Cotton Mather

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Cotton Mather (essay date 1693)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2133

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 going to Encounter them. I am far from Insensible, That at this Extraordinary Time of the Devils Coming down in Great Wrath upon us, there are too many Tongues and Hearts thereby Set on Fire of Hell; that the various Opinions about the Witchcrafts which of Later Time have Troubled us, are maintained by some with so much Cloudy Fury, as if they could never be sufficiently Stated, unless written in the Liquor wherewith Witches use to write their Covenants; and that he who becomes an Author at such a Time, had need be Fenced with Iron, and the Staff of a Spear. The unaccountable Frowardness, Asperity, Untreatableness, and Inconsistency of many persons, every Day gives a Visible Exposition of that passage, An Evil Spirit from the Lord came upon Saul; and Illustration of that Story, There met him two Possessed with Devils, exceeding Fierce, so that no man might pass by that way. To send abroad a Book, among such Readers, were a very unadvised Thing, if a man had not such Reasons to give, as I can bring, for such an Undertaking. Briefly, I hope it cannot be said, They are all so; No, I hope the Body of this People, are yet in such a Temper, as to be capable of Applying their Thoughts, to make a Right Use of the Stupendous and prodigious Things that are happening among us: and because I was concern'd, when I saw that no Abler Hand Emitted any Essayes to Engage the Minds of this People in such Holy, Pious, Fruitful Improvements, as God would have to be made of His Amazing Dispensations now upon us, Therefore it is, that One of the Least among the Children of New-England, has here done, what is done. None, but the Father, who sees in Secret, knows the Heart-breaking Exercises, wherewith I have Composed what is now going to be Exposed, Lest I should in any One Thing miss of Doing my Designed Service for His Glory, and for His People; But I am now somewhat comfortably Assured of His favourable Acceptance; and, I will not Fear; what can a Satan do unto me!

Having Performed Something of what God Required, in labouring to suit His Words unto His Works, at this Day among us, and therewithal handled a Theme that has been sometimes counted not unworthy the Pen, even of a King, it will easily be perceived, that some subordinate Ends have been considered in these Endeavours.

I have indeed set my self to Countermine the whole Plot of the Devil against New-England,2 in every Branch of it, as far as one of my Darkness can comprehend such a Work of Darkness. I may add, that I have herein also aimed at the Information and Satisfaction of Good men in another Countrey, a Thousand Leagues off, where I have, it may be, More, or however, more Considerable Friends, than in My Own;3 And I do what I can to have that Countrey, now as well as alwayes, in the best Terms with My Own. But while I am doing these things, I have been driven a little to do something likewise for My self; I mean, by taking off the false Reports and hard Censures about my Opinion in these matters, the Parters Portion, which my pursuit of Peace has procured me among the Keen. My hitherto Unvaried Thoughts are here Published; and, I believe, they will be owned by most of the Ministers of God in these Colonies; nor can amends be well made me, for the wrong done me, by other sorts of Representations.

In fine, For the Dogmatical part of my Discourse, I want no Defence; for the Historical part of it, I have a very Great One. The Lieutenant-Governour of New-England, having perused it, has done me the Honour of giving me a Shield,4 under the Umbrage whereof I now dare to walk Abroad.

Reverend and Dear Sir,

You Very much Gratify'd me, as well as put a kind Respect upon me, when you put into my hands, Your Elaborate and most seasonable Discourse, entituled, The Wonders of the Invisible World. And having now Perused so fruitful and happy a Composure, upon such a Subject, at this Juncture of Time, and considering the Place that I Hold in the Court of Oyer and Terminer, still Labouring and Proceeding in the Trial of the persons Accused and Convicted for Witchcraft, I find that I am more nearly and highly concerned than as a meer Ordinary Reader, to Express my Obligation and Thankfulness to you for so great Pains; and cannot but hold my self many ways bound, even to the utmost of what is proper for me, in my present Publick Capacity, to declare my Singular Approbation thereof. Such is Your Design, most plainly expressed throughout the whole; such Your Zeal for God, Your Enmity to Satan and his Kingdom, Your Faithfulness and Compassion to this poor people; Such the Vigour, but yet great Temper of your Spirit; Such your Instruction and Counsel, your Care of Truth, Your Wisdom and Dexterity in allaying and moderating that among us, which needs it; Such your Clear Discerning of Divine Providences and Periods, now running on apace towards their Glorious Issues in the World; and finally, Such your Good News of The Shortness of the Devils Time, That all Good Men must needs Desire the making of this your Discourse Publick to the World; and will greatly Rejoyce that the Spirit of the Lord has thus Enabled you to Lift up a Standard against the Infernal Enemy, that hath been Coming in like a Flood upon us. I do therefore make it my particular and Earnest Request unto you, that as soon as may be, you will Commit the same unto the Press accordingly. I am,

Your Assured Friend,


I Live by Neighbours that force me to produce these Undeserved Lines. But now, as when Mr. Wilson,5 beholding a great Muster of Souldiers, had it by a Gentleman then present said unto him, "Sir, I'l tell you a great Thing: here is a mighty Body of People; and there is not Seven of them all but what Loves Mr. Wilson;" that Gracious Man presently and pleasantly Reply'd, "Sir, I'll tell you as good a thing as that; here is a mighty Body of People, and there is not so much as One among them all, but Mr. Wilson Loves him." Somewhat so: 'Tis possible that among this Body of People there may be few that Love the Writer of this Book; but give me leave to boast so far, there is not one among all this Body of People, whom this Mather would not Study to Serve, as well as to Love. With such a Spirit of Love, is the Book now before us written: I appeal to all this World; and if this World will deny me the Right of acknowledging so much, I Appeal to the Other, that it is Not written with an Evil Spirit: for which cause I shall not wonder, if Evil Spirits be Exasperated by what is Written, as the Sadducees doubtless were with what was Discoursed in the Days of our Saviour. I only Demand the Justice, that others Read it, with the same Spirit wherewith I writ it.6


But I shall no longer detain my Reader, from His expected entertainment, in a Brief Account of the Trials which have passed upon some of the Malefactors Lately Executed at Salem, for the Witchcrafts whereof they stood Convicted. For my own part, I was not Present at any of Them,7 nor ever Had I any personal prejudice at the persons thus brought upon the Stage; much less at the Surviving Relations of those persons, with and for whom I would be as Hearty a mourner as any man Living in the World: The Lord Comfort them! But having Received a Command so to do,8 I can do no other than shortly Relate the Chief Matters of fact, which occurr'd in the Trials of some that were Executed, in an Abridgment collected out of the Court-Papers, on this occasion put into my Hands.9 You are to take the Truth, just as it was; and the Truth will hurt no good man. There might have been more of these, if my Book would not thereby have been swollen too big; and if some other worthy hands did not perhaps intend something further in these Collections;10 for which cause I have only singled out Four or Five, which may serve to Illustrate the way of dealing, wherein Witchcrafts use to be concerned; and I Report matters not as an Advocate but as an Historian.

They were some of the Gracious Words inserted in the Advice, which many of the Neighbouring Ministers did this Summer humbly lay before our Honorable Judges, "We cannot but with all thankfulness acknowledge the success which the Merciful God has given unto the Sedulous and Assiduous endeavours of Our Honourable Rulers, to detect the abominable Witchcrafts which have been committed in the Country; Humbly Praying that the discovery of those mysterious and mischievous wickednesses, may be perfected."11 If in the midst of the many Dissatisfactions among us, the publication of these Trials may promote such a pious Thankfulness unto God, for Justice being so far executed among us, I shall Rejoyce that God is Glorified; and pray that no wrong steps of ours may ever sully any of His Glorious Works….


1 Wilhelm Adolf Scribonius, a Hessian scholar, is best known in the literature of witchcraft as the chief advocate of the water ordeal… for the detection of witches. This story is told on ff. 82-83 of his Physiologia Sagarum (Marburg, 1588—the full title is De Sagarum Natura et Potestate, deque his recte cognoscendis et puniendis Physiologia), and in English by Baxter, Worlds of Spirits, p. 104.

2 As to this "plot of the Devil," see Mather's own words (Wonders, pp. 16-19, 25, not here reprinted): "we have been advised … that a Malefactor, accused of Witchcraft as well as Murder, and Executed in this place more than Forty Years ago, did then give Notice of An Horrible Plot against the Country by Witchcraft, and a Foundation of Witchcraft then laid, which if it were not seasonably discovered would probably Blow up, and pull down all the Churches in the Country." "We have now with Horror," he adds, "seen the Discovery of such a Witchcraft!" and from the confessions at Salem he learns that "at prodigious Witch-Meetings the Wretches have proceeded so far as to Concert and Consult the Methods of Rooting out the Christian Religion from this Country" and setting up instead of it a "Diabolism." Not even this is all: "it may be fear'd that, in the Horrible Tempest which is now upon ourselves, the design of the Devil is to sink that Happy Settlement of Government wherewith Almighty God has graciously enclined Their Majesties to favour us."

3 It is of England, of course, that he speaks.

4 As to Lieutenant-Governor Stoughton, head of the court which had tried the witch cases, see above, … note 2. … His "shield" means the following letter.

5 Doubtless the Rev. John Wilson (d. 1667), the first minister of Boston.

6 There now follow the miscellaneous matters described in the introduction, making up more than half of his volume.

7 He must at least have been present at some of the examinations (like those described by Lawson) preceding the trials; for in his Diary (I. 151), commending the judges, he adds, "and my Compassion, upon the Sight of their Difficulties, raised by my Journeyes to Salem, the chief Seat of these diabolical Vexations, caused mee yett more to do so." From attending the trials he had excused himself (see the letter mentioned on p. 194, note 5) on the score of ill health.

8 From the governor; see above, p. 194, and p. 250.

9 See introduction.

10 Meaning, doubtless, Hale and Noyes. See p. 206, above.

11 This is the second paragraph in the reply of the ministers of Boston, June 15, 1692, to the request of the governor and Council for advice. (See p. 194, above.) It was drawn up by Cotton Mather himself.

Robert Calef (essay date 1697)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1844

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 stories of the sufferings of some, and the refined sight of others, etc., P. 69 to obtrude upon the World, and confirm it in such a belief, as hitherto he either cannot or will not defend, as if the Blood already shed thereby were not sufficient.

Mr. I. Mather, in his Cases of Conscience, P. 25, tells of a Bewitched Eye, and that such can see more than others. They were certainly bewitched Eyes that could see as well shut as open, and that could see what never was, that could see the Prisoners upon the Afflicted, harming of them, when those whose Eyes were not bewitched could have sworn that they did not stir from the Bar. The Accusers are said to have suffered much by biting, P. 73. And the prints of just such a set of Teeth, as those they Accused, had, but such as had not such bewitch'd Eyes have seen the Accusers bite themselves, and then complain of the Accused. It has also been seen when the Accused, instead of having just such a set of Teeth, has not had one in his head. They were such bewitched Eyes that could see the Poisonous Powder (brought by Spectres P. 70.) And that could see in the Ashes the print of the Brand, there invisibly heated to torment the pretended Sufferers with etc.

These with the rest of such Legends have this direct tendency, viz. To tell the World that the Devil is more ready to serve his Votaries, by his doing for them things above or against the course of Nature, shewing himself to them, and making explicit contract with them, etc., than the Divine Being is to his faithful Servants, and that as he is willing, so also able to perform their desires. The way whereby these People are believed to arrive at a power to Afflict their Neighbours, is by a compact with the Devil, and that they have a power to Commissionate him to those Evils, P. 72. However Irrational, or Inscriptural such Assertions are, yet they seem a necessary part of the Faith of such as maintain the belief of such a sort of Witches.

As the Scriptures know nothing of a covenanting or commissioning Witch, so Reason cannot conceive how Mortals should by their Wickedness arrive at a power to Commissionate Angels, Fallen Angels, against their Innocent Neighbours. But the Scriptures are full in it, and the Instances numerous, that the Almighty, Divine Being has this prerogative to make use of what Instrument he pleaseth, in Afflicting any, and consequently to commissionate Devils: And tho this word commissioning, in the Authors former Books, might be thought to be by inadvertency; yet now after he hath been caution'd of it, still to persist in it seems highly Criminal. And therefore in the name of God, I here charge such belief as guilty of Sacriledge in the highest Nature, and so much worse than stealing Church Plate, etc., As it is a higher Offence to steal any of the glorious Attributes of the Almighty, to bestow them upon Mortals, than it is to steal the Utensils appropriated to his Service. And whether to ascribe such power of commissioning Devils to the worst of Men, be not direct Blasphemy, I leave to others better able to determine. When the Pharisees were so wicked as to ascribe to Beelzebub, the mighty works of Christ (whereby he did manifestly shew forth his Power and Godhead) then it was that our Saviour declar'd the Sin against the Holy Ghost to be unpardonable.

When the Righteous God is contending with Apostate Sinners, for their departures from him, by his Judgments, as Plagues, Earthquakes, Storms and Tempests, Sicknesses and Diseases, Wars, loss of Cattle, etc. Then not only to ascribe this to the Devil, but to charge one another with sending or commissionating those Devils to these things, is so abominable and so wicked, that it requires a better Judgment than mine to give it its just denomination.

But that Christians so called should not only charge their fellow Christians therewith, but proceed to Tryals and Executions; crediting that Enemy to all Goodness, and Accuser of the Brethren, rather than believe their Neighbours in their own Defence; This is so Diabolical a Wickedness as cannot proceed, but from a Doctrine of Devils; how far damnable it is let others discuss. Tho such things were acting in this Country in Sir Williams time, yet p. 65, there is a Discourse of a Guardian Angel, as then over-seeing it, which notion, however it may suit the Faith of Ethnicks,2 or the fancies of Trithemius;3 it is certain that the Omnipresent Being stands not in need as Earthly Potentates do, of governing the World by Vicegerents. And if Sir William had such an Invisible pattern to imitate, no wonder tho some of his Actions were unaccountable, especially those relating to Witchcraft: For if there was in those Actions an Angel super-intending, there is little reason to think it was Gabriel or the Spirit of Mercury, nor Hanael the Angel or Spirit of Venus, nor yet Samuel the Angel or Spirit of Mars; Names feigned by the said Trithemius, etc. It may rather be thought to be Apollyon, or Abaddon.

Obj.4 But here it will be said, "What, are there no Witches? Do's not the Law of God command that they should be extirpated? Is the Command vain and Unintelligible?" Sol.5 For any to say that a Witch is one that makes a compact with, and Commissions Devils, etc., is indeed to render the Law of God vain and Unintelligible, as having provided no way whereby they might be detected, and proved to be such; And how the Jews waded thro this difficulty for so many Ages, without the Supplement of Mr. Perkins and Bernard thereto, would be very mysterious. But to him that can read the Scriptures without prejudice from Education, etc., it will manifestly appear that the Scripture is full and Intelligible, both as to the Crime and means to detect the culpable. He that shall hereafter see any person, who to confirm People in a false belief, about the power of Witches and Devils, pretending to a sign to confirm it, such as knocking off of invisible Chains with the hand, driving away Devils by brushing, striking with a Sword or Stick, to wound a person at a great distance, etc., may (according to that head of Mr. Gauls, quoted by Mr. C. M. and so often herein before recited, and so well proved by Scripture) conclude that he has seen Witchcraft performed.

If Baalam became a Sorcerer by Sacrifizing and Praying to the true God against his visible people; Then he that shall pray that the afflicted (by their Spectral Sight) may accuse some other Person (whereby their reputations and lives may be indangered) such will justly deserve the Name of a Sorcerer. If any Person pretends to know more then6 can be known by humane means, and professeth at the same time that they have it from the Black-Man, i.e. the Devil, and shall from hence give Testimony against the Lives of others, they are manifestly such as have a familiar Spirit; and if any, knowing them to have their Information from the Black-Man, shall be inquisitive of them for their Testimony against others, they therein are dealing with such as have a Familiar-Spirit.

And if these shall pretend to see the dead by their Spectral Sight, and others shall be inquisitive of them, and receive their Answers what it is the dead say, and who it is they accuse, both the one and the other are by Scripture Guilty of Necromancy.

These are all of them crimes as easily proved as any whatsoever, and that by such proof as the Law of God requires, so that it is no Unintelligible Law.

But if the Iniquity of the times be such, that these Criminals not only Escape Indemnified,7 but are Incouraged in their Wickedness, and made use of to take away the Lives of others, this is worse than a making the Law of God Vain, it being a rendring of it dangerous, against the Lives of Innocents, and without all hopes of better, so long as these Bloody Principles remain.

As long as Christians do Esteem the Law of God to be Imperfect, as not describing that crime that it requires to be Punish'd by Death;

As long as men suffer themselves to be Poison'd in their Education, and be grounded in a False Belief by the Books of the Heathen;

As long as the Devil shall be believed to have a Natural Power, to Act above and against a course of Nature;

As long as the Witches shall be believed to have a Power to Commission him;

As long as the Devils Testimony, by the pretended afflicted, shall be received as more valid to Condemn, than their Plea of Not Guilty to acquit;

As long as the Accused shall have their Lives and Liberties confirmed and restored to them, upon their Confessing themselves Guilty;

As long as the Accused shall be forc't to undergo Hardships and Torments for their not Confessing;

As long as Tets for the Devil to Suck are searched for upon the Bodies of the accused, as a token of guilt;

As long as the Lords Prayer shall be profaned, by being made a Test, who are culpable;

As long as Witchcraft, Sorcery, Familiar Spirits, and Necromancy, shall be improved to discover who are Witches, etc.,

So long it may be expected that Innocents will suffer as Witches.

So long God will be Daily dishonoured, And so long his Judgments must be expected to be continued.


1 In a part of his book not here reprinted (pp. 85 ff.) Calef speaks more fully of this paper, lent him early in 1695, but on condition of its return within a fortnight and uncopied. It was perhaps the MS. described by Poole (Memorial History, II. 152, note) as now in the possession of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and called "Cotton Mather's belief and practice in those thorny difficulties which have distracted us in the day of temptation"—having "marginal reflections in another hand." [Since the foregoing words were written, this conjecture has been proved true.]….

2 Pagans.

3 A German abbot and scholar who in the early sixteenth century wrote most credulously about witches and angels.



6I. e., than.

7 Unpunished.

Barrett Wendell (essay date 1891)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10239

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 surely the part Cotton Mather played in it that made his life, for the five and thirty years that were left him, a life—at least publicly—of constant, crescent failure. Tragic even if we join with those who read in the records left us no more worthy story than that of frustrated ambition, his career takes an aspect of rare tragic dignity if in his endless, undiscouraged efforts to do God's work we can honestly see what he tells us was there,—an allmastering faith that the fathers were divinely right, that all which tended away from their teaching was eternally wrong, and that his own failure meant nothing less than the failure of the kingdom of Christ in a land whither Christ's servants had come with high hopes that here, as nowhere else on earth, Christ's kingdom should prevail.

Sir William Phipps, the new Governor, is in certain aspects a most romantic figure. The obscure son of a settler in the wilds of Maine, he was first an apprentice to a ship-carpenter: coming to Boston early in manhood, he learned there to read and write, and soon married a widow of position and fortune decidedly above his own. Prospering for a while as a shipbuilder, he soon took to the sea; and by the year 1684 he had so distinguished himself that he was put in command of a frigate, in which he sailed to the West Indies in search of a wrecked Spanish treasure-ship. After various adventures and mutinies, he actually discovered the wreck. He brought back to England treasure to the amount of three hundred thousand pounds, in return for which feat he was knighted by James II. And in Sir Edmund Andros's time he came home to Boston with a comfortable fortune of his own and the office of High Sheriff of New England. By no means in sympathy with the Governor, he soon went back to England for a while, where he had more or less to do with Increase Mather. In 1690 he was again in Boston, where, as we have seen before, he took command of the successful expedition against Port Royal. The first real rebuff in the career of this archetype of self-made Yankees was the failure of the expedition which, too late in the same year, he led against Quebec. Undiscouraged, he went back to England with plans for a fresh expedition against the French. This came to nothing; but Increase Mather, who saw much of him in London, pitched on him, and obtained the approval of King William for him, as the man of men to be the first Governor of the royal Province of Massachusetts.

It would have been hard to find a governor who should promise more for the polity to which the Mathers gave every energy of their lives. A man of the people, conspicuous above any one else of his time for just that kind of material success which most touches the popular imagination, Sir William, though hotheaded and full of the pompous tyranny of the quarterdeck, seems to have had one of those big, hearty, human natures which command liking even where one cannot approve. He might be expected at once to command the sympathy of the people, who would see in him an example of what any one of them might become, and to be very firm in his determination to have his own way. If such a man be on the right course, he will carry things farther than any other kind. And, like most self-made Yankees, Sir William was on exactly the right course, from the point of view of the clergy. As a class, self-made men to this day grow up with a rather blind faith in the superiority to other men of ministers of the Gospel: in worldly moments they may smile at their spiritual advisers as impractical; but they go to church, and when it comes to spending their money they are very apt to spend it as the minister tells them to. And more than most self-made men Sir William looked up to the clergy, and most of all the clergy to the Mathers. It was Increase Mather's sermon on "The day of trouble is near," in 1674,1 that first made him sensible of his sins; it was by Cotton Mather, just before the expedition to Port Royal, in 1690, that he was baptized and received into the communion of the faithful; it was to Increase Mather that he owed the office which crowned his worldly ambition. Clearly such a man as this might be trusted, if anybody might, to do the will of God as the Mathers expounded it. And the Mathers meant to expound it in the good old orthodox way; and the new Charter gave the Governor more power than he had ever had under the old; so there was never a moment when the hopes of Christ's kingdom looked brighter.

To understand what followed, we may well recall some things at which we have glanced already. In the view of the Puritans, the continent of America, whither they came to live in accordance with no laws but those of Scripture, had been until their coming the special territory of the Devil. Here he had ruled for centuries, unmolested by the opposing power of the Gospel: whoever doubted this had only to look at the degradation of his miserable subjects, the native Indians, to be pretty well convinced. The landing of the Puritans was a direct invasion of his territories. He fought it in all manner of ways,—material and spiritual. The physical hardship of the earlier years of the settlement was largely his work; so were the disturbances raised within the Colonies by heretics and malcontents; so, more palpably still, were the Indian wars in which his subjects rose in arms against the servants of Christ; so, too, were certain phenomena that every one at the present day would instantly recognize as natural: more than once Cotton Mather remarks as clearly diabolical the fact that the steeples of churches are oftener struck by lightning than any other structures. And from the very earliest days of the settlement the Devil had waged his unholy war in a more subtle way still: appearing in person, or in the person of direct emissaries from the invisible world, to more than a few hapless Christians, he had constantly striven with bribes and threats to seduce them to his service. Whoever yielded to him was rewarded by the possession of supernatural power, which was secretly exerted for all manner of malicious purposes; these were the witches: whoever withstood him was tortured in mind and body almost beyond the power of men to bear; these were the bewitched. There was no phase of the Devil's warfare so insidious, so impalpable, so dangerous, as this: in the very heart of the churches, in the pulpits themselves, witches might lurk. Their crime was the darkest of all,—deliberate treason to the Lord; but it was the hardest of all to detect and to prove,—the most horrible, both in its nature and in its possibility of evildoing. Mysterious, horrible, inevitable, it demanded every effort of Christians to withstand its subtle power.

To the Mathers, I believe, all this was very real. In 1684 Increase Mather had written a book against witchcraft. Two years later, as we have seen, Cotton Mather had had what he might well have believed a special message from Heaven that his chief mission for the moment was to fight the witches. The sins of the Colonists had brought on them the most terrible of their misfortunes: the Charter was gone, and Kirk was coming with his red-coats; and, in the deep agony of secret prayer, Cotton Mather was beseeching God to show mercy to New England, and promising, when such mercy came, what special services the Lord might see fit to demand. The good news came, at a moment when the Lord was rewarding his prayers by visions of a white-robed angel from whose lips he heard assurances of Divine favour. King Charles was dead, Kirk was coming no longer. His prayers had availed to save New England from the worst of her dangers. What should he do for the Lord? At that very moment, as we have seen, witchcraft was abroad. It was his duty to collect testimony against it, to denounce it, to fight it with all his might. From that moment, apparently, he began. And the more he studied it, the more real and terrible he found it. In 1688 there was a sad outbreak of it in Boston: Cotton Mather took into his own house one of the afflicted children, whose behaviour as he relates it was in all respects such as to increase his belief both in the reality of the Devil's work, and in the divine sanction of his own efforts against it. And now, in 1692, when the prayers of New England for a righteous charter had been granted, when the best of governors was come, ready to put into execution the best of policies, when at last the material prospects of Christ's kingdom were fairer than for years before, the Devil began such a spiritual assault on New England as had never before been approached.

The story of Salem Witchcraft has been told by Upham with a fulness and a fairness that leave nothing to be added. But he fails, I think, sympathetically to understand a fact which he emphasizes with characteristic honesty,—the tremendous influence on human beings of that profound realizing sense of the mysteries that surround us, to which those who do not share it give the name superstition.

At various periods of history epidemics of superstition have appeared, sometimes in madly tragic forms, sometimes, as in modern spiritualism, in grotesquely comic ones. These are generally classed as pure delusions, based on no external facts. But for my part, though I may claim none of the authority which would come from special study of the subject, I am strongly inclined to believe that from the earliest recorded times a certain pretty definite group of mysterious phenomena has, under various names, really shown itself throughout human society. Oracles, magic, witchcraft, animal magnetism, spiritualism,—call the phenomena what you will,—seem to me a fact. Certain phases of it are beginning to be understood under the name of hypnotism. Other phases, after the best study that has been given them, seem to be little else than deliberate fraud and falsehood; but they are fraud and falsehood, if this be all they are, of a specific kind, unchanged for centuries. The evidence at the trial of the Maréchal de Rais, a soldier of Joan of Arc and the original of the tale of Blue-Beard, relates phenomena that anybody can see to-day by paying a dollar to a "materializing medium." And some of them are very like what are related in the trials of the Salem witches. So specific is the fraud, if only fraud it be, that it may well be regarded, I think, as a distinct mental, or perhaps rather moral disorder.

With no sort of pretension to scientific knowledge, I have found that a guess I made in talk some years ago throws what may be a little light on many of the mysterious phenomena that in Cotton Mather's time were deemed indisputably diabolical. I shall venture, then, to state it here, to be taken for no more than a layman's guess may be worth. If, as modern science tends to show, human beings are the result of a process of evolution from lower forms of life, there must have been in our ancestral history a period when the intelligence of our progenitors was as different from the modern human mind—the only form of intelligence familiar to our experience or preserved in the records of our race—as were their remote aquatic bodies from the human form we know to-day. To-day we can perceive with any approach to distinctness only what reveals itself to us through the medium of our five senses; but we have only to look at the intricate wheelings of a flock of birds, at the flight of a carrier pigeon, at the course of a dog who runs straight home over a hundred miles of strange country, to see more than a probability that animals not remote from us physically have perceptions to which we are strangers. It seems wholly conceivable, then, that in the remote psychologic past of our race there may have been in our ancestors certain powers of perception which countless centuries of disuse have made so rudimentary that in our normal condition we are not conscious of them. But if such there were, it would not be strange that, in abnormal states, the rudimentary vestiges of these disused powers of perception might sometimes be revived. If this were the case, we might naturally expect two phenomena to accompany such a revival: in the first place, as such powers of perception, from my very hypothesis, belong normally to a period in the development of our race when human society and what we call moral law have not yet appeared, we should expect them to be intimately connected with a state of emotion that ignores what we call the moral sense, and so to be accompanied by various forms of misconduct; in the second place, as our chief modern means of communication—articulate language—belongs to a period when human intelligence has assumed its present form, we should expect to find it inadequate for the expression of facts which it never professed to cover, and so we should expect such phenomena as we are considering to be accompanied by an erratic, impotent inaccuracy of statement, which would soon shade into something indistinguishable from deliberate falsehood. In other words, such phenomena would naturally involve in whoever abandons himself to them a mental and moral degeneracy which any one who believes in a personal devil would not hesitate to ascribe to the direct intervention of Satan.

Now what disposes me, scientifically a layman I must repeat, to think that my guess may have something in it is that mental and moral degeneracy—credulity and fraud—seem almost invariably so to entangle themselves with occult phenomena that many coolheaded people are disposed to assert the whole thing a lie. To me, as I have shown, it does not seem so simple. I am much disposed to think that necromancers, witches, mediums,—what not,—actually do perceive in the infinite realities about us things that are imperceptible to normal human beings; but that they perceive them only at a sacrifice of their higher faculties—mental and moral—not inaptly symbolized in the old tales of those who sell their souls.

