Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2540
Article abstract: Devoted to God and to learning, Mather provided a distinctively American perspective to European thought and sought to reconcile New England Puritanism with the intellectual trends of his day.
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Cotton Mather was born February 12, 1663, in Boston, Massachusetts. He was the eldest son of Increase Mather, a rising Boston preacher, and the grandson of Richard Mather and John Cotton, generally regarded as the spiritual fathers of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Destined to follow his father and grandfathers into the ministry, Cotton was a child prodigy. He was patiently but rigorously tutored by his father, attended Boston Grammar School, and entered Harvard College at eleven (the youngest student ever to matriculate there). He received his bachelor’s degree in 1678 and master’s degree in 1681. After assisting his father for five years as a ministerial candidate, Cotton was ordained and became the second pastor at the Old North Church in 1685.
By both parentage and education, Cotton Mather was thoroughly prepared for the Puritan ministry. The precocious lad did, however, encounter special trials and tribulations. The Puritan tradition weighed heavily upon him, and the expectations of his overly protective father were at best a mixed blessing. In fact, Increase Mather, though a loving father in many ways, was a melancholy man whose aloof behavior may have increased the anxiety of his conscientious son. As a young boy, Cotton developed a serious stammer which threatened his potential as a cleric. After much prayer and practice, he learned to control the stuttering, but it would return periodically throughout his life, abruptly reminding him of his own fallibility. Hardly more than a child as a Harvard freshman, he was at times viciously teased by the older students; his famous name and obvious stammer made him a likely target for bullies. He nevertheless loved Harvard, becoming a fellow of the college in 1690, and he yearned to serve as its president, as his father had done for a few years. His hopes were to be dashed, though, for both Harvard and Massachusetts were moving away from the conservative theology of the Mathers.
By the time of his ordination, Mather had largely overcome his stuttering and was widely known as an eloquent and scholarly young preacher. He was also following in his father’s footsteps as counselor to the government and prophet to the people. Father and son made common cause against Governor Edmund Andros and the Dominion of New England over which he ruled. In 1689, while Increase carried the protest to London, Cotton remained in Boston and joined with other provincial leaders who took advantage of the Glorious Revolution in England to jail Andros and overturn the Dominion. Three years later, Mather became embroiled in the witchcraft trials at Salem. He believed in witches and wrote several pamphlets defending the introduction of such spectral evidence as dreams and visions in the judicial proceedings. Although he was more of an observer than an instigator, his defense of the prosecutions was criticized at the time and vigorously denounced by historians ever since. After all, more than 150 persons were jailed and mistreated as accused witches and nineteen persons were executed. Indeed, the negative historical image of Mather as the learned but bigoted and superstitious Puritan preacher is based squarely upon his inglorious involvement in the pathetic witchcraft controversy.
While establishing himself as a preacher, Mather was anxious to begin his own family. He was reportedly a handsome young man, and the portraits painted of him in later life suggest the bright eyes, the pleasant and expressive face, and the genial personality of the young parson who dressed in style and elegance and pointedly defended the wearing of perukes. For a clergyman with limited income, the taking of a wife was especially important. He married at twenty-three, finding a good and loving wife in Abigail Phillips and a measure of economic security in her prosperous father. Mather took great joy and satisfaction in his family, but he also experienced the heartbreak that only a loving father and husband could know. Five of the nine children Abigail bore died very young, and Abigail herself died of consumption in 1702. Only thirty-nine years old, Mather married again, taking to wife a young widow, Elizabeth Clark, who gave birth to six more children. By 1713, Elizabeth was dead, and so were four of her children. Mather was a warm and affectionate man who loved his wives and his children dearly and found consolation and fulfillment in his family.
Cotton Mather was first and foremost a preacher calling his generation back to the religious traditions of the Puritan fathers. Yet, for all of his essential conservatism, Mather was not nearly as inflexible as his critics have claimed. In fact, he recognized that if Puritanism were to be revived in the minds and hearts of the people, it would have to reach an accommodation with the increasingly secular trends of his own day. He saw himself as a peacemaker, and time and time again, he tried to reconcile antagonistic views, usually finding himself blamed by all sides. In fact, his involvement in the witchcraft trials was an effort to define more precisely the legal status of controversial spectral evidence. A few years later, he sought to unite Congregationalists and Presbyterians against Anglican pretensions and found himself bitterly denounced by other Congregationalists for his ecumenical endeavors. Similarly, he first tried to moderate before outrightly opposing the Presbyterian ideas of Solomon Stoddard in the Connecticut Valley and Benjamin Colman at Boston’s Brattle Street Church.
Mather was a prolific writer who felt compelled to address a multitude of issues. He gained a reputation throughout the Colonies as the most learned man in America; his library of several thousand volumes indicated the breadth of his interest. He wrote more than four hundred works that were published and left scores of unpublished manuscripts. Much of what he produced was sermonic or homiletic, instructing others on the way to the godly life. He also wrote philosophical discourses, however, as well as historical and biographical essays, medical and scientific treatises, and hymns. His intellectual curiosity knew no bounds. He corresponded widely with learned men in Europe and America on astronomy, zoology, geology, and meteorology. He was constantly sending specimens of plants and animals to his friends abroad. Undoubtedly, his best work was Magnalia Christi Americana: Or, The Ecclesiastical History of New-England (1702), which told the story of New England, its people, and its landscape from the early English migrations to his own time. Mather gained an international reputation for his scholarly endeavors. In 1710, the University of Glasglow awarded him a doctor of divinity degree. Three years later, he was made a fellow of the prestigious Royal Society of London.
Mather wrote so broadly because he wanted to explain God’s grand design both in the natural world and in human relationships. He also found release and comfort in his writing as he tried to cope with mounting problems. There were the deaths of his two wives, his father, and thirteen children; only two of his children survived him. His third wife, Lydia Lee George, whom he married in 1715, was neurotic and brought him much despair. His political influence, which had been considerable under Governors William Phips and William Stoughton, almost disappeared as he found it difficult to get along with Governor Joseph Dudley, who held power from 1702 to 1715. His relations with Harvard College also declined during the presidency of John Leverett, whom Mather regarded as more Anglican than Puritan. He played an important role in establishing Yale in 1716, even serving for a time as its rector, but he expected to be named Leverett’s successor at Harvard in 1723 and was bitterly disappointed when the presidency was offered to others instead, including his rival, Benjamin Colman. To make matters worse, Mather faced maddening economic problems involving the estate of his second wife’s deceased husband, and he had to deal with numerous petty quarrels and divisions within his own congregation.
Mather responded to adversity by resolving to return good deeds for the evil done him. He was influenced to do so by the writings of European pietists, particularly John Arndt and August Hermann Francke. His resolution to do good inspired numerous essays and books, including Bonifacious: An Essay upon the Good (1710). According to Kenneth Silverman, his best biographer, the latter work signaled Mather’s shift intellectually and religiously away “from the supernatural to the civic, from New England to the World, from regeneration to progress.” Doing good also meant writing the Christian Philosopher (1721), the first book in general science written in Colonial America. It meant defying public opinion and advocating inoculation against smallpox during the terrible epidemic of 1721-1722. Indeed, whether sending “Curiosa Americanna” to the Royal Society or writing manuals for young preachers, Mather was driven by his desire to do good in all things. He was thus driven in deed and scholarship until his death on February 13, 1728.
Following the example of his father, Cotton Mather was both a preacher and a scholar, with preaching always coming first. In Puritan life, the preacher was counselor as well as prophet, charged with guarding the sacred past, interpreting the troubled present, and obtaining divine guidance for the uncertain future. Increase Mather had filled all these roles, and his son was bound and determined to do the same. It was harder for the son because Massachusetts was growing more secular and less dependent on its ministers. Indeed, Cotton Mather himself was a complex mixture of faith and reason. He bridged the considerable gap that separated the religious seventeenth century from the rationalistic eighteenth. His triumphs and tribulations were directly related to the precarious position he occupied between the Puritan past and the secular future. He wittingly and unwittingly played a significant role in the transition from one era to the next.
Lurking behind the rise and decline of Cotton Mather were economic and intellectual forces which transformed the world he had known as a child. The Puritan vision of society, that City upon a Hill, was gone; even Mather recognized that as he embraced a limited ecumenism. Indeed, many of his problems sprang from the latent resentment against the Puritan ministry that was coming to the fore during his adult years. It played a subtle role in the antics of children thought to be possessed by demons, the disruption of congregations, and the further fractionalizing of politics. Mather intuitively grasped the shift to the secular, even if he did not approve of or fully understand it. Through his prolific writing, he sought to reconcile the Puritan past with the coming Age of Reason. He ultimately failed but enjoyed considerable recognition for his efforts, especially in Europe. He wanted others to carry on and had great hope for his younger son Samuel, who shared his father’s love for learning and joined him in the ministry. During his last three years of life, despite failing health, he threw himself into his work, publishing thirty-nine titles on every major aspect of the ministry. He wanted desperately to leave a lasting legacy in order to instruct his son and other young pastors in the New England way.
Historians have not dealt kindly with Cotton Mather. Indeed, his historical image has ebbed and flowed with that of Puritanism generally. Until the mid-twentieth century, historians tended to perpetuate a caricature that took on mythic proportions. The Mather of legendary fame became a symbol of all that democratic, tolerant, reasonable, and individualistic Americans did not want to become. A complex man was transformed into a national gargoyle, threatening vaguely from the unenlightened past. Yet in reality, Mather was the very essence of the America of his times and place. He strove mightily—and with considerable success—to interject his New England perspective into the major intellectual movements of Europe. As Kenneth Silverman puts it, “no other person born in America between the time of Columbus and of Franklin strove to make himself so conspicuous—strove, more accurately, to become conspicuous as an American.” Unlike his father, he never had any desire to live anywhere but Boston. He was “the first unmistakably American figure in the nation’s history.” That judicious assessment of Cotton Mather, when everything else is said and done, is the one that tells most about the man and his mission.
Beall, Otho T., Jr., and Richard Shryock. Cotton Mather: First Significant Figure in American Medicine. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1954. Important in the rehabilitation of Mather’s historical image, this work makes it clear that Mather contributed significantly to medical investigations. It demonstrates his advanced thinking on the germ theory and inoculation and contains twelve chapters from his manuscript, “The Angel of Bethesda,” a much-neglected classic.
Boas, Ralph Philip, and Louis Boas. Cotton Mather, Keeper of the Puritan Conscience. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1928. An interesting account filled with quotations from Mather’s diary and correspondence, it does illuminate his life and times. Draws upon Freudian psychology to explain Mather’s so-called neurotic character, reaching conclusions unwarranted by the facts. Still makes for fascinating reading.
Levy, Babette M. Cotton Mather. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979. Written for college students, this small book is a fine introduction to Mather. It presents the many sides of his active intellect, focusing on his most prominent writings. Mather’s accomplishments are given their just due, but his driving ambition and occasional pettiness are also recognized.
Middlekauff, Robert. The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals, 1596-1728. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. A superb intellectual biography of Richard, Increase, and Cotton Mather. It goes a long way toward correcting the conventional view of Cotton Mather as a learned bigot, emphasizing both his flexible intellect and his understanding of theological and scientific thought. Especially good in demonstrating the evolution of Puritan thought in one intellectual New England family over a century.
Parrington, Vernon L. Main Currents in American Thought. 3 vols. Vol. 1, The Colonial Mind, 1620-1800. New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1927-1930. A classic in American intellectual history written by a Progressive historian who sees the Puritans as repressive conservatives. Parrington portrays Cotton Mather as a small-minded bigot, the personification of decayed Puritanism. No other historian has done more to confirm the popular view of Mather and New England Puritans.
Silverman, Kenneth. The Life and Times of Cotton Mather. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1984. Regarded as the definitive biography of Cotton Mather, this work mixes both intellectual and social history to explain Mather more fully than ever before. Thoroughly documented and beautifully written, it is basically sympathetic to Mather, though it does not ignore either his vanity or his self-righteousness. Silverman sees Mather as a transitional figure, mediating between the religious seventeenth century and the secular eighteenth, whose intellectual endeavors made him the first truly conspicuous American figure.
Wendell, Barrett. Cotton Mather: The Puritan Priest. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1891. Reprint. New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1963. An early scholarly defense of Cotton Mather, this biography seeks to explain away his role in the witchcraft hysteria and emphasizes his generally ignored intellectual and religious contributions. Criticized at the time as a defense of New England Puritanism by a New England scholar, Wendell’s work foreshadows later scholarly interpretations of the much-maligned Mather.