Increase Mather

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Mather, Increase

From Remarkable Providences (1684)

Reprinted in Major Problems in American
Colonial History in 1993

Edited by Karen O. Kupperman

In 1684 the prominent Boston minister Increase Mather (1639–1723) wrote An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences, the first work published in the American colonies on the subject of witchcraft. Most commonly referred to as Remarkable Providences, it was also the document that helped spark the witch-hunts in New England. Mather was the son of Richard Mather, an English Puritan minister who settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635. Increase was born in 1639, his unusual name a product of an era of religious fervor, when Puritans gave their children religiously significant names. "Increase" refers to the belief that God increased his favor for the world by sending his son, Jesus of Nazareth, to save sinners. In 1663, Increase had a son whom he named Cotton after his father-in-law, John Cotton. Cotton Mather (see biography and primary source entries) also became a prominent minister in Boston. Increase Mather served as president of Harvard College from 1685 to 1701.

The early government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, called the General Court, was based on the laws of the Old Testament (the first part of the Bible, the Christian holy book). Only men who were church members had the right to vote. The government, simply put, was a small group of men making decisions for everyone else. Within this group, Increase Mather and Cotton Mather enjoyed the highest positions of power. By 1684, however, the English Crown had taken away the New England colonies' right to govern themselves and appointed Sir Edmund Andros (1637–1714), an English governor, to rule over them. The Puritans did not like Andros, and after the Glorious Revolution and fall of King James II (1633–1701) in 1688–89, Andros was removed from office. The New England colonies fell into a period of unrest, and Increase Mather went to England in an effort to obtain a new charter (contract granting the right to form a government).

Glorious Revolution: a political rebellion in Britian in which King James II, a Catholic, was replaced by Protestant monarchs William III and Mary II.

The following excerpt from Remarkable Providences describes events in the case of Ann Cole from Hartford, Connecticut. Described as a pious woman overtaken by the spirit of the devil, Cole was the victim of visions, hysterics, and bodily possession. She identified a husband and wife, along with several others, as being the witches responsible for her bewitchment. The husband and wife were executed, while the others fled for their lives. An interesting element of this account is that two people were subjected to the water test. It was a popular belief at the time that witches would float in water, rather than sink like "non-witches." To determine whether the two suspects were witches, they were bound and thrown into the water, only to half sink and half swim. It is noted that a bystander, who suggested that anyone bound in such a way would float, was himself tied up and put into the water. He sunk straight to the bottom. While floating was not used as evidence against the two accused witches, they decided to flee for their lives. They were never seen again.

Things to remember while reading Remarkable Providences:

  • Mather's purpose in writing Remarkable Providences was that he feared the Puritans were becoming too interested in science ence, commercialism, and individualism, and were therefore forgetting the importance of their religious beliefs.
  • Those who had held onto Puritan ideals felt that King Philip's War (1675–76), a bloody conflict with the Native Americans, and recent smallpox epidemics were judgments from God upon the moral decline in New England. Remarkable Providences was meant to serve as a graphic reminder of the evil forces at work in the colonies. After hearing about numerous incidents of witchcraft, Mather was inspired to compile this record of eyewitness accounts.
  • Like all Puritans, Mather believed that the colonies were a battleground of good and evil, and that evil was winning. He also believed Remarkable Providences would provide the proof.

From Remarkable Providences

Inasmuch as things arepreternatural, and not accomplished withoutdiabolical operation, do more rarely happen, it is a pity but that they should be observed. Several accidents of that kind have happened in New England, which shall here faithfully relate, so far as I have been able to come unto the knowledge of them.