If this be true, witchcraft is not a delusion: it is a thing more subtly dangerous still. Such an epidemic of it as came to New England in 1692 is as diabolical a fact as human beings can know: unchecked, it can really work mischief unspeakable. I have said enough, I think, to show why I heartily sympathize with those who in 1692 did their utmost to suppress it; to show, too, why the fatally tragic phase of the witch trials seems to me, not the fact that there was no crime to condemn, but the fact that the evidence on which certain wretched people were executed proves, on scrutiny, utterly insufficient. It was little better than to-day would be the ravings of a clairvoyant against one accused of theft. And yet, if there be anything in my guess, this too is just what we might expect. Not knowing what they did, the judges would strain every nerve—just as in their rapt ecstasies the Mathers strained every nerve, along with their Puritan fellows, and the saints of every faith—to awaken from the lethargy of countless ages those rudimentary powers which can be awakened only at the expense of what we think the higher ones that have supplanted them. The motive may make a difference: he who strives to serve God may end as he begun, a better man than he who consents to serve the Devil. But, for all that, bewitched and judges alike, the startled ministers to whom the judges turned for counsel, and perhaps not a few of the witches too, who may well have believed in themselves, vie with one another in a devil's race, harking back to mental and moral depths from which humanity has taken countless centuries to rise.

Whoever cares to know in detail the story of 1692 may read it in Upham, or in Palfrey. In brief, the children of Mr. Parris, minister of Salem Village, were seized early in the year with disorders which seemed of no earthly origin. They accused certain neighbours of bewitching them; the neighbours were arrested. The troubles and the accusations spread with the speed of any panic. By the time Sir William assumed the government, the whole region was in an agony of superstitious terror; and whoever raised his voice against the matter fell under suspicion of league with the Devil. At that moment, as the old judicial system had fallen with the Charter, there were no regular courts. Within a few weeks, Sir William, full of the gravity of the situation, and probably under the direct advice of the Mathers, appointed a special Court of Oyer and Terminer to try the witches. William Stoughton, the Deputy Governor, was made Chief Justice: his six associates were gentlemen of the highest station and character in the Province: among them was Samuel Sewall, whose Diary I have so often quoted. On the 2d of June this court condemned one Bridget Bishop: on the 10th she was executed for witchcraft. Before proceeding further, the court consulted the ministers of Boston and the neighbourhood. The answer of the ministers is said to have been drawn up by Cotton Mather: in general terms it urged "the importance of caution and circumspection in the methods of examination," but "earnestly recommended that the proceedings should be vigorously carried on."2

It is largely on this document that the charge against Cotton Mather rests: he is believed by many deliberately to have urged the judicial murder of innocent people for the simple purpose of establishing and main taining his own ascendency in the state. To me, and what I have written already should show why, the paper seems the only possible thing for an honest, superstitious man—himself in direct communication with the blessed part of the invisible world—to have written. Witchcraft was to him the most terrible of realities; not to proceed against it would have been to betray the cause of Christ; but the Devil stood ready to beguile the courts themselves; the evidence must be carefully scrutinized, or who could tell what mischief might come?

Thus encouraged, the Court proceeded. How many wretched people were committed can never be quite known: Upham thinks several hundreds.3 Nineteen were hanged; one was pressed to death for refusing to plead to his indictment; at least two died in jail. By the end of September, a revulsion of popular feeling had come. The accusations had spread too far: the evidence on which the witches were executed was beginning to seem too flimsy. On the 22d of September came the last executions. In January, 1693,4 the special Court of Oyer and Terminer was supplanted by a regular Superior Court, consisting of much the same men. It threw out "spectral evidence,"—that is, it declined to consider the ravings of the bewitched: only three out of fifty indicted for witchcraft were condemned, and none of these was executed. In May, 1693, the panic was over. By proclamation, Sir William Phipps discharged all the accused. "Such a jail delivery," says Hutchinson, "has never been known in New England."

In all this matter Increase Mather seems to have played no conspicuous part. Four years of diplomacy in the capital of the British empire had perhaps taught him practical lessons of prudence not to be learned in any less arduous school. But while these were learning, his son, not yet thirty years old, had been surrounded by influences diametrically different. In the provincial Boston, which was at once the greatest city in America and the only home he ever knew, Cotton Mather had found himself, at an age when most men are still passed by as young, among the chiefs of the leaders. And then, as later, it had been his lot to meet hardly anybody whom he could honestly deem by his own standards superior to himself. As we shall see by and by, his later career was marked by what has often seemed, particularly when we remember his constant failure to achieve the public ends he strove for, a ridiculous and overweening vanity. But I think that few can rise from a careful study of his diary without feeling that this vanity was no blind self-approval; but at most a conviction, in his happier moments, that, far as he was from the attainment of his ideals, there were none about him who were any nearer the attainment of theirs, and that there were many—and year by year more—who were falling away from the ancestral traditions that he never gave up. In 1692 he was still in the flush of youth and of success. No one was more active in fighting the Devil's works as revealed in witchcraft. No one, for well on to two centuries, has borne so much of the odium of what was done as he.

We have seen how his books and his conduct in 1688 tended to stir up public feeling against the witches; we have seen how the letter of the ministers which he drew up encouraged the puzzled Court of Oyer and Terminer to proceed with its deadly work. On the 19th of August, 1692, the most eminent of the victims of the proceedings was hanged; this was the Rev. George Burroughs, a graduate of Harvard College, and for something like twenty years a minister of the Gospel. Four others died with him. One of Sewall's very few notes of this period describes this day.

A very great number of Spectators … present. Mr Cotton Mather was there…. All of them said they were inocent…. Mr. Mather says they all died by a Righteous sentence. Mr. Burroughs, by his Speech, Prayer, protestation of his Innocence, did much move unthinking persons, which occasions their speaking hardly concerning his being executed." In the margin Sewall has written "Dolefull Witchcraft!"5

Calef, of whom we shall hear more by and by, gives a fuller account of the scene:—

When [Mr. Burroughs] was upon the ladder, he made a speech for the clearing of his innocency, with such solemn and serious expressions, as were to the admiration of all present: his prayer (which he concluded by repeating the Lord's prayer6) was so well worded, and uttered with such composedness, and such (at least seeming) fervency of spirit, as was very affecting, and drew tears from many, so that it seemed to some that the spectators would hinder the execution. The accusers7 said the black man stood and dictated to him. As soon as he was turned off, Mr. Cotton Mather, being mounted upon a horse, addressed himself to the people, partly to declare that … [Burroughs] was no ordained minister, and partly to possess the people of his guilt, saying that the devil has often been transformed into an angel of light; and this somewhat appeased the people, and the executions went on. When he was cut down, he was dragged by the halter to a hole … between the rocks, about two feet deep, his shirt and breeches being pulled off, and an old pair of trowsers of one executed put on his lower parts; he was so put in … that one of his hands and his chin … were left uncovered.8

Just a month later, Giles Corey was pressed to death for refusing to plead to his indictment,—the solitary instance in America of this terrible barbarity of the old English criminal law.

Sept. 20, [writes Sewall], Now I hear from Salem that about 18 years agoe he was suspected to have stamped and press'd a man to death, but was cleared. Twas not remembered till Ane Putnam was told of it by said Corey's Spectre the Sabbath-day night before the Execution.9

On this very day, the 20th of September, two days before the last of the executions, Cotton Mather wrote to Stephen Sewall, clerk of the court at Salem, a letter which Upham deems conclusive of his artful dishonesty.10

That I may bee the more capable to assist, in lifting up a standard against the Infernal Enemy, [it runs,] I must Renew my most IMPORTUNATE REQUEST, that you would please quickly to perform, what you kindly promised, of giving me a Narrative of the Evidences given in at the Trials of half a dozen, or if you please a dozen, of the principal Witches, that have been condemned…. I am willing that when you write, you should imagine me as obstinate a Sadducee and Witch-advocate as any among us: address mee as one that Believ'd Nothing Reasonable; and when you have so knocked mee down, in a spectre so unlike mee, you will enable mee, to box it about, among my Neighbs, till it come, I know not where, at last.

Two days later, on that very 22d of September when the last witches were hanging, Sewall notes that "William Stoughton, Esqr., John Hathorne, Esqr., Mr. Cotton Mather, and Capt. John Higginson, with my brother St., were at our house, speaking about publishing some Trials of Witches."11 The results this letter and conference seems to have been Cotton Mather's well known "Wonders of the Invisible World," published the next year both in Boston and in London.

A few of Sewall's notes show the course of popular feeling meanwhile. On the 15th of October he went to Cambridge to discourse with Mr. Danforth about witchcraft: Mr. Danforth

"thinks there ca ot be a procedure in the Court except there be some better consent of Ministers and People." On the 26th, "A Bill is sent in about calling a Fast, and Convocation of Ministers, that may be led in the right way as to the Witchcrafts. The reason and ma er of doing it, is such, that the Court of Oyer and Terminer count themselves thereby dismissed. 29 Nos and 33 yeas to the Bill." On the 28th, Sewall, "as had done several times before, desired to have the advice of the Governour and Council as to the sitting of the Court of Oyer and Terminer next week: said should move it no more; great silence, as if should say, do not go." Next day, "Mr. Russell asked whether the Court of Oyer and Terminer should sit, expressing some fear of Inconvenience by its fall. Governour said it must fall. Lieut.-Governour12 not in Town."

It was nearly a year later, in September, 1693, that Cotton Mather, in Upham's phrase,13 "succeeded in getting up" the case of witchcraft that cost him dearest. One Margaret Rule, a young woman of Boston whose character seems to have been none of the best, was seized with all the symptoms of possession. One symptom, mentioned I think only in her case, throws considerable light on her disorder: the devils prevented her from eating, but permitted her occasionally to swallow a little rum. Both of the Mathers visited her, surrounded by her startled and credulous friends; they listened with full faith to her tales of black spirits and white who haunted her; they examined her person with what in less holy men might have savoured of indiscretion; they prayed with her and for her. And finally, the discouraged devils fled away; and she, returning perfectly to herself, though extremely weak and faint and overwhelmed with vapours, most affectionately gave thanks to God for her deliverance.14 This case, portending such a diabolical descent on Boston as had passed over Salem, attracted the attention among others, of one Robert Calef, a merchant of the town. He visited Margaret Rule when the Mathers were with her. A perfect matter-of-fact man, thoroughly honest and equally devoid of imagination, he saw in her sufferings only a vulgar cheat, and in the conduct of the Mathers something which seems to have impressed him as deliberate and not wholly decent connivance in her imposture. He made notes of what he had seen, and submitted them to Cotton Mather. The controversy that followed, which has been admirably summarized by Sibley,15 lasted in one form or another for six years. In 1700, Calef's book on the subject was published in London, and soon found its way to Boston.16

Calef's temper was that of the rational Eighteenth Century: the Mathers belonged rather to the Sixteenth,—the age of passionate religious enthusiasm. To me, both sides seem equally honest; and the difference between them seems chiefly due to the fact that, as in a thousand other cases in human history, a man of the future can rarely so rise above himself as to understand men of the past. In such a controversy, it is the man of the future that the future holds right. In the time that has passed since the Mathers and Calef have lain in their graves, the world has seen an age of reason, and not of imaginative emotion. And most of those who have concerned themselves about these dead men have deemed Calef all in the right, and the Mathers foolish, if not worse. But did Calef see all? Is there, after all, in a great epidemic of superstition nothing beyond what those who escape the contagion perceive? Are we not to-day beginning to guess that there may be in heaven and earth more things than are yet dreamt of in your philosophy? If there be, it may in the end prove the verdict of men that neither honest Calef nor the honest Mathers saw all that passed before their eyes; but that each in his own way caught a glimpse of truth, and that each believed that all the truth was comprised in the bit he saw.

But we are come now to a point where we must turn to Cotton Mather himself; where we must look to the diaries he has left us, and to the works he wrote later, for an account of what these critical years meant to him. The substance of his later writings seems to me adequately represented by the passages about witchcraft in the Magnalia and the Parentator. A few words of these, and we will pass to his diaries for 169217 and 1693.18

The substance of his final view of the case, as shown in his published works, seems to have been this: The witchcraft was a real attack of the Devil, permitted perhaps as a punishment for dabblings in sorcery and magical tricks which people had begun to allow themselves.19 The afflictions of the possessed, which he details in all their petty absurdities, that seem nowadays as monstrously trivial, were really diabolical.

Flashy people may burlesque these things, but when hundreds of the most sober people in a country where they have as much mother-wit certainly as the rest of mankind, know them to be true, nothing but the absurd and froward Spirit of Sadducism can question them.20

The only doubtful question was whether the Devil had the power of assuming before the eyes of his victims the shape of innocent persons. The assumption on the part of the judges that he had no such power led to the conviction on spectral evidence of not a few victims of the court. The abandonment of this assumption led to the cessation of the prosecutions, and to the jail delivery of 1693. Mather asserts in substance that he always opposed spectral evidence; and it is certain that Increase Mather's Cases of Conscience, published in 1694, clearly condemns it. It is certain, too, that Cotton Mather's letter to John Richards, dated May 31, 1692,21 warns the judge in the most specific terms against the dangers of spectral evidence. Cotton Mather's own position, as he finally states it, then, seems to have been a persistent belief in witchcraft, a persistent determination to keep the public alive to all the horrors of the crime, and to oppose it by every means in his power, but a growing doubt as to how far so mysterious and terrible an evil can be dealt with by so material an engine as the criminal law. On the whole he inclines more and more to reliance on fasting and prayer. This was undoubtedly the view taken, when the panic was once over, by even the most strenuous advocates of the reality of witchcraft, and Cotton Mather undeniably takes to himself the credit of having held and urged it all along.

The part of the Magnalia in which these facts appear is the Life of Sir William Phipps, first published separately and anonymously in 1697. On the fact that this book was anonymous, Calef bases much of his charge that Mather wrote it dishonestly to praise himself, and to delude people into believing him free from the responsibility of having urged on the prosecutions. On this fact, on the feebleness of the caution addressed by the ministers to the Court of Oyer and Terminer, and on the letter to Stephen Sewall, rests most of the charge of dishonesty from which Mather's name has never been cleared to the satisfaction of his opponents. It seems to me that the anonymous publication—by no means the only example of it in Mather's voluminous works22—may well have been due to no worse motive than a wish for a fair hearing, which might not have been accorded to a name which was held up to public execration. It seems to me, too, that the letter of the ministers may be taken for just what it purports to be,—an honest warning of a danger, in spite of which the Court has no moral right to hesitate in the performance of its official duty. And in the letter to Stephen Sewall I can see nothing inconsistent with the conclusion that what Cotton Mather wished to maintain unshaken was not the fatal penalty of the law, but that belief in the reality of witchcraft which he certainly never abandoned. Calef and posterity seem to me to have confused two distinct things,—this belief in the reality of witchcraft, and insistence on the validity of spectral evidence. But, when all is said, I think two facts against Mather remain: his conduct and his words had as much as any one man's could have to do with the raising of the panic; and in his final presentation of the matter, both in his diaries and in his published works, he never grants or meets the full strength of the case against him.

But before we agree with those who believe him to have been deliberately dishonest, it will be only fair to read what his diaries tell us of these troubled years; and to read it, too, with certain facts in mind that seem to me too little considered. In the first place, as we have seen, Cotton Mather had for years been a religious enthusiast whose constant ecstasies brought him into such direct communication with Heaven as he believed the witches to maintain with Hell; in other words, he had for years been, what he remained all his life, a constant victim of a mental or moral disorder whose normal tendency is towards the growth of unwitting credulity and fraud. In the second place, I grow to believe more and more that the ceaseless activity of mind and body, of thought, of emotion, of action, into which he never ceased to lash himself,—the activity which produced in actual words and deeds a lifework whose bulk to-day seems almost incredible,—never permitted him, in any act or word, to be really deliberate at all. Striving with all his might to do the Lord's work, believing that the Lord's will forbade him for a moment to relax a particle of his energy, he went through this world from beginning to end in a state of emotional exaltation, of passionate afflation and reaction, which left him in all the sixty years of his conscious life hardly an hour of that cool thoughtfulness without which any deliberation is impossible. It has been his fate—a man whose whole career was a storm of passion—to be judged, in the seclusion of libraries, by unimaginative, unimpassioned posterity. So cool sympathizers with old Calvinism who have sought to defend him, and cooler Protestants who have constantly condemned him, have alike failed to understand.

They have failed, too, adequately to emphasize what seems to me the most notable piece of contemporary evidence. On May 31st, 1692, we have seen,—three days before Bridget Bishop, the first victim of the Court, was sentenced,—Cotton Mather wrote to John Richards, one of the judges, a letter in which he takes, with the utmost decision, exactly the ground he occupied to the end of his life.

'Do not lay more stress upon pure Spectre evidence than it will bear," he writes…. "It is very certain that the divells have sometimes represented the shapes of persons not only innocent, but also very vertuous."

There should be confession, or unmistakable signs: he believes in witch-marks, to be sure, and in the water-ordeal. But at the very end he adds this caution:—

It is worth considering whether there be a necessity alwayes by Extirpacons by Halter or fagott [to punish] every wretched creature that shall be hooked into some degrees of Witchcraft. What if some of the lesser Criminalls, be only scourged with lesser punishments, and also put upon some solemn, … Publike … renunciation of the Divel? I am apt to thinke that the Divels would then cease afflicting the Neighbourhood.

So we come back to the diary for 1692.23 As I have said already, this is far more abridged and less specific than most of his diaries. But I do not believe it untrue. The last entry I quoted was made in May, when his father had just returned, and the new Charter was just passing into operation. "And now," he wrote, "I will call upon the Lord as long as I live."

The rest of his entries for the year bear no date. He notes briefly that he has preached against temporal persecution of heresy; "And I hope the Lord will own me with a more Singular Success in the suppression of Haeresy by Endeavours more Spiritual and Evangelical." He notes that in his public ministry he has been largely handling the Day of Judgment, from texts in the 25th chapter of Matthew. Then comes a long note beginning, "The Rest of the Summer was a very doleful Time unto the whole Countrey." He tells how devils possessed many people, how witches were accused in the visions of the afflicted, how he himself testified both publicly and privately against the dangers of spectral evidence, and how it was he who drew up the letter from the ministers to the Court of Oyer and Terminer.

Nevertheless, [he goes on,]24 I saw in most of the Judges a most charming Instance of prudence and patience, and I knew their exemplary pietie, and the Anguish of Soul with which they sought the Direction of Heaven: above most other people, whom I generally saw enchanted into a Raging, Railing, Scandalous and unreasonable disposition as the distress increased upon us. For this cause, though I would not allow the Principles, that some of the Judges had espoused, yet I could not but speak honourably of their Persons, on all occasions: and my Compassion upon the Sight of their Difficulties Raised by my Journeys to Salem, the Chief Seat of these Diabolical Vexations, caused me yett more to do so. And merely, as far as I can Learn, for this Reason, the mad people thro' the Countrey under a fascination on their Spirits equal to what the Energumens had on their Bodies, Reviled mee, as if I had been the Doer of all the Hard Things that were done in the prosecution of the Witchcraft.

He goes on to note how he offered to provide in his own family for six of the possessed, that he might try whether prayer and fasting "would not putt an End to their Heavy Trials"; how throughout the summer he prayed and fasted weekly for this heavy affliction to the country; how he visited witches in prison and preached to them; and how he wrote his "Wonders of the Invisible World." And at the end of this passage is a note in brackets, apparently made at some later time:—

[Upon the severest Examination, and the Solemnest Supplication, I still think, that for the main, I have Written Right.]

Later come less coherent notes. One remarks that the spectres brought books in which they urged the possessed to sign away their souls. Now, as Cotton Mather worked for God largely by writing books, this looked as if "this Assault of the Evil Angels upon the Countrey was intended by Hell as a particular Defiance unto my poor Endeavours to bring the Souls of men unto Heaven." Whereupon, he wrote "Awakenings for the Unregenerate," which he resolved, if he lived, to give away at the rate of two a week for two years. In the margin he notes that the evil angels, through a possessed young woman, reproached him for never having preached on Rev. 13. 8.25 "I to oppose them," he goes on, "and yett not follow them, chose to preach on Rev. 20. 15."26 Later he makes a memorandum: as the devils bid Energumens sign books, he will sign the best of books. On the fly-leaves of his favourite Bibles he wrote professions and confessions of his faith: for example, "Received as the Book of God and of Life by Cotton Mather."

"The Hearty Wishes of Cotton Mather," come next. "I have ever now and then gone to the good God with the most Solemn Addresses That I may be altogether delivered from Enchantments: that no Enchantment on my mind may hinder mee from seeing or doing any thing for the glory of God, or dispose mee to anything whereat God may be displeased. The Reason of this Wish is Because I beleeve, that a Real and proper Enchantment of the Divels do's blind and move the minds of the most of men: even in Instances of every sort. But I remember, That much Fasting as well as prayer is necessary to obtain a Rescue from Enchantments."

The last entry I have noted for the year, when I remember all the circumstances of the man's life, has for me real pathos: he would carefully avoid personal quarrels,

"Because no man can manage a personal Quarrel against another without Losing abundance of precious Time…. And one Likely to Live, so little a Time, as i, had need throw away, as Little of his Time, as ever he can."

The diary for 169327 is a little more full than that for 1692; but, like that, is an abridgement of the original, and omits most of the dates. On his birthday, he preached from the text, "O my God, take me not away in the midst of my days." Then he set to preaching over the whole Epistle of Jude,28 "intermingled with occasional texts." A little later he notes that a young woman possessed of devils has been delivered after he has held three fasts for her. He holds a thanksgiving accordingly; but, her possession being renewed, falls again to fasting and prayer:—

"And unto my amazement, when I had kept my Third Day for her, shee was finally and forever delivered from the hands of the Evil Angels: and I had afterwards the satisfaction of seeing, not only Her so brought home unto the Lord that she was admitted into the Church, but also many others, even some scores, of young people Awakened by the picture of Hell exhibited in her Sufferings, to flee from the wrath to come."

The next note I have copied tells more than any other I have found of Cotton Mather's pastoral methods:—

The church having hitherto extended a Church Watch unto none but Communicants, and confined Baptism unto Them and Their Children, I was desirous to bring the church into a posture more Agreeable unto the Advice of the Synod, in the year, 1662." So he preached on the subject, and allowing no disputation, proceeded to circulate among the brethren of the church "an instrument containing my Sentiments and purposes." The brethren "generally signed a Desire and Address unto myself thereto annexed that I would act accordingly. As for the few … who were Disaffected unto my proceedings. I carried it so peaceably, and obligingly, and yett resolutely, towards them, that they patiently Lett me take my way: and some of them told mee, they thought I did well to do as I did: tho' they could not yett come to see as I did…. Thus was the church quietly brought unto a point, which heretofore cost no Little Difficulty. But my Charge of such as now submitt themselves to my Ecclesiastical Watch was exceedingly increased.—Lord, LETT THY GRACE BEE SUFFICIENT FOR ME.

He notes that during the spring his days of fast and humiliation were so frequent that he lost record of them; that he kept, too, one or two days of Thanksgiving in his study. On one of these days, he goes on,—

"My Special Errand unto the Lord was this: That whereas His Good Angels, did by His Order, many good offices for His people, Hee would please to grant unto mee the Enjoyment of all those Angelical Kindnesses, which are to bee done by His Order, for His Chosen Servants … in a manner and measure more Transcendent, than what the great Corruptions of the generalty of Good Men, permitted them to be made partakers of. Now that I might bee Qualify'd for this Favour, I… Entreated that I may not, and Engaged that I will not, on the Score of any Angelical Communications, forsake the Conduct of the Lord's Written Word."

He goes on to state certain lines of conduct which he proposes to follow, with the hope of making his behaviour as agreeable to that of angels as he can. And his closing purpose is this:—

'To Conceal with all prudent Secrecy whatever Extraordinary Things I may perceive done for mee, by the Angels, who love Secrecy in their Administrations. I do now believe," he adds, 'That some Great Things are to be done for mee by the Angels of God.'"

On the 28th of March his first son was born. The child had a malformation beyond the reach of contemporary surgery. On the 1st of April it died unbaptized. It was buried beneath the epitaph, "Reserved for a glorious Resurrection."

I had great reason," writes the bereaved father, "to suspect a Witchcraft, in this praeternatural Accident; because my Wife, a few weeks before her Deliverance, was affrighted with an horrible Spectre, in the porch, which fright caused her Bowels to Turn within her; and the Spectres which both before and after, Tormented a young woman in the Neighbourhood, brag'd of their giving my Wife that Fright, in hopes, they said, of doing mischief unto her Infant, at Least, if not unto the Mother: and besides all this the child was no sooner Born but a suspected Woman sent unto my Father a Letter full of Railing against myself, wherein shee told him Hee little knew what might quickly befall some of his posterity. However, I made little Use of, and laid little Stress on, this Conjecture: desiring to submitt unto the will of my Heavenly Father without which, Not a sparrow falls unto the Ground.

He notes how during the summer he testified against the sin of uncleanness, on the occasion of the execution of two young women for child murder. "I accompanied the wretches to their execution," he writes, "but extremely fear all the Labours were lost upon them: however sanctify'd unto many others." He notes how his preaching at Reading started a revival there; how he conceived the idea of writing the Church History which, under the name of Magnalia Christi Americana, remains by far the most notable of his publications; how in July a fleet arrived, and he started down the harbour to preach to it, but fell so ill that he had to go home; and how he recovered in the afternoon to find that there was yellow-fever aboard the ships, and to be convinced that an Angel of the Lord had upset his stomach for the purpose of preserving him from infection. He notes how he has prayed and preached against vices which are bringing judgments on the community, "and such of these vices as called for the Correction of the Magistrates, I hope, I did effectually stir up some of the Justices to prosecute." Then, very ecstatically, he notes how in these dying times he feels himself quite ready for death: yellow-fever was abroad now. He notes a resolution to visit widows and the fatherless: he tells how he wrote a "True and Brief Representation of the Country," which was transmitted "with all the Secrecy desirable, unto the KING'S own hand: who Read it with much Satisfaction, and I hope, formed from thence, in His own Royal Mind, those Characters of the Countrey whereof we shall reap the good Effects for many a day." He notes how he wrote a book called Winter Mediations, which when winter came on was published; and how towards the end of the summer he began his great commentary on the Bible,—a collection of every scrap of learning he can discover which has any bearing on Scripture. He worked at this for twenty years: it still remains in manuscript, under the name of Biblia Americana.29

Early in September, he went to preach at Salem, where he sought "Furniture" for his Church History, and endeavoured "that the complete History of the Late Witchcrafts and Possessions might not be Lost." The notes from which he intended to preach were stolen "with such Circumstances, that I am … satisfy'd, the Spectres, or Agents in the Invisible World, were the Robbers." But he preached from memory, "so the Divel gott nothing." He had an interview with a pious woman, lately visited by shining spirits. Along with some things "to be kept secret," she prophesied a new "Storm of Witchcraft … to chastise the Iniquity that was used in the wilful Smothering … of the Last." On his return home, he found Margaret Rule down.

"To avoid gratifying of the Evil Angels, … I did … concern myself to use, and gett as much prayer as I could for the afflicted Young Woman; and at the same time, to forbid, either her from Accusing any of the Neighbours, or others from Enquiring anything of her.30 Nevertheless, a Wicked Man wrote a most Lying Libel to revile my Conduct in these Matters, which drove me to the Blessed God with my supplications…. I did at first, it may bee, too much Resent the Injuries of that Libel; but God brought good out of it: it occasioned the multiplication of my prayers before Him: it very much promoted the works of Humiliation and Mortification in my Soul."

He resisted the temptation to desert, in consequence of the libel, the lecture at the Old Meeting-House. As for his missing notes, he adds, the spectres bragged to the possessed girl that they had stolen them, but confessed that they could not keep them. Sure enough,

"On the fifth of October following Every Leaf of my Notes…. tho' they were in eighteen separate … sheets, … were found drop't here and there about the Streets of Lyn; but how they came to bee so Dropt I cannot Imagine, and I as much wonder at the Exactness of their preservation."

