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Cotton Mather was a Puritan minister and historian who became well-known in his time because of his role in the Salem witch trials. He wrote prodigiously and produced nearly five hundred volumes of sermons, theological treatises, histories, philosophical speculations, biographies, and meditations.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Prominent Puritan Family
Mather was born in Boston on February 12, 1663, into a family whose energies and genius were the backbone of New England Puritanism. His grandfathers, Richard Mather and John Cotton, directed the enthusiasm of the first-generation colonists and in many ways forged the Puritan mindset of New England. Mather’s early education was in the classical tradition, and he was educated at Boston Latin School and Harvard College. A melancholy child, he suffered from a stammer that plagued him throughout his life as a minister. He was apparently never very popular with his peers at school or with his congregations, and he was thought by many to be pedantic and self-righteous.
In 1685 Mather, following in the footsteps of his father, Increase Mather, became minister of Boston’s Old North Church, a position he held for forty-three years, until his death in 1728. All of the Mathers are identified with New England Puritanism and its harsher doctrines, but Increase and Cotton Mather were unusually enlightened colonists and were responsible for the acceptance of the smallpox vaccination in New England when it was introduced in the early eighteenth century. Mather was married three times, and he was the father of a large family of children, most of whom died, the victims of disease or other tragedies, before him. He lived a full and varied life and was hardly, in an intellectual or historical context, either a biblical fundamentalist or a pulpit-thumping revivalist.
An Active Public Life, A Difficult Personal Life
Though not as politically involved as his grandfathers or his father, Mather was constantly active. He was a strong political advocate of Massachusetts governor William Phips. Mather lost power and prestige when Phips died in 1695. His fitful but productive interest in scientific experiment led to an honorary degree from the University of Aberdeen (1710) and to fellowship in the Royal Society of London (1713); it also prompted his defense of the smallpox inoculation, an opinion that seems enlightened by current standards but that was unpopular at the time among doctors because of their belief that it did more harm than good.
Mather’s life was filled with good works—pastoral care of the flock of his Boston church, responsibilities as husband and father, and constant attention to and engagement in the political and social development of New England. But, his ultimate good work, in his own estimation, was his writing. Voluminous and uneven, this ”good work” is surprisingly varied. Although a large proportion of Mather’s writing is theological in nature, a substantial part of it can be loosely described as historical, and some of it was overtly scientific.
Mather’s personal life was strained when he lost his first wife, Abigail, in 1702 and his second, Elizabeth, in 1713. His third wife, Lydia, became mentally unbalanced. Of his fifteen children, nine died while very young and only two survived him. All too often he was the minister presiding at the funerals of his own wives and children. As if these losses were not enough, three sisters who had lost their husbands became financially dependent on him. Despite his tragic personal life, he was a prolific author and possessed a powerful mind, especially as a historian. His public career was often successful when his personal suffering was the greatest.
Salem Witch Trials
Mather is perhaps best known for his involvement in the Salem witch trials, which took place during the 1690s. Mather was initially a believer in witchcraft, and when the trials began, he wrote a letter to one of the judges, a member of his church, urging them to consider ”spectral evidence” (reports of dreams and visions) and to consider the confessions of witches as the best evidence of witchcraft. After a number of executions, based largely on confessions, some of the accused witches began recanting their testimony, and Mather himself began to have doubts about the legitimacy of the trials. He changed his position on the use of spectral evidence and in later life turned away from his belief in the supernatural power of witches. Although he had played an important early role in the trials, he was able to distance himself from the proceedings and later was seen as an opponent of the entire affair. After the trials were over, he wrote The Wonders of the Invisible World (1693), a study of the trials, their effects, and the implications of evidence introduced in the trial of a witch. While warning the world of the dangers of judging too hastily and condemning witches without sufficient evidence, the book nevertheless reflected Mather’s consistent belief that the Massachusetts Bay Colony authorities should be allowed to deal with what he considered the very real presence of witchcraft.
During his later life, Mather produced one of his most important published books, The Christian Philosopher (1721), an example of Mather’s scientific writing that exhibited the beginnings of American scientific and philosophical liberalism. In this work, Mather attempted to reconcile revelation in scripture—the truth as the Puritans had known it—with the new truths being found in the natural world by scientific investigators. In this book, Mather displayed a knowledge of contemporary astronomy, quoting such sources as Derham’s Astro-Theology (1715) and papers published as Philosophical Transactions in London in 1705-1707. He also used classification systems that appear in Newton’s Principia (1687), so it is clear that Mather was well versed in contemporary science, and that his interest was more profound than that of a theologian simply attempting to bolster the tenets of his faith with idly gathered scientific facts.
