Cotton Mather 1663–1728
American minister, philosopher, historian, and essayist.
Cotton Mather is one of the best known Puritans in American history. Born to two distinguished Massachusetts families, he served as a prominent minister at the Old North Church in Boston, as did his father, Increase Mather, and became an influential leader in the Puritan community. His scholarship was praised in both North America and Europe; he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London; and he published more than four hundred works. These have allowed scholars a better understanding of Puritan ideology and offer a rare glimpse into the daily life of seventeenth-century America. Mather is often remembered for his role in the Salem witch trials, primarily because he lent his support to the persecution of witches. However, Mather was not a high-profile player in the trials. He never attended them and his attention to witchcraft was slight considering his many other concerns. Still, his significance to the trials lies in the fact that he was an important figure in the New England church establishment who later admitted that persecution of alleged witches was wrong.
Mather was born in Boston on 12 February 1663 to Increase Mather and Maria Cotton Mather. Both the Mather and Cotton families occupied positions of influence and prestige within the Puritan community and Mather enjoyed such privileges as a Harvard University education (AB 1678, MA 1681.) With these privileges also came responsibility; the Mathers saw themselves in a position of religious and intellectual leadership. Although he stuttered throughout his life, Mather served as minister of the Old North Church in Boston, under his more popular and charismatic father. He married three times and suffered the deaths of two wives and thirteen children—two in adulthood and nine as children. In 1688 Mather became involved in a witch trial in Boston. Long after the accused woman had confessed to witchcraft and been executed, Mather continued to work with the victims to insure their recovery and salvation. In 1692 Mather became interested in the famed witch trials in Salem, during which twenty people were executed and more than one hundred arrested. Mather publicly supported the state's
investigation into witchcraft but he warned judges to exercise caution and restraint in the prosecution of those accused. During the smallpox epidemic of 1720-21 Mather encouraged the people of Boston to be inoculated against the disease, a rare and progressive stand for the times. He never traveled beyond Massachusetts and died on 13 February 1728, five years after his father's death.
Mather published more than four hundred works during his lifetime and left many other works in manuscript form. He wrote on subjects as varied as the weather, children, drunkenness, and political reform. He published fifty-one funeral sermons, sixteen histories of New England, ten works on medicine, and ten biographies, among other works. He is best known for four works: Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), Bonifacius. An Essay Upon the Good (1710), Manuductio ad Ministerium (1726), and The Christian Philosopher (1720). In The Christian Philosopher Mather attempted to explain the connection between scripture, the teachings of God, and events in the natural world, the actions of God. In Magnalia Christi Americana, a history of Puritan America, Mather discusses his belief that the Puritans were analogous to the Israelites under Moses's leadership. The Puritans also had a covenant with God, one that had to be maintained with strict accordance to God's laws. God showed his anger and disappointment with the transgressions of the Puritans through physical acts such as storms and disease. The Devil attempted to thwart God's plans through witches. During his lifetime, Mather published two complete works, three portions of larger works, and one open letter to the governor on the subject of witchcraft. In addition, he wrote five letters, three manuscripts, and a proclamation. Mather was firm and un-apologetic in his belief that witches existed, that they were doing the work of the Devil, and that if proven guilty (preferably through their confession) they should be put to death.
Although Mather's writing on witchcraft comprises only sixteen of his more than four hundred works, it has drawn a majority of the scholarly attention. This interest began soon after Mather published The Wonders of the Invisible World (1692), an account of the witch trials. Robert Calef subsequently wrote More Wonders of the Invisible World (1700), an attack on Cotton and Increase Mather and their roles in the trials. Nineteenth-century historians, with a strong dislike for religious fervor, took up Calef's criticism of Mather, finding him to be the chief scapegoat for the witch hunts. Charles W. Upham claimed that Mather not only failed to stop the witch hunts but in fact helped orchestrate them. Upham's view, echoed by many other nineteenth-century historians, shaped popular opinion of Mather and the Puritans. However, scholars in the twentieth century have reconsidered Mather's intent and the extent to which he was involved. Like many other scholars, Richard H. Werking has argued that Mather's writings must be considered within the context of the Puritan ideology and concerns of the time. He argues that Mather tried to maintain a balance between protecting the lives of the accused and the spiritual safety of the community. A. Warren and Thomas J. Holmes have stressed the limited degree to which Mather concerned himself with witches and have argued that scholars have focused too much on Mather's connections to the trials. Warren has asserted that the witch trial was just one episode "in a busy life and scarcely touch[ed] him at center."