On the 3d of October, his little daughter Mary31 was ill. He prayed for her

"With such Rapturous Assurances of the Divine Love unto mee and mine, as would richly have made Amends for the Death of more Children, if God had then called for them. I was Unaccountably Assured, not only that this child shall be Happy forever, but that I never should have any Child, except what should bee an everlasting Temple to the Spirit of God: Yea, That I and Mine should bee together in the Kingdome of God, World without End."

On the 6th, the child died: next day she was buried: her epitaph was "Gone but not Lost." On the 8th, in spite of his bereavement, he administered the sacrament;

"And, I hope, that I now so exemplify'd such a Behaviour as not only to embolden my Approaches to the Supper of the Lord, but also to direct and instruct my Neighbourhood, with what frame to encounter their Afflictions."

On the 10th, a military training day, he prayed and fasted, particularly for a possessed girl,—doubtless Margaret Rule. A white spirit appeared to her, with word that God had made Cotton Mather her father, and thereupon she was delivered.

He notes in detail how he drew up a plan for a Negro meeting, in which he carefully attended both to the spiritual welfare of the Africans and to their temporal duties in the station of slavery to which it had pleased God to call them; and how he prayed and preached at the almshouse. He tells then how he was himself accused of witchcraft: the tormentors of a possessed young woman made

"my Image to appear before her, and they made themselves Masters of her tongue so far, that she began in her Fits to complain that I Threatened her, … tho' when shee came out of them, shee owned that They could not so much as make my Dead Shape do her any Harm…. Her greatest outcries when shee was herself, were for my poor prayers."

Aware of the terrible danger to his influence, if these rumours should gain credence,

"I was putt," he writes, "upon … Agonies, and Singular … Efforts of Soul, in the Resignation of my Name unto the Lord; content that if Hee had no further Service for my Name, it should bee torn to pieces…. But I cried unto the Lord as for the Deliverance of my Name from the Malice of Hell, so for the Deliverance of the Young Woman whom the powers of Hell had seized upon. And behold! … the possessed person … was Delivered … on the very same day; and the whole plott of the Divel to Reproach a poor Servant of the Lord Jesus Christ was Defeated."

In January, his only surviving child, Katharine, was very ill; praying for her, he was assured that she should recover, and presently she did. His last note for the year tells how he offered to give up a part of his salary to some members of his church who lived at a distance, and were for starting a new meeting nearer home: but nothing came of it.

Meanwhile he had published nine works: two,—a volume of sermons, and some meditations on the last judgment,—in 1692; and seven,—a preface to Mosten's Spirit of Man, two volumes of sermons, his warnings against uncleanness, his Winter Meditations, a letter on Witchcraft, and his Wonders of the Invisible World, which was printed both at home and abroad,—in 1693.

I have cited with perhaps tedious detail his account of himself during these years that proved the most critical of his life, because I have not found it much noticed elsewhere, and without it he cannot, I think, be fairly judged. I have told enough, I hope, to enable whoever cares, to pass honest judgment on him. There remain two or three facts, without which our notion of the great tragedy of witchcraft would be incomplete.

Sewall, it will be remembered, was one of the judges who accepted spectral evidence. In the years that followed, he suffered many afflictions. In his diary for January, 1696-7, is this note:—

Copy of the Bill I put up on the Fast day; giving it to Mr. Willard as he pass'd by, and standing up at the reading of it, and bowing when finished; in the Afternoon.

Samuel Sewall, sensible of the reiterated strokes of God upon himself and family; and being sensible, that as to the Guilt contracted upon the opening of the late Comission of Oyer and Terminer at Salem (to which the order for this Day relates) he is, upon many accounts, more concerned than any that he knows of, Desires to take the Blame and shame of it, Asking pardon of men, And especially desiring prayers that God, who has an Unlimited Authority, would pardon that sin and all other his sins; personal and Relative: And according to his infinite Benignity, and Sovereignty, Not Visit the sin of him, or of any other, upon himself or any of his, nor upon the Land: But that He would powerfully defend him against all Temptations to Sin, for the future; and vouchsafe him the efficacious, saving Conduct of his Word and Spirit.

It is said that when Stoughton, the Chief Justice of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, heard what Sewall had done, he declared that he had no such confession to make, having acted according to the best light God had given him.32

In Cotton Mather's diaries for later years33 are two entries that belong here. The first was made at this very time, January 15th, 1696-7.

'Being afflicted last Night," it runs, "with Discouraging Thoughts as if unavoidable marks of the Divine Displeasure must overtake my Family, for my not appearing with vigour enough to stop the proceedings of the Judges, when the Inextricable Storm from the Invisible World assaulted the Countrey, I did this morning in prayer with my Family, putt my Family into the merciful Hands of the Lord. And with Tears I Received Assurance of the Lord that marks of His Indignation should not follow my Family, but that having the Righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ pleading for us, Goodness and Mercy should follow us and Signal Salvation of the Lord."

The other entry comes years later. On the night between the 15th and 16th of April, 1713, he held a vigil: in it he prayed that many books which he had published might do the good in the hope of which he had written them; and finally, in the troubled perplexity of spirit that had been growing during these long years, when his public influence and the public power of the church had been constantly waning, he wrote these words:—

"I also entreated of the Lord, that I might understand the meaning of the Descent from the Invisible World, which nineteen years ago produced in a Sermon from me, a good part of what is now published."


1 Cf. page 26.

2 Upham, II. 268.

3 Upham, II. 351.

4 Ibid., II. 349.

5Diary, I. 363.

6 It was believed that no witch could repeat the Lord's prayer without error.

7 The bewitched: a capital example of spectral evidence.

8 Page 213.

9Diary, I. 364. Upham, II. 341, seq., shows the charge against Corey to have been groundless. There is no more notable example of the popular infatuation.

10 Upham, II. 487, seq. Cf. Sibley, III. 11.

11Diary, I. 365. Stoughton, Hathorne, and Sewall were judges of the Court of Oyer and Terminer; Stephen Sewall, clerk of the Court, was the man to whom Cotton Mather had written on September 20.

12 Stoughton.

13 Upham, II. 489.

14 Calef, p. 34.

15 Harvard Graduates, III. 12-18.

16 Cf. pages 150, 186.

17 In possession of the American Antiquarian Society.

18 In possession of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

19Parentator, XXVIII.

20Magnalia, II. App. 16.

21 Mather Papers, 392, seq. See page 110.

22 What is more, he acknowledged the book in 1702, when the Magnalia was published.

23 In possession of the American Antiquarian Society.

24 This passage, and indeed the diaries concerning this matter in general, have been studied and cited by Peabody: Sparks's American Biographies, Vol. VI.

25 "And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him [the beast], whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world."

26 "And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire."

27 In possession of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

28 A most minatory scripture.

29 In possession of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

30 In Calef himself I find nothing to contradict this.

31 Born in 1691.

32 Sewall's Diary, I. 446, note.

33 Both diaries are in possession of the American Antiquarian Society.

Thomas J. Holmes (essay date 1924)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4749

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 comparatively insignificant "witchcraft" case of Margaret Rule, and by his contact over it with Robert Calef.

Mather opponents have tuned their fiddles to Calef's key. Many a tune have they fiddled, out of harmony with truth, respecting Cotton Mather and the witch tragedies at Salem in 1692. It therefore may not be amiss to contribute our little aid toward the correction, if that is possible, of two minor strains among those errors.

First, I would invite you to a very brief survey of Mather's works, to effect a comparison of the whole of them with that portion of his writings devoted to the subject of witchcraft. Second, I hope to indicate evidence tending to show that, however the reaction from the witch frenzy first manifested itself, whatever were the immediate causes, the nature and extent of that reaction, which came all too slowly and too timidly—the development of which no one to this day has quite fully delineated—that reaction, did not involve Cotton Mather in any serious loss of public following, or in any serious diminution of his personal prestige. The contrary of this has been many times reiterated, as by W. R. Bliss, Side glimpses from the Colonial meeting house (Boston, 1894), page 199.

Before writing his trifle of a paper on Margaret Rule, Cotton Mather, then thirty years old, had published approximately 38 separate works. After it, and before he ceased his labor at the age of sixty-five, he published at least 399 more. A total of no less than 437 published works are to his credit, exclusive of reprints, prefaces, and unprinted manuscripts. The editors of the Cambridge History of American Literature, by including posthumous works, prefaces, etc., have compiled a list of 475 items. These probably could still be augmented.

Without attempting the difficult task of an exhaustive classification of these at this time, a hasty examination shows that among them are works on the following subjects:

For the popular light reading of the day, funeral sermons take the lead with fifty-one examples. Sixteen works deal with various aspects of New England history. On medicine there are ten, five of which are on small-pox, exclusive of three contributed papers and one circulated MS on that subject. There were ten biographies, five issued singly and five in one work. Of these there were eight reprinted in the Magnalia, which contains over sixty biographies as well as a large number of short memoirs. At least four works were devoted to psalms, hymns, singing. There were two elegies.

On each of the following themes he wrote one, two, or on some subjects three books: pirates, captives, criminals, thieves, impostors, evil customs, murder, drinking, taverns, dancing, cursing, anger, idolatry, hypocrisy, slothfulness, slander, the ark, the tabernacle, sacrifices, adversity, prosperity, fifth of November, new year, winter, summer heat, change, time, heavenly world, terrors of hell, natural science, Sabbath-keeping, antinomianism, arianism, quakerism, rules for right living, civic affairs, society to suppress disorders, commerce and trading, debtor and creditor, fidelity in engagements, masters, servants, parents, children, widows, orphans, youth, catechisms, oaths, calamitous fires, earthquakes, storms, rainbow, aurora borealis. No subject of possible interest in his day escaped his attention.

Books were especially addressed to farmers, soldiers, sailors, fishermen, negroes, Indians.

A great many of these works, though not all, were originally sermons, containing a good mixture of homily and theology. They were printed in small books varying from about twenty-four to one hundred and eight pages each. Some of the sermons were printed by request of some of the auditory. Some of the issues were simply tracts; though others were considerable works of two to three hundred pages, a few of which retain interest and value even to this day. Among such are his Manuductio ad ministerium, directions for a candidate of the ministry, and his Ratio disciplinae, a faithful account of the discipline professed and practised in the churches of New England. His Christian philosopher, a collection of the best discoveries in nature with religious improvements still has its usefulness in the history of science. The works just mentioned, though less known, are probably in some ways superior to the Magnalia, by which Mather's name is still best known in literature.

His works were in great measure the reflection of passing events, and the moods of that public of which Cotton Mather was popular preacher, writer, and idol. The works are not only formidably numerous but the originals are now rare and widely scattered. Some titles exist only in a single copy still remaining, so that their perusal is attended with no little difficulty. Therefore I have not minutely examined the entire contents of all of his works but have judged some of them by photographs of their titlepages only. I do not assume any dogmatic bellicose attitude in regard to my conclusions. The witch trials have already resulted in the fruitless shedding of much ink.

So far, then, I might say I have found that on witchcraft Mather published two complete works only, three chapters or portions of other works, and the text of a letter of advice to the governor. He probably also supervised the compilation and aided in the publication of one other complete work written in his defense. In addition to publishing these, he wrote on this subject five letters and three manuscripts that he did not publish, and the text of an unpublished proclamation. The list is given at the end of this paper, and comprises a total of 16 items on witchcraft as against over 475 on all subjects.

I think it is safe to say that if Cotton Mather had been the active, interested, conscious promoter of the persecutions that some historians seem to have thought and others still think he was, there should have been a much larger deposit from that sort of mental activity seen in his writings than the remains of his work now show.

In the twelve years from 1688 to 1700, during which the subject of witchcraft is commonly supposed to have eaten up Mather's mind almost completely, he wrote on other subjects than witchcraft a total of eighty-eight works.

During the four years from about the autumn of 1693 to that of 1697, in which Robert Calef and his several aids were engaged in distracting Mather with their activities and in concocting their book, More wonders of the invisible world, the harried one published twenty-six works, and did much toward preparing for the press his largest, his bestknown, and still useful work, the Magnalia.

In the five years or a little more immediately preceding this period, occurred those two chief groups of witchcraft cases that Mather recorded in his two books on the subject, and the books themselves were written and printed within this span of years. Yet we may safely assign to this period not less than thirty publications on other subjects; among them the Life of John Eliot, afterward four times reprinted.

Nor should it be forgotten that these five years embraced the greater part of the intercharter period, the revolution, and the two expeditions—one that gained Port Royal and the other that failed against Quebec and caused Sir William Phips, who led them, to seek aid in London.1 It was a time of nerve-racking anxiety for all public men in the colony; which, in a triple sense, affected Cotton Mather. He was concerned about his father, then in London working for the charter. Upon him also rested added responsibilities and work of the North Church by reason of the father's absence.

That he carried his share, too, of the general public anxiety, and aided to some extent in the Revolution when the people took arms against Andros, is shown by the fact that it was he who wrote the rousing Declaration of the Gentlemen Merchants and Inhabitants of Boston and Country adjacent, which was read on April 18, 1689, from the gallery of the council-chamber to a "vast concourse of people." This Declaration gave voice to the provisional gov ernment, and justified the arrest of Andros and his minions.2

If we can obtain a correct impression of Cotton Mather during the development and passing of the witchcraft craze, busy on his pastoral visits, preaching his sermons in Boston and occasionally in adjacent towns and villages, conducting private meetings, and, in his turn, Thursday lectures, keeping fasts even to the endangering of his health, engaging in omnivorous reading and in the writing of his many books,3 and never once attending any of the witchcraft trials, we cannot but conclude that he gave comparatively little of his mind and time to the subject of witchcraft, and that it interested him far, far less than is usually supposed.

Then later, during the reaction from the witchcraft persecutions, when "Calef and the Brattles…. seized Mather by the throat," as Brooks Adams expressed it, and when Leverett, the Brattles, Coleman, and the young liberals were working against him at Harvard and elsewhere, and the diaries on various accounts were recording those humiliations before the Lord that nearly two centuries later were to be so helpful to the traducers of his good name4 how did Mather during those years stand with his public? After the witch trials and during the Margaret Rule affair was "public opinion…. arrayed solidly against him," as James T. Adams5 says it was? Let us see.

It has been usual to enlarge gleefully on Mather's quarrel with Governor Dudley, and on the loss by Increase Mather of the presidency of Harvard after the council order of 1701 required the president to live at Cambridge, and on the closing of the door to that office also against Cotton Mather. It has been usual to enlarge on these points, and to fortify them with confessions of disappointment from Mather's diaries and fulminations from his letters, in order to prove Mather's loss of public esteem. It is true that Cotton Mather was denied complete fulfilment of some of his ambitions, spiritual as well as temporal. He strove for that which in the changing times, perhaps even at any time, was unattainable.

In his personal inner life—and that must be noticed in the case of a man of Cotton Mather's type—in his inner life, he sought to realize and to perpetuate that mystical ecstasy which is possible for human beings to know if at all only in brief trances.6 The reaction from such efforts, like those of the saints of old, was a sense of sin, of great personal imperfection, which found its expression in utter self-abasement in many an overwrought passage in the diaries7—passages that too often have been misread and misused by the enemies of his good name.

In a temporal and outward sense, his success in life was not always and in all places as great as were his hopes—a common-enough human experience that should not have been counted against him as it has been. His disappointment reacted in many a hasty word and in more than one undignified letter that has since told to his disadvantage. He experienced rebuffs, and, in common with the best of men, met an occasional defeat, but that he suffered no great failure, no serious loss of public esteem, I hope to show presently.

Cotton Mather was not a traveled man. He probably never ventured from his native Boston farther, perhaps, than New Haven. His views might pardonably be provincial. His father had stood before kings and had nominated William Phips to be the first royal governor under the new charter. Such a son, who had in addition intimately consulted with God, the King of Kings, might easily make the mistake of offering advice or even reproof to Joseph Dudley, a mere governor of Massachusetts, whose very appointment was in some measure due to Mather's earlier and at that time friendly influence. Especially was Cotton Mather, the born teacher, liable to such error when the inner root and motive of the quarrel with Dudley concerned the government, not of Massachusetts, but of Harvard College.

Cotton Mather had no talents for diplomacy and skilful scheming. In his tilts with the self-seeking, intriguing, worldly wise Dudley he was worsted. But there was perhaps a more subtle force than Dudley working against the Mathers, father and son. It was the implacable Elisha Cooke, protagonist of the lost old charter and foe of the new charter that had been secured by the elder Mather's agency.

Then there were young men among the overseers of Harvard who held views about the Lord's Supper and church administration that were less strict than those taught by the early Fathers and held by the Mathers. The Mathers would prevent the sowing of what they thought was the seed of pernicious doctrine in the young minds at Harvard; but the temper of the times being less strict than at an earlier day, fostered perhaps by the liberal conditions under the new charter, seemed to favor the new ideas enough to give them a trial.

But these changes were fruiting after 1700—over seven years after the events of Salem. The changes were at heart almost wholly political in character. Even the ecclesiastical changes had their political aspects. They had nothing to do with the reaction from the witch frenzy, and they had apparently no great bearing on the personal popularity of either teacher Increase, or pastor Cotton Mather.

This paper concerns Cotton Mather. If Harvard, then, was lost to him, as he himself finally saw, was his public lost to him? Fortunately on this there exists unbiased, trustworthy evidence, that of experts in measuring public esteem, those who convert that esteem into cold unsentimental business. If Mather fell from public favor, the fall would be instantly reflected in loss of demand for his publications. If his public deserted him, his publishers—in spite of financial help on special occasion from father-in-law Phillips or friends like Thomas Bradbury and John Winthrop or his own ample purchases and his solicited subscriptions—if his public deserted him, his publishers must, by inexorable necessity, very speedily follow. To undertake the publication of even one book in those days of limited capital was a matter of consideration for the publisher. If composition by hand was relatively cheaper then than it is today, type, paper, ink, and presswork were expensive. Real money must come in from one book, or be fairly assured, before the next could be undertaken.

No author's works can be sold to, or successfully unloaded, in any period by any ruse, device, or stratagem known to the publishing craft, by title after title during year after year, upon a public that is arrayed solidly against him. A publisher's business thrives solely upon the popularity of his authors.

To judge how busy, impetuous, witty, outwardly cheerful though often inwardly despondent, generous, loquacious, pedantic, egoistic, yet in many ways adaptable and tolerant and withal mystical, Cotton Mather stood in his day with his public it should be necessary only to glance briefly at his published titles.

To afford a rapid survey, the following summary is grouped in five-year periods:

From 1682 to 1686, he published 4 titles
From 1687 to 1691, he published 23 new titles
From 1692 to 1696, he published 26 new titles
From 1697 to 1701, he published 51 new titles
From 1702 to 1706, he published 60 new titles
From 1707 to 1711, he published 46 new titles
From 1712 to 1716, he published 77 new titles
From 1717 to 1721, he published 68 new titles
From 1722 to 1726, he published 66 new titles
In 1727 and 1728, he published 16 new titles

Many of these works, first printed in Boston, were reprinted in London; some of them were reprinted more than once. Ornaments for the daughters of Zion had six editions, as also had his Monitor for communicants. The Family religion excited appeared at least seven or eight times. His Essays to do good, which proved helpful even to the practical-minded Benjamin Franklin, though not reprinted in Mather's lifetime, had eighteen editions, three of them published over a century after the author's death, two editions appearing as late as 1842 (London) and 1845 (Boston).

This unbroken cataract of new publications pouring forth to the last of Mather's days shows no diminution during the reaction from the witchcraft episode, no indications of serious defections of patronage contemporary with the liberal movement centered about Coleman and the Brattles from 1700 onward, no indications of a stampede from the ranks of his readers at any time. Whatever were the political or ecclesiastical developments of his time, whatever enemies he may have had—and who is without these?—we might even say whatever were his views over or connections with the witch persecutions, Cotton Mather, if continued avidity for his writings indicates anything, carried his great personal popularity during the whole of his life. How great that popularity was, may be conjectured from Increase Mather's statement8 that ordinarily fifteen hundred persons attended services in their church. If this is not acceptable as a proof of popularity, it could be confirmed in several other ways; perhaps most readily by Mather's Diary,9 if we care to accept that authority when quoted in his favor as it has been so often cited against him:

On Monday, September 5, 1698, he journeyed to Salem; on the next day, with a council of five churches, he went to Chebacco (i.e., Ipswich), where, on the day following, the council sat and rendered decision on a case before it. Thursday he "preached the Lecture at Ipswich." On Friday he returned to Salem, where on the following Sunday he preached in both the forenoon and afternoon, with a sense of great success. This in Salem, the center, six years earlier, of those tragedies and terrors by which the town had "lost, in one year, a quarter of its whole population."10

Upon his return to Boston after his few days' sojourn in Salem and in Ipswich, Mather records the following impression:

Finding that whenever I go abroad, the Curiosity and Vanity of the people discovers itself, in their great Flocking to hear mee; with no little Expectation; it still causes mee aforehand, exceedingly to humble myself before the Lord…. By this Method, I not only am in a comfortable measure kept from the foolish Taste of popular Applause in my own Heart, but also from the humbling Dispensations of Heaven, whereunto the Fondness of the People might otherwise expose mee.

It probably is no exaggeration to say that Cotton Mather as an entertainer was the seventeenth-century New England prototype of the present-day matinée idol. Granted that the compliments he received made him vain, may not a little vanity be allowed him as a professional perquisite?

The favorable view of Cotton Mather's character entertained by the public of his time did not die with him. "A fragrant memory of him remains to this day," said his biographer, Marvin (p. 218), and adds: "Among the many eulogies of Cotton Mather no immortelle cast upon his grave was sweeter or brighter than that of Benjamin Colman."

Even concerning the witchcraft frenzy, there are not wanting in earlier and in recent times studiously and carefully written accounts, having the cogency of truth, that exhibit sympathetic views of Mather's relation to the events of 1692; or in which his responsibility is held to have been of very minor importance. Among such accounts are those of John Fiske, New France and New England; E. B. Andrews, History of the United States, Volume I; D. Neal, History of New-England, chapter xii; W. F. Poole, Salem Witchcraft; W. S. Nevins, Witchcraft in Salem Village; A. P. Marvin, Cotton Mather; and B. Wendell, Cotton Mather. The most recent and perhaps most comprehensive discussion of the relationship of the Mathers, Cotton and Increase, to Salem witchcraft, however, is in K. B. Murdock, Life and Work of Increase Mather, chapter xvii, a doctoral thesis (1923) published by the Harvard University Press.

It will be seen, then, that concerning the historical figure of Cotton Mather there have flowed across two-centuries of his country's literature two utterly divergent streams of criticism; and it is not easy for the average reader, or even the busy writer of history, to decide which contains the water of truth and which the mud of error.

One of Mather's biographers, W. B. O. Peabody (1836), confessed:

It is very difficult to form a satisfactory estimate of a character like Cotton Mather's which abounds in contradictions; to tell the precise amount of blame due to his faults, which were many, and how heavily they should weigh against the credit due his virtues [p.345].

Peabody's quandary indicates how thoroughly the old Puritan's character has been slandered—not always with wilful malice—and how early the aspersion began.

The adverse criticism in literature concerning Cotton Mather goes back through C. W. Upham and Francis Hutchinson, diminishing at each remove toward its source in Robert Calef's More Wonders. Though Calef's conclusions were drawn as much from his theories, which can be seriously questioned, as from his reports of local facts which are his best title to credibility, still his chief criticism concerning the Salem tragedies—throughout his letters and Preface, the only portions ascribable with certainty to his pen—was directed against the underlying doctrines, the "Heathenish notions" and "the Slavery of a corrupt Education" whence he believed the evils had sprung.

He traces these pernicious witchcraft doctrines back to Perkins, Gaul, and Bernard—writing in England since the Reformation. "The Doctrine of the power of Devils, and Witchcraft as it is now, and long has been understood" he finds among the "pernicious weeds" that came into the church from the "Fables of Homer, Virgil, Horace and Ovid &c."11

Calef speaks of "the received Opinions about Witchcraft,"12 which I take to mean the opinions commonly held by people around him whom he knew and saw and conversed with daily. This would indicate that the people, the public, of Calef's day, held to a very wide extent those opinions that he criticized. Palfrey says:

The people of Massachusetts in the seventeenth century, like all other Christian people at that time,—at least, with extremely rare individual exceptions,—believed in the reality of a hideous crime called witchcraft.13

Rev. William Bentley, D.D., Harvard, 1777, minister of the Second Church in Salem, 1783-1819, states:

Mr. Noyes…. believed in witchcraft, and so did every other person…. The doctrine of invisible agency, no one was bold enough utterly to deny…. The Salem judges…. were over ruled by the madness which was universal around them.14

The necessary support of that dreadful tribunal, said Dr. George H. Moore, "had been in the madness of the people, the poisoned breath of the mob."15 A mob spirit that has left its definite trace in history in the plundering by the multitude of the home of Mr. Philip English after first his wife then he himself had been accused of witchcraft and arrested.16

C. W. Upham says: "The whole force of popular superstition, all the fanatical propensities of the ignorant and deluded multitude, united with the best feelings of our nature to heighten the fury of the storm."17

Then, after the storm was over, said Dr. Bentley, "Few dared to blame other men, because few were innocent. They who had been most active, remembered that they had been applauded."18

Against some features of those generally diffused, popular conceptions of witchcraft of his time, Calef, then, worked out his ideas, embodied them in what he called his "doctrinals,"19 and with these opposed the "received opinions" of his day. If we read Calef aright, he set himself to pillory the witchcraft beliefs, held generally by the intellectual leaders, the ministers and writers, the magistrates and judges, and the public of his time, that had made possible the blind fury of 1692.

Though heat was generated and personalities involved, as was certain to be in any clash with popular notions, and though Calef said Mather's "Strenuous and Zealous asserting his opinions, has been one cause of the dismal Convulsions,"20 he never regarded Mather as the singly responsible source.

It was during the nineteenth century that the idea gained force for holding Cotton Mather chiefly blamable for the Salem calamity of 1692—an idea that developed currency out of the strong bias of Upham's work as it relates to Cotton Mather, and that found ready reception in that critical, iconoclastic, realistic spirit of the nineteenth century that had very little sympathy with the ideals, very little patience with the faults, of the fervently religious, believing, seventeenth century—which in many ways Cotton Mather typified and represented.

In recapitulation, then, of the foregoing, I would submit for the consideration of any who may think it worth while, that Cotton Mather's works show that he was much less interested in witchcraft than is sometimes supposed, and that the time he is considered to have been giving to the study of that subject he was very strenuously devoting to quite different undertakings. Also I would submit that the statement occasionally repeated by Cotton Mather's opponents, that he was discredited by his public over and following the witch trials, cannot be true when the ever growing volume of his publications indicate an increasing popularity throughout the period of the witch trials, straight through the attacks by Calef and the differences with the liberals and with Dudley, and on down the years of his life.

With the fuller understanding of the underlying causes, character, and nature of the phenomena of witch persecutions in past ages21—which persecutions, sad though they were, were but one aspect of that universal woe and travail through which humanity has suffered and labored into partial enlightenment—and with a dispassionate examination of the original sources of the history of the New England outbreak, the present writer believes that those charges made against Cotton Mather concerning the originating and the promoting of the lamentable proceedings at Salem in 1692 will ultimately fall away. Then Mather will bear, in the work not only of some but of all future reputable writers of Massachusetts history, no more than his just small fractional share of indirect responsibility with the men of his time for the shortcomings of his community under the darkness of the age in which they lived.


1 Palfrey, IV, 49-59.

2 Neal, History of New England, pp. 430-42; Palfrey, III, 579.

3 See Diary, I, 147, and B. Wendell, Cotton Mather, pp. 79-87.

4 E.g., W. R. Bliss, Side Glimpses, pp. 199-203, and Upham, Salem Witchcraft, II, 503-5.

5Founding of New England, p. 455.

6Diary, I, 5-11, 187, 192-93, 254-55, 477-79; C. A. Bennett, Philosophical Study of Mysticism, pp. 10, 47, 48, etc.; B. Wendell, op. cit., p. 304.

7Diary, I, 479.

8 Letter to Stoughton (December 16, 1698), in Sewall, Diary, I, 493.

9 I, 272-73.

10 Bentley, Description of Salem, p. 234, in M.H.S. Coll., Vol. VI.

11 Preface.

12 Pp. 64, 83. Italics mine.

13Op. cit., IV, 96.

14 "Description and History of Salem," Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, VI, 266.

15Final Notes on Witchcraft in Massachusetts (New York, 1885), p. 81.

