writing could also achieve simplicity, straight-forwardness, and practicality. Mather saw instruction as the chief function of good writing and made sophisticated adaptations of style and mode to that end. He might instruct explicitly, as in the medical manual The Angel of Bethesda (1722), or by humorous indirection, as in his Political Fables (1692), written in the manner of 18th-century essayists.
In the Psalterium Americanum (1718) the versatile Mather turned his talents to translating the Psalms and adapting them to music. The unpublished Biblia Americana is an exhaustively annotated scholarly interpretation of the Bible. His Bonifacius, or Essays To Do Good (1718) makes practical prescriptions for personal piety. An immensely popular book, Benjamin Franklin called it the work that most influenced his youth. Suggestive of Franklin too is the popular science mode in such works as Mather's Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences (1684).
Probably Mather's greatest work was his Magnalia Christi Americana (1702). Primarily a history of New England, it is composed from many of Mather's other writings. The seven sections tell of the settlement of New England, the lives of its governors and ministers, and the story of Harvard College and of the Congregational Church and conclude with a treatment of "remarkable providences" and "various disturbances." The Magnalia provides a detailed and eloquent statement of the Puritan mind as it addressed itself to its historical mission in an hour of darkness, perhaps even of eclipse.
Strategies for keeping alive the reality of Christ's Judgment and of His future kingdom permeated all Mather's works. His biographies, one of Phips (1697) and another of Increase, Parentator (1724), were designed as exemplary lives of eminent men. The late work The Christian Philosopher (1721) attempts to wed the observations of the 18th-century naturalist with Christian faith in the order and purpose of the created world. Cotton was working with "modern" ideas, seeking to express them within the basic framework of Christian eschatology.
Cotton Mather outlived his father by only 5 years. Later American writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Harriet Beecher Stowe, James Russell Lowell, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow all acknowledged their debt to him.
Further Reading on Cotton Mather
A valuable introduction to Mather and representative selections from his work are in Kenneth B. Murdock, ed., Selections from Cotton Mather (1926). The best biography is Barrett Wendell, Cotton Mather: The Puritan Priest (1891; rev. ed. 1963). Ralph and Louise Boas, Cotton Mather: Keeper of the Puritan Conscience (1928), is more popular. The New England background may be found in Perry Miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (1953). Robert Middlekauff, The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals, 1596-1728 (1971), is a study in biography and intellectual history that seeks to revise the affirmative view of Puritan history taken by Miller. Recommended for its general analysis of the literature of the colonial period is Kenneth B. Murdock, Literature and Theology in Colonial New England (1949).