What is an analysis of Cotton Mather's "The Wonders of the Invisible Word"?

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Cotton Mather was a famous preacher, Puritan minister, and author who is best known for his justification of the 1692 Salem witch trials. His Wonders of the Invisible World, published in 1693, showcases just how insular and extreme the New England religious communities had become by the end of the seventeenth century. In general, the Puritan outlook can be understood simply by examining the word "Puritan." Puritans intended to “purify” what they believed was a perversion of the theological principles of the Church of England by establishing colonies in the New World that would serve as moral paragons that Old World believers would be inspired by. They were therefore adamant about weeding out and exterminating any act of heresy and any indication of the Devil’s work that might pollute the purity of their message.

The paranoia many Puritan followers felt regarding the intrusion of the Devil into the daily happenings of their community is apparent in Mather’s address. For Mather, the machinations of the Devil had been carried out by witches, who, he believed, had proliferated throughout the small pious town of Salem. As he attests,

An army of devils is horribly broke in upon the place which is the center, and after a sort, the first-born of our English settlements: and the houses of the good people there are filled with the doleful shrieks of their children and servants, tormented by invisible hands, with tortures altogether preternatural.

That the hands which have caused such havoc are “invisible” reinforces, both in Mather’s mind and to the fanatically religious Puritan commonperson, that an unseen force was threatening the sanctity of their community and that extreme measures must be taken. This fear materialized in the trial and forced confession of a large number of Salem witches, including Martha Carrier, whose case Mather uses to exemplify the situation at large. More fundamentally, the pacing, tone, and sense of urgency in Mather’s writing characterizes the narrow, reactionary worldview that many Puritan townspeople of this era maintained. Puritanism was a religion that demanded the utmost piety and rigidity in the conduct of one’s daily affairs. Any action that may have seemed out of place could be taken to be sacrilegious and a sign of the Devil at work.

Something else that Mather’s recollection of Carrier’s case makes evident is the unimpressive quality of evidence that was adequate to convict a person of witchcraft. Mather recalls, for example, that

the look of Carrier then laid the afflicted people for dead; and her touch, if her eye at the same time were off them, raised them again.

In Mather's view, Martha Carrier's fear-inducing gaze stands as sufficient evidence to prove that she was indeed possessed by the Devil. In Puritan society, one can be renounced simply through circumstantial evidence and superstition. Mather concludes his essay by referring to Carrier as a “rampant hag” and suggesting that the Devil had promised to make her the Queen of the Hebrews (further implying her un-Christian character). Wonders of the Invisible World is an extremely telling, if unfortunate, window into the religious superstition and prejudice of seventeenth-century Puritan New England.

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Cotton Mather's 1693 defense of the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, The Wonders of the Invisible World: Observations as Well Historical as Theological, upon the Nature, the Number, and the Operations of the Devils demonstrates his desire to preserve Puritan orthodoxy and assure the faithful that the courts' decisions were correct. He shares his conviction that Satan and his earthly followers continue to actively work to topple Christianity and take over New England's places of worship.

Early in the essay, Mather compares New England before the arrival of the Puritans to the "devil's territories," and he claims that Satan was "exceedingly disturbed" with their settlements. This provides a background as to why the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and Salem in particular, would be the setting for a conflict between the devil and those who came to new England to build the "city on the hill" that God wanted, to quote John Winthrop's famous speech.

Mather includes excerpts taken from transcripts from a half dozen of the trials, which he had not attended. He manages to both endorse the need for the trials and the legitimacy of the convictions while stopping short of endorsing torture to glean confessions and the admission of spectral evidence. By including the testimony of the faithful against their neighbors, Mather builds credibility for the accusations and subsequent executions.

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Cotton Mather, a colonial Massachusetts Puritan preacher and writer on theology, did not actually attend the witchcraft trials in Salem. Nevertheless, about a year after they concluded, he felt morally compelled to defend both the accusations and the trials in writing. He believed that there was a real danger that witchcraft, if left unchecked, “would probably blow up and pull down all the churches in the country.”

To Christian people of the time, the devil was very real, and, in the different forms he assumed, he would convince people to do his bidding: “demons might impose the shapes of innocent persons in their spectral exhibitions upon the sufferers.” Thus, the people who confessed to witchcraft had been led astray by the devil to aid him “in his hellish design of bewitching and ruining our land.” Mather believed that the varied manifestations of Satan constituted “an army of devils . . . [that had] horribly broke in upon” Salem.

Mather wanted people to realize that the situation had been dire and that the prosecutors had had no choice but to kill the people infected in order to extirpate the evil. He uses vivid language to impress dreadful images on the reader.