16 Bentley, Description of Salem, p. 270.

17Salem Witchcraft, II, 370-71.

18Op. cit., p. 271.

19More Wonders (1700), pp. 17, 18, 34, 42.

20Ibid., p. 33.

21 Professor George L. Kittredge has pointed the way to that understanding in his "Notes on Witchcraft," Amer. Antiq. Soc. Proc., XVIII (N.S., 1907), especially in his summary in twenty-one brief theses of his conclusions (pp. 210-12). Professor George L. Burr made reply to this in his paper in Amer. Antiq. Soc. Proc., Vol. XXI (N.S.). In connection with Professor Burr's paper should be read an earlier one by him, "The Literature of Witchcraft," Papers of the Amer. Hist. Assoc., Vol. IV. See also Preface, introductions, and notes to his Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, New York, 1914. On the whole question, of course, see W. E. H. Lecky, Rationalism, chapter on "Magic and Witchcraft."

A new view of the question of witchcraft is set forth by Margaret Alice Murray, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, Oxford, 1921. See also Ian Ferguson, The Philosophy of Witchcraft, New York, 1925.

Mather's account of Margaret Rule is discussed in "The Surreptitious Printing of one of Cotton Mather's Manuscripts," by Thomas J. Holmes, Bibliographical Essays, A Tribute to Wilberforce Eames (1924), pp. 149-60.

Vernon Louis Parrington (essay date 1927)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4841

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 his youth the spoiled child of Boston, in middle life he was petulant and irritable, inclined to sulk when his will was crossed. In the career of no other New England Puritan is the inquisitorial pettiness of the Genevan system of theology and discipline revealed so disagreeably. The heroic qualities of an earlier age had atrophied in an atmosphere of formalism, and Boston Calvinism of the year 1690 had become a grotesque caricature of a system that in its vigor had defied the power of Rome and laid kingdoms at its feet. Embodied in Cotton Mather it was garrulous, meddlesome, scolding, an echo of dead voices, a shadow of forgotten realities. The common provincialism had laid its blight upon it. The horizons of the New England imagination grew narrow, and Puritan anthropomorphism unconsciously reduced the God of the Hebrew prophets to the compass of a village priest, clothed in stock and gown, and endowed with the intellect of a parish beadle. In the egocentric universe wherein Cotton Mather lived and labored the cosmos had shrunk to the narrow bounds of a Puritan commonwealth, whereof Boston was the capital and the prosperity of the North Church the special and particular object of divine concern. The mind of Increase Mather had been enlarged by contact with English life; the mind of the son was dwarfed by a village world.

Cotton Mather is an attractive subject for the psychoanalyst. Intensely emotional, high-strung and nervous, he was oversexed and overwrought, subject to ecstatic exaltations and, especially during his celibate years, given to seeing visions. In the carefully edited Diary which he left for the edification of his natural and spiritual children, at the beginning of his twenty-third year, is an apologetic entry—"Cum Relego, Scripsisse Pudet!"—that Professor Wendell has put into English thus:

A strange and memorable thing. After outpourings of prayer, with the utmost fervor and fasting, there appeared an Angel, whose face shone like the noonday sun. His features were as those of a man, and beardless; his head was encircled by a splendid tiara; on his shoulders were wings; his garments were white and shining; his robe reached to his ankles; and about his loins was a belt not unlike the girdles of the peoples of the East. And this Angel said that he was sent by the Lord Jesus to bear a clear answer to the prayers of a certain youth, and to bear back his words in reply. Many things this Angel said which it is not fit should be set down here. But among other things not to be forgotten he declared that the fate of this youth should be to find full expression for what in him was best; … And in particular this Angel spoke of the influence his branches should have, and of the books this youth should write and publish, not only in America but in Europe. And he added certain special prophecies of the great works this youth should do for the Church of Christ in the revolutions that are now at hand. Lord Jesus! What is the meaning of this marvel? From the wiles of the Devil, I beseech thee, deliver and defend Thy most unworthy servant.14

The passage throws a good deal of light on the psychology of Cotton Mather. Such visions were clearly the result of abnormal stimuli, acting on a neurotic temperament. From both sides of his family he inherited a tense nervous system that was aggravated by precocity and an unnatural regimen. The inevitable result was a hothouse plant of Puritan forcing. His religious exaltation flowered from the root of egoism. His vanity was cosmic. He esteemed himself a beacon set on a hill, a divine torch which the very hand of God had lighted. The success or failure of God's plan for New England, he believed, rested on his shoulders; and with such heavy responsibilities devolved upon him he was driven, hot-haste, by the prick of urgency. The king's business requireth haste. The work of the Lord cannot wait upon sluggards. "O then To work as fast as you can," he wrote in The Magnalia, "and of soul-work and church-work as much as ever you can. Say to all Hindrances … 'You'll excuse me if I ask you to be short with me, for my work is great and my time is but little.'" And so with an amazing activity that was little short of neurosis, he gave himself over to the great business of managing the affairs of New England in accordance with God's will.

In undertaking so difficult a job, he frequently came into conflict with other interpreters of God's plan for New England, and partisan venom gathered about him wherever he passed. Tact was never a Mather virtue, and Cotton made two enemies to his father's one. His quarrels trod on each other's heels, and a downright vindictiveness breathes through his private records of them. He railed at whoever disagreed with him, and imputed silly or malignant motives. The pages of his diary are filled with epithets that he flung privately at his enemies; one marvels that so manv in the little town of Boston could be singled out as "strangely and fiercely possessed of the Devil." Robert Calef, whose More Wonders of the Invisible World was an inconvenient reply to his Wonders of the Invisible World, was set down as "a very wicked sort of a Sadducee in this Town, raking together a crue of Libels … an abominable Bundle of Lies, written on purpose, with a Quil under a special Energy and Management of Satan, to damnify my precious Opportunities of Glorifying my Lord Jesus Christ."15 When an anti-Mather group of Cambridge men set up the Brattle Street Church, and invited Benjamin Colman, who had received Presbyterian ordination in England, by way of reply to the Mather group, to become their pastor, Cotton wrote in his diary:

A Company of Head-strong Men in the Town, the cheef of whom, are full of malignity to the Holy Waye of our Churches, have built in this Town, another Meeting-house. To delude many better-meaning Men in their own Company, and the Churches in the Neighbourhood, they past a Vote … that they would not vary from the Practice of these Churches, except in one little Particular…. But a young Man, born and bred here, and hence gone for England, is now returned hither, at their Invitation, equip'd with an Ordination, to qualify him, for all that is intended.

On his "returning and arriving here, these fallacious People" gave themselves over, in short, to "Their violent and impetuous Lusts, to carry on the Apostasy," and Cotton Mather prayed God to make him an instrument to defeat the "Designs that Satan may have in the Enterprise."16 Similar passages of extravagant abuse of men so wicked as to disagree with him flowed from his pen in copious abundance, Although he constantly prayed that his daily life might be "a trembling walk with God," he was clearly a difficult fellow to get on with; and in the opinion of many he was justly described by a contemporary, as a "malecontent priest," consumed with an "Hereditary rancour" that made him "everlastingly opposite" to every will but his own.

The diary of Cotton Mather is a treasure-trove to the abnormal psychologist. The thing would be inconceivable if the record were not in print. What a crooked and diseased mind lay back of those eyes that were forever spying out occasions to magnify self! He grovels in proud self-abasement. He distorts the most obvious reality. His mind is clogged with the strangest miscellany of truth and marvel. He labors to acquire the possessions of a scholar, but he listens to old wives' tales with greedy avidity. In all his mental processes the solidest fact falls into fantastic perspective. He was earnest to do good, he labored to put into effect hundreds of "Good devices," but he walked always in his own shadow. His egoism blots out charity and even the divine mercy. Consider his account of an "execution sermon" preached to a nameless girl condemned for killing her natural child, and the light it throws on both minister and congregation:

The Execution of the miserable Malefactor, was ordered for to have been the last Week, upon the Lecture of another. I wondred then what would become of my Particular Faith, of her condition being so ordered in the Providence of God, that it should furnish me, with a special Opportunity to glorify Him. While I was entirely resigning to the wisdome of Heaven all such Matters, the Judges, wholly without my seeking, altered and allow'd her Execution to fall on the Day of my Lecture. The General Court then sitting, ordered the Lecture to bee held in a larger and a stronger House, than that old one, where 'tis usually kept. For my own part, I was weak, and faint, and spent; but I humbly gave myself up to the Spirit of my Heavenly Lord and Hee assured mee, that Hee would send His good Angel to strengthen mee. The greatest Assembly, ever in this Countrey preach'd unto, was now come together; It may bee four or five thousand Souls. I could not gett unto the Pulpit, but by climbing over Pues and Heads: there the Spirit of my dearest Lord came upon mee. I preached with a more than ordinary Assistance, and enlarged, and uttered the most awakening Things, for near two hours together. My Strength and Voice failed not; but when it was near failing, a silent Look to Heaven strangely renew'd it. In the whole I found Prayer answered and Hope exceeded, and Faith encouraged, and the Lord using mee, the vilest in all that great Assembly, to glorify Him. Oh! what shall I render to the Lord!17

Straightway thereafter, he rendered the Lord another characteristic service. No sooner was the girl hanged—for whose safekeeping no good angel seems to have been available after the minister had bespoken his—than he hastened to the printer to arrange for printing the sermon, and "annexed thereunto, an History of Criminals executed in this Land, and effectually, an Account of their dying Speeches, and of my own Discourses with them in their last Hours…. I entitled the Book, PILLARS OF SALT." Clearly this was the time to peddle his wares, when all Boston was talking of the great event; and with a nose for publicity as keen as Defoe's, he flung together a jumble of material, and trusted to its timeliness to sell. Some such origin, no doubt, accounts for a good many of the small library of titles that bore his name, an output that seems to have justified the angelic prophecy of "the books this youth should write and publish." With a very lust for printer's ink, he padded his bibliography like a college professor seeking promotion; but in spite of all the prayers poured out in behalf of them, they would seem for the most part to have been little more than tuppenny tracts, stuffed with a sodden morality, that not even an angel could make literature of.

Holding so strong a conviction of apostleship, Cotton Mather would certainly play the politician, and quite as certainly blunder and go wrong. Far more than his father he was a bookman, who believed that all knowledge was shut up between pigskin covers. He was as lacking in worldly wisdom as a child, and in his ecstatic contemplation of the marvels wrought by God in primitive New England he never discovered that that older world had passed away. Another age was rising, with other ideals than ecclesiastical, which the three thousand books in his library told him nothing about. He was an anachronism in his own day. Living in an earlier age, when the hierarchy was in its prime, he would have been carried far on the tide of theocratic prestige; a generation later, when lay-power had definitely superseded clerical, he would have taken his place as a stout defender of Tory ways. But at the moment when a critical realignment of parties was under way in Massachusetts; when the villagers were becoming democratized and the gentry toryized; when even the clergy were dividing—Cotton Mather was a general without an army. He was a primitive Puritan in a Boston that was fast becoming Yankee, and his love for the theocracy grew stronger with every defeat.

The judgment of after times finds little in his political activities to approve and much to condemn. After all allowances are made the fact remains that he was a leader of reaction; and no protestations can obscure the motive of personal ambition. His own prestige was involved with that of the theocracy. It was due to the traditional authority of the ministry that he enjoyed the distinction of being a "Person, whom the Eye and the Talk of the People is very much upon," and any lessening of that authority would hurt him cruelly in his vanity. This remains the sufficient explanation of his varied political activities in the course of which he trimmed his sails to different winds He first essayed a frontal attack on the secular power, but suffering a personal slight, he shifted and struck in the dark at an exposed flank; and finally, receiving only further mortification, he made overtures of peace and found his way back to the tables of the great. It was against the administration of the wily and unscrupulous Dudley that he waged his bitterest warfare. Failing to make headway by open hostility, he seized upon a current trade scandal, poured out his grievances in an anonymous pamphlet sent to London to be published, and awaited the result. It was a slashing attack, done in the tone of a lover of the ancient rights and privileges of New England, and it must have cut Dudley to the quick. A quotation or two will suffice to reveal the nature of the charges:

But, when the President [Dudley] was pleased, out of an Active and Passive Principle, to tell our Countreymen, in open Council, That the People in New-England were all Slaves; and that the only Difference between Them and Slaves, was their not being Bought and Sold: And that they must not think the Privileges of Englishmen would follow them to the end of the World. I say, when the People heard this, they lookt upon themselves in a manner Lost….

All the People here are Bought and Sold, betwixt the Governour and his son Paul….

This is the Third Time that he has been Trusted with Power from the Crown in America, and he has constantly Abus'd it, to the Dishonour of the Government, and almost Ruin of the People he was sent to Govern.18

There was enough truth in the charges to make them serious, but the spleen was quite too evident. The author was at once discovered and Cotton Mather suffered a vigorous counter-attack that damaged a reputation already undermined. Perhaps even worse was the social slight put upon him by those in government. What it cost him to be left out of the invitations of the great he reveals in the diary:

2 d. 7m. [September] Friday. [1709] The other Ministers of the Neighbourhood, are this Day feasting with our wicked Governour; I have, by my provoking Plainness and Freedom, in telling this Ahab of his wickedness, procured myself to be left out of his Invitations. I rejoiced in my Liberty from the Temptations, with which they were encumbred, while they were eating of his Dainties and durst not reprove him. And, considering the Power and Malice of my Enemies, I thought it proper of me, to be this day Fasting, in Secret, before the Lord.

Ten years later there is a different story to tell. The minister has left the opposition bench and gone over to the government. A note in Sewall's diary tells the tale:

March, 12. [1718/19] Dr. Cotton Mather prays again [in Council]. Preaches the Lecture from Prov. 29: 18. no Vision. [Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.] The Govr., Lt. Govr., Mr. Dudley, Mr. Belcher press'd hard that there might be an order of the Govr. and Council to print it. Col. Tailor, Clark, Davenport, Sewall and others opposed it. For my part, the Dr. spake so much of his visions of Convulsion and Mutiny, mentioning our being a dependent Government, and the Danger of Parliamentary Resentments: that I was afraid the printing of it might be an Invitation to the Parliament to take away our Charter. Govr. would have it put to the vote: but when he saw how hardly it went, caused the Secretary to break off in the midst.19

Here is a party alignment that tells its own story, and it needs no very lively imagination to fill out the meager note and reënact the little drama. The minister, eager to make overtures of peace, falls into the Tory note, talks about mob-rule and the sinfulness of popular unrest, calls upon authority to maintain law and order, and hints at the expediency of preserving due colonial subservience in view of possible resentments on the part of certain great men in England. Sewall, as a "true New-England man," squirms somewhat under the implications, but the little group of Tories are loud in praise. Such a sermon, from so eminent a servant of God, would aid wonderfully in strengthening the spirit of loyalty to the crown, and it must be printed and circulated amongst the people. But the opposition proved too spirited, and the manuscript was not dispatched to the printer, no doubt to Cotton Mather's chagrin.

It was easy for so reactionary a nature to slide over into the Tory. There was not a grain of liberalism in his make-up. His antipathy to all popular movements was deep-rooted, for he knew no other political philosophy than that of the obsolete theocracy in which he had grown up. He was a bourgeois soul who loved respectability and was jealous of his social position; no fraternizing with the poor and outcast for him, no profitless excursions into the realms of Utopian justice. Though he might play to popular prejudices to serve his political ends, he had scant regard for popular rights. The highest privilege of the New England people, he believed, was the privilege of being ruled by the godly. His real attitude towards the plain people is revealed in a note by his son, that refers to the days following the overturn of the Andros government:

Upon Discoursing with him of the Affairs he has told me that he always pressed Peace and Love and Submission unto a legal Government, tho' he suffered from some tumultuous People, by doing so; and upon the whole, has asserted unto me his Innocency and Freedom from all known Iniquity in that time, but declared his Resolution, from the View he had of the fickle Humors of the Populace, that he would chuse to be concern'd with them as little as possible for the future.20

As he grew older and the shadow of failure fell across his life, his bitterness towards a people that had rejected his admonitions is revealed on many a page of his diary. It was a "silly people," a "foolish people," "insignificant lice"—"The cursed clamour of a people strangely and fiercely possessed of the Devil"—"My aged father laies to heart the withdrawal of a vain, proud, foolish people from him in his age"—"It is the Hour of … Darkness on this Despicable Town." He could not easily forgive those who had wounded his love of power and lust of adulation, and he was too aloof from the daily life of men to understand the political and social movements of the times, too self-centered to understand his fellow villagers. He possessed none of the sympathetic friendliness that made Samuel Sewall a natural confidant to every one in trouble. He loved the people when they honored and obeyed him, but when they hearkened to other counsels he would fall to scolding like a fishwife. Doubtless he was sincere in thinking he would gladly die to save his people from their sins, but he had no mind to neighbor with them or humor their wicked love of power. He immured himself so closely within the walls of the old theocratic temple that he never took the trouble to examine the groundsills, and when the rotten timbers gave way and the structure came tumbling about his ears, he was caught unprepared and went down in its ruins.

Happily most of the printed output of Cotton Mather has fallen into the oblivion it deserved. It is barren of ideas, and marred by pedantic mannerisms that submerge the frequent felicities of phrase—old-fashioned on the day it came from the press. "In his Style, indeed," wrote his friend Thomas Prince, "he was something singular, and not so agreeable to the Gust of the Age. But like his manner of speaking, it was very emphatical." Yet he possessed very considerable gifts and under happier circumstances he might have had a notable literary career; but he was the victim of a provincial environment. He was the most widely read man of his generation in America, and one of the few who followed sympathetically the current scientific movement in England. Like old Increase he dabbled in science; he was proud of his membership in the Royal Society, to which he forwarded his characteristic Curiosa Americana—a hodgepodge of those marvels in which his generation delighted. It was from an English source that he got the idea of inoculation for smallpox, which he urged upon Boston so insistently that a war of scurrilous pamphlets broke out. He made use of the method in his own family, incurring thereby much stupid abuse and at least one attack of violence. It was an intelligent and courageous experiment, that is not to be forgotten in casting up the accounts of Cotton Mather.

Of his major works two only call for brief consideration: the celebrated Magnalia Christi Americana; or, The Ecclesiastical History of New England; and the less known Wonders of the Invisible World. The latter is suggestive for the light it throws on the psychology of the witchcraft mania. The fantastic devil-fear, which bit so deeply into the imagination of Puritan New England, has already been commented on. In that common seventeenth-century delusion, Cotton Mather not only ran with the mob, but he came near to outdistancing the most credulous. His speech and writings dripped with devil-talk. The grotesqueries that marked the current marvel-tales crop out nakedly in his writings. "I have set myself," he wrote in the Diary, "to countermine the whole Plot of the Devil, against New-England, in every branch of it, as far as one of my darkness can comprehend such a Work of Darkness." His conviction of the malignant activities of Satan was so vivid, that in delivering a carefully prepared sermon on the Wiles of the Divil, he was fain, he tells us, to pause and lift up his eyes and cry "unto the Lord Jesus Christ, that he would rate off Satan," who "all the Time of my Prayer before the Lecture" had "horribly buffeted me"—by inflicting on the fasting priest certain qualms of the stomach. How tremendous he conceived to be the battle over a human soul, he describes thus:

The Wilderness through which we are passing to the Promised Land is all over fill'd with Fiery flying serpents. But, blessed be God, none of them have hitherto so fastned upon us as to confound us utterly! All our way to Heaven lies by Dens of Lions and the Mounts of Leopards; there are incredible Droves of Devils in our way…. We are poor travellers in a world which is as well the Devil's Field, as the Devil's Gaol; a world in which every Nook whereof, the Devil is encamped with Bands of Robbers to pester all that have their Faces looking Zionward.21

In the light of Mather's logic, "That there is a Devil, is a thing Doubted by none but such as are under the influence of the Devil," and "God indeed has the Devil in a Chain, but has horribly lengthened out the Chain," his private comment on the work—"that reviled book"—becomes comprehensible.

The Magnalia is a far more important work, the repository of a vast miscellany of information concerning early New England that his pious zeal saved from oblivion. It is the magnum opus of the Massachusetts theocracy, the best and sincerest work that Cotton Mather did. The theme with which it deals, and about which he accumulates marvels and special providences together with historical facts, was the thing which next to his own fame lay nearest his heart—the glory of that theocracy which men whom he accounted foolish and wicked were seeking to destroy. The purpose of the book has nowhere been better stated than by Professor Wendell:

Its true motive was to excite so enthusiastic a sympathy with the ideals of the Puritan fathers that, whatever fate might befall the civil government, their ancestral seminary of learning should remain true to its colours…. The time was come, Cotton Mather thought, when the history of these three generations might be critically examined; if this examination should result in showing that there had lived in New England an unprecedented proportion of men and women and children whose earthly existence had given signs that they were among the elect, then his book might go far to prove that the pristine policy of New England had been especially favoured of the Lord. For surely the Lord would choose His elect most eagerly in places where life was conducted most according to His will.22

When old Increase was near the end of his many years, a friend wrote to ask if he were still in the land of the living. "No, Tell him I am going to it," he said to his son; "this Poor World is the land of the Dying." The bitter words were sober truth. The New England of the dreams of Increase and Cotton Mather was sick to death from morbid introspection and ascetic inhibitions; no lancet or purge known to the Puritan pharmacopeia could save it. Though father and son walked the streets of Boston at noonday, they were only twilight figures, communing with ghosts, building with shadows. They were not unlike a certain mad woman that Sewall tells of, who went crying about the town, "My child is dead within me." The child of Cotton Mather's hopes had long been dead within him, only he could not bring himself to acknowledge it. The fruit of the vine planted by the fathers was still sweet to him, and when other men complained of its bitterness, and fell to gathering from other vines, he could only rail at their perversity. He would not believe that the grapes were indeed bitter and the vine blighted; that the old vineyard must be replowed and planted to fresh stock. All his life he had set marvels above realities and in the end his wonder-working providence failed him. Prayers could not bring back a dead past; passionate conjurations could not strike the living waters from the cold granite of Puritan formalism. A New England flagellant, a Puritan Brother of the Cross, he sought comfort in fasts and vigils and spiritual castigations, and—it is pleasant to learn—in ways far more natural and wholesome. Incredible as it may seem, the following record is authentic, and it falls like a shaft of warm sunshine across the path of the morbid priest: "Augt, 15. [1716]…. Now about Dr. C. Mather Fishing in Spy-pond, falls into the Water, the boat being ticklish, but receives no hurt.23 The restless minister who had fished over-much in troubled waters, sometimes, it would appear, ventured for perch in Spy Pond.


14Cotton Mather, Puritan Priest, p. 64.

15Diary, Vol. I, p 271.

16Ibid., pp. 325-326.

17Diary, Vol. I, p. 979.

18A Memorial of the Present Deplorable State of New-England … by the Male-Administration of their Present Governour, Joseph Dudley, Esq., and his Son Paul, London, 1707, in Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, Fifth Series, Vol. VI.

19 Vol. II, p. 214.

20 Wendell, Cotton Mather, etc., p. 82.

21Wonders of the Invisible World, p. 63.

22Literary History of America, pp. 48-49.

23 Sewall, Diary, Vol. III, p. 98.

Marion L. Starkey (essay date 1949)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5815

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 process as a monstrous miscarriage of justice, boding no good to the future of Massachusetts. These agreed with Stoughton, "We were in a way to have cleared the land of the witches…. Who it is that obstructs the course of justice I know not."

It was true that some of the most obvious symptoms of witchcraft were disappearing. Little was heard from the afflicted girls once the jail delivery got under way. Though logically the return of so many witches to civilian life should have afflicted them even unto death, none of the girls did die; they remained well enough. A few, notably Mary Walcott and Elizabeth Booth, presently settled down and got married. Some of the others, still manless, and apparently at a loss how to put in their time in these duller, flatter days, turned, it was rumored, to coarser pleasures; certain of them, never explicitly named in history, went unmistakably bad.

In Salem Village where this development could be watched at close range, there was said to be a general revulsion against them. It was not good to watch a wench at her harlotries and remember that on that harlot's word the good and chaste had been hanged. But at a farther remove other interpretations were possible. The girls were being slandered, and the judges with them; would the likes of William Stoughton have been taken in by harlots? Also it was by no means certain that the girls had come out of their fits; it was more probable that these were being callously ignored when they fell into them. Look what had happened in the fall of 1692 when the girls had tried in vain to warn Ipswich of a malefactor. God was punishing an unworthy, half-hearted people by so hardening their hearts that they were incapable of receiving further revelation.

The plain truth was for those who had eyes to see that the devil was by no means bound up, had not lost his battle against New England, but was well on his way to bringing the entire community under his power. Of this there were unmistakable signs.


What was the devil? To the Puritan the question was no less important than the question, what is God. A surprising variety of answers were possible. Some in Massachusetts were still reading an English best seller two decades old, John Milton's Paradise Lost, in which the poet in defeat and blindness had all unconsciously created Satan in his own image, doomed, but not without his grandeur. Such a being could be abhorred but not despised; one might pity, even respect the enemy of mankind. In his contest with Omnipotence he showed a perverse nobility of spirit; there was something almost Promethean in the tragic Satan who from hell defied the lightning of heaven and reached out to make mankind his own.

Yet how far was such a concept understood in provincial Massachusetts whose own tastes were represented not by the organ music of Milton's blank verse but by the jigging and jingling of Wigglesworth's Day of Doom? Certainly Cotton Mather, who had his own copy of Paradise Lost, did not associate Satan with the grandeur of lost but not ignoble causes. His Satan had more the spirit of the poltergeist, or of the comic devil of the early miracle plays. The fellow was ubiquitous, and as such damnably dangerous and eternally a nuisance, but as little dignified as the worm that eats up the garden.

Still a third concept was possible, the strange Adversary who presented himself before God in the time of Job and was received with courteous attention. What manner of devil was this who did not stoop to laying petty ambush for his enemy, but came openly into God's presence to challenge him; and what meaning could be read into God's acceptance of a challenge from such a source? Could it be that such was the omnipotence of God that the very devil worked for him to examine the hearts of men and test the limits of their faith? Was it even possible that God made use of the devil to bring a new thing on earth, that out of ill good would come?

Yet what good would come out of what the devil had done in Massachusetts? The phase of the colony's martyrdom had been not single but multiple. Not the witchcraft only but the new charter had delivered the faithful into the devil's hand. Now that people outside the faith could vote and shape the course of government, the power of theocracy had been forever broken. No longer would it be possible to get rid of perversely creative minds—the Ann Hutchinsons and Roger Williamses—by exile or death. Demoniac energies had been loosed now, and God alone could foresee the outcome. Was it possible that what the devil had promised William Barker of Andover would come to pass under God's providence, that there would be no more sin or shame or judgment, "that all men should be equal and live bravely"?

Well, it was God's will. God had delivered them if not to the devil, at least to an adversary. God save the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.


If symptoms of diabolism had faded at last in Salem Village—so odd a site for God to choose as the battle-ground between hell and heaven—there was deviltry aplenty in Boston. Even while the judges were dismissing the witches, Cotton Mather's own wife, she who had once had to smother a laugh at the sight of diabolic manifestation as observed in the person of little Martha Goodwin, had been affrighted on her porch by a diabolic vision and had in consequence given birth to a malformed, short-lived child.

And as if that were not enough, Mather himself, because of his charitable interest in certain afflicted maids of Boston, was about to be given to drink of the vinegar of mockery by what he called "the witlings of the coffee houses." The devil had lately discovered to Boston a new brew which sharpened the wit and incited it to skepticism. Here in the waning days of the witchcraft were wont to sit several of the devil's own who made it their business to keep a derisive eye on the current activities of Cotton Mather and to publish them to the town.

Until lately there had been little occasion to connect the younger Mather with the witchcraft. He who had been so active in the Glover affair, and whose record of the case had helped prepare Massachusetts for the new outbreak, had nevertheless remained surprisingly aloof from the latter. Not that the aloofness had been by intention; it was simply a matter of living far from Salem and having much to detain him in Boston.

Early in the day he had written the Salem authorities offering to receive any six girls into his home for observation and treatment; had the magistrates responded it is probable that they would have exchanged a major calamity for yet another quaint, archaic monograph. The segregation of the girls would have served to localize the psychic infection, and the girls themselves, exposed to the wayward streak of poetry in Mather's composition, would almost certainly have found their fantasies deflected to the more normal preoccupations of adolescence. They would, in short, like a large proportion of the female members of his congregation at any given time, have fallen in love with him. Infatuation is not any guarantee against hysteria; quite the contrary. But in this case such a development might have diverted the antics of the girls to less malignant forms. Young Ann Putnam might, like Martha Goodwin, have ridden an airy horse up and down the stairs and into the pastor's study, to find her catharsis there rather than before the gallows.