preternatural: beyond what is normal

diabolical: devilish or satanic

providence: the control and protection of God

piety: religious devotion

integrity: honesty

esteemed: respected as

daemon: demon

fawn: a baby deer

affrighted: frightened

carnal knowledge: to know someone sexually

concurrent: at the same time

Very remarkable was thatProvidence wherein Ann Cole of Hartford in New England was concerned. She was, and is accounted, a person of realpiety andintegrity; nevertheless, in the year 1662, then living in her fathers house (who has likewise beenesteemed a godly man), she was taken with very strange fits, wherein her tongue was improved by adaemon to express things which she herself knew nothing of . . . she likewise declared, that the devil first appeared to her in the form of a deer orfawn, skipping about her, wherewith she was not muchaffrighted, and that by degrees he became very familiar, and at last would talk with her; moreover, she said that the devil had frequently thecarnal knowledge of her body; and that the witches had meetings at a place not far from her house; and that some appeared in one shape, and others in another; and one came flying amongst them in the shape of a crow. Upon this confession, with the otherconcurrent evidence, the woman was executed; so likewise was her husband, though he did notacknowledge himself guilty.Other persons accused in the discourse made their escape. Thus doth the devil use to serve his clients. After the suspected witches were eitherexecuted or fled, Ann Cole was restored to health, and has continued well for many years, approving herself a serious Christian. There were some that had a mind to try whether the stories of witches not being able to sink under water were true; and accordingly a man and woman, mentioned in Ann Cole's Dutch-toneddiscourse, had their hands and feet tyed, and so were cast into the water, and they both apparently swam after the manner of abuoy, part under, part above the water. A by-stander, imagining that any person bound in thatposture would so born up, offered himself for trial; but being in the like manner gently laid on the water, he immediately sunk right down. This was no legalevidence against the suspected persons, nor were theyproceeded against on any such account; however, doubting that an halter wouldchoak them, though the waters would not, they very fairly took their flight, not having been seen in that part of the world since. Whether thisexperiment were lawful, or rather superstitious and magical, we shallenquire afterwards.

acknowledge: recognize

executed: killed as a punishment for a crime

discourse: conversation

buoy: float

posture: position

evidence: proof

proceeded against: prosecuted in court

choak: choke

experiment: scientific test

enquire: also inquire; find out

What happened next . . .

While Mather had supported the witch-hunts and resulting trials, by 1693 he had had a drastic change of heart. Mather was not alone in reversing his position. Many other leaders, such as minister Samuel Willard—an early advocate of the trials who, ironically, was accused of witchcraft himself—realized the accusations were ridiculous. Using his political influence and position as head of the Ministerial Association, Mather waited to speak out until the Salem trials had been suspended at the end of the summer. He called the judges and governor together, knowing that they would listen to him. He had not officially expressed his views since writing Remarkable Providences, in which he had supported the judges' decisions. Seeing that random accusations were sending people to jail—and many to their deaths—with little or no "evidence" against them, Mather called for a halt to the executions. He presented his new work, entitled Cases of Conscience, on October 3, 1693. In it he called into question the decisions and the lack of Christian charity (goodwill) exercised by the juries in the Salem trials, noting that without overwhelming proof the courts should not have handed down death sentences. Mather called the trials a mistake and urged others to see the error of their ways. Cases of Conscience was instrumental in bringing the executions to an end. Within five months, all accused "witches" were set free and the executions were stopped.

The Fortress of Dumbarton

There is a legend recorded as early as the year 388 b.c.that tells the story of a group of witches that were pursuing Saint Patrick near Glasgow, Scotland, to punish him for offending the devil with his holiness. The tale has Patrick jumping into a small boat on the Clyde River and escaping to Ireland, while the witches stood angrily on the banks, unable to cross into the water. Supposedly, they were so mad that they pulled the top off one of the nearby hills and tried to hurl it at the saint as he made his escape. However, their strength and aim were so poor that the hilltop fell right to the ground, forming a boulder that was later turned into a fortress (the Fortress of Dumbarton).

Did you know . . .

  • While the water test for witchcraft was supposed to determine whether one was guilty of being a witch, the accused often found the test deadly regardless of the findings. Many of the tests involved the accused being bound (legs and hands tied), and sometimes being placed in a bag that had been tied at the end, before being tossed into the water. Unfortunately, if the accused was fortunate enough to float, they were "guilty" of being a witch. If they sank, they were found innocent, but often drowned before anyone could get them out of the water.
  • Legend says that witches are also unable to cross running water, such as in a stream, river, or brook (see box)

For Further Study

Demos, John Putnam. Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Discovery Online—A Village Possessed: A True Story of Witchcraft. (Accessed July 7, 2000).

Hansen, Chadwick. Witchcraft at Salem. New York: George Braziller, 1969.

