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.
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). □
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Born: March 19, 1663
Died: February 13, 1728
American historian and clergyman
Cotton Mather was a Puritan (a member of a group that broke away from the Church of England in the sixteenth and seventeenth century) preacher, historian (recorder of events and culture of the times), and the youngest man to graduate from Harvard College. Of the third generation of a New England founding family, he is popularly associated with the Salem witchcraft trials (1692–93; trials that took place in Salem, Massachusetts, in which nineteen women were accused, tried, and executed and several others imprisoned for what juries determined was witchcraft).
Early life and education
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, on March 19, 1663, Cotton Mather was the eldest son of Increase and Maria Mather and the grandson of Richard Mather, the first minister of Dorchester, Massachusetts, and of John Cotton, probably the most learned of first-generation American theologians (a specialist in the study of faith and religion). Cotton's father, 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. Cotton knew he was expected by both his parents to follow in his father's footsteps. That tall order prompted him to be a very serious child whose fear of failing showed up in a stutter when he spoke. It took Cotton years of practice and prayer to overcome this speech problem.
Cotton Mather, having made remarkable progress under his father's training, was admitted to Harvard College at the age of twelve. He had begun studying Hebrew and showed great interest in philosophy (the study of knowledge) and science. His father presented Mather's first degree at the age of sixteen. Mather soon took up the study of medicine and, as a young man, attended meetings organized by Increase for scientific experimentation and discussion. At nineteen 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 grief 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 adulthood and only two outlived him. Three widowed sisters depended largely on him, and he was burdened by severe money problems.
Anxiety and depression contributed to Mather's already impossibly high expectations of himself. But he was a deep thinker. When very young he began to read the Bible daily and to develop habits of prayer. His efforts to do good work and to achieve Christian attitudes lasted a lifetime. His early bitter criticisms of other churches later gave way to a spirit of acceptance. In 1685 Mather was ordained at the Second Church. He served as assistant minister until his father's death in 1723, when Mather became minister.
Witchcraft Trials at Salem
One of Massachusetts governor Sir William Phips's (1651–1695) first acts in office was the establishment of a court to try the suspected witches recently arrested at Salem, Massachusetts. Mather had attempted to show the reality of spirits (bodiless, but sometimes visible supernatural beings, ghosts), particularly evil spirits, in his study Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions … (1689). Although he had urged strong punishment of the devil's work, he suggested much milder punishment than death for those found to be guilty of witchcraft (the use of magic). Mather's approach was both religious and scientific. He separated himself from the trials as such and in fact warned the judges against "spectral [ghostlike] evidences," but his advice went unheard. 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 not entered public protest.
Other church controversies
A combination of forces diminished Increase and Cotton Mather's influence. A new breed of more open-minded men gathered in the recently established Brattle Church. These, with others, made sure of the removal of Increase from the presidency of Harvard in 1701. The House of Representatives appointed Cotton president, but the voting members of the college overruled their action and passed him by. Cotton then directed his attention to Yale College. But when Yale's president resigned, Cotton, apparently, refused the invitation to replace him. This was Cotton's last opportunity for high office.
Pioneer scientist and intellectual
Although the Mathers maintained clear but hard attitudes toward many cultural and church changes, they were in the intellectual front line of the Colonies. Cotton regularly wrote letters to men of learning around the world. In 1710 he was awarded a doctorate of divinity (highest degree awarded for study of in this case Christianity) by the University of Glasgow (Scotland). 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 support vaccinations against smallpox (very contagious disease giving a person sores on the skin, usually fatal) and were threatened for so doing. With courage (even though a bomb was thrown through the window of Cotton's house), the Mathers, with Dr. Zabdiel Boylston (1679–1766), successfully put the project into effect.
Career as a writer
Despite unpopularity, Mather's activities continued. He wrote in seven languages and also mastered the Iroquois Indian language. In his lifetime three hundred eighty-two of his works were published. These took many forms: history, sermons, biography, fables, books of practical faith, religious and scientific essays, and poetry. Often very educational, his writing could also be straightforward and practical. Mather saw teaching as the main job of good writing.
In the Psalterium Americanum (1718) the talented Mather translated the Psalms and adapted them to music. His Bonifacius, or Essays To Do Good (1718) gave practical directions for personal faith. A very popular book, Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) called it the work that most guided his youth.
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. The Magnalia provides a detailed statement of the Puritan mind.
Decline of power
Cotton Mather recorded the passing of an era. The Massachusetts Bay Colony had been an extreme, 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. 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 made the people's interest in church lessen. American-born colonists turned to nature and to reason for the sources of their new identity.
Cotton Mather outlived his father by only five years, dying on February 13, 1728, in Boston. Later American writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), Henry Thoreau (1817–1862), Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896), James Russell Lowell (1819–1891), Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864), and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) all acknowledged their debt to him.
For More Information
Levin, David. Cotton Mather: The Young Life of the Lord's Remembrancer, 1663-1703. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.
Lutz, Norma Jean. Cotton Mather. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2000.
Silverman, Kenneth. The Life and Times of Cotton Mather. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.
Wendell, Barrett. Cotton Mather. New York: Chelsea House, 1980.