It had not been given Mather thus to experiment; he had watched the case from afar and had only thrice taken positive action. One of these occasions had been his drafting of the advice of the ministers to the judges, cautioning them against too great reliance on spectral evidence, though praising their zeal. Even before then Mather had unofficially written in the same vein to Judge John Richards, not only warning him against spectral evidence but against uncritical acceptance of such confessions as might come from a "delirious brain or a discontented heart." He specifically denounced torture as a means of getting confessions.

His only dramatic intervention in the witchcraft had been the speech he had made to the crowd at the hanging of Burroughs. This speech was the only real complaint that his enemies could make against him. There were some who thought that Mather had shown small charity to a fellow minister in his hour of need. Yet not much could be fairly made of the incident. Had not Mather spoken another must, for the crowd before the gallows was fast deteriorating into a mob. Mather who had seen mobs in Boston in 1689 had acted instinctively and without premeditation to do what was necessary to quiet this one. Control of the crowd and not slander of Burroughs had been his purpose.

In any case the incident was now well in the past. It would not have been held a serious count against Mather, nor could his name have been fairly connected with the witchcraft but for what happened after it was all over.


On September 22, 1692, a kind of council-of-war had been called at Samuel Sewall's house in Boston. Present were Samuel's brother Stephen of Salem, Captain John Higginson, John Hathorne, William Stoughton and Cotton Mather. The subject under discussion was the propriety of making public some of the evidence in the witch trials. Not since Lawson's Brief and True Narrative of last spring had there been any authoritative published statement, and the latter had been written months in advance of the sitting of the Court of Oyer and Terminer. Now with so much irresponsible talk going on, it seemed clear that the time had come for an official report on what the judges had accomplished for Massachusetts. It would be an interim report. As of this date the judges expected to go forward with the trials in October. In spite of the rising tide of protest none could know that the seven women and one man who that day hung on the gallows in Salem would be the very last witches to hang in Massachusetts.

Mather stood ready to take on this assignment, and had been anticipating it for some time. To this end he had been accumulating some of his own sermons, notably his "Hortatory and Necessary Address" with its charge upon the conscience of New England. '"Tis our Worldliness, our Formality, our Sensuality and our Iniquity that has helped this letting of the Devils in." In addition he had been after Stephen Sewall to copy out such of the documents in Salem as could be used in a history of the witchcraft. Some of this material—not quite so much as he had hoped—was now available. If it was the will of his colleagues he would gladly do his best with a subject, which had been, he modestly reminded them, "sometimes counted not unworthy the pen, even of a king."

Whatever the faults of the younger Mather, procrastination was not one of them. By early October when Phips returned, the manuscript was not only complete, awaiting the latter's approval, but had already had some circulation among dignitaries of the colony. That he had also done his work well, had achieved what could be regarded as the authoritative version of the affair, was indicated not only by a laudatory preface by Stoughton, but by the fact that Sir William borrowed whole paragraphs for incorporation into his first report to England.

Phips did not, however, encourage publication. Brattle's letter, which denounced the entire premises of the trials, was circulating as far and as fast as Mather's defense. At a time of such diversity of opinion so hotly expressed the governor found it wise to suppress any publicity whatsoever. It was not until 1693 when the trials had been resumed on a new basis and the "general jail delivery" begun that he judged it wise to let Mather publish his Wonders of the Invisible World.

Mather's narrative was the nearest equivalent Massachusetts was to get to a full newspaper report of the mysterious events in court. The public fell on it with avidity and got their money's worth. Mingled in with sermons and philosophizings, Mather had presented a full and accurate account of the examination and trials of five representative witches, George Burroughs, Bridget Bishop, Susanna Martin, Elizabeth How, and Martha Carrier. He had followed the records in painstaking detail, summarizing competently when he did not quote in full. Not even his worst enemies were ever to find fault with his court reporting, and compared with the chapbooks of such cases put out to entertain the English public, it was a journalistic masterpiece.

Yet this document, so well planned and executed, so invaluable to the historian, was to serve the reputation of Mather ill. It had two conspicuous defects: its omissions and its tone. Those who really knew the trials read a significance into the fact that Mather had carefully avoided several of their most embarrassing aspects, Rebecca Nurse's brief acquittal, the powerful reasoning of John Procter and Mary Esty. The avoidance, to be sure, was by no means necessarily Mather's doing; what to include and what to omit had certainly been one of the subjects of discussion at the editorial meeting at Sewall's house. These circumstances could not, however, negate the fact that Mather had lent his hand to fabricating that most dangerous of falsehoods, the half truth.

The tone of the book was another thing again, and wholly Mather's. It suggested that the Dutch divines had spoken against spectral evidence in vain, and that Mather himself in recommending caution in this direction had not meant it. For he had written throughout in a spirit of childlike, marveling credulity.

Yet how could Mather, given his temperament, have written otherwise of his witches? As well ask Shakespeare to revise Macbeth without mentioning the Weird Sisters, or Milton to erase all reference to Satan in Paradise Lost as to ask Mather to do other than what he had done. There was in him much of the artist, and artistry in his austere position in theocratic Massachusetts found only such wayward expression as this. To such a temperament—and some of the afflicted girls probably resembled him in this—the details of the witchcraft, of horns that sounded across Essex County at midnight, the airborne excursions to Parris' pasture, the folklore that gaudily embroidered the life of Susanna Martin, were less a horror and an abomination than part of the suppressed color and drama of life. Mather's righteous indignation that such things could be was unconsciously submerged in the thrill of having been present as spectator at a collision between heaven and hell. The witchcraft was one experience that Mather would not willingly have foregone; it was the scarlet thread drawn through the drab of New England homespun.

But men who had been painfully involved in the crisis were little likely to respond to so artless and unconsciously poetic a viewpoint. What impressed them was that in his zeal for discovering witches an eminent Boston divine had stultified his capacity to see human beings and their very real agonies, that in short, to judge by the tone of his record, he had learned nothing at all from experience. So far as he was concerned, the delirium might begin again full force tomorrow.


Indeed the delusion had by no means spent itself. While the afflicted of Andover and Salem were falling one by one into silence, dampened by the lack of a responsive audience, new voices were being heard in Boston. To two of these Mather was giving all the attention he could spare from his parochial duties. He was, in fact, launched on a whole new cycle of psychic research.

The first case to come to his attention was that of Mercy Short, seventeen-year-old servant maid of Boston, recently back from captivity among the Indians, who, as natural creatures of the devil, had probably had not too wholesome an influence on the girl. It was Mercy who in the course of a call on the Boston Prison in the summer of 1692 had mocked Sarah Good's plea for tobacco and had been afflicted since.

One would have supposed that the hanging of Sarah would have released Mercy, but not at all. Sarah must have delegated the torture of the girl to her surviving confederates, for it went right on through the summer and fall and became a favorite subject of speculation among the frequenters of the coffee houses. On December 4 Mercy achieved the attention of Cotton Mather by falling into such convulsions during a sermon that she had to be carried out. Naturally Mather looked her up afterwards, both he and a "little company of praying neighbors." He had long been itching to study at close range the type of case responsible for the Salem outbreak; now at last he had one in his own precinct.

From his interviews with this medium he got a first hand description of the devil, "a short and black man—a Wretch no taller than an ordinary Walking Staff; hee was not a Negro but of a Tawney or an Indian color; he wore a high crowned hat with straight hair; and he had one Cloven Foot." The eyes of this creature flamed unbearably, resembling according to Mercy, the glass ball of the lantern Mather took with him through the dim streets of Boston on his nocturnal rambles.

Sometimes Mercy's affliction took the form of long fasts, during which she could force herself to take nothing but hard cider. Sometimes she was seared by flames, and her visitors could smell the brimstone and see the burns on Mercy's flesh, though "as 'tis the strange property of many witch marks," these were "cured in perhaps less than a minute." Sometimes the devil forced white liquid down her throat. Sometimes she had fits of wild frolic when she was deaf to all prayers.

It was not for want of name calling on Mercy's part that these investigations did not result in arrests. She cried out against all sorts of people, especially some with whom she had recently quarreled. But Mather, acting with a discretion for which he was not to be thanked, decided that most of these were devil's delusions and charged his "praying company" not to report them. Among Mercy's more oblique accusations was Mather himself; this fact gave him more gratification than otherwise, for he gathered from the context that the devil feared and hated him more than any other minister in New England, a very pretty compliment.

Mercy, responding to fasting, prayer, and the invisible ministrations of an angel who sometimes fended the devils off, finally came out of her trance in March, 1693, and Mather wrote up his observations under the title of A Brand Pluck'd out of the Burning. Somehow he did not publish it. The jail delivery was in progress, and friends and relatives of released witches would not appreciate yet another starry-eyed report of this sort, especially so soon after the Wonders, from whose philosophies some of them were cringing. Or perhaps it was the development of Mercy herself which restrained him. The sad truth was that when the devil was cast out of her, seven others took its place, these being devils of the more common and carnal sort. Martyrs are impressive in the long run only when they are also saints; since Mercy was plainly nothing of the sort, Mather's pious account of her sufferings would be oddly received in Boston's coffee houses, places much more productive of skepticism than the ale houses had ever been. Mather did not risk it.


Mather was, however, by no means done with the devil. In September, 1693, he made a trip to Salem to get "furniture" for the completion of the work now nearest to his heart, his Magnalia Christi Americana. This was to be his epic in somewhat the same way that Paradise Lost was Milton's. His purpose was cognate, though whereas Milton had undertaken to justify the ways of God to man, Mather would seek to justify the ways of man to God, particularly man as represented by the leaders of Puritan theocracy. He would eschew the sonorities of blank verse for the plainer sense of English prose, albeit richly embellished by latinisms, and the somber glory of such characters as Beelzebub and Lucifer for the more unassuming personnel to be found in New England parsonages; the Magnalia was indeed to be primarily a history of the churches in New England. Lucifer, however, would not be ignored in Mather's work; he would again give himself the luxury of describing the Fiend's descent on Salem Village.

To such an end he came to Salem. He delivered two sermons and between them pursued his inquiries. He was much interested in a Mrs. Carver and her viewpoint on late events. This lady was in direct communication with "shining spirits" who told her that "a new storm of witchcraft would fall upon the country and chastise the iniquity that was used in the wilful smothering and covering of the last."

This news Mather received about as a genera might receive intelligence that he would soon be called upon to march again. There had indeed been something abrupt, something questionable about the end of the witchcraft. The case had not been so much disposed of as allowed to collapse. It was as if an army of occupation had been called home without awaiting the signing of a peace treaty. It would be little wonder if the devil were to begin a new assault against a people so little capable of sustained effort.

These reflections were reinforced by evidence that the devil was interfering directly in his own affairs. He had prepared two sermons to deliver in Salem and the devil stole them both. Luckily he was able to give them from memory "so the devil got nothing." The story did not end there. When he got home to Boston he found that affliction had started again in his own neighborhood in the person of another seventeen-year-old, one Margaret Rule. From Margaret's lips he learned what had happened in Salem. The eight spectral shapes that tormented her had stolen his sermons and were bragging about it. Yet it was not given to creatures covenanted to the devil to keep a hold on a thing so holy as a sermon by Cotton Mather. In October the spirits relaxed their grip and dropped the missing manuscripts leaf by leaf about the streets of Lynn. Every page was recovered in a perfect state of preservation.

After such portents Mather could not deny his time and prayers to the new victim of the invisible world. Margaret was indeed a pitiful case. Her present physical tortures had been preceded by a spiritual phase in which she was prey to a belief that she was damned. Now she was the victim of witches who desired her to sign the Book. She was resisting heroically and before a cloud of witnesses. For Margaret was yet another who had had to be carried shrieking from meeting; since that had first happened on September 10, she had become the major theatrical attraction in Boston. If Mather wanted to minister to her privately he must first clear the room of a company—by no means a praying company—of thirty or forty spectators. Frequently he did not take this precaution, with the result that a fraction of the population of Boston was entertained not only by the antics of Margaret but by the measures taken by Mather to exorcize her demons.

Margaret's affliction had begun with an involuntary fast. For nine days her teeth had set against food, though occasionally it was possible to get her mouth open just wide enough to admit a sip of rum. ("That's the devil all over," commented a seaman.) Sometimes it was the devil who forced open her mouth in order to pour scalding brimstone down her throat so that people in the room could hardly bear the smell of the stuff or the sound of the girl's screams.

Marvels happened right under the eyes of the beholders. Some of them saw the woman stuck full of pins. Six men signed affidavits that they had seen her pulled to the ceiling by invisible hands and that it took their concerted might to pull her back to bed again. Mather himself once made a grab for something stirring on her pillow and felt an imp in his hand, tangible and yet invisible, and so startling in that combination that he let it get away.

She dreamed dreams and saw visions. She forecast the drowning of a young man and exactly as she spoke it happened—almost; that is, by God's providence the man wasn't actually drowned but was fished out of the water into which sundry devils had impelled him to leap. She saw the thieving of an old man's will. She saw the faces of her tormenters, or anyway of some of them, particularly that of an evil old woman who had been taken in the recent witchcraft and incontinently released again when the judges lost their heart for proper prosecution. Some witches she could not identify because they, having learned a thing or two, now went about their business veiled. Veiled or no, when Mather got to her, he prevailed on her to "forbear blazing their names lest any good person come to suffer any blast of reputation." He was willing that she name them to him privately and was reassured, for they were "the sort of wretches who for these many years have given over as violent presumption of witchcraft as perhaps any creatures yet living on this earth." Even so he did not report them.

He got small thanks for his self-sacrificing labors in behalf of Margaret Rule. His efforts had been observed by a motley company come off the streets of Boston to see the show, merchants, seamen, scholars, goodwives, everybody. These behaved decorously enough in his presence and on the whole he thought it well that a variety of observers witness the agonies of the girl the better to combat the skepticism of the coffee houses. What he did not know was that one of these "coffee house witlings" had not only got in with the rest but was taking copious notes of the seances and preparing to publish.

This observer was Robert Calef, an obscure merchant of Boston. He was a friend of Thomas Brattle and agreed with the skeptical viewpoint expressed in Brattle's letter, and had therefore come to watch Mather in none-too-reverent a frame of mind. What his cold eye noted in the afflicted Margaret was her craving for the attentions of men. She visibly liked being stroked across face and naked breast and belly by the Mathers, father and son, this being a kind of laying on of hands by which they tried to relieve her, but let a woman touch her and she cried out sharply, "Don't you meddle with me!"

When the ministers withdrew, Margaret told the women to clear out altogether, saying "that the company of men was not offensive to her, and having hold of the hand of a young man said to have been her sweetheart … she pulled him again into his seat saying he should not go tonight."

Six days later Calef found her enjoying what Mather had explained to observers as "her laughing time; she must laugh now." Mather having already gone for the evening, she was free to make eyes at yet another young man and to fuss with her attendants because they "did not put her on a clean cap but let her lie so like a beast, saying she would lose her fellows."

There was talk, to be sure, about her frightful affliction earlier in the day, and there were symptoms of a recurrence when one or two of the women got a whiff of brimstone. Everyone sniffed with them, but Calef and others couldn't pick up the scent and said so. The women became less sure of themselves; they could smell something, they said; they were not sure what.

Calef, in short, was less than impressed with the martyred Margaret. Even less had he been impressed in the still recent past by what he called a "Bigotted Zeal stirring up a Blind and most Bloody Rage" against innocent people by such media as these. He resented the credulous interest of the Mathers, particularly Cotton; this sort of thing had led to public disaster only two years earlier. Calef did not propose to stand by and watch the engineering of a second outbreak. Accordingly he copied out his notes and let them circulate from hand to hand.

Never in his life had Mather been so rudely handled or so affronted as he was by the talk to which these notes gave rise. He was enraged by the description of his stroking the half-naked Margaret so as "to make people believe a Smutty thing of me." His first impulse was to bring suit for "scandalous libel"; his second not to risk so public an appearance on so delicate an issue. The warrant was issued against Calef, but when the latter appeared before court, none came against him and the case was dismissed.

The larger case was not at all dismissed, however. The controversy between minister and merchant went on for years and culminated at the turn of the century in a book called More Wonders of the Invisible World, a work by Calef with the involuntary collaboration of Mather and a probable but disguised contribution by Brattle. Its core was the later witch writings of Mather, including his unpublished account of Margaret Rule. To this Calef added his own appendix to Mather's Wonders, furnishing full details on cases which Mather had neglected, notably that of Rebecca Nurse, and adding reports by such survivors as the Carys and John Alden.

Its publication was one of the most afflicting things that had ever happened to Mather, his sorrow's crown of sorrow. And indeed, though Calef's work was a valuable addition to the history of witchcraft, it did inflict an injustice on Mather in connecting his name inseparably with a tragedy with which he actually had had little to do.

Increase Mather, who himself had drawn Calef's fire, owing to his proposal to New England ministers in 1695 that they continue to collect "Remarkables," among them evidence of the agency of the invisible world, stood loyally by his son and made a spectacle of the infamy of the book—or so the story goes—by having it burned in the Harvard Yard. This fine symbolic gesture had oddly little effect in preventing its circulation.


Margaret Rule had in the meantime come out of her fits long since. It was well that Calef never heard of her last seance with Mather, for during it she dreamily named the wizard whose Shape was currently afflicting her, and it was none other than Cotton's.

Mather was terrified. Superstition played little part in his fright, nor did he anticipate taking a place by Burroughs on the gallows. What unmanned him was the derision of the coffee houses if this accusation ever got around.

Heroic measures were necessary, heights of prayer to which he had never won before. He won them now. Finally, after Mather had spent several hours in the dust before his God, the "shining spirit" that had intermittently appeared to Margaret came again and informed her that Mather was now her father in Christ and that through God's providence he had saved her. The angel also opened her eyes to the actual demons crowded around her. They were rather pitiful; the devil himself stood over them lashing them to further effort, for all the world like an overseer whipping his slaves. Indeed the demons were fainting under the punishment and under the strain of their hopeless endeavor. At last they cried out to Margaret, "Go and the devil go with you. We can do no more." Then they fled the place. Nor did they come again, at least in that guise. Margaret's affliction and Boston's best show were both a thing of the past; hereafter Margaret had no more difficulty in getting privacy for her interviews with her "fellows."

Mather for his part learned to keep strictly away from her. His "spiritual daughter" did not turn out to be a very nice girl.

Works Cited


It is irritating not to know exactly which of the afflicted girls "went bad." Certainly they did not include Ann Putnam, Elizabeth Parris, and probably not Abigail Williams, Mary Walcott, or Elizabeth Booth. That they did include others is indicated by a statement in the reversal of the attainder in 1711 which speaks of "some of the principal accusers" as having "discovered themselves to be persons of profligate and vicious conversation." (Historical Collections of the Topsfield Historical Society, XIII, pp. 135-137)…


Cotton Mather's letter to Judge Richards is in Barrett Wendell's Cotton Mather, p. 110.


The text of Mather's "Hortatory Address" is printed in Samuel P. Fowler's Salem Witchcraft, pp. 394-414.


Cotton Mather's story of Mercy Short, "A Brand Pluck'd out of the Burning," is printed from the manuscript in the possession of the American Antiquarian Society in Burr, pp. 259-287.


The trip to Salem is described in Cotton Mather's Diary, September, 1693. Mather's interviews with Margaret Rule are from "Another Brand Pluckt out of the Burning" as incorporated in Calef's "More Wonders," Burr, pp. 307-323.

The seaman is quoted by Calef, Ibid., p. 327; Mather's injunction to Margaret, Ibid., p. 311; Calef's story of Margaret's ways with men, Ibid., pp. 325-327.

Calef's attack on Mather and the latter's reaction are described in Ibid., pp. 305, 335; the correspondence between the two, pp. 339-341.


Mather's successful resolution of the Margaret Rule affair is described in Wendell's Cotton Mather, pp. 104 ff.

William Reid Manierre (essay date 1961)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6940

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 stylist in all that he wrote, enjoyed, after more than four years of nervous anticipation, his first sight of the published version of his masterpiece, the monumental church history of New England, the Magnalia Christi Americana.2 In this vast work, which covers in seven books the settlement of New England, the lives of its governors and ministers, the establishment of its college, the codification of its theological principles and ecclesiastical practices, and concludes with a record of divine mercies vouchsafed and of dangers overcome, Mather chants a sustained paean to the virtues of "primitive" New England and of its founding saints. His purpose was to create a moral renaissance in a "backsliding" generation. The historical intention is, therefore, strongly qualified by the desire to move and to persuade. The method is largely biographical, and biography for Mather meant the "narration of an exemplary man's exemplary deeds, written to glorify God, honor the memory of his faithful servants, and stimulate readers to admiration and imitation."3 Biography, then, as conceived by Mather, involved principles closely allied with epideictic—that branch of rhetoric concerned with praise or blame and most often associated with highly ornamented and extravagant style.

In the Manuductio,4 twenty-four years later, Mather cautions against "Squandering … Time on the RHETORIC5 … and upon all the Tropes and Schemes, … the very Profession whereof usually is little more than to furnish out a Stage-Player." But he qualifies this advice by advocating careful observation of the "Flowres and Airs of such Writings, as are most in Reputation for their Elegancy" and by recommending the "agreeably ingenious" employment in the "Pulpit-Oratory," of "The Sublime … Beautiful … [and] … Affectuous … Rhetoric [al] … Figures… in our Sacred Scriptures" (p. 34). Thus, the "flowers of rhetoric" out one window are back in through another; and the Magnalia, written in the "grand" manner, generously exemplifies this permissiveness. In this work, rhetorical ornament and verbal ingenuity, involving studied play on the sounds and/or meanings of words, constitute the most striking characteristics of Mather's heightened use of language.

To be fully appreciated Mather's prose must be read aloud. This fact suggests both the ultimately oratorical nature of his stylistic strategies, and the close relationship between spoken and written word in an age and place in which the sermon was the dominant literary form. The style points forward to the near fusion of rhetoric with poetic in the eighteenth century, and to the politically oriented rhetoric of America's early national period.6 But so too does it point back to the glories of an earlier baroque in the works of Sir Thomas Browne, Jeremy Taylor and Thomas Fuller—and beyond these to the source of Renaissance styles in the Middle Ages.

As a means of distinguishing Mather's style from that of others. I have attempted to indicate some of the ways in which his use of various "schemes" differs from that of his contemporaries. It is hoped that the following analysis of Mather's verbal patterns will illuminate his methodology, partly define his style, and suggest some of the possible consequences of appropriating to the written language techniques apparently more suited to the spoken.

At its least conspicuous level, sound play in the Magnalia stems from the customary seventeenth-century practice of using words in pairs: "Bent and Aim" (III, 18),7 "Erroneous and Heretical" (III, 22). Though other New England writers sometimes coupled words in similar fashion, Mather used the device far more frequently than they, and he alone repeatedly combined it with paromoion (repetition of sound). Because of the presence of more striking verbal ingenuities, one might well miss the two sets of word pairs contained in the following passage from "The LIFE of JOHN NORTON":

But he had the Privilege to enter into Immortality, without such a Formal and Feeling Death, as the most of Mortals encounter with; for though in the Forenoon of April 5, 1663, it was his Design to have Preached in the Afternoon, he was that Afternoon taken with a sudden Lypothymie, which presently and easily carried him away to those Glories, wherein the Weary are at Rest; but it was a Dark Night, which the Inhabitants of Boston had upon the Noise of his Death: Every Corner of the Town was filled with Lamentations, which left a Character upon that Night, unto this Day, not forgotton (III, 38).

The paired adjectives, "Formal and Feeling," and adverbs, "presently and easily," are unobtrusive, but they exemplify one of Mather's favorite stylistic devices, which coupled noun with noun, verb with verb, or, as here, adjective with adjective or adverb with adverb.

When others combined paromoion with word pairs, it was usually in the form of simple alliteration (repetition of sound at the beginning of words). This form often appears in the Magnalia: "forget or forgive" (I, 9); "Seasonable and Sufficient" (I, 31); "shaken and shatter'd" (II, 58). With equal, if not greater frequency, however, such pairs in the Magnalia involve repetition of sound at the end of words (homoioteleuton): "Killing and Wounding" (I, 9); "Liberty and Property" (II, 197); "Temptations and Afflictions" (III, 16).

Almost as frequent, and far more noticeable, are the word pairs involving repetition of sounds at both end and beginning. This form (paronomasia)8 often combines a play on sound with a play on sense, but, when in conjunction with word pairs such as those described here, paronomasia in Mather's prose tended to be primarily a figure of sound. It is, however, less likely than the simpler forms to be merely additive: "Conviction … Confession" (III, 7); "encouraging and enlivening" (III, 53); "Passion and Poison" (III, 72); "Pathetical and Prophetical" (III, 62). The punning possibilities of this figure are sufficiently obvious, but since the pun does not necessarily involve repetition of sound, being primarily a figure of sense, it will be dealt with later.

Another form of paromoion that constantly appears in the Magnalia consists of the repetition in a modified word of a sound initially introduced in the modifier: "most memorable" (I, 2); "unseasonable Freezing" (I, 24); "Troublesome Time" (II, 20). Like the less elaborate word pairs, this variety of sound play is quite unobtrusive when occurring by itself. Locutions, however, that incorporate pairs of modifiers with pairs of words modified, particularly when each word contains sounds identical or similar to those contained in the other three, convey effects considerably more striking: "comfortable Dwellings and considerable Demesnes" (III, 87); "terrible Temptations, and horrible Buffetings" (III, 121). Frequently, the modifier is simply repeated: "several Deliverances from several Distresses" (III, 87). Less frequently, the modified words, although themselves containing similar sounds, do not contain sounds present in the reiterated modifier: "of Good Estate, and of Good Esteem" (III, 33).

But Mather, not satisfied with the coupling of merely two words, extended the technique to include combinations of three or more words in series. Inordinately aware of sounds, he usually incorporated paromoion with such structures: "Little, Idle, Angry" (I, 25); "Colonies, Counties, and Congregations" (I, 27); "Provoking, Pernicious, and Perillous" (VII, 23). Frequently the series consists of three or more phrases of various types rather than of single words: "with what Holiness, with what Watchfulness, Usefulness" (III, 40); "their Love to, and Zeal for, and Care of these Churches" (II, 21); "broke up, went off, and came to nothing" (I, 12).9 Sometimes the series is interrupted by qualifying words or phrases which partly break the otherwise symmetrical pattern. Sometimes not all the words or phrases contain similar sounds, and, time after time, words placed in conjunction with each other are presented in such a way as to stress contrast or antithesis. And sometimes sets of words and phrases are not simply presented in series but are incorporated into more complex structures.

When modification is combined with sets of three or more words, the effect is conspicuous. It will be noted that, in some of the following examples, Mather varies his structure in order to avoid absolute symmetry, to make additional modification possible, or to add still another "member" to the series. Regardless of variations, however, the overall pattern remains the same—an extension and elaboration of the relatively simple device of using words in pairs: "an extraordinary Invention, Curious Disposition, and Copious Application" (IV, 173); "the Gravity, the Majesty, Scriptural and Awful Pungency of these his Dispensations" (IV, 174); "most Exemplary Piety, Extraordinary Ingenuity, Obliging Affability, join'd with the Accomplishments of an Extraordinary Preacher did render him truly Excellent" (IV, 200); "Prayers and Praises, in Inexpressible Joys" (II, 25); "It is an Honest, and a Lawful, tho' it be not a very Desirable Employment" (I, 36). It would be a pointless task to categorize in detail the many variations which patterns of this kind can and do take in Mather's prose. Consider, for instance, the following passage, which, although it belongs to the same general category as do the examples already cited, is identical with none of them: "the Ministers and Passengers constantly served God, Morning and Evening; Reading, Expounding and Applying the Word of God, singing of His Praise, and seeking Peace" (I, 17). The possible combinations are inumerable, but all of them fit into the same general pattern of conscious verbal manipulation for stylistic effect.