Kupperman, Karen O., ed. Major Problems in American Colonial History. New York: Heath, 1993.

Sharpe, C. K. A History of Witchcraft in Scotland. Glasgow: Thomas D. Morison, 1884.

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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

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). □

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Mather, Increase (1639-1723) and Cotton(1662-1728)

Father and son, two eminent divines of Boston, Massachusetts. The Mathers were among the first to respond to the wave of skepticism that assaulted Christianity at the end of the seventeenth century and emerged in the next century as Deism. Deism denied the possibility of human contact with what had traditionally been thought of as the supernatural. Both of the Mathers wrote books offering evidence of contact with the spiritual world as an apologetic for Christian faith.

Part of their understanding of the supernatural was supernatural evil. Witchcraft, which they equated with Satanism, was one major form taken by supernatural evil, and they saw evidence of witchcraft both among the Native Americans and members of the Boston urban community. This caused them to be seen as believers in the existence of widespread witchcraft throughout New England. Though counseling some degree of caution, especially in responding to the unsupported accounts of people claiming to be afflicted by a witch, they were early supporters of the inquiries at Salem Village (now Danvers), Massachusetts, in 1692. In fact, Increase Mather had chosen the governor, Sir William Phips, who was partly responsible for the Salem Witchcraft trials. However, as the trials proceeded, Cotton Mather especially became one of the strong forces arguing against the litigation. His personal visit with the governor was of great effect in this endeavor.

In the years immediately after the trials, as the people of Massachusetts came to see the error of what had occurred, the Mathers were accused by some of the more skeptical voices in the community, such as Robert Calef, as the real cause of the colony's disgrace. Only in the twentieth century, with the massive reevaluation of the whole of the witchcraft phenomenon in New England, has the Mathers' reputation been somewhat put into a more balanced perspective.


Calef, Robert. More Wonders of the Invisible World; or, The Wonders of the Invisible World Display'd in Five Parts. London, 1700.

Mather, Cotton. Memorable Provinces, Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions. Boston, 1689.

. The Wonders of the Invisible World. Observations as Well Historical as Theological, upon the Nature, the Number, and the Operations of the Devil. Boston: Benjamin Harris, 1693.

Mather, Increase. Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Provinces. Boston, 1684.

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Increase Mather, 1639–1723, American Puritan clergyman, b. Dorchester, Mass.; son of Richard Mather. After graduation (1656) from Harvard, he studied at Trinity College, Dublin (M.A., 1658), and preached in England and Guernsey until the Restoration. After returning to Massachusetts (1661), he became (1664) pastor of North Church, Boston, and retained that position through his life. Cotton Mather, his son and colleague, cooperated with him in many of the affairs that occupied their busy lives. They were outstanding upholders of the old Puritan theocracy and of the established order in church and state. This conservatism led to trouble with the government during the Restoration period, and Increase Mather was a particularly bitter opponent of Edward Randolph and Sir Edmund Andros over the withdrawal of the Massachusetts charter and the conduct of the royal government. In 1688 he went to England to present the grievances of Massachusetts, and, after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the subsequent revolt in Massachusetts against Andros, he obtained a new charter that united Plymouth Colony with Massachusetts Bay Colony. Increase Mather looked with favor on the government of Sir William Phips. After 1692 his influence declined somewhat, but he remained powerful to the end. He was president of Harvard College (1685–1701), but he was inactive and spent little time in Cambridge. His writing reflected the concerns of his career. Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits (1693), appearing soon after the Salem witch furor, denounced "spectral evidence" in witch trials. He also wrote a biography of his father (1670); A History of the War with the Indians (1676), written just after King Philip's War; and Remarkable Providences (1684), based on an earlier work by other writers.

See biography by K. B. Murdock (1925, repr. 1966); study by R. Middlekauff (1971); bibliography by T. J. Holmes (1931).

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Mather, Increase (1639–1723) Puritan minister in colonial Massachusetts. A powerful influence on political and religious life in the colonies, he went to England (1688–91) to renegotiate the charter of Massachusetts. He doubted the reliability of testimony at the Salem witch trials, and his Cases of Conscience (1693) helped to stop the executions.