Military Duties, Recommended to an Artillery Company; A Their Election of Officers, in Chads-Town (nonfiction) 1687
* Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions (nonfiction) 1689
Work upon the Ark: Meditations upon the Ark as a Type of the Church (sermon) 1689
The Wonderful Works of God Commemorated: Praises Bespoke for the God of Heaven, in a Thanksgiving Sermon (sermon) 1690
The Triumphs of the Reformed Religion, in America: The Life of the Renowned John Eliot; A Person justly Famous in the Church of God, Not only as an Eminent Christian and an Excellent Minister, among the English, but also, as a Memorable Evangelist among the Indians, of New-England (biography) 1691
Preparatory Meditations upon the Day of Judgement (sermon) 1692
†The Wonders of the Invisible World: Observations as well Historical as Theological, upon the Nature, the Number, and the Operations of the Devils (nonfiction) 1692
Early Religion, Urged in a Sermon, upon the Duties Wherein, and the Reasons, Wherefore, Young People Should Become Religious (sermon) 1694
Brontologia Sacra: The Voice of the Glorious God in the Thunder Explained and Applyed (nonfiction) 1695
Johannes in Ermo: Memoirs, Relating to the Lives, of the Ever-Memorable Mr....
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SOURCE: "The Author's Defense," in Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases: 1648-1706, edited by George Lincoln Burr, 1914. Reprint by Barnes & Noble Books, 1972, pp. 210-15.
[Here, Mather defends the actions taken against those conspiring in the "Plot of the Devil against New England." His text was written in 1693.]
'Tis, as I remember, the Learned Scribonius,1 who Reports, that One of his Acquaintance, devoutly making his Prayers on the behalf of a Person molested by Evil Spirits, received from those Evil Spirits an horrible Blow over the Face: And I may my self Expect not few or small Buffetings from Evil Spirits, for the Endeavours wherewith I am now going to Encounter them. I am far from Insensible, That at this Extraordinary Time of the Devils Coming down in Great Wrath upon us, there are too many Tongues and Hearts thereby Set on Fire of Hell; that the various Opinions about the Witchcrafts which of Later Time have Troubled us, are maintained by some with so much Cloudy Fury, as if they could never be sufficiently Stated, unless written in the Liquor wherewith Witches use to write their Covenants; and that he who becomes an Author at such a Time, had need be Fenced with Iron, and the Staff of a Spear. The unaccountable Frowardness, Asperity, Untreatableness, and Inconsistency of many persons, every Day gives a Visible Exposition of that passage, An Evil Spirit from the Lord came upon...
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SOURCE: "Criticism of Cotton Mather's Life of Phips (1697)," in Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases: 1648-1706, edited by George Lincoln Burr, 1914. Reprint by Barnes & Noble Books, pp. 388-93.
[In the following excerpt, written in 1697, Calef attacks Mather's views on witchcraft.]
… Mr. C. M. having been very forward to write Books of Witchcraft, has not been so forward either to explain or defend the Doctrinal part thereof, and his belief (which he had a Years time to compose) he durst not venture so as to be copied.1 Yet in this of the Life of Sir William he sufficiently testifies his retaining that Heterodox belief, seeking by frightfull stories of the sufferings of some, and the refined sight of others, etc., P. 69 to obtrude upon the World, and confirm it in such a belief, as hitherto he either cannot or will not defend, as if the Blood already shed thereby were not sufficient.
