MATHER FAMILY . Members of three successive generations of the Mather family were Puritan ministers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in New England: Richard (1596–1669), Increase (1629–1723), and Cotton (1663–1728). Each achieved fame as a preacher and writer, and collectively they exerted a formative influence on the religious life of colonial America.
Richard Mather, who was born in Lowton, near Liverpool, matriculated at Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1618 but studied there for only a few months. He was preaching at Toxteth Park when, late in 1633, he was removed from the pulpit. His offenses are not known, although they were doubtless ecclesiastical; he did not conform to the practices of the Church of England in all ways. He and his family then immigrated to Massachusetts Bay, arriving in mid-August 1635. The people of Dorchester, Massachusetts, after failing to organize a church in April 1636, succeeded in August of that year, and Mather was immediately called to the church as its teacher.
In the pulpit in Dorchester, Mather served quietly and faithfully. Although in most ways he probably resembled most Puritan ministers of his time in Massachusetts Bay Colony, in several notable accomplishments he differed. He published defenses of the "New England Way," as the church polity of the Bay Colony was called; he helped to write the Cambridge Platform (1648) defining ecclesiastical polity; he contributed to the definition of Puritan baptismal practice in the so-called Halfway Covenant (1662); and he served as an overseer of Harvard College.
Increase Mather, sixth son of Richard, was the outstanding minister of his generation. Born in Dorchester, he entered Harvard College when he was twelve years of age; after graduation he went to Ireland, where he took an M.A. at Trinity College, Dublin. Preaching followed at Torrington in Devonshire, to the garrison on Guernsey, and in Gloucester. However, his heterodox opinions made life in England dangerous for him after the Restoration, so in 1661 he returned to New England. There he was soon asked by the Second Church in Boston (Boston North Church) to fill its pulpit.
Increase Mather spent his life expounding the "New England Way." He was not an innovator in religion; like his father he defended nonseparating Congregationalism. But Increase Mather was a much more imaginative man than his father and a more passionate one. The Puritan vision of New England as a redemptive society was one of the passions of his life. He saw his American homeland as the one place on earth where true church polity might be established and the Protestant Reformation completed. The defense of New England carried him to England a second time shortly after the Glorious Revolution. He returned with a charter that protected much of the colony's—and its Congregational churches'—autonomy. Increase Mather's other achievements were varied: he acted as president of Harvard College; he wrote about science, especially astronomy; he advised governors; he helped to halt the persecution of those accused in the Salem witchcraft episode; and he preached and published on New England Christianity.
Cotton Mather was the first of Increase Mather's nine children. Although he never left New England, his visible achievements outnumbered those of his father. After a brilliant performance at Harvard College (A.B., 1678), Cotton Mather was ordained a minister in his father's church in 1685; the two served there together until Increase Mather's death almost forty years later. In 1689, while his father was in England securing a new charter for the colony, Cotton Mather played an important role in the expulsion of Sir Edmund Andros, governor of Massachusetts and head of the Dominion of New England. He also supported the witchcraft trials in Salem in 1692, although he was uneasy and had reservations about the proceedings.
Most of Cotton Mather's life was not spent in public affairs. He was a scholar of great learning and power and an immensely successful preacher. His learning extended to almost all fields of knowledge, although theology was the subject he knew most profoundly. Cotton Mather wrote histories, the greatest being his Magnalia Christi Americana (London, 1702), biographies (many first appearing in sermon form), scientific treatises, practical guides to medicine, prophetical works, and guides to conduct for the young, for sailors, and for almost every other order of society; most of his works, however, were sermons. He preached a "practical divinity," filled with exhortation and advice on the Christian life. Many of his sermons were intended to convert his listeners; others provided solace and nourishment to believers. Much of his work remains in manuscript, including "The Biblia Americana," his massive commentary on the scriptures.
Like his father, Cotton Mather was obsessed with the history and the future of New England. His great hope was that the second coming of Christ would take place in his lifetime and that New England would in reality prove to be the site of the New Jerusalem. He never surrendered his faith in the Congregationalism of his country, but he did come to preach an ecumenism embodied in his conception of a Christian Union, a worldwide league of believers. Cotton Mather earned a reputation in his day as a splendid preacher and scholar, but he was also widely disliked for the excesses of his style and expression. Despite his pride in his family and his attainments, he died feeling unappreciated and, to some extent, unfulfilled.
The standard bibliographies of the works of the Mathers are those edited by Thomas J. Holmes: The Minor Mathers: A List of Their Works (Cambridge, Mass., 1940), for Richard Mather; Increase Mather: A Bibliography of His Works, 2 vols. (Cleveland, 1931); and Cotton Mather: A Bibliography of His Works, 3 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1940). Useful studies of the Mathers include Kenneth Murlock's Increase Mather: The Foremost American Puritan (Cambridge, Mass., 1926), my own The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals, 1596–1728 (New York, 1971), and Kenneth Silverman's The Life and Times of Cotton Mather (New York, 1984).
Robert Middlekauff (1987)