Mather, Cotton (1663–1728)

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Cotton Mather, scholar, clergyman, and author, was the oldest son of Increase Mather, one of the leading figures in the Puritan theocracy in Massachusetts. The younger Mather was so precocious that he entered Harvard College at the age of twelve and was graduated at fifteen. Because he stammered, he felt unqualified to preach and therefore began to study medicine. After a few years, however, he overcame his speech handicap and became the assistant to his father at the Second Church, Boston. Ordained in 1685, he remained in the service of the Second Church for the rest of his life.

Mather was disappointed in many of the major quests of his life. Partly because he associated himself politically with the unpopular royal governor, Sir William Phips, partly because of the diminished prestige of the Puritan clergy, and partly because of his own often unpleasant personal qualities he lost the power to wield significant influence in public affairs. When he greatly desired to succeed his father, who retired in 1701 as president of Harvard College, he was not selected. Convinced that Harvard no longer represented the true Calvinist faith, he threw himself energetically into the foundation of Yale College, but its presidency was not offered to him until 1721, when he declined the position because of his age.

Mather's intellectual attitudes during his earlier years were extremely narrow, for he moved within the confines of a strict Puritan worldview; later, however, he became more tolerant of the differing beliefs of others. Finally, especially in his Christian Philosopher (1721), he moved close to the natural religion characteristic of the Age of Reason. He interpreted the theological doctrine of divine Providence in philosophical terms by asserting that the order of the universe was planned for man's good by an all-wise, all-good God. Man's appreciation of natural Beauty and his application of reason to observations drawn from nature are sufficient to prove the existence and beneficence of God. His scientific communications to the Royal Society of London led to his election as a fellow in 1713, one of the first Americans to be so honored. He was one of the earliest in the colonies to advocate inoculation against smallpox, and he ably defended his position in several pamphlets. The change in his mental attitude thus epitomizes the alteration in the intellectual life that pervaded his milieu.

Nowhere is this duality more apparent than in Mather's involvement in the witchcraft epidemic in Salem. He attempted to make a "scientific" study of the cases, but he came to the conclusion that they could be treated by prayer and fasting. He warned the judges in witchcraft trials to proceed very cautiously against the suspects and to be particularly careful in admitting "spectral evidence," yet in his Wonders of the Invisible World (1693) he argued that the verdicts in the Salem trials were justified. By 1700, however, he changed his mind about the fairness of the trials. In regard to the suspicion of witchcraft, as in other respects, Mather stood uneasily between traditional faith and the new scientific outlook.

See also Philosophy of Religion, History of; Scientific Method.


Mather's most important works (of more than 450 published) are Magnalia Christi Americana, or the Ecclesiastical History of New England (London, 1702); Essays to Do Good (Boston, 1710; originally titled Bonifacius, Boston, 1710); and Christian Philosopher (London: E. Matthews, 1721). Kenneth B. Murdock has edited, with introduction and notes, Selections from Cotton Mather (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1926; new ed., 1960).

Discussion of Mather may be found in Ralph P. and Louise Boas, Cotton Mather, Keeper of the Puritan Conscience (New York and London: Harper, 1928); Barrett Wendell, Cotton Mather, the Puritan Priest (New York: Dodd Mead, 1891; new ed., with introduction by Alan Heimert, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1963); and Otho T. Beall and Richard Shryock, Cotton Mather, First Significant Figure in American Medicine (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1954).

other recommended works

An Edition of Paterna, Cotton Mather's Previously Unpublished Autobiography, Complete, with Introduction and Notes. Edited by Ronald A. Bosco. Diss., University of Maryland, 1975.

Diary of Cotton Mather. Salem, MA: Higginson, 1997.

Mather Microfilm: Part I, The Papers of Cotton Mather. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1973.

The Papers of Cotton Mather. Boston, MA: Massachusetts Historical Society; Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 1981.

Paterna: The Autobiography of Cotton Mather. Delmar, NY: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1976.

Scheick, William J., ed. Two Mather Biographies: Life and Death and Parentator. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1989.

Selected Letters of Cotton Mather. Compiled with commentary by Kenneth Silverman. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971.

The Witchcraft Delusion in New England; Its Rise, Progress, and Termination, as Exhibited by Dr. Cotton Mather in The Wonders of the Invisible World, and by Mr. Robert Calef in His More Wonders of the Invisible World. Compiled by Samuel Gardner Drake. New York: B. Franklin, 1970.

J. L. Blau (1967)

Bibliography updated by Michael J. Farmer (2005)

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Mather, Cotton (1663–1728)

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