Mr. I. Mather, in his Cases of Conscience, P. 25, tells of a Bewitched Eye, and that such can see more than others. They were certainly bewitched Eyes that could see as well shut as open, and that could see what never was, that could see the Prisoners upon the Afflicted, harming of them, when those whose Eyes were not bewitched could have sworn that they did not stir from the Bar. The Accusers are said to have suffered much by biting, P. 73. And the prints of just such a set of...
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SOURCE: "Witchcraft," in Cotton Mather: The Puritan Priest, Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1891, pp. 88-123.
[In the following excerpt, Wendell provides a detailed account of Mather's role in the witchcraft trials and surveys the author's writings on witchcraft.]
What happened in the next two years was of less consequence to New England than the matters we have been considering. To Cotton Mather, however, and to the cause which throughout his life he had most at heart,—the preservation, the restoration, of the pure polity of the fathers,—these two years were fatal. It was the great tragedy of witchcraft, I think, that finally broke the power of theocracy: it was almost surely the part Cotton Mather played in it that made his life, for the five and thirty years that were left him, a life—at least publicly—of constant, crescent failure. Tragic even if we join with those who read in the records left us no more worthy story than that of frustrated ambition, his career takes an aspect of rare tragic dignity if in his endless, undiscouraged efforts to do God's work we can honestly see what he tells us was there,—an allmastering faith that the fathers were divinely right, that all which tended away from their teaching was eternally wrong, and that his own failure meant nothing less than the failure of the kingdom of Christ in a land whither Christ's servants had come with high hopes that here, as nowhere...
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SOURCE: "Cotton Mather and His Writings on Witchcraft," in The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, Vol. 18, 1924, pp. 31-59.
[In the essay below, Holmes surveys Mather's works and contends that his writings on and role in the witchcraft trials hold a relatively minor place in his career.]
Cotton Mather's entrance into the world's annals of witchcraft, in the character in which some of our historians have portrayed him, did not come about primarily through his two major works on that subject nor through the relative importance of his witchcraft writings as compared with his other works. It came about through that inconsiderable manuscript of his concerning the comparatively insignificant "witchcraft" case of Margaret Rule, and by his contact over it with Robert Calef.
Mather opponents have tuned their fiddles to Calef's key. Many a tune have they fiddled, out of harmony with truth, respecting Cotton Mather and the witch tragedies at Salem in 1692. It therefore may not be amiss to contribute our little aid toward the correction, if that is possible, of two minor strains among those errors.
First, I would invite you to a very brief survey of Mather's works, to effect a comparison of the whole of them with that portion of his writings devoted to the subject of witchcraft. Second, I hope to indicate evidence tending to show that, however the reaction from the...
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SOURCE: "The Mather Dynasty," in Main Currents in American Thought, An Interpretation of American Literature from the Beginning to 1920: The Colonial Mind, 1620-1800, Vol. 1, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1927, pp. 99-118.
[In the following excerpt, Parrington attempts an examination of Mather's psychology and argues that the Puritan theocracy, whose virtues and glories Mather celebrated, was already crumbling when Mather was in his prime.]
… Of the unpopularity that gathered about the name of Mather after the fall of the theocracy, the larger portion fell to the lot of the son, the eccentricities of whose character made him peculiarly vulnerable to attack. In his youth the spoiled child of Boston, in middle life he was petulant and irritable, inclined to sulk when his will was crossed. In the career of no other New England Puritan is the inquisitorial pettiness of the Genevan system of theology and discipline revealed so disagreeably. The heroic qualities of an earlier age had atrophied in an atmosphere of formalism, and Boston Calvinism of the year 1690 had become a grotesque caricature of a system that in its vigor had defied the power of Rome and laid kingdoms at its feet. Embodied in Cotton Mather it was garrulous, meddlesome, scolding, an echo of dead voices, a shadow of forgotten realities. The common provincialism had laid its blight upon it. The horizons of the New England imagination...
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SOURCE: "The Devil and Cotton Mather," in The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Inquiry into the Salem Witch Trials, Alfred A. Knopf, 1949, pp. 240-57.
[In the excerpt below, Starkey explores Mather's role in the Salem witch trials.]