"Mather, Cotton." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mather-cotton
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Mather, Cotton (1663-1728)
Cotton Mather (1663-1728)
Clergyman and physician
Mather Family. Cotton Mather was born at a time when Boston was the capital of American science. Cotton’s father, Increase Mather, was a leader of the scientific community. A historian of note and leading Boston clergyman, Increase Mather adopted the new scientific ideas coming from Europe in the 1600s. Influenced by Francis Bacon and Robert Hooke, Increase Mather incorporated scientific ideas into his Sunday sermons. He tried to counter superstition with realistic explanations about comets and the nature of the universe. Newton’s Comet of 1680 in particular inspired Increase Mather’s interest in astronomy. Acting upon his scientific interests, Mather organized the Philosophical Club of Boston in 1683. One of the members was twenty-year-old Cotton Mather.
Christian Philosopher. Cotton Mather’s life and work illustrate two sides of early American science. As a Congregational clergyman and a firm believer in divine revelation and miracles, Mather accepted some very unscientific notions, such as the power of witchcraft. His first publication was an analysis of the validity of the story of Noah’s Ark. Mather firmly believed in the literal truth of the Bible and in God’s constant providence at work in world affairs. At the same time, Mather was one of the leading American scientists of the early eighteenth century. He became a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1713. He read and praised the work of such European scientists as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. Mather believed that the study of science could teach humans about God. Natural phenomena were “second causes” to God, the First Cause. “There is not a Fly,” Mather wrote in 1690, “but what would confute an Atheist ”. In 1721 Mather’s philosophy about religion and science appeared in The Christian Philosopher. Mather argued that everything in the universe had a reason and a purpose. The universe glorified the wisdom of its Creator, who with perfect thrift and economy created only necessary things. Everything in God’s kingdom was essential.
Medical Knowledge. Mather had broad scientific interests. He wrote on fossils, astronomy, mathematics, zoology, entomology, ornithology, and botany. Medicine particularly interested him. Like other clergymen, Mather studied and practiced medicine as an amateur. He was the foremost advocate of smallpox inoculation in America. His interest was perhaps due to the terrible toll the disease had wrought on his own life: two of his children and his wife succumbed to it. Indeed, only two of Mather’s fifteen children survived him. In his autobiography Mather explained his attraction to medicine as owing to hypochondria. As a teenager he read widely in medical literature, which spurred his mind into imagining upon himself the symptoms of dread diseases. As the years passed, Mather became interested in the causes and cures of mental illness, measles, scurvy, fevers, and of course smallpox.
Angel of Bethesda. In 1724 Mather wrote a learned medical treatise, The Angel of Bethesda. In this book Mather argued that disease resulted from sin: there was a clear connection between the mind and the body. He provided a sympathetic appraisal of mental illness and discussed techniques of psychotherapy. He prescribed prayer as a means of combating illness. Otherwise the book was an extensive clinical description of diseases, modes of prevention, and cures. Mather also discussed in detail the theory, then debated in Europe but not well known in America, that microorganisms (germs) were causal agents in disease. Notwithstanding his religious views, Cotton Mather was clearly one of the great scientists of colonial America.
Otho Beall and Richard Shryock, Cotton Mather: First Significant Figure in American Medicine (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1954);
George Daniels, Science in American Society: A Social History (New York: Knopf, 1971).
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Cotton Mather (măŧħ´ər), 1663–1728, American Puritan clergyman and writer, b. Boston, grad. Harvard (B.A., 1678; M.A., 1681); son of Increase Mather and grandson of Richard Mather and of John Cotton. He was ordained (1685) and became a colleague of his father at North Church, Boston, serving as pastor in his father's absences and after his father's death (1723). It was principally by his indefatigable writing that he became one of the most celebrated of all New England Puritan ministers. He was a scholar of parts, working industriously to gather a library and volubly setting forth what he learned. Thus his Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) is a miscellany of materials on the ecclesiastical history of New England, vaguely intended to show how the history of Massachusetts demonstrated the working of God's will. His theological writings, now largely forgotten, had great influence in his time. He was a power in the state as well as in the church, was a leader in the revolt against the rule of Sir Edmund Andros and an adviser in Sir William Phips's government. Today he is generally pictured unsympathetically as the archetype of the narrow, intolerant, severe Puritan, and his part in the Salem witch trials in 1692 is often recalled. Although he did not approve of all the trials, he had helped to stir up the wave of hysterical fear by his Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions (1689). Later he further pursued his inquiries into satanic possession with Wonders of the Invisible World (1693, new ed. 1956), which was sharply answered by Robert Calef. Even Mather's benevolence—expressed in his actions and reflected in his writings, as in Essays to Do Good (1710)—had a core of smugness. Yet he helped to forward learning and education and to make New England a cultural center. He was disappointed in his hopes of being president of Harvard but was one of the moving spirits in the founding of Yale. He was deeply interested in science and was the first native-born American to be a fellow of the Royal Society. He persuaded Zabdiel Boylston to inoculate against smallpox and supported the unpopular inoculation even when his life was threatened.
See biographies by B. Wendell (1891, repr. 1963), R. P. Boas and L. Boas (1928, repr. 1964), and K. Silverman (1985); studies by R. Middlekauff (1971) and J. P. Wood (1971); bibliography by T. J. Holmes (3 vol., 1940).
"Mather, Cotton." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mather-cotton
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"Mather, Cotton." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mather-cotton
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