Verbal patterns such as those described here illustrate the copia of Mather's style. He was seldom satisfied with one word if he could use two, or with two if he could use three. His theory of style does not advocate concision, nor does his prose exemplify this characteristic. These facts may partly result from the customary Puritan desire for exactness and precision, even at the expense of brevity. Much New England prose consisted of precise Biblical exegesis and the drawing of fine distinctions between theological points. In order to combine clarity with precision, the Puritan author frequently resorted to what can only be called superfluity of modification. Mather, who combined with these motives the desire to present everything in its strongest colors, delighted in piling adjective on adjective and adverb on adverb: "he was Affable, Courteous, and generally Pleasant, but Grave perpetually; and so Cautelous and Circumspect in his Discourses, and so Modest in his Expressions" (II, 28): "this our Learned, Able, Holy, and no less Considerate, than Considerable MITCHEL" (IV, 180); "One of the most Eminent and Judicious Persons that ever lived in this World, was Intentionally a New-England Man, tho' not Eventually, when that Profound, that Sublime, Subtil, that Irrefragable, yea that Angelical Doctor" (III, 3). There were simply not enough words in the English, or any other language, to express adequately the extremity of Mather's reverence for the leaders of primitive New England.

Closely related to the repetition of sound in groups of two or more different words is the repetition of the same word within a single sentence.10 Play on the concepts of night and day is probably the most conspicuous feature of the passage on Norton ("Dark Night"; "upon that Night"; "unto this Day"). Mather here calls attention to his own ingenuity by repeating the same word in different contexts and by placing it, toward the close of the sentence, in emphatic contrast with the antithetic word "Day."11 Repetition of a single key word for stylistic effect (ploce) is one of Mather's favorite devices: "a very diminutive kind of Boat … [which] … they made a shift … to lengthen it so far, that they could therein form a little Cuddy, … and they set up a little Mast, whereto they fastened a little Sail, and accommodated it with some other little Circumstances, according to their present poor Capacity" (II, 54).12 Sometimes, as here, the purpose is to emphasize a single descriptive point. Although this passage is somewhat atypical in that Mather usually emphasizes bigness, abundance, excess, rather than diminutiveness or paucity,13 the same technique could serve either purpose. There were no words strong enough to express Mather's detestation of idleness other than the very word itself, which, by repetition, constitutes its own superlative: "Idleness, alas! Idleness increases in the Town exceedingly: Idleness, of which there never came any Goodness; Idleness, which is a reproach to any People" (I, 37). Equally emphatic is Mather's denunciation of sin: "Let us beware of every Sin; for Sin will turn a Man into a Devil. Oh! Vile SIN, horrid SIN, cursed SIN; or, to speak a more pungent Word, than all of That; Oh, SINFUL sin!" (IV, 198).

Repetition of key words is a standard characteristic of the New England sermon. In order to keep their listeners' attention on the Biblical text, or particular thesis, New England ministers were not averse to using the same words over and over again in different contexts. They did so primarily in order to gain clarity, precision, and less often, emphasis. Mather, as usual, carried the device to extremes, and in his sermons its effect is less that of clarity and precision than of exaggerated emphasis—and, at times, of pure ingenuity. In his sermon entitled "What the Pious Parent Wishes For,"14 Mather repeats the key word "heart" more than one hundred and sixty times. The number of exclamation marks is staggering, and the unutterable excess of his emotion is conveyed by no fewer than thirty-four instances of the exclamatory interjection "OH!"15 Mather's reliance on this characteristically oratorical stratagem is simply another indication of his overpowering compulsion to magnify, to exaggerate, to present every subject in superlative terms.

Such studied repetition of an individual word provided him with a suitable means of attaining "elegant," "charming," and "agreeably ingenious" rhetorical turns: "It was not on the Lord's Day only, but every Day, that this good Man was usually, In the Fear of the Lord all the Day long" (III, 79).16 More striking are passages which involve the repetition of more than one key word or phrase. These structures usually point verbal contrasts and always involve balance of one kind or another; their witty effect sometimes results from reversal of the original word order, and, less often, from violation of natural word order. Here are examples:

There was nothing more Observable in his Temper, than such a Study of a Temper in all Difficult Matters, as renders a Person aimable [sic], wherever 'tis Observable (IV, 477).

He was a Burning and a Shining Light. In the Tabernacle of Old … there were those Two Things, a Candlestick and an Altar; in the One a Light that might never go out, in the other a Fire that might never be extinguished; and yet such an Affinity between these, that there was a Fire in the Light of the one, and a Light in the Fire of other (III, 32).

Mather was fond of attaining antithetic and surprising verbal relationships by altering prefixes17 or the elements of compound words: "this False-dealing proved a Safe-dealing" (I, 7); "I was my Self an Ear-witness, that one, who was an Eye-witness" (II, 67). Usually, however, this figure consists of the repetition of a single root in different inflectional forms (polyptoton): "his Abstinence had more Sweetness in it, than any of the Sweets which he abstained from" (III, 179). Here the root word "sweet" appears with two different endings but each time as a noun. Metathetic change is illustrated by the noun "Abstinence" and the verb "abstained from." The device enabled him to use what was essentially a single word as more than one part of speech within a single sentence, and to combine ingenious patterns of sound play with varying degrees of semantic antithesis.

Clearly a development of the simpler device of repeating the same word within a given passage, polyptoton is the most distinctive form of Mather's sound play.18 In its possibilities for emphasis, for elaboration of similar or antithetic concepts, for variety, and for ingenious verbal twists, this form of paromoion was ideally suited to the purposes Mather set for himself as an author, and like his other stylistic characteristics, it is an extreme form of customary Puritan literary techniques. The examples which follow will give some notion of the many variations which this figure can take:

(1) he was loth to see, and yet fear'd he saw … (III, 189).

(2) though a Great Person for Stature, yet a Greater for Spirit, he was greatly serviceable for the Good of the Church … (III, 214).

(3) Governour Phips … must have, his Envious Enemies; but the palest Envy of them, who turned their worst Enmity upon him … (II, 58).

(4) After Him we have had, besides those, whose Lives are anon to be Written, many others that by Writing have made themselves to Live … (IV, 135).

(5) He was a very Lively Preacher, and a very Preaching Liver. He lov'd his Church as if it had been his Family, and he taught his as if it had been his Church (III, 114).

(6) The Faults of the Penitent, indeed, should be Concealed; but these pretended Preachers of Repentance are not known to Practice the Repentance which they Preach (VII, 32).19

In these examples, polyptoton, in combination with balanced structures, not only serves to accentuate various degrees of semantic contrast, but to emphasize the decidedly rhythmical qualities inherent in such structures.20

Our progression has been from the simpler forms of sound repetition, relatively divorced from plays on meaning, to those in which semantic relationships are at least equal in importance to sound play. Ploce and polyptoton, for instance, particularly when combined with balanced structures, serve to emphasize contrasts in sense; but one often feels that Mather used such figures as much for their own sake as for their contribution to meaning. In passages such as those quoted in the last paragraph it is impossible to distinguish so precisely as to state dogmatically that polyptoton is primarily a figure of sound or of sense. It serves both functions about equally and so constitutes the turning point of this essay; the remainder deals with verbal ingenuities, which, although they may involve paromoion, are primarily plays on meaning rather than sound.21

In the following passage, play on differing meanings of "stand" results in paradox: "sometimes he could not stand before it; but it was by not standing that he most effectually withstood it" (II, 10). Apparent contradiction is also the initial impression conveyed by the following play on "Falling Down" and "Flying up"; "his Labours were so fervent and eager, that he would sometimes Preach till he fell down…. His last Falling Down was a "Flying up" (III, 217). As in these instances, the apparent contradiction of a Mather paradox is apt to be metaphorical or verbal rather than actual. 'Flying up" is a metaphor for the ascension of the soul to heaven;22 "stand," in the verb "to withstand," means something decidedly different from when used by itself. Because of this characteristic, Mather's verbal paradoxes are actually a kind of pun instead of the expression in words of concepts or situations that are themselves paradoxical.

The "punning paradox" constitutes a culmination of the various verbal patterns previously identified. It represents the setting up of words or phrases in balanced and antithetic relationship with each other carried to its extreme form—that of implied contradiction. Although it does not always illustrate paromoion, it frequently involves balance, antithesis, symmetry, inversion and contrast to which paromoion, in its various forms, draws attention:

(1) But what is now become of New-Haven Colony? I must Answer, It is not: And yet it has been growing ever since it first was (I, 26).

(2) he was chosen a Magistrate of New-England before New-England it self came into New-Engleand (II, 19).

(3) having been taught by the Affliction to Die Daily, as long as he Lived (II, 24).

(4) Hitherto we have seen the Life of Mr. Cotton, while he was not yet Alive! (III, 15).

(5) he became a Father to the Colledge, which had been his Mother (IV, 181).

(6) Wo to us, if we are not Born Twice before we Die Once! (III, 230).

Mather also indulged in the pun pure and simple. In the Magnalia, the pun usually consists of a repetition of the same word in two different senses, but, on occasion, one use of the word sufficed: "when he judg'd that he had kept them on their Knees long enough, he having first secur'd their Arms, received them aboard" (II, 40). Here, without repetition, Mather expressed both the anatomical and the military meanings of the single word. Similarly, repetition was unnecessary to an ingenious play on animadversions: "It will not be so much a Surprise unto me, if I should live to see our Church-History vexed with Anie-mad-versions of Calumnious Writers" ("General Introduction"). Usually, however, the effect was gained by repeating homonyms in their different senses:

He did not put off his Charity, to be put in his last Will, as many who therein shew that their Charity is against their Will (III, 181).

… the Ministers … used all due Pains to Charm these Adders with convincing Disputations, when they were in the Bay, and indeed often drove them to a Bay with Argument (VII, 12).

… to be oft, or long in your Visits of the Ordinary, 'twill certainly expose you to Mischiefs more than ordinary (I, 36).

Mather's desire to be ingenious is even more apparent in his discussion of certain "Private Meetings [at which] good People [concluded] their more Sacred Exercises with Suppers; [but now, although the meetings] do still abound among us; … the Meals that made Meatings of them, are generally laid aside" (III, 6). Puns on common nouns, usually combined with some form of repetition, are frequent in Mather's prose, but his special delight was in the metaphorical possibilities afforded by personal names.

In contrast to his other verbal ingenuities, Mather's puns on personal names rarely depend on repetition of sound or on balanced structure. Their distinguishing feature is their metaphorical quality—easy metaphors, to be sure, but not used frivolously:

[Henry Flint] was a Solid Stone, in the Foundations of New-England (III, 122).

Thomas Shepard … escaped those, to whom such a Shepherd was an Abomination (III, 87).

… even that Hooker, who having Angled many Scores of Souls into the Kingdom of Heaven (III, 174).

… for all the Fires of Martyrdom which were kindled in the Days of Queen Mary, [Yorkshire] afforded no more Fuel than one poor Leaf; namely, John Leaf, an apprentice (II, 2).

Sometimes, as in the following pun on the name of lohn Cotton, the effect is ludicrous: "One would have thought the Ingenuity of such a Spirit should have broke the Hearts of Men, that had indeed the Men in them; yea, that the hardest Flints would have been broken, as is usual, upon such a soft Bag of Cotton! (III, 26). It is, perhaps, all for the best that Mather closed this sentence with an exclamation point.

Play on the meanings of personal names often appears in conjunction with Mather's use of knowledge derived from books. The name of Samuel Stone was, like those of Hooker and Shepard, ideally suited for the simple pun. "Indeed the Foundation of New-England had a precious Jem laid in it, when Mr. Stone arrived" (III, 116). "He was a Man of Principles, and in the Management of those Principles, he was both a Load stone and a Flint stone" (III, 117). In the following passage, however, the simple pun, in which Samuel Stone gave "sparks" in the form of a theological work, introduces equations between Samuel Stone, the "Stone from the Sling of David" (I Samuel, 17:49) and the "Stone of Bohan" (Joshua, 15:6; 18:17):

But certain Strokes of Mr. Hudson and Mr. Cowdrey, fetch'd one Spark out of this well compacted Stone; which was, A Discourse about the Logical Notion of a Congregational Church; wherein some thought, that as a Stone from the Sling of David, he has mortally wounded the Head of that Goliah, A National Political Church. At least, he made an Essay, to do what was done by the Stone of Bohan, setting the Bounds between Church and Church, as That between Tribe and Tribe (III, 118).

The puns here refer not only to Biblical matters but to controversies over the relationship between church and state. The knowledge derived from books also contributes its share to a pun on the illness that did not cause Samuel Stone's death: "As for Mr. Stone, if it were Metaphorically true (what they Proverbially said) of Beza, that he had no Gall, the Physicians that opened him after his Death, found it Literally true in this worthy Man" (III, 118).23 And a Latin aphorism concludes yet another pun on the apposite subject of stones: "'Tis not easy to comprehend, and I wish no such Faithful Servant of God may experience it; how much the Spirit of Mr. Stone, was worn by the Continual Dropping of this Contention.—Gutta Cavat Lapidem" (III, 118).24 In fact, "TheLIFE of Mr. SAMUEL STONE" opens with a learned, biographical parallel based on the identity of meanings of the English word "stone" and the Latin word "lapis."

"The LIFE of Mr. ADAM BLACKMAN" consists largely of a play on contrasts between name and character, combined with appropriate comments on a famous teacher who "had the Name of Niger" and that "Great Person among the Reformers in Germany, … [Melanchthon] … who had almost the same Name with our Blackman" (III, 94). Although the name of Partridge is less obviously suited to puns on character and calling than are Shepard, Hooker, Stone, or Blackman, Mather discovered a parallel that thoroughly pleased him. "The LIFE of Mr. RALPH PARTRIDGE" consists almost entirely of an extended, punning metaphor that conveys, in little, the essence of the Puritan migration to New England.25 This particular divine was described (III, 99):

an hunted Partridge …, distress'd by … Ecclesiastical Setters … [Having] Defence, neither of Beak, nor Claw, … [he took] Flight over the Ocean … [and] … Covert [in] the Colony of Plymouth…. [He had] the Innocency of the Dove [and] …, in the great Soar of his intellectual Abilities …, the Loftiness of an Eagle…. [He was], notwithstanding the Paucity and the Poverty of his Congregation, so afraid of being any thing that look'd like a Bird wandring from his Nest, that he remained with his poor People, till he took Wing to become a Bird of Paradise, along with the winged Seraphim of Heaven.



This is not great literature, but surely it is a pleasure to read. Doubtless, the formula is mechanical; neither intuitive perception nor artistic sensitivity is requisite to its use. The pun and the fanciful conceit are out of date and have lost their seriousness, but for Mather they provided a perfect means of combining variety and ingenuity with edification. His delight in developing such figures communicates itself to the sympathetic reader—but this is beyond the reach of analysis.

Personal names were not, for Mather, mere tags, of use only to distinguish one man from another.26 They, like everything else, were full of meaning. What may be called the etymological pun was another device by means of which Mather utilized such meaning: to "bedeck" his prose, to characterize his subject, to advocate desirable personal "attributes," and, ultimately, to profit his readers. This variety of the pun consists of the pointed use, in English translation, of the original meanings conveyed by personal names in their parent languages. Sometimes, as with the name of Thomas Allen, Mather underscores his linguistic knowledge. "The Name of Allen being but our Pronunciation of the Saxon Word, Alwine, which is as much as to say Beloved of All, expressed the Fate of this our Allen, among the Generality of the welldisposed. And being a Man greatly Beloved …" (III, 215).27 Sometimes Mather used his knowledge of ecclesiastical history to introduce his etymological puns. The result is a variety of the biographical parallel. "One of the First English Arch-bishops assumed the Name of Deus dedit, and the Historian says, he answered the Name that he assumed. Our Nathanael was not in the Rank of Arch-bishops; but as was his Name, a GIFT OF GOD, SO was he!" (III, 104). Usually, however, as in the two following examples, Mather's use of this learned device was unobtrusive. "His Benjamin was made the Son of his Right Hand …" (III, 174). "Her Name was Anne, and Gracious was her Nature" (III, 173). Somehow less obnoxious to modern tastes than the pun pure and simple, the etymological pun reflects, and partly defines, Mather's learned background.

The anagram, like the pious pun, and itself a kind of pun, provided Mather with still another means of extracting significance from personal names. "… an End, whereat JOHN NORTON went, according to the Anagram of his Name INTO HONOR" (III, 38). "… our Eliot (the Anagram of whose Name was …" (III, 193). Mather himself described the anagram as "a certain little Sport of Wit" (III, 49)—a phrase indicative of low esteem. He recognized, however, that it, like the pun, could be used for edification. Sometimes it "has afforded Reflections very Monitory, as Alstedius by his just Admirers changed into Sedulitas; or very Characterizing, as Renatus Cartesius, by his Disciples turn'd into, Tu scis res Naturae; or very Satyrical, as when Satan ruleth me, was found in the Transposed Name of a certain Active Persecutor"28 (III, 49). Since anagrams could be at the same time instructive and ingenious, Mather had every reason for using them in the Magnalia, but few of those that appear in the work are of his own devising. Almost all are qualified by the remark that someone else made them up. "Mr. Wilson's anagrammatising of JOHANNES NORTONUS into Nonne is Honoratus? Will give him his deserved Character" (III, 38). John Allin "was indeed one of so sweet a Temper, that his Friends Anagrammatised [his name] into this: IN HONI ALL" (III, 133).

Anagrams and pious puns are forms of the same general technique, which results from a search for significance over and above mere literal import. They are also indicative of the importance attached by New England Puritans to the meanings of words and, in particular, of those most meaningful of all words—personal names. J. F. Jameson remarks:

The punning habit … crops out in all [of Mather's] writings, and indeed a general habit of verbal jingles and ingenuities which might justify one in applying to [Mather] what he in the Magnalia says in praise of Rev. John Wilson, in commending

"His care to guide his Flock and feed his lambs,

By words, works, prayers, psalms, alms, and anagrams."29

Mr. Jameson's comment introduces the final point of this essay. Play on the sound and/or meaning of words is unquestionably characteristic of the Magnalia's style, but to what extent is it a distinguishing feature?

What distinguishes Mather's sound play is less the nature of the techniques used than the excessive use to which he put them. Many of the patterns described at the beginning of this paper occasionally appear in the prose of other New England authors. William Brad-ford, John Cotton, Edward Johnson, and John Norton, for instance, utilized word pairs and sometimes combined them with repetition of sound.3" Others, such as John Winthrop, Increase Mather, and William Hubbard, rarely used such pairs either with or without sound play. Repetition of the same word within a single sentence was not uncommon, but the purpose was, almost invariably, clarity or emphasis rather than ingenuity. Repetition of the same stem with inflectional variation31 was, however, extremely rare. Play on two key words in antithetic relationship was also uncommon, but does, on occasion, appear. Structures involving antithetic and balanced relationships between clauses or phrases are far more frequent, but, with the exception of Mather, few authors brought attention to them by paromoion. Other writers, when they wished to make a passage particularly striking, had at their disposal the same techniques that Mather used. But he wanted everything to be striking and, consequently, used exorbitantly what others used with restraint.

The passage in which William Hubbard remarks that "the foolishness of the sons and daughters of men makes them choose sin rather than shame, till at last they are covered with sin for their shame,"32 is virtually indistinguishable from innumerable passages in the Magnalia. So too with isolated passages in the writings of John Norton, Thomas Hooker, and Increase Mather. In the prose of these authors, however, such rhetorical turns are isolated, tending to occur no more than three or four times in a given work. Furthermore, by the 1690's, Cotton Mather was almost alone in continuing to use them at all.33 They reflect an earlier period, during which a restrained play with words was a legitimate form of decoration, during which a limited use34 of verbal ingenuity was not regarded as entirely frivolous. By the 1690's, however, literary standards were changing, and spokesmen for a new age—the Stoddards, Calefs, Colmans, and Wises—had no use for such "outworn devices." What distinguishes Mather's use of sound play from that of earlier New England writers is that he utilized it so frequently and in such a variety of contexts. What rarely appears in the prose of others is constantly present in the Magnalia. Few of its paragraphs are without rhetorical turns of one kind or another, and, when missing, their place is usually taken by ingenious displays of learning. When, as so often happens, the two appear in combination, the effect is distinctly Matherian.

The abundance of "verbal jingles,"35 rather than their mere presence, distinguishes Mather's prose from that of New Englanders who wrote prior to the last decade of the seventeenth century. Their presence or absence alone, however, helps to distinguish "early" New England prose from that produced after the turn of the century. But verbal ingenuity stemming primarily from the studied play on multiplicity of meanings, rather than on repetitive sound patterns, is, regardless of date, a major feature in the prose of but two New England authors—Cotton Mather and Nathaniel Ward.

Before the close of the century, the pious pun had been a thoroughly reputable ingredient of elegiac verse. "Since nothing in the life of a good man could be unordained by Providence, one's name—either in its pristine form, or anagrammatically rearranged—or the disease one suffered from, or one's profession, or the mode of one's death: all were motifs not adventitious."36 Except for Mather and Ward, however, New Englanders tended to restrict the pun, whether on common noun or personal name, to the funeral elegy.37 The anagram, too, was ordinarily limited to obituary verse; although it occasionally appeared in prefatory poems.38 These were techniques that the generality of New Englanders considered somehow less suitable to prose than to poetry, Cotton Mather and Nathaniel Ward dissenting.

The "punning habit" perfectly exemplifies Mather's custom of putting to use every rhetorical device available to him. Others used the pun in their poetry; Mather used it in his prose as well. Others occasionally used antithetic structures in their prose, and, less often, combined it with simple and unobtrusive forms of sound play; Mather incorporated seeming contradiction with such structures, and the result is the punning paradox. Others, interested in exegetical precision, worked out the etymology of words; Mather combined etymological study with plays on double meanings, and the result is the etymological pun. Others tended to limit the anagram to obituary verses; Mather utilized it in his prose. In short, whatever had proved useful to other writers, Mather appropriated to his own purposes; verbal techniques that others used seldom, unobtrusively, and with restraint, Mather used without restraint, extravagantly, and in exaggerated form.


1 Richard (1596-1669); Increase (1639-1723); Cotton (1662/63-1727/28).

2 Printed in London by Thomas Parkhurst. All quotations from the Magnalia are taken from this edition.

3 Reginald E. Watters, "Biographical Technique in Cotton Mather's Magnalia," William and Mary College QuarterlyHistorical Magazine, 3rd Series, II (1945), 155.

4Manuductio ad Ministerium (Boston, 1726).

5 I have retained the original capitals, spellings, and italics throughout.

6 Gordon E. Bigelow, "Rhetoric and American Poetry of the Early National Period," University of Florida Monographs, Humanities, No. 4 (Spring, 1960).

7 Each of the seven books of the 1702 folio has separate pagination.

8 The minute differences between paronomasia, agnomination, syllabic antithesis, etc. need not concern us. What is desired here is to give some idea of the general patterns that characterize Mather's use of language.

9 The symmetry in this and the preceding example is the result of isocolon and parison rather than of paromoion. Mather ordinarily relied more on similarity of sound than of form or length, although quite often all three are involved.

10 Sometimes Mather would repeat a key word over and over again throughout passages extending to a paragraph or more. In his sermons, key words are repeated throughout.

11 The effect is all the more pronounced because of the earlier play on "Forenoon" and "Afternoon."

12 The four locutions in which "little" is repeated, each time with a different noun, may be considered an elaboration of Mather's use of three or more words in series. Note also that "diminutive" and "poor" are roughly synonymous with "little."

13 In fact, when applied to human beings, "little" was one of Mather's favorite terms of disparagement. To magnify was to praise; to diminish, to condemn.

14 Included in A Course of Sermons on Early Piety (Boston, 1721). This is a delightful little collection of sermons by various New Englanders. A reading of the sermons contained in it will give, as no description can, a feeling for the difference between Mather's characteristic frenzy and the more restrained tone of his contemporaries.

15 Appearing entirely by itself, rather than in such apostrophes as "Oh God!," with which the sermon is also liberally endowed.

16 The play on "Night" and "Day" in the passage on Norton is, like the just quoted example, more ingenious than emphatic. Usually, the two qualities are about equal: "gave Thanks unto the God of Heaven, so they sent an Address of Thanks unto Their Majesties, with other Letters of Thanks unto some Chief Ministers" (II, 58).

17 As in the play on "Forenoon" and "Afternoon" in the passage on Norton.

18 Both ploce and polyptoton are important features of Edward Taylor's poetry. See my forthcoming "Verbal Patterns in the Poetry of Edward Taylor," College English.

19 This and the preceding example illustrate another trait of style frequently encountered in the Magnalia: the ending of a sentence with a word (usually with inflectional variation) that has previously appeared in it. As a result of Mather's. fondness for repetitive patterns (isocolon. parison, and, above all, paromoion), his sentences tend to be more symmetrical than those of most New England authors. Unlike Ciceronian (or euphuistic) sentences, however, Mather's are almost never perfectly circular or symmetrical in structure. They are, rather, characterized by symmetry of the part and asymmetry of the whole, and are far more apt to involve intraclausal than interclausal balance. They conform to Senecan, not Ciceronian, patterns; on occasion, repetition of words in terminal position tends to obscure the fact.

20 The emphatic rhythms of Mather's prose are further accentuated by his preference for polysyllabic diction: "As his Diligence was indefatigable, so his Proficiency was proportionable: And he was partic ularly considerable there, for his Disputations upon the Points then most considerably controverted" (III, 143). But this is an extreme example.

21Schemata sententiae as opposed to schemata verborum; roughly synonymous with the terms "puns" and "jingles," which have often been used—most often pejoratively—to describe Mather's verbal ornaments.

22 The apparent contradiction results from Mather's intentional omission of the distinction between body and spirit.

23 Note the explicit distinction between metaphorical and literal meanings. Note also the equation drawn, in the preceding quotation, between "Goliah" and "A National Political Church. " Analogical, metaphorical, and symbolical (no less than typological) interpretation of the Scriptures was responsible for much that appears in New England (as in Medieval) literature.

24 One cannot fail to note how Mather's verbal devices appear again and again. In this example, there is the pointed contrast between "comprehend" and "experience;" in the preceding example, between "Metaphorically," "Proverbially," and "Literally,"

25 As Austin Warren says in New England Saints (Ann Arbor, 1956), p. 15: "Cotton Mather, commemorating the Reverend Ralph Partridge, … finds a life in a name…."

26 Nor did other orthodox New England Puritans consider them as mere tags. See the first chapter of Warren (above).

27 For a more extended example, which combines display of linguistic knowledge with Biblical exegesis, see Mather's discussion of "the signification of the word Azazel" (VI, 66).

28 Mather, in discussing John Wilson's penchant for the anagram, points out the didactic values of this form of wit: " … there could scarcely occurr the Name of any Remarkable Person, at least, on Remarkable Occasion unto him, without an Anagram raised thereupon; and he made this Poetical, and Peculiar Disposition of his Ingenuity, a Subject whereon he grafted Thoughts far more Solid, and Solemn, and Useful, than the Stock it self" (III, 49).

29 J. Franklin Jameson, The History of Historical Writing in America (Boston, 1891), p. 5. Jameson quotes from "The LIFE of Mr. JOHN WILSON," Magnalia, III, 51.

30 Usually in the form of alliteration. Johnson was fond of using series of three or more nouns or noun phrases. Such series, in Johnson, frequently involve either alliteration or homoioteleuton.

31 Or with metathetic change or varied prefix.

32 William Hubbard, A General History of New England from the Discovery to MDCLXXX, Vols. V and VI, MHS Collections, 2nd Series (Boston, 1848), VI, 530.

33 They continue to appear sporadically in the prose of Increase Mather, and one occasionally encounters them in that of Benjamin Wadsworth.

34 Cotton Mather's generous use of such techniques would always have conflicted with the negative requirements of the plain style.

35 Those that consist of sound play rather than play on meaning.

36 Warren, loc. cit.

37 This is not to say that puns never appear in the prose of others than Ward or Mather; only, that they are rare.

38 See, for instance, the anagrams on the name of Cotton Mather that precede the text of the Magnalia.

Sacvan Bercovitch (essay date 1966)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6062

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 must cry mightily unto the Lord, that He would mercifully direct my feeble, but faithful, Endeavors in an evil Generation.

I also thought, that since it be the Purpose of Heaven that the Apostasy shall go on [I] may be in danger of a Stroke from the Angel of Death, that so a Way may be made for the Anger of God. Hereupon, the Lord sent into my Spirit a Sweet Meditation and Consolation that my Life shall the rather be prolonged; and my Name shall be the more precious [to posterity].1

The Lord did not, on this occasion, deceive His feeble but faithful servant. Cotton Mather lived twenty-eight years longer into the yankee apostasy, and the Church History he had just bundled off for publication in England, his largest and greatest book, remains perhaps the supreme achievement of American Puritan literature.