What had actually been accomplished on the spiritual plane by the wholesale jail delivery of 1693 was a point which at the time could only be described as moot. In spite of the relief which many communities felt at the lifting of the nightmare, the eagerness with which husbands welcomed back their witches, repenting that they had ever distrusted them, people farther removed from the scene could look on the whole process as a monstrous miscarriage of justice, boding no good to the future of Massachusetts. These agreed with Stoughton, "We were in a way to have cleared the land of the witches…. Who it is that obstructs the course of justice I know not."
It was true that some of the most obvious symptoms of witchcraft were disappearing. Little was heard from the afflicted girls once the jail delivery got under way. Though logically the return of so many witches to civilian life should have afflicted them even unto death, none of the girls did die; they remained well enough. A few, notably Mary Walcott and Elizabeth Booth, presently settled down and got married. Some of the others, still manless, and apparently at a loss how to put...
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SOURCE: "Verbal Patterns in Cotton Mather's Magnalia," in The Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. XLVII, No. 4, December, 1961, pp. 402-13.
[In the essay below, Manierre focuses on the Magnalia in his analysis of Mather's writing style and suggests some of the consequences of "appropriating to the written language techniques apparently more suited to the spoken."]
In 1702, at the age of thirty-nine. Cotton Mather, champion of Puritan orthodoxy ("Puritan Priest," Barrett Wendell called him), third and last of Boston's great ministerial triumvirate of Mather,1 indefatigable preacher of sermons, most prolific of all American writers and a conscious stylist in all that he wrote, enjoyed, after more than four years of nervous anticipation, his first sight of the published version of his masterpiece, the monumental church history of New England, the Magnalia Christi Americana.2 In this vast work, which covers in seven books the settlement of New England, the lives of its governors and ministers, the establishment of its college, the codification of its theological principles and ecclesiastical practices, and concludes with a record of divine mercies vouchsafed and of dangers overcome, Mather chants a sustained paean to the virtues of "primitive" New England and of its founding saints. His purpose was to create a moral renaissance in a "backsliding" generation. The...
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SOURCE: "New England Epic: Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana," in ELH, Vol. 33, No. 3, September, 1966, pp. 337-50.
[In the essay below, Bercovitch describes Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana as a metaphoric account of life in Puritan New England and compares the work to those of Vergil and John Milton.]
On July 4, 1700, in the solitude of his diary, the heir to the dispossessed dynasty of Puritan New England lamented the emergence of a new era in America. "I saw, to my Sorrow," he wrote,
that there was hardly any but my Father, and myself, to appear in Defence of our invaded Churches. Wherefore I thought I must cry mightily unto the Lord, that He would mercifully direct my feeble, but faithful, Endeavors in an evil Generation.
I also thought, that since it be the Purpose of Heaven that the Apostasy shall go on [I] may be in danger of a Stroke from the Angel of Death, that so a Way may be made for the Anger of God. Hereupon, the Lord sent into my Spirit a Sweet Meditation and Consolation that my Life shall the rather be prolonged; and my Name shall be the more precious [to posterity].1
The Lord did not, on this occasion, deceive His feeble but faithful servant. Cotton Mather lived twenty-eight years longer into the yankee apostasy, and the...
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SOURCE: "Essays to Do Good for the Glory of God: Cotton Mather's Bonifacius" in The American Puritan Imagination: Essays in Revaluation, edited by Sacvan Bercovitch, Cambridge University Press, 1974, pp. 139-55.
[In the essay below, Levin examines the themes of Mather's Bonifacius, also known as Essays to Do Good, and argues that the book is historically relevant to an understanding of American philosophers and reformers of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Levin's essay was first published in 1966.]
Bonifacius—usually known by its running title, Essays to Do Good—has always had a better reputation than the author who published it anonymously in 1710. It is Cotton Mather's historical fate to be considered largely as a transitional figure whose prodigious but narrow mind stretched inadequately between the zealous founding of the Bible Commonwealth and the enlightened struggle for the Republic. His efforts to retain the old Puritan values along with the old Puritan power have tended to diminish him in contrast to the giants who had first established that power in Boston. His advanced ideas on medicine, botany, education, philanthropy, and family discipline look like minor departures from reactionary principles when they are set beside the beliefs of eighteenth-century secular thinkers.
