Cotton Mather

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 915

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."

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Principal Works