Increase Mather

Increase Mather (1639-1723), American colonial representative, president of Harvard College, and author, was the most prominent member of the second generation in Massachusetts colony.

Born in Dorchester, Mass., where his father was first minister, Increase Mather was educated at home and at Boston's free school. Taking his bachelor of arts degree from Harvard (1656), he studied and preached in England and Ireland. He received his master of arts in 1658 from Trinity College, Dublin. Returning to Boston, he married Maria Cotton, daughter of John Cotton, in 1662. They had 10 children; the eldest, Cotton, was his lifetime aid. In 1664 Increase became teacher of the Second Church, which he served until his death.

Increase Mather went to England in 1688 to negotiate restoration of the colonial charter, revoked by James II. Failing in this, he returned with a charter that nullified the colonists' right to elect their governors but preserved the power of the representative assembly elected by voters. Disappointed colonists felt that he had conceded too much.

Mather believed that New England was a nation in covenant with God, preparing to witness the day when Christ comes to judge the world and establish His kingdom. He preached that only a chaste and obedient people would enter the kingdom. This sense of New England's mission determined his stand on many questions. The voice of orthodoxy, Mather finally accepted the Halfway Covenant, a compromise admitting children of unconverted second-generation Puritans to a kind of partial membership in the Congregational Church. However, a proposal architected by Mather and others in England for the cooperation of Presbyterian and Congregational churches and the tightening of centralized control over individual congregations failed.

Although Mather took no part in the Salem witchcraft trials, he had chosen the governor, Sir William Phips, who was responsible for them. In Cases of Conscience concerning Evil Spirits (1693), Mather's opposition to some of the trial procedures led Phips to close the trials. Yet Increase and Cotton Mather were implicated by their researches into demonology and their association with Phips. The Mathers' enemies used the trials to discredit them.

The worst defeat, at least for Cotton, was Increase's removal from the Harvard College presidency in 1701. Gradually Increase Mather turned more of his energy to writing. He published 130 books. Direct and simple in style, his theological work is often, in its way, scientific. He pioneered in science, organizing a society for scientific discussions and successfully introducing smallpox inoculation into the colony.


Further Reading on Increase Mather

Cotton Mather's Parentator (1724; rev. ed. 1970) is a life of his father. The definitive work on Increase Mather is Kenneth B. Murdock, Increase Mather: The Foremost American Puritan (1925). He is discussed in Robert Middlekauff, The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals, 1596-1728 (1971). A thorough account of the New England background and the issues surrounding the Mathers is in Perry Miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (1953).