The habit of viewing Mather in the shadow of...
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SOURCE: "Cotton Mather: A Pathetic Plutarch," in A Loss of Mastery: Puritan Historians in Colonial America, University of California Press, 1966, pp. 53-87.
[In the following excerpt, Gay examines Mather's Magnalia Christi Amricana and argues that it has played a significant role in shaping modern views on Puritan New England.]
The Founding Fathers of New England had written their histories under the pressure of great events, with all the passionate immediacy of the participant. But by the 1660's, their day was over. William Bradford died in 1657; Edward Winslow had preceded him by two years, John Winthrop by eight. Edward Johnson lived on to 1672, but after publishing his Wonder-Working Providence of Sions Saviour in New England—that naive military bulletin reporting Christ's victories against Satan in America—he allowed his official duties to engross his time, and wrote no more.
They had all been devout chroniclers, looking up to heaven as their dearest country, but significantly they had all been laymen, public servants who composed their annals from a found of political experience. The generation of historians that took their place were all clerics. They were scarcely less active in public affairs than the statesmen who had preceded them, and no more fanatical, but as the appointed guardians of the Puritan conscience, they turned the...
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SOURCE: "Cotton Mather Revisited," in Massachusetts Studies in English, Vol. I, No. 2, Fall, 1967, pp. 30-8.
[In the essay below, Duffy reviews Mather's treatment by historians and argues that modern scholars should reconsider the unattractive stereotype that has prevailed.]
One may rummage around among the characters of American history for a good long time without finding a figure who has been so badly treated as Cotton Mather, that old New England puritan divine about whom Barrett Wendell said, "There is still good ground for believing that it was a good man they buried on Copp's Hill one February day in the year 1728."1 But those who have written about Cotton Mather during the past one hundred years have cut that good ground right out from under him in what might almost appear to be a conspiracy of unkindness or even malice. But in his own time, the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Cotton Mather was, as a puritan minister, a man of great force and influence. In and around Boston during his lifetime, no event of importance could occur without his participation, opposition, or considered acquiescence: when the Royal governor, Edmund Andros, was deposed in 1689, Cotton Mather led the rebellion; when the new governor, William Phips, was inaugurated in 1691, he led the prayers. In all this he was loved and admired, feared and respected by his contemporaries at home and honored...
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SOURCE: "Reformation Is Our Only Preservation': Cotton Mather and Salem Witchcraft," in The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, April, 1972, pp. 281-90.
[In the following essay, Werking discusses Mather's role in a Boston witchcraft case of 1688 and explores the role Mather sought to play in the "Puritan mission in late seventeenth-century Massachusetts. "]
Accounts of Cotton Mather's connection with the Salem witchcraft episode are hardly new. From Robert Calef's denunciations of the younger Mather in the 1690s to Chadwick Hansen's efforts in the 1960s to vindicate him, historians have expended considerable effort either attacking or defending his behavior in the Salem affair.1 Charles W. Upham, politician and Unitarian minister at Salem in the mid-nineteenth century, was particularly vociferous in his attacks on the Puritan clergy in general and Cotton Mather in particular. He accused Mather of "getting up" the Salem tragedy by publicizing a case of witchcraft that occurred in Boston in 1688; attempting to revive the matter after the Salem trials had ended by zealously and credulously attempting to cure persons allegedly victimized by witches; urging the magistrates to continue the prosecution of witches when he drafted the advice of the clergy to the judges; and failing to put forth effort to stop the witch trials, instead writing an exoneration of the judges in October 1692....
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SOURCE: "Cotton Mather," in Major Writers of Early American Literature, edited by Everett Emerson, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1972, pp. 93-150.
[In the excerpt below, Bercovitch discusses Mather's ideas on piety and science as expressed in Bonifacius and The Christian Philosopher.]
… Throw a stone into the stream, and the circles that propagate themselves are the beautiful type of all influence.
To interpret Mather's shifts of perspective as a slackening of Puritan principles overlooks his meaning; much less should we read them as a covert capitulation to Arminianism or as a conscious transition from piety to moralism. Undoubtedly, they were so adapted later in the eighteenth century, but we ought not to burden the author with the sins of his readers. He held adamantly to Orthodox Calvinism, the system erected by the master's Swiss, Dutch, and English disciples, which, despite basic modifications, built upon the notions of man's depravity and impotency. A year before his death, Mather denounced the Arminians as vigorously as had his grandfathers. Deism he regarded as a front organization for the atheist conspiracy. He respected the intellect, like the earlier Puritans, as a dignified but decisively limited faculty. With his father, he supported the Half-Way Covenant because he...
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SOURCE: "Cotton Mather and the Puritan Transition into the Enlightenment," in Early American Literature, Vol. VII, No. 3, Winter, 1973, pp. 213-24.
[In the following essay, Vartanian argues that Mather was able to rectify his ideas on piety and the relationship between God and reason with the teachings of the Enlightenment, including the concept of a mechanistic world.]
Caught by the more spectacular public drama of colonial America's "progress" from darkness to enlightenment—a transition as remarkable as the Enlightenment itself—historians have slighted the unprecedented ease with which many Puritans privately stepped across the threshold. Historians, failing to recognize the ease of this accommodation, have sought to explain that larger cultural transition in terms of conflict. Additionally, reading late-nineteenth-century issues back into the eighteenth century has artificially dramatized the tensions between secular and clerical thought over the relationship between religion and science. Though tensions did exist, they were more subtle, for the Puritan clergy had performed a positive role in the transition to the Enlightenment.1
In certain respects, the problem is complicated by our understanding of Enlightenment and Puritan thought. While each style had its pronounced contours, neither intellectual mode was static; consequently, orthodox Puritan thought is as difficult...
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SOURCE: "Cotton Mather," in The Devil Discovered: Salem Witchcraft 1692, Hippocrene Books, 1991, pp. 37-55.
[In the following excerpt, Robinson compares the actions of Increase Mather to those of his son Cotton Mather during the witch trials.]
… The year 1692 had opened as a particularly troubling one in New England. The winter was cruel;26 taxes were intolerable; pirates were attacking commerce; smallpox was rife. The French were actively supporting the Indians on a bloody warpath.
The armies of the French and the Indians represented a lethal threat to the people of New England. King William's War had been going on for three and a half years. Morale was low, tension high, in the wake of periodic massacres by the Indians. While the heaviest fighting occurred in New Hampshire and Maine, raids had repeatedly been made on the northern towns of Essex County in Massachusetts, Andover, Billerica, and Haverhill, in particular. New England towns were hard pressed to support the war with their tax money and their young men.
On January 25, 1692 one hundred fifty Abanaki Indians attacked "wretchedly secure" York, Maine, fifty miles northeast of Salem. Most of the houses were burned, and the minister and seventy-five other men, women, and children were killed. About one hundred were marched off into captivity. The Rev. George Burroughs, the minister at neighboring...
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Cole, Franklin P. "Cotton Mather (1663-1728)." In Mather Books & Portraits Through Six Early American Generations 1630-1831, pp. 104-68. Portland, Ma.: Casco Printing Company, 1978.
Biographical overview of Mather's life and career.
Wood, James Playsted. The Admirable Cotton Mather. New York: Seabury Press, 1971, 164 p.
Overview of Mather's life and career with one chapter devoted to Mather's role in the Salem witch trials. Wood argues that despite evidence to the contrary, "the myth of [Mather's] responsibility for the cruel purge … has been happily accepted even by those who should know better."
Bercovitch, Sacvan. "The Genetics of Salvation." In The American Jeremiad, pp. 86-92. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.
Describes the Magnalia Christi Americana as the "epitome of the seventeenth-century jeremiad" because of its "sevenfold division" and the "self-conscious isolation of the author from his audience."
Boas, Ralph and Louis Boas. Cotton Mather: Keeper of the Puritan Conscience. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1964, 271 p.
Examines Mather's ideas and place in Puritan society. In...
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