The Magnalia Christi Americana is an important work of the figural imagination. Puritan scholars have discussed it either as a "historical omnium gatherum" or, in terms of church tradition, as the magnum opus of New England jeremiads.2 Their view, which assumes the strict subordination of literature to theology throughout the period, has in general stunted a proper literary appreciation of early colonial writing; in particular, their approach is inadequate for the Magnalia. Mather's arguments here are not, as they would have it, "theology clothed in metaphor." His arguments are metaphor. Written in defiance of "an evil Generation," not for it, the Magnalia recasts fact into image and symbol, and raises the story of New England into a heroic world, in which, as Hawthorne recognized, "true events and real personages move before the reader with the dreamy aspect which they wore in Cotton Mather's singular mind."3

Mather himself suggests that he intended a transformation of this kind. In the Magnalia, he often likens the process of its composition to that of artistic creation, speaks of it in terms of sculpture, painting, music, and drama, and refers continually to literary works, from Sophocles to Cervantes.4 Especially, he shows familiarity with The Aeneid and Paradise Lost. From the latter—where he found his great example of the Puritan literary imagination—Mather quotes at length, "taking the colours of Milton to describe our story" (II, 566); and throughout the work he alludes numerous times, directly and indirectly, to The Aeneid, in which he saw the pagan counterpart of his undertaking. Predictably enough, the great majority of his references come from the Bible; but it is the Bible seen through the eyes of a seventeenth-century Puritan: not only as a historical document—nor even, in our sense, as a source for ecclesiastical doctrine—but also, in Mather's words, as "a Book of Mysteries" (I, 33) awaiting typological interpretation. For him, its "open metaphors"—over which he had labored almost twenty years (I, 33-34)5—subsumed history in a complex system of archetypes, and, in effect, formed out of theology an all-encompassing myth shared by the whole Puritan community. The climax of the "histories of all ages," he believed, lay in the American church-state; with the aid of the Bible's "figures or types," he wished to show New England's punctual and surprising fulfilments of the divine Prophecies" (I, 33)—fulfillments which had been adumbrated in the lives of Adam and Aeneas.

Within this framework, Mather's allusions to Virgil and Milton—and to Du Bartas, Tasso, and Blackmore—provide a clue to the nature of his work. Like The Aeneid and Paradise Lost, the Magnalia celebrates a great legend in the form of an epic. To be sure, Mather never says so explicitly. Sharing the Puritan distrust of all poetic modes, he adopted the role of historian; harassed at the time by "imployments multifarious" (I, 34), he did not even strive for any kind of formal perfection. His immense work—packed with narratives, sermons, church decrees, and biographies—has seemed to its readers "a mighty chaos," "flung together" and "heaped up huge and undigested."6 And viewed as theology or history, it warrants such criticism. Mather himself anticipates this, and begs indulgence on the grounds that "the book hath been a sort of rhapsody made up … with many little rags" (I, 34). Yet as a rhapsody, as a work of passion and imagination, the Magnalia shows a coherent development. Its "mighty chaos" is welded together by the intrinsic unity of its vision and by a number of carefully sustained literary techniques.

Following epic convention, Mather begins, in a suitably "elevated" style, by describing his subject and invoking his muse:

I write the WONDERS of the CHRISTIAN RELIGION, flying from the depravations of Europe, to the American Strand; and, assisted by the Holy Author of that Religion, I do with all conscience of Truth, required therein by Him, who is the Truth itself, report the wonderful displays of His infinite Power, Wisdom, Goodness, and Faithfulness, wherewith His Divine Providence hath irradiated an Indian Wilderness.

I relate the Considerable Matters, that produced and attended the First Settlement of COLONIES … erected in those ends of the earth….

The reader will doubtless desire to know, what it was that

tot Vovere casus
Insignes Pietate Viros, tot adire Labores, Impulerit.

[Virgil's Aeneid, I. 9-11; altered]

And our History shall … satisfy him. (I, 25)

Through its pointed parallels with the opening of the Aeneid, this invocation suggests that the New England epic surpasses as well as resembles its Latin predecessor. Inspired by Christ, not the pagan muse, it reveals the truth rather than dealing in fables, and glorifies not an Aeneas but a convenanted theocracy. In short, in the terms Mather would have preferred, the founding of Rome prefigures that of New England and Virgil's poem finds its antitype in his Church History. Mather strengthens these implications—gathers them into the pattern of "Divine Providence"—by the italicized scriptural reference. The "ends of the earth" (which here, and recurrently in the Magnalia, means America) "signifieth the victory of the Blessed Remnant over Sathan's world," according both to his own Biblia Americana and to his uncle's authorative Figures or Types.7 For the seventeenth-century Puritan, that is, who understood that the "Blessed Remnant" was a "figure" simultaneously for the Chosen Hebrews and the elect, the phrase links the "pious" Trojans and New Englanders in a great providential movement, now at the verge of fulfillment. "He shall have dominion … unto the ends of the earth," writes the Psalmist. "They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him" (Psalms 72:8-9; cf. Psalms 98:3). Or again:

The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken to pieces … the LORD shall judge the ends of the earth; and he shall give strength unto his kind, and exalt the horn of his anointed. (I Samuel 2:10; cf. Luke I: 46-55)


Assemble yourselves and come; draw near together, ye that are escaped of the nations…. Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth…. In the LORD shall all the seed of Israel be justified, and shall glory. (Isaiah 45:20-25; cf. Isaiah 43:1-6 and Zechariah 9:9-15)

This implicit mythicizing of history extends throughout the Magnalia, and supports the explicit design of the work. The theme formulated in the opening lines combines every aspect of the Puritan view of New England as this had developed through the earlier histories from Bradford to Scottow and, in its essentials, has left a lasting imprint on the American imagination: the renunciation of Europe, the effort at a new beginning, and the "great works" providentially attained through "affliction" and "temptation." But Mather at once proceeds to translate all this into legend. The American Puritans, he writes, have created another "golden Age…. there are golden candlesticks (more than twice times seven!) in the midst of this 'outer darkness'" (I, 27). The phrase, which looks back to paradise and early Christianity and forward to the millenium (Rev. 1:12, 8:2), grows into an emblem of the theocracy, maintained through all seven books of the Magnalia.8 Speaking of the emigrants' achievements, Mather exults that "in one or two years' time, there were to be seen seven Churches … all of them golden candlesticks" (I, 79); and he later applies the image also to the next generation, whose "two sevens" of Harvard graduates assure New England that its "aetas aurea" was not "a business of one age" (I, 237; II, 8). Finally, in the last sections, he carries legend into prophecy—"a time of wondrous light" heralded by the seven golden trumpets (I, 509, II, 57)—fusing the colony's past and future into an aesthetic whole.

No one knew better that all this belied the course of history than did Cotton Mather. His sermons after 1690 occasionally still urge a renascence of the Good Old Way;9 his diary, the mirror of his inmost convictions, asserts again and again that the effort was futile, that the colony had strayed beyond recall.10 And in the Magnalia itself, he turns at times to the actual world—generally in epilogues and appendixes11—only to reject it for the world of his creation. These insertions (which form a very small part of the work) all too clearly reveal that the second generation was backsliding into worldliness; that the enemies of the Mather dynasty stood in control of Harvard College; that, in sum, New England had irrevocably abandoned the founders' principles. Mather's shift of focus serves only to enhance his imaginative achievement. He refers to the present in order more fully to define the ideal: in separating one from the other he can, as it were, rescue from "the Anger of God" the "Utopia that was"—and, within the Magnalia itself, still is—"NEW-ENGLAND" (I, 103). With the "stones they throw at this book … I will build myself a monument," he exclaims in the General Introduction; "… whether New-England may live [historically] any where else or no, it must live [spiritually] in our History!" (I, 36, 27).

The Magnalia's New England, then, transcends all material boundaries. The setting becomes, as with Milton's Eden, the focal point for a cosmic war that will decisively alter human history. Of course, the change in the Magnalia stands at opposite extreme from that described in Paradise Lost; it precisely reverses Satan's errand into Eden. And its structure, corresponding to its theme, presents something like an inversion of Milton's epic.12 Satan's anti-heroic actions (though we first see him in hell) begin with his fall from heaven, and proceed in three stages: his ascent from hell, his conquest of earth, and, briefly, the summoning of his legions to their new home. The New England theocracy, the collective epic hero of the Magnalia (as are the chosen people in the Bible), accomplishes its mission in what may be called equal but opposite actions. Mather opens, in medias res, with a description of America, to which "in the fulness of time the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ … is victoriously sailing," changing geography into "Christiano-graphy" (I, 42-43). The narrative itself progresses from Europe, across the Atlantic, and into the wilderness where the Puritans plant the colony (Books I, II, and III),13 establish the church-state (Books IV and V), and in a series of triumphs over Satan (Books VI and VII) prepare for "the descent of … CHRIST from Heaven [to a] … renovated world" (I, 46).

The first part of the narrative, concerning the old world and the Atlantic passage, is dominated by images of depravity and chaos. Mather portrays Europe as the counterpart of pagan Rome, Babylon, Egypt, Ur.14 He compares the several "removals" from England and Holland to the Israelite exodus, to Abraham's "leaving the Chaldean territories" (I, 48) and to the flight of the "primitive Christians" from "the kingdom of Anti-Christ" (I, 584). Throughout this section his phrases and epithets echo the biblical descriptions of fallen civilizations;15 and amplifying his meaning, he extracts prophecies of doom from the sermons of every important emigrant divine. "'Is not England ripe?'," he quotes Thomas Hooker. "'Is she not weary of God? Nay, she is fed fat for the slaughter … [and] shall be abased and brought down to hell'" (I, 341).16 "Flying the deprivations of Europe," the Puritans shut behind them the gates of a lost world—only to encounter "Chaos and ancient Night."17 The Atlantic, in the Magnalia, becomes magnified to epic proportions. As described in most of the emigrants' biographies, it is another "river of Lethe" (I, 529) on which the voyagers "were surprised with horrible tempests … wherein they saw not sun, moon, or star … [while] doleful shrieks gave all over" (I, 109). These elemental storms, surpassing those Aeneas encountered in his sea-journies, together with the "divine deliverances" which accompany them, give the ocean-crossing a legendary, almost supernatural quality, and through this double focus provide a symbolic link between the old hell and the New World. The God that had carried them through the "Flames, worse than hell's … [of] PERSECUTION," Mather comments, was now with them on a worse than "unpassable ocean" in their passage toward "the pure enjoyment of all his ordinances" in America (I, 65, 69).

The Magnalia portrays the founding of the theocracy through the metaphor of the garden of God. At first, as I have suggested, the country appears as a devils' paradise, "where Satan alone had reigned without controul in all former ages" (I, 332). Mather devotes some space to the Puritans' early hardships;18 primarily, however, he stresses how the settlers, purified by the "wilderness-condition," transform the "desart" into a second Eden. The triumph of Milton's Satan all at once lays waste the world (PL, X. 1063-75); Christ's Church fulfills the first part of its mission when the country, as in a dream or legend, springs almost immediately into full bloom. "Never," Mather exclaims, "was any plantation brought unto such a considerableness, in a space of time so inconsiderable! an howling wilderness in a few years became a pleasant land" (I, 80). He presents this metamorphosis through images of "great farms … protected by a guard of angels," of "clusters of rich grapes," and of a "vine" that took "deep root and filled the land" (I, 62-63, 163, 81). The magistrates and the clergy he characterizes as being themselves gardens of the Lord, microcosms of the whole plantation. Abraham Pierson, he writes, was "become (what Paradise was called) 'an island of the innocent'"; Richard Denton's "speech distilled as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass" (I, 398). In this mythical-green glow,19 Mather unfolds the second major action of his epic.

"THE HISTORY OF HARVARD COLLEDGE" extends and enlarges the garden metaphor. Founded by the settlers and continued by their sons, the college becomes at once a symbol of fructification and fruition. Mather calls it "a river without the streams whereof these regions would have been meer unwatered places for the devil" (II, 7). But equally it represents the harvest of that cultivation. "The death of those brave men that first planted New-England," he adds, "would have rendered a fit emblem for the country—a beech tree with its top lopt off (which tree withers when its top is lopt off!)—if Harvard Colledge had not prevented it. But now … [we have] another set, who indeed had their whole growth in the soyl of New-England: persons, whom I may call cedars … [that] 'beautifie the place of my [God's] sanctuary'" (II, 34). This idealized harmony between generations forms the real subject of the fourth book. The biographies of all the ten "exemplary" Harvard graduates abound in allusions to biblical filiopietism and assert, often through the analogy of vegetation, the undisturbed succession from father to son. The "lives" of Samuel and Nathaniel Mather both begin with a disquisition on Saul's question, "Whose son in this youth?" (II, 39, 156); in the Shepard household, "the father was the brightness of the son, [and] … the son was the brightness of the father; such a lustre did father and son mutually reflect upon one another…. [Thus] the root gives verdure to the branches, and the flourishing branches again commend the root" (II, 142).20 For Mather, this "growth" of Harvard College proves that the New England commonwealth has superseded all the holy communities of the past: "where God had before planted his church[es] … 'lo, they were all overgrown with thorns and nettles.' … [But now] the proverb 'That vinegar is the son of wine' and 'That the sons of heroes are trespassers' has been contradicted in [our] … happy experience" (II, 66-67).21

New England's happy experience receives its fullest affirmation, according to the Magnalia, in its ecclesiastical "Acts and Monuments" (Book V). For his purposes, Mather organizes these documents thematically rather than chronologically. He opens in 1680 with the "Confession of Faith," which he claims represents a clerical thanksgiving for half a century of "rest and growth" (II, 207). He then turns to the Cambridge Platform (1648), the main document of the orthodoxy, exulting that "the churches have cheerfully embraced it, practised it, and been prospered in it, unto this very day" (II, 237); and upon the basis of this uniformity, he proceeds to the church decrees of the second generation. The Half-Way covenant (1660), which actually marked the failure of the orthodoxy,22 for him fulfills the expectation of "our seers," binding fathers and sons in a "combination … [that] might not easily be broken" (II, 277-78). By its principles, a long procession of synods guides the colony to "an exactest unity," a "vigorous unanimity" in which every "breach was healed … unto the general joy" (II, 313, 181, 312-13).23 New England's garden, presented earlier in physical terms, appears here in its brightest spiritual aspect, against the background of a total harmony of belief which Mather likens to "the fabulous musick of the spheres" (II, 180).

Though the theocracy prospects both physically and spiritually, it never quite becomes a "sanctuary." To the end, the natural perils of the new world hinder its progress; and even its "guard of angels" cannot prevent the outbreak of witchcraft and of Indian warfare. Milton's epic concludes with paradise lost; but the "magnalia Christi Americana " form only the road, as it were, to the New Jerusalem. Christ's Church advances by overcoming a series of obstacles; the closer it approaches to its final triumph, the more dangerous these obstacles become. Its most glorious battle, Mather reiterates over and over, will be the most dire of all, one in which "the devils and the damned [are] … let loose to make a furious but a fruitless attempt" against the saints (I, 46). Accordingly, the last action of the Magnalia deals with the conflicts between the Puri tans and the forces of evil: "Wars of the Lord" by which the theocracy increasingly nears the realization of its "original design" and destiny.

Book VI presents these conflicts through an assortment of case histories, each one of which illustrates in miniature the experience of the colony. The first chapter, "CHRISTUS SUPER AQUAS," recalls on a diminished scale the images of the ocean-crossing. The next chapter evokes the planting of the wilderness through vignettes of farming life; and the third, "THE RETURNING PRODIGAL," lists various instances of filial devotion. Whether or not Mather here intended a broad thematic development, as I am implying, his tales of suffering and regeneration, occurring as they do in an already established colony, together accent the theocracy's victory over Satan in every area of life. The victory takes on still greater import in the fourteen "sad examples" of witchcraft which follow. Mather claims that the very ferocity of Azazel's rage on these occasions shows that New England had made things "very uneasie unto the devils," that its saints, "the 'heirs of salvation'," were literally "treading Satan underfoot" (II, 447, 470). And he underscores his meaning by relating the whole witchcraft episode to the temptation in the wilderness: "The assaults that Satan then … made," he states summarily, " … producing a most horrible anguish in his [Christ's] mind, made such a figure in his conflicts for us, that they were well worthy of a most particular prefiguration" (II, 447) for these events. It is no less than "Christ's Combate and Conquest over the Dragon," which, typology tells us, at once foreshadow and embody the Second Coming.24

The last book of the Magnalia brings these millenial overtones to a climactic pitch. The "Ecclesiarum Praelia" against the heretics, with which the book begins, are told with a swelling note of triumph, from Roger Williams, a minor irritation to the colony, through the more dangerous Antinomians, to the Quakers, who for Mather represent all "the vomit cast out in the by-past ages … lick'd up again for a new digestion" (II, 522). Their banishment, a major defeat for the powers of darkness, fortifies the theocracy for its greatest "temptation," the Indian wars.

For several reasons, these battles (entitled "ARMA VIROSQUE CANO" to emphasize their superiority to those before Virgil's Latium) provide the right conclusion to Mather's epic. First, they had not yet reached a decisive end—unlike the heresies and witchcraft—and could thus be used to symbolize the theocracy's continuing victories over Satan. Second, the Indians—again unlike the witches and heretics—were an integral part of America; their destruction would more clearly demonstrate that the Puritan mission stood at the verge of completion. Most important, the Indian conflicts afforded a striking finale to two dominant motifs of the Magnalia. As a series of "Wars of the Lord" with primitive tribes, they enforce the resemblance between the colonists and the children of Israel. In this last section Mather most frequently affirms the "biblical parallel," uncovering precedents for every Puritan action,25 from the Pilgrims' troubles with the Pequots, whom he identifies with the "Emim, those terrible giants" (II, 553), to Phips' crucial victory over the Indian King Philip, in which he recreates the Hebrews' entrance into the promised land. But the New Englanders do not therefore simply duplicate the progress of the "erratick church of Israel" (I, 249). Above and beyond this, the covenanted saints are an army of Christ. As soon as Mather completes the parallel between King Philip and Og, "the king of the woody Bashan encountered and conquered by Joshua, the Lord General of Israel with his armies passing into Canaan," he declares:

I am sure New-England has a true church to people it; for all the serpents, yea or giants … have found themselves engaged in a fatal enterprize. We have by a true and plain history secured the story of our success against all the Ogs [here interpreted as "the serpent, Python destroyed by Apollo"] … from falling under the disguises of mythology … And we will not conceal [that] … 'tis our Lord Jesus Christ, worshipped according to the rules of his blessed gospel, who is the great Phoebus, that "SUN of righteousness," who hath so saved this church from the designs of the "generations of the dragon." (II, 579)

The "true church," Mather is saying, having secured its Canaan, is advancing into the New Jerusalem. And in this light, the "fatal enterprize" undertaken by the Indian "serpents" and "giants"—and foreshadowed, Mather intimates (II, 566), by the War in Heavenbecomes part of the great assault of "the devils and the damned": for the "serpent Python" which the Puritans are defeating is none other than Satan himself.

At the end of the work, in a section called "THINGS TO COME," Mather infers the outcome of this assault in all its chiliastic significance. Throughout the narrative he had hinted at the proximity of the millenium, affirming that "the reigning of the saints a thousand years [becomes] within the last few sevens of years nearer to accomplishment" (I, 330-31). Now, as his epic draws to a close, he sets the theocracy's continuing success directly before the backdrop of the New Jerusalem. Quoting in part from the sermons of Nicholas Noyes, he announces that "there is a REVOLUTION AND A REFORMATION at the very door [cf. Mat. 24: 33, Mark 13: 29], which will be more wonderful than any of the deliverances yet seen by the church of God from the beginning of the world…. [And we may well] live to see it. These things will come on with horrible commotions … [My] fancies and juggles," he concludes, "have their foundations laid in realities" (II, 653-54). Mather's vision is of course theological in origin. But as an intrinsic part of his epic its foundations stand primarily in esthetic realities. Binding the great actions by which the colony was planted with the "happy period" which awaits the saints, his "fancies and juggles," far from covering the truth from "the disguises of mythology," transforms the "plain history" of New England into myth.

They serve, further still, to distinguish Mather's epic from those of either Vergil or Milton. Latium and Eden come to us from an irrevocable past; the Magnalia's New England is at once a vanished garden of God and a golden age which remains perpetually "near, even at the door," requiring one last great act in order to realize itself. In this respect, as Roy Harvey Pearce has noted,26 the Magnalia may be seen to be the first in a long line of distinctively American epics, which continues in Barlow's Columbiad and Whitman's Leaves of Grass. More broadly, its main theme, its central metaphors, even perhaps its structure (the apparent chaos controlled by a vision which looks always beyond the present) can all be traced throughout subsequent American literature, and suggest that the Magnalia is a germinal work of symbolic art. Long after its theology fades, after the historiography it favors gives place to different and alien methods, after New England as a whole loses its national influence, its most important legacy lies in the realm of the imagination.


1Diary, ed. Worthington Chauncy Ford. Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, 7th ser. (Boston, 1911), VII, 358. (Ellipses omitted).

2 For example: Barrett Wendell, Cotton Mather, The Puritan Priest (New York, 1963; first published, 1891), pp. 116 ff.; Perry Miller, The New England Mind: Colony to Province (Cambridge, Mass., 1953), pp. 189-90; Kenneth B. Murdock, Literature and Theology in Colonial New England (New York, 1963), p. 129; William Reid Manierre, "Verbal Patterns in Cotton Mather's Magnalia," Quarterly Journal of Speech, XLVII (1961), 402. In spite of my basic disagreements with Miller and Murdock, I am indebted to their pioneering work on typology in colonial America. See respectively: Introduction to Jonathan Edwards, Images or Shadows of Divine Things (New Haven, 1948), pp. 1-41; and "Clio in the Wilderness: History and Biography in Puritan New England," Church History, XXIV (1955), 221-38.

3Grandfather's Chair, in Complete Works, ed. George P. Lanthrop (Boston and New York, 1900), XII, 103. This is not to deny that Mather had a great many yankee traits—which, indeed, have recently received a good deal of attention—but these generally lie in areas of intellectual interest; emotionally and imaginatively, Mather adhered to the former age.

4 See: I, 25, 31-32, 34, 37-39, 40, 58, 65, 107, 125, 142, 261, 337, 386, 390, 399, 436, 482, 479, 504, 603, 608; II, 15-16, 48, 92, 116, 124, 174, 179, 256, 343-44, 363, 392, 514, 529, 535, 566-67, 569, 574, 586, 588, 620, 635. All references (giving volume and page number) are to the Magnalia, ed. Thomas Robbins, 2 vols. (Hartford, Conn. 1853), though they have been checked with the first edition published in London, 1702.

5 The result of this twenty-year labor is the valuable but still unpublished Biblia Americana, now at Massachusetts Historical Society. See further, regarding Mather's interest in typology, Ursula Brumm, Die Religiöse Typologie im Amerikanischen Denken (Leiden, 1963), pp. 38-48.

6 John Greenleaf Whittier, quoted in Austin Warren's "Grandfather Mather and his Wonder Book," Sewanee Review, LXXII (1964), 116; Wendell, Cotton Mather, p. 117; Miller, Colony to Province, p. 104.

7 Samuel Mather, The Figures or Types of the Old Testament … Shadowed to the People of GOD of Old (London, 1683), p. 118; see also the commentary on the seventy-second Psalm in the (unpaginated) Biblia Americana, vol. IV. William Guild discusses at length the typological meaning of the phrase, as the final "Calling of the Gentiles … according to Noahs wish and the Promise made to Abraham," in The Harmony of the Gospels (London, 1926), pp. 40-41.

8 In addition to the references given below, see: I, 43, 235, 286, 328-29, 372, 479, 585; II, 66, 72. The "figure" of the golden candlesick extends beyond even the associations noted above. It represents also the faith of the Chosen People (e.g., Exod. 25:31, 37:17), the Jerusalem of the Gentiles which Zachariah portrays as "a candlestick all of gold … [with] seven lamps thereon" (4:2), and finally, in the well-known passage explicated by John Winthrop, the universal mission of Christ's Church: "Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick …" (Mat. 5:14-15; cf. Mark 4:21 and Luke 8:16, 11:33). Undoubtedly, Mather was well aware of all these implications, which support the idea of America as "the ends of the earth," and intended them, as he states in the General Introduction, "for the observation of the attentive" (I, 31). Undoubtedly, too, he intended the seven-fold division of the Magnalia to evoke the significance of seven as a "perfect" and "typical" number; in this connection see Arthur Dent's Exposition Upon the Revelation (Amsterdam, 1611) which—recalling the popular doctrine of the seven stages of mankind's development from Adam to the Second Coming—"proves" that seven is "a type" linking the Israelite state and "the churches among the Gentiles" and foreshadowing the New Jerusalem (pp. 6 ff.).

9 See for example: Batteries upon the Kingdom of the Devil (London, 1695); Durable Riches (Boston, 1695); Fair Weather (Boston, 1692); The Faith of the Fathers (Boston, 1699); The Good Old Way (Boston, 1698), and The Serious Christian (London, 1699).

10Diary, ed. Ford, VII, 160-360, passim.

11 Sermons are added at the end of Books I, VI and VII; and an appendix is added to Book V. Exceptions to this pattern occur in Book III (I, 249) and in Book V (II, 316-17). At the end of Book III, Mather appends a funeral sermon for John Baily which enlarges upon man's sinfulness, but in a traditional way rather than with specific application to the colony. In addition to this, Mather dissociates the theocracy's accomplishments from the present by quoting occasionally from its leaders' jeremiads, and these scattered excerpts have the effect of caustic theatrical asides which indirectly assert the drama's superiority to, and independence of, its degenerate audience. See: I, 63 (Bradford); I, 147 (Edward Hopkins); I, 143 (Hooker); II, 117 (Urian Oakes). These instances, containing in total about twenty lines, represent all the comments of this nature in the Magnalia, with the exception of those in Increase Mather's introduction to the Harvard history, II, 70, 72-73, 78-79.

12 In the subsequent analysis I draw several general parallels between Paradise Lost and the Magnalia, and I should perhaps note that no evidence exists that Mather was particularly influenced by Milton's work and that I do not assume any such influence. Regarding the knowledge of Milton's works in early New England see Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, Mass., 1939), pp. 118-19 and George F. Sensabaugh, Milton in Early America (Princeton, 1964), pp. 7, 38-41, 303.

13 In the discussion below, I treat the first three books of the Magnalia in what might be called spatial, rather than linear, terms: by way of the themes carried through all three books, rather than simply dealing with each book in succession (or in Mather's own words, by "affinity rather than chronology" [II, 504]). All three books portray the first-generation settlers and hence return with every action and every biography to the same basic experiences: the persecutions in Europe, the ocean-crossing, and the conquest of the wilderness. However, these three books also show a coherent structure from a "linear" viewpoint: Books I and II describe the secular triumphs which lead to the founding of New England, in an orderly procession of set-pieces which itself conveys the impression of a successful state organization. This development culminates in Book III, with the biographies of the fifty divines, the most important members of the theocracy.

14 In addition to the instances cited below, see I, 48, 79, 114, 119, 152, 166, 263, 323, 461, 464, 478, 504, 519. With regard to England, Mather several times expresses a contradictory attitude. While on the whole his attitude is strongly negative, he sometimes makes self-conscious obeisances to "our dear Mother England," perhaps because he was submitting the work to an English publisher (see I, 26, 74-76 and II, 179-80). These instances have been, it seems to me, far overstressed in Peter H. Smith's "Politics and Sainthood: Biography by Cotton Mather," William and Mary Quarterly, XX (1963), 186-207.

15 I, 65, 81, 263-64, 396, 429, 461, 465-66, 468, 511-12, 519, 531, 584.

16 See also: I, 326 (John Davenport); I, 361 (Francis Higginson); I, 372 (Jonathan Burr); I, 377 (George Phillips); I, 409 (Ezekiel Rogers); I, 448 (Richard Mather). Mather supports these comments in two places outside of Book III: once in the first book, where he prophecies that England's "fall will become like that of the house which our Saviour saw built upon the sand" (K, 65); and again in Book IV, where he quotes his uncle, Samuel Mather: Christ "'will bring you [England] to a swift destruction … and in the day when God shall visit you, the guilt of all the righteous blood … will come down the hill upon your heads'" (II, 50).