[T]he houses of the good people there [Salem] are filled with the doleful shrieks of their children and servants, tormented by invisible hands, with tortures altogether preternatural. After the mischiefs there endeavored, and since in part conquered, the terrible plague of evil angels has made its progress into some other places . . .

In warning them that the “terrible plague” has already spread to other places, Mather sets the stage for the continued prosecution of witches wherever they might be detected, as a Christian duty that no one should shirk.

Mather was well aware that critics had accused the prosecutors of going too far, and he recommended caution, but only to a certain point. It would be inevitable that some innocents might be ensnared, he said, for that was the devil’s doing, but to refrain from catching and punishing the witches would be even worse and would endanger the public at large.

Have there been faults on any side fallen into? Surely, they have at worst been but the faults of a well-meaning Ignorance. On every side then, why should not we endeavour with amicable Correspondencies, to help one another out of the Snares wherein the Devil would involve us? To wrangle the Devil out of the Country, will be truly a New Experiment.

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Published in 1693, The Wonders of the Invisible World is Cotton Mather’s understandings of the Salem Witch Trials. Ultimately, the writing defends his position and the dangers he believes that witches pose to the colonies. Mather often cites Saducismus Triumphatus by Joseph Glanvill as evidence of the existence and threat of witches. Mather writes with a certain amount of Puritanical paranoia. He expresses great fear that witches are everywhere and that they have a direct connection to the devil. He fears that the settlers are at risk of being overthrown by witches. While Mather attempts to position himself as an unbiased observer of the trials, it is clear throughout that he believes witches are a direct threat. In every trial he records in the book, he provides no defense of the presumed witches. This was common of the time, as often those on trial were given no opportunity to defend themselves.

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While the Salem Witch Trials may be the ones most people have at least some familiarity with, in actuality, “witches” had been condemned for hundred of years. Thousands of people thought to be in cahoots with the devil were executed in Europe. Although men were sometimes found guilty, most of those who died were women, and the majority of those women were elderly. (It has been argued that these women were targeted because they were a drain on resources, as it was up to the community to provide for them, as most were either widowed or unmarried.)

Sadly, it was not just a few crazy people who believed in witches and witchcraft. The truth is that most early modern people believed in both. The way people became witches (or warlocks), the thinking went, was to sign a pact with the devil.

What makes Salem unique is the kind of “proof” that was admissible in court. For the first time in trials of this kind, it was permissible (even encouraged) to provide “spectral” evidence. Spectral evidence came from witnesses for the prosecution who claimed that the defendants tortured them in their dreams or in waking visions. In addition, torturing the accused to obtain a confession was also given sanction.

Another reason for the travesty of the Salem Witch Trials is due to the type of government, a theocracy, in Massachusetts at the time. A “theocracy” is a government that claims to operate under a divine rule. However, while many governments might say they are theocracies, what truly makes a government of this type is when its leaders actually believe that they are ruled and instructed by a divinity.

It was under these conditions that Cotton Mather, the popular and influential Puritan preacher, penned one of his most famous works, “The Wonders of the Invisible Word.”

Through this work, the preacher seeks to justify the outcome of the trials. Mather writes: “I can do no other than shortly relate the chief Matters of Fact, which occurr'd in the Tryals of some that were Executed, in an Abridgment Collected out of the Court-Papers on this occasion put into my hands”

Stylistically, Mather employs plain language (words anyone could understand). There are very few artistic flourishes here. For Mather, it was the “facts” and just the facts: no flowery language, no embellishment. “I report matters not as an advocate, but as an historian,” the preacher argues. The problem, as is painfully evident in Mather’s “truthful” account, is the complete lack of transcripts from the defenses of the accused; what the reader of these accounts is left with is solely the prosecutorial side of the evidence.

Aside from his assertion that he is simply the recorder of the facts of the trials, Mather had an additional reason for penning “The Wonders of the Invisible World” -- to absolve himself from liability in the gruesome proceedings. He makes it clear to the audience that while he does not disagree with the court’s rulings, “I was not present at any of them; not ever had I any personal prejudice at the persons those brought to the stage.”

Regardless of his lack of personal involvement, Mather honestly appears to feel witchcraft to be a true threat to the community: “An army of devils is horribly broke in upon the place which is the center, and after a sort, the first-born of our English settlements,” he warns. Further, Mather argues that Satan’s ultimate goal is to “overturn this poor plantation, the Puritan colony.” He seems to have sincerely believed that punishing witches would secure God’s grace.

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