Dark Later Years, Smallpox Vaccination Effort, and Death
Mather continued writing throughout his later years, but his personal life was clouded by tragedy and a general fall from prominence. He lost influence in the church, his congregation shrank, several of his children died (including his favorite daughter Katherine), and his third wife went mad. During a smallpox epidemic in 1721, Mather tried in vain to institute a program of widespread public inoculations, but his plan was fiercely attacked. He nevertheless successfully inoculated his own son and wrote and published an account of it. Mather died and was buried in Boston in 1728.
Works in Literary Context
Mather lived much of his life in the shadow of his illustrious father, with whom he shared the pulpit of the Old North Church. Unlike his father, he was never to be chosen the president of Harvard College, but his reputation today exceeds that of his father, perhaps because he wrote so voluminously, having published more than four hundred works during his lifetime and leaving large volumes of work in manuscript, such as the learned and lengthy ”Biblia Americana,” a translation of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew with full annotation and commentary that fills several folio volumes. A citizen of the world and man of his time, Mather was always considered a leading intellectual in New England and Europe.
Like other Puritan historians, Mather considered his own time comparable to the period in Old Testament history in which the Israelites broke free of their enslavement by the Egyptians and set off in search of the Promised Land. In Puritan metaphor, the Puritans themselves are likened to the Israelites, England is likened to Egypt, and Puritan leaders William Bradford, John Winthrop, and even the Mathers themselves are likened to Moses. The New England Puritans made a metaphor out of nearly every experience they had. Thus, the suffering of the Israelites on their journey through the wilderness became a paradigm for the Puritans’ arduous crossing of the Atlantic, and like the ancient Israelites, the Puritans were moving in a linear fashion from Babylon, the earthly and corrupt city, to the ”City on a Hill,” Jerusalem, or the City of God. Ultimately, they were destined for the Heavenly City, for which the earthly ”City on a Hill” was but a preparation. Both the ”Biblia Americana” and the Magnalia Christi Americana reflect this pattern of history, and both are saturated with the symbolic analogies drawn between ancient Israel and the New England Puritan migrations of the first and second generations.
History and Christian Theology
Mather, like most of his Puritan contemporaries, perceived the history of the world as a divine drama, in which the eternal conflict between good and evil was continuously being worked out. Mather’s strengths and weaknesses as a historian, then, emanate from his conviction that he knew how everything would turn out. Most Christian belief systems share the idea of an omnipotent and all-powerful Divine Providence that irresistibly works out its design in the world, but the idea of predestination—that God has already worked out all of human history—was a particular viewpoint of the radical Calvinism that was accepted by such New England Puritans as Mather. The notion of predestination greatly influenced Mather’s historical works.
Works in Critical Context
Much modern opinion about Cotton Mather has tended to condemn him and reduce his writings to a narrow Puritan perspective. As a result, biographies of him are often argumentative in nature, with many of the older versions being openly sympathetic, often defensively so. Most criticism of what Mather wrote has been directed exclusively to the limitations of his religious beliefs. Others, however, have noted that such criticism misses what is most important in Mather’s work—the incredibly rich record of the events and personalities central to the New England colonial experience and of one participant’s pious and often pained reaction to it. Perry Miller’s observations in The New England Mind (1953) sparked a modern revision that has tended to treat Mather more objectively, and David Levin has argued that in emphasizing the ”Puritan limitations” of our early historians we may blind ourselves to what is best in them. As the Dictionary of Literary Biography notes, ”Cotton Mather is, then, a historian of narrow but significant interest, whose work must be approached with care.”
- Beall, Otho T., Jr. and Richard Shryock. Cotton Mather: First Significant Figure in American Medicine. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins Press, 1954.
- Emerson, Everett. Major Writers of Early American Literature. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1972.
- Gay, Peter. A Loss of Mastery: Puritan Historians in Colonial America. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1966.
- Heimert, Alan, ed. Cotton Mather: the Puritan Priest. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963.
- Levin, David. Cotton Mather. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978.
- Levy, Babette. Cotton Mather. Boston: Twayne, 1979. Middlekauf, Robert. The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals, 1596-1728. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
- Miller, Perry. The New England Mind: From Colony to Province. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953.
- Sibley, John. Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University, volume 3. Cambridge, Mass.:Charles William Sever, 1885.
- Ziff, Larzer. Puritanism in America: New Culture in a New World. New York: Viking, 1973.
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