17Paradise Lost, II. 969-70. All quotations are from Merritt Y. Hughes' edition of the poem in John Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose (New York, 1957). For examples of the descriptions of ocean-crossing other than those noted below, see: I. 146-47 (William Bradford); I, 283-85 (John Cotton); I, 336-37 (John Avery); I, 384 (Thomas Shepard); I, 389 (John Norton); I, 450 (Richard Mather); I, 512 (John Sherman).

18 See for example: I, 50-55, 77-79, 238-39, 302, 363-64. The Indians are infrequently mentioned in the first three books (I, 55-59, passim); Mather deliberately leaves the Indian wars for Book VII.

19 See also, for example: I, 288, 296 (John Norton); I, 388 (Thomas Shepard); I, 429 (Samuel Newman); I, 470 (Charles Chauncey); I, 529 (John Eliot).

20 See further: II, 40, 42, 61, 88, 114, 155, 164.

21 For further assertions in Book IV of this superiority of New England to other attempts at establishing a holy commonwealth, see: II, 39-40, 60, 116, 119, 127, 142-43, 146.

22 See Miller, Colony to Province, pp. 232-33.

23 See also: II, 210, 331-34, 512.

24 See for example: Thomas Taylor, Christs Combate and Conquest; or the Lyon of the Tribe of IVDAH, Vanquishing the Roaring Lyon, assaulting him in three most fierce and hellish Temptations (London, 1618), passim; Benjamin Keach, Tropologia, or a Key to Open Scripture Metaphors (London, 1681-82), II, 9-40; and Samuel Mather, Figures or Types, pp. 213 ff. For a general view of the European background of this prophetic-millenarian method, see C. A. Patrides, The Phoenix and the Ladder: The Rise and Decline of the Christian View of History (Berkeley, 1964), pp. 7-9, 47-51.

25 In addition to the examples given below, see especially: II, 553, 556, 561, 572, 587, 627.

26The Continuity of American Poetry (Princeton, 1961), pp. 60, 62. See also Marion L. Starkey's brief but astute comments on the Magnalia in The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Inquiry into the Salem Witch Trials (Garden City, N. Y., 1961), p. 242. The Magnalia is not, of course, the first New England work to outline a myth of the colonial venture—it is foreshadowed in this by earlier histories, such as Edward Johnson's Wonder-Working Providence (1651)—but it is the major statement of its kind in Puritan America.

David Levin (essay date 1966)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7646

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 author who published it anonymously in 1710. It is Cotton Mather's historical fate to be considered largely as a transitional figure whose prodigious but narrow mind stretched inadequately between the zealous founding of the Bible Commonwealth and the enlightened struggle for the Republic. His efforts to retain the old Puritan values along with the old Puritan power have tended to diminish him in contrast to the giants who had first established that power in Boston. His advanced ideas on medicine, botany, education, philanthropy, and family discipline look like minor departures from reactionary principles when they are set beside the beliefs of eighteenth-century secular thinkers.

The habit of viewing Mather in the shadow of his potent ancestors began with his parents, who named him for his maternal grandfather, John Cotton, and it continued to affect his life until, in his sixtieth year, he wrote the life of his distinguished father, Increase Mather. When Cotton Mather was an eleven-year-old freshman at Harvard in 1674, his father became embroiled with other members of the Board of Overseers in a public battle that nearly destroyed the college. When the boy became at fifteen the youngest Harvard graduate, the president reminded him publicly of his duty to emulate not only his father but Richard Mather and John Cotton, his two famous grandfathers. Cotton Mather eventually devoted his entire life as a pastor to the very congregation that his father served as teacher. For forty years he worked closely with his father in various political controversies and social crises, from the loss of the colony's original charter, the rebellion against Sir Edmund Andros, the acceptance of a new charter, and the witchcraft trials, through debates about church government and membership and control of Harvard and Yale early in the new century. As a prolific historian, moreover, he wrote the lives of the first governors, the first ministers, the first Harvard presidents—the monumental church-history of New England, Magnalia Christi Americana.

Thus Mather unhappily observed the dissolution of the old theocracy even while he cheerfully did his best to extend pious influence in the community through his retrospective writings and his schemes for social action. At the same time, he labored enthusiastically in behalf of the new science. He sent reports of American phenomena to the Royal Society in London, which elected him a Fellow. He collected and published in New England the discoveries of European scientists. He persuaded a medical doctor to try inoculation during a smallpox epidemic in Boston. By the time he died in 1728, it was clear that the millennium he had so confidently predicted thirty years earlier was not yet to be expected. New England would have to settle instead for the imperfect Enlightenment.

For three centuries both Cotton Mather and his works have been discussed almost exclusively in this context of change. The churchhistory, we say, looks backward to Mather's grandfathers; The Christian Philosopher and Bonifacius look forward to Benjamin Franklin. Indeed, it was Franklin himself who first stressed the value of Essays to Do Good as a transitional document. In his very first published work Franklin paid Mather the tribute of parody by adopting the pseudonym of Mrs Silence Dogood (counting on his Bostonian readers to know that the author of Essays to Do Good was rarely silent). Half a century later1 Franklin told Samuel Mather that Bonifacius had turned his own youthful thoughts to methods of doing good, and again in his autobiography he acknowledged Bonifacius along with the works of Daniel Defoe and John Bunyan as one of the most valuable influences on his early thought. The relationship would be evident even if Franklin had not written so explicitly. Commentators have repeatedly cited it ever since George Burder quoted Franklin's letter to Samuel Mather in an English edition of Essays to Do Good (London, 1807).

Insistence on such historical relationships has taught us much about the changes from pious Puritanism to moralism, from striving in the world for the glory of God to striving for enlightened self-interest. But this perspective has also done considerable harm. Students of historical change have often blurred our understanding of Franklin's and Mather's individual minds and books. The intense light focused on one set of eighteenth-century statements has left others in the darkness. Mather, especially, has been projected so rigidly against what he looked back to, or what he anticipated, that it is unusually difficult to discover what he was.

The modern reader of Bonifacius must be prepared to recognize two influential versions of this distortion. The first concerns Puritan piety; the second, Puritan commercial ethics and benevolence.

Perry Miller's magnificent volumes on The New England Mind argue that the earliest New England Puritans temporarily united pious faith and reasoned, vigorous action under a grand modification of Abraham's Covenant. The second volume dramatizes the inevitable separation of faith from thought and the inevitable subordination of faith as the Covenant dissolves under the pressure of seventeenth-century events in Europe and America. Cotton Mather is the pivotal figure in Miller's narrative of historical change. At first he preaches jeremiads, long sermons condemning the sins of the land. But as he and other clergymen lose political power in the early decades of the eighteenth century, Mather resorts to new devices, both social and psychological. Now he abandons the jeremiad. Renouncing hope of political power, he tries instead to influence events by publishing 'pietist' instructions for communal life, including proposals for voluntary associations to reform morals. Privately, moreover, he takes emotional refuge from the religious decline of New England by retreating often to his study; there, according to Miller, Mather tries to 'stimulate' his overwrought nervous system to a factitious piety that seeks explicit, divine assurances and demands prostrate, methodical prayer and fasting. In this analysis his correspondence with such foreign reformers as Auguste Francke of Halle is an accidental consequence of Mather's compulsive scribbling and of his response to New England's needs and his own. It has nothing to do with international pietist movements of the time. Mather, indeed, is astonished to find himself in the vanguard, an agent of the new pietism.

Miller presents Bonifacius as a milestone on the downward road from John Winthrop to Dickens' caricature of nineteenth-century utilitarianism, Thomas Gradgrind, and he contends that Cotton Mather was further from Winthrop than from Gradgrind. Bonifacius, he concedes, is 'not quite a surrender of piety to business', but he declares that Mather found in Bonifacius 'a new form of marketing religion'. He describes Mather's appeal to the inherent reward of doing good as a sentimental invitation to luxuriate in the 'delicious swooning joy of the thing itself'. He sees Mather's voluntary associations not as part of an effort to liberate New Englanders but as an attempt to reassert clerical control, and he associates Mather with those service clubs (from the Y.M.C.A. to the Rotary) that work for conformity of various kinds in modern America.2

The chief trouble with this interpretation is that it is almost completely subservient to a generalization about the decline in piety. It cannot admit the possibility that Cotton Mather was as pious as his ancestors; it insists on explaining his piety as a neurotic, belated reaction to historical events that occurred when he was past thirty.

The consequent distortion of Bonifacius begins at the beginning, with Mather's title. Because of our modern interest in placing Mather on the line from Puritanism to utilitarianism, scholars have customarily shortened the original title of Bonifacius in a way that changes its significance. Bonifacius, they have called it; an Essay upon the Good that is to be Devised and Designed by Those who Desire … to Do Good While they Live. This seems in any case a strangely illogical title—as if there were others, besides those who desire to do good, who should devise and design good! The important distortion, however, is the change in Mather's purpose. He did not really write for those who desire to do good but for those who desire 'to Answer the Great End of Life', and who therefore desire to do good while they live.

The great end of life, for Cotton Mather as for John Winthrop before him and Jonathan Edwards after, was not to do good but to glorify God. Mather had made this plain from the beginning of his career as a preacher, and at the height of his political power. Just after he had served as one of the chief conspirators to overthrow the tyrant Sir Edmund Andros in 1689, he published a volume of sermons at the request of his wealthy father-in-law, John Phillips, who on recovering from a serious illness had offered to subsidize the publication of four sermons on 'Practical Godliness'. None of these sermons is a jeremiad. All relate devotional piety to doing good:

The chief end of man is to glorify Good … To praise God is to render and procure a due acknowledgment of His excellence … This, this praise of the LORD is the end of our life in the world.

This is the end of our being. We are told that we have our being in God. Of all things whatever this is then most reasonable, that we should have our being for God; and our being Him, is not expressed without our praising of Him … Every man should say: 'I live that God who is worthy to be praised, may have the praises of my obedience to Him.'

The saints in Heaven, Mather says in the same sermon, have their appropriate way of praising God, by 'shouting Hallelujah, Hallelujah, before the Throne'; but men living on earth have special, additional ways of praising Him here: 'by the discharge of many relations, which the dead saints are strangers unto. We may now praise God as parents, as masters, officers in the Church or Common-wealth. All those capacities shall die with us.'3

In these sermons there is no tension between doing good and praising God. Doing good is one way of praising Him. Of course, we can find sentences that support the emphasis on practical striving in the world: 'To serve God was the very errand which we were brought into the wilderness upon'; 'the service of God is His worship'; 'there are two things incumbent upon us, to do good and to get good'. But the good we are to get is the capacity to enjoy God. Lifting such statements out of their pious context is a serious error. Although it may indicate those subtle changes of emphasis that eventually prevailed in American life when the idea of God's sovereignty had been weakened, it can misrepresent not only individual books and the condition of individual minds, but at last the very history that such abstractions were meant to serve.

As early as 1689, then, Cotton Mather had set forth the principle on which he would organize Bonifacius twenty years later.4 He would begin with the reformation of the self and would then move outward into the community, suggesting methods of service in the various 'relations' of life. In the intervening years he often followed this procedure in composing biographies. Thus his life of John Eliot opens outward from personal piety to family government to preaching in the church, and finally to Eliot's evangelism among the Indians.

The organization communicates the central purpose: to praise God in every act of life. By 1688 Mather had adopted the 'delightful and surprising way of thinking' that he attributed to his deceased younger brother Nathanael. His language suggests that he was perhaps as close to Jonathan Edwards and to Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman as he was to Thomas Gradgrind: Nathanael Mather, Cotton Mather wrote, 'considered that the whole Creation was full of God; and that there was not a leaf of grass in the field, which might not make an observer to be sensible of the Lord. He apprehended that the idle minutes of our lives were many more than a short liver should allow: that the very filings of gold, and of time, were exceeding precious; and, that there were little fragments of hours intervening between our more stated businesses, wherein our thoughts of God might be no less pleasant than fre quent with us.'5 Just as Henry Thoreau would later tell New England's time-passing knitters that it is impossible to kill time without injuring eternity, Mather warned busy Bostonians that God would 'find an eternity to damn the man that cannot find a time pray'.6

The terms in which Mather implored Christians to 'redeem time' show that his pietism was in full vigor in 1682, before he was twenty and before the original charter of Massachusetts Bay had been revoked. He was taking John Winthrop's original message to the community but with a new emphasis on method, on the deliberate saturation of one's life in pious action, and especially on ingenuity. 'Thus be zealous of good works, work for God', he said in 1689. 'Let even your eating, your trading, your visiting, be done as a service for the Lord, and let your time, your strength, your estates, all the powers of your spirits and all the members of your bodies be ingeniously laid out in that service. Often ask your own souls, What is there that I may do for God? Even court, and hunt advantages to be serviceable.'7

The origins of Mather's interest in such hunting lie deep in seventeenth-century Protestant pastoral work. To understand his career we must remember that Cotton Mather was the pastor in the Boston church which his father served as teacher, and that he therefore had a special duty to attend to the people's daily needs. From the beginning of his professional life, he had a remarkable opportunity to apply his great energy over the whole range of Bostonian life. His social action began with secluded meditations in which, with the occasional aid of specific assurances from an angel, he prayed for divine support of afflicted parishioners and of Massachusetts battles against the Devil and the French; it extended to the writing of histories and biographies, to joining the leadership of a revolution, to advising governors, addressing the legislature, offering medical advice, curing the bewitched child of a parishioner, making pastoral visits, catechizing children, administering church discipline to offending members of the congregation, and writing books to teach the most ordinary people methods of becoming Christians and then practicing Christianity in their daily lives.

For some of this work a number of English writers had provided valuable guides. Cotton Mather and his brother Nathanael were especially fond of Joseph Hall's Occasional Meditations (3rd edition, 1633), William Waller's Divine Meditations (1680), Henry Scudder's The Christian's Daily Walk (1628). Cotton Mather also borrowed from Richard Baxter's immense folio Christian Directory (1673) and How to Do Good to Many; or, the Public Good is the Christian's Life (1682).

All these books have in common with Mather's efforts a determination to bring the common into touch with the divine. Hall's meditations, which both Nathanael and Cotton Mather emulated, drew religious lessons from such conventional earthly experiences as 'the sight of a grave digged up', 'gnats in the sun', 'the sight of a drunken man', 'bees fighting', 'the sight of a piece of money under water', 'a defamation dispersed'. Ready to let every leaf of grass make him sensible of the Lord, Nathanael Mather notes that a kettle of water taken from the fire in a cold New England room is quickly 'seized with lukewarmness'. So, he concludes, are Christians after they have been warmed by some awareness of God's glory. When John Winthrop interprets the killing of a snake during a synod meeting or Nathanael Mather jumps from his 'bed of security', braving the cold to put on 'Christ's garments' and walk to the fire, the lesson in this literary form is always made explicit, and the value of the meditation depends on the aptness of explicit parallels. This is a principle Benjamin Franklin kept in mind when he perfected a quite different kind of anecdote a century later in his autobiography.

In a book like Bonifacius the method is reversed. The pastor, accustomed to studying minor events for evidence of God's will, now uses his ingenuity to find explicit ways in which a Christian can express the benevolence with which grace has endowed him. Christians need to be told how to do good, especially when they live outside the traditional authority of a hierarchical church and in a swiftly changing society. Yet the movement should not be seen simply as a weakening of old Calvinist reliance on faith and predestination. It seems instead a natural extension of the kind of impulse that led Puritans to establish the New England colonies in the first place. Once the community of saints has established its right to exist, it must set about expanding God's work in the world. 'Though God set up lights so small as will serve but for one room, and though we must begin at home, we must far more esteem and desire the good of multitudes', Baxter said, and we must set 'no bounds to our endeavors, but what God and disability set'. Bonifacius echoes: the magistrate is 'the Minister of God for good. His empty name will produce a cruel crime, if he don't set himself to do good, as far as ever he can extend his influences.' Americans in the second half of the twentieth century have seen this kind of rhetoric applied to vast proposals for a Great Society at home and for aid to multitudes in Asia.

For Cotton Mather, moreover, the millennium was not a metaphor for secular achievement. It was literally imminent. He wrote quite seriously, on the one hand, about exactly how the righteous in America might be spared from the fires sweeping the earth before the establishment of the Kingdom here.8 And he did his best, in the year he wrote Bonifacius, to see that Bostonians accepted 'the true doctrine of the Chiliad' so that, by eliminating all 'base dealing'—all 'dirty ways of dishonesty'—from the market place, they might make their street as golden as the one promised in the Book of Revelations from which he had taken his text. He preached this sermon to the General Assembly of the colony, before whom he 'proclaimed unto all the world' that 'ill-dealings are not at all countenanced; no, they are vehemently disallowed, by the religion of NEW-ENGLAND'. The gold he referred to was not profit but precept: 'The street of the city is pure gold' meant to him that 'the business of the CITY, shall be managed by the Golden Rule. The things that use to be done in the market-place, shall be done without corruption.'9

It is in this context that we must consider the second historical distortion of Mather's ideas. Just as emphasis on the decline of piety may overlook his concentration on divine glory, so efforts to trace the Protestant Ethic can ignore not only the divine object of human striving but also his thorough conviction of community. A. Whitney Griswold, in an important essay published more than thirty years ago,10 cited impressive evidence to show that Mather stressed the Christian's obligations to work diligently in his calling; Mather repeated the biblical promise (so effective with Benjamin Franklin) that the young man who was diligent would stand before kings, and he urged the young man who wished to rise by his business to rise to his business. But although Griswold scrupulously links this personal calling with the general vocation of a Christian, his interest in linking Mather's advice to the 'rugged individualism' of a later time ignores the perfectly explicit condemnation of all sharp dealing and dishonesty in financial affairs. Mather insisted that New England's professions of extraordinary religion would be worthless if its 'dealing' should be 'defective in honesty … Let a man be never such a professor and pretender of religion, if he be not a fair-dealer, THAT MAN'S RELIGION IS VAIN. A noise about faith and repentance, among them that forget MORAL HONESTY, 'tis but an empty noise. The men are utter strangers to faith and repentance … Woe, woe, woe, to you professors, and HYPOCRITES, who can make a show of this and that piety, and purity; but can cheat, and cozen, and oppress, and wrong other people in your dealing with them!'11

Far from supporting rugged individualism, Mather declared that the golden rule should have its application to business through the scriptural command of Paul (I Corinthians 10:24): 'Let no man seek his own, but every man another's wealth.' Lying was to be forbidden, all dealings were to be 'transparent glass', and neither the foolish nor the poor were to be exploited: 'For men to overreach others, because they find them ignorant, or screw grievously upon them, only because they are poor and low, and in great necessities; to keep up the necessaries of human life (I say the necessaries, which I always distinguish from the superfluities) at an immoderate price, merely because other people want them, when we can easily spare them; 'tis an abomination!' For necessities, at least, the law of supply and demand was not supreme.12

Thus, although Mather confessed that he knew neither the niceties nor the mysteries of the market place, he did not rest content with prescribing the golden rule. Stating that imperative even in its most positive form13 would hardly forbid ruthless competition if the individual merchant should be willing to have his neighbor compete just as fiercely as himself. Mather did not supply an ethic fit for the mysteries and niceties, but he did condemn many commercial 'abominations', from the slave trade ('one of the worst kinds of thievery in the world') to the adulteration or misrepresentation of a large number of specified products.14

It was a theological principle that gave Mather's sense of community its importance in practical affairs, in his day as well as through the later teachings of Franklin. To consider the principle we must enter that dizzy world of circular argument and begged questions in which Puritans struggled to distinguish faith from works without becoming either antinomians or (to use a word from Bonifacius) meritmongers.

In that world a Christian must recognize a central paradox: his assurance of salvation depends on his renouncing all claims to salvation that place any confidence or value in himself. He must become convinced that he does not deserve salvation and that he cannot earn it. If convinced of his inadequacy but unable to attain a conviction of faith, he may fall into the sin of despair, a beginning of hell on earth. If he does find a conviction of Christ's power and willingness to redeem him, he must test the conviction by regularly examining his attitude and his conduct. Good works cannot save him—indeed, no works are truly good unless they proceed from a justifying faith—but the consequence of true faith is a benevolence that impels the converted sinner to praise God through obedient service. Bonifacius declares, therefore, that 'a work less faith is a worthless faith'.

Historians gain some value from turning this process around (as some busy, conscientious sinners must have done) to mean not only that worklessness proved worthlessness but also that works proved worth. Often, however, the reversal costs too much, for it blocks appreciation of the great power in one of the chief articles of American faith. The great power comes from the conviction that what is right, works. Both Mather and Franklin worked to propagate this conviction, and both appealed to the reader's self-interest, but neither man ever contended that whatever works is right. Mather and other Puritans actually believed that prosperity could be as threatening a providential judgment as calamity. Merciful dispensations, Mather said, 'are so many trials whether we will hear God speaking in our prosperity; or whether when we wax fat we will kick against the Lord'.

For many people, at least, the drama of guilt, self-doubt, and self-accusation was a terrible reality, and so, too, was the kind of faith that Mather preached. (Even Franklin recognized it during the Great Awakening.) Once that reality stands at the center of our attention, we need not be religious to understand Mather's declaration that good works are a part of, as well as prescribed steps along the way to, 'the great salvation'. The penitent sinner who wanted to join the church might be crushed (in Edward Taylor's phrase) between desire and fear—between a longing to profess his conversion and fear that it is delusory. Having experienced this kind of paralysis, the conscientious sinner might well be grateful for rescue, even in this world, from the psychological self-torture of futility. The ability to act might well be the worldly consequence of such faith.

Not only the motive but the social consequence, too, is a principle or a power rather than a quantitative fact. Just as Mather and Franklin, despite their obvious differences, worked outward from the idea of virtue, gratitude, duty, and wisdom to acts of service, so they conceived of the good done to others as a beginning rather than as charity in the limited sense of alms. Bonifacius cites the primitive church's doctrine that the sin of a Christian's neighbor is a sin by the Christian himself. As Richard Baxter ordered Christians to succor poor men's bodies in order to make it possible to save their souls,15 Mather argues that the American Indians must be 'civilized' so that they can be 'Christianized'. He praises the English philanthropist Thomas Gouge for finding work for the poor, and he commands his own readers to 'find 'em work, set 'em to work, keep 'em to work'. Benjamin Franklin says it is hard for an empty sack to stand upright.

In these years both Old and New England had need of the ingenuity to which Mather appealed. The vigorous new capitalist organizations in 'this projecting age' gave such different authors as Richard Baxter, Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Cotton Mather, and (by the early 1720s) Benjamin Franklin examples of mutual cooperation that might be used for the public good. Baxter's Christian Directory directed Christians 'How to Improve all Helps and Means' toward a Christian life in the world. Defoe's Essay on Projects (1697) proposed Friendly Societies for several kinds of life and medical insurance; Swift's ironic A Project for the Advancement of Religion and the Reformation of Manners (1709) suggested a scheme for institutionalizing virtue through the Queen's power of preferment and the Court's leadership of fashion.

In England the Societies for the Reformation of Manners had already come under suspicion as petty meddlers by the time Swift published this proposal, but the social need for such organizations seems more interesting than the modern temptation to think of their motives as simply repressive. Systematic welfare programs were of course unknown. Widespread drunkenness seems to have been a relatively new problem, and it existed in a context that may now be difficult to imagine. Wine was often poisonously adulterated; alcoholic and other debtors and petty criminals were locked up indiscriminately in prisons in which conditions were far more abominable than the worst kind of do-gooding. Epidemics in these foul places sometimes made the punishment for civil offenses as lethal as the capital penalty officially attached to so many crimes. There was no effectively organized, properly trained, or trustworthy police force to prevent the growing number of violent crimes on city streets, which were generally unlighted. Private citizens armed to defend themselves. Two years after Bonifacius was published, a group of drunken young men who called themselves Mohocks terrorized London with atrocious beatings and mutilations that seemed the more terrible because they were apparently unmotivated.

I do not mean to contend that life in Queen Anne's London was a nightmare. The point is that specific needs in the society, needs unmet by government or other established organizations, encouraged the new techniques for organized benevolence and that in the absence of better preventive methods religious writers naturally encouraged Christians to set an individual example. Nor should we forget, even when considering the restrictive nature of some actions, the disastrous consequences of indiscretions that may seem minor today. Under the prevailing Canon Law, for example, it was easy to find oneself entrapped in a virtually indissoluble marriage, and many Londoners—sailors and young gentlemen alike—suffered from a lucrative conspiracy of clergyman, landlord, prostitute, and lawyer. In such circumstances advice against drinking, which neither Cotton nor Increase Mather ever opposed in its moderate form, and advice against falling into debt need not be officious. Meddlesomely repressive though they might become, societies like Mather's Young Men's Associations, Count Zinzendorf's Slaves of Virtue, and Benjamin Franklin's projected Society of the Free and Easy grew out of a positive desire to free men for the practice of virtue in this world.

What we need to remember, then, is the firmness with which Mather's good-doing is tied to the praise of God, the certainty with which his exhortations to be diligent rely on traditional ethics. Bonifacius is addressed to Christians; Mather invites unbelievers to close the book until, by repentance, they begin to live. He is not marketing religion but bringing religion into the market.

Besides a few specific ideas, which deserve separate attention, the key value of Bonifacius lies in the resourceful application of methodical ingenuity to pious affairs. Christians, Mather says, should employ their wits for God's service. As Thoreau will later complain that farmers speculate in herds of cattle in order to acquire shoestrings, Mather charges New Englanders with wasting grand capacities on trivial ends. He exhorts them to apply to good works the same ingenuity noted in their business affairs, to equal the degree of contrivance (without the deception) employed by the Devil and the wicked in pursuit of evil ends.

Bonifacius thus appeals simultaneously to one of the most powerful traits in the New England character and to one of the strongest intellectual forces of the eighteenth century. Mather invokes for his divine purpose the desire to invent new means, to contrive, devise, experiment. Nor does he content himself with precepts. He repeatedly sets the example, for the impulse has come from one of the most powerful sources of his own conduct.

Scholarship has rarely found a less appropriate figure than the cliché that says Cotton Mather's knowledge was undigested. Ever since the early 1680s Mather had been scribbling in private as well as for publication, and he worked hard to reduce his experience and his knowledge to usable form. In his Quotidiana, copybooks in which he recorded scraps of quotations, scientific curiosities, and historical anecdotes, he laboriously compiled indexes so that he would be able to call on the information in his sermons and other works. In his conversation, moreover, he was remarkably quick to apply his diverse knowledge with an ingenuity that was sometimes startling. His diary, 'Paterna',16 and Bonifacius demonstrate that this quality was more than a natural aptitude. He hunted advantages for pious service in conversation, in idle moments of dinner parties, in the observance of various people as he walked the streets. And of course he wrote down the suggestions, which ranged from prayers to be said on seeing a beautiful woman, and resolutions to drop the name of a poor parishioner when visiting a rich one, to planning the conversation at his family's meals so that the children would be instructed.

It is easy to treat this carefully nurtured habit as comically tasteless by selecting one detail, such as Mather's resolution to meditate while urinating. Even when we supply the context for this example and notice that Mather feared the excruciating pain of kidney stones, which had tortured his grandfather, many of us will find it difficult to accept his resolution to offer up thanks, while urinating, for the grace that has spared him from his grandfather's affliction. Such a meditation can be defended, too, but the criticism misses the point. What matters is the total concentration on developing the discipline of pious resourcefulness. For every ludicrous example there is a passage that seems successful. Benjamin Franklin reports that when he accidentally hit his head on a beam in Mather's house, Mather told him to stoop always as he walked through life, so that he would save himself many a hard thump. Mather resolves in 'Paterna' never to offer his children play as a reward for hard work, lest they come to consider diversion better than diligence. Instead he contrives to punish them by refusing to teach them something, and he resolves to reward them by teaching them 'some curious thing'.

Nor was there any hesitation to work out a much more elaborate meditation relating to recent scientific theories. A long paragraph from 'Paterna' will illustrate the kind of personal resolution that led Mather to write his Christian Philosopher. Here he comes very close to using eighteenth-century science in precisely the way that ennobles the works of Jonathan Edwards:

I am continually entertained with weighty body, or matter tending to the center of gravity; or attracted by matter. I feel it in my own. The cause of this tendency, 'tