Cotton Mather Biography


(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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....

(The entire section is 2540 words.)