Cotton Mather Essay - Critical Essays

Mather, Cotton


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

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. John Cotton, Who dyed, 23.d. 10.m. 1652. Mr. John Norton, Who Dyed 5.d. 2.m. 1663. Mr. John Wilson, Who Dyed, 7.d. 6.m. 1667. Mr. John davenport, Who Dyed, 15.d. 1.m. 1670 (biography) 1695

Piscator Evangelicus. Or, The Life of Mr. Thomas Hooker (biography) 1695

Humiliations follow'd with Deliverences: A Brief Discourse on the Matter and Method of that Humiliation which would be an Hopeful Symptom of our...

(The entire section is 786 words.)


Cotton Mather (essay date 1693)

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...

(The entire section is 2133 words.)

Robert Calef (essay date 1697)

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...

(The entire section is 1844 words.)

Barrett Wendell (essay date 1891)

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...

(The entire section is 10239 words.)

Thomas J. Holmes (essay date 1924)

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 entire section is 4749 words.)

Vernon Louis Parrington (essay date 1927)

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...

(The entire section is 4841 words.)

Marion L. Starkey (essay date 1949)

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...

(The entire section is 5815 words.)

William Reid Manierre (essay date 1961)

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...

(The entire section is 6940 words.)

Sacvan Bercovitch (essay date 1966)

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...

(The entire section is 6062 words.)

David Levin (essay date 1966)

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...

(The entire section is 7646 words.)

Peter Gay (essay date 1966)

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...

(The entire section is 8577 words.)

John P. Duffy (essay date 1967)

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...

(The entire section is 4218 words.)

Richard H. Werking (essay date 1972)

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...

(The entire section is 4637 words.)

Sacvan Bercovitch (essay date 1972)

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.

Emerson, Nature

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...

(The entire section is 7194 words.)

Pershing Vartanian (essay date 1973)

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...

(The entire section is 4994 words.)

Enders A. Robinson (essay date 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 6368 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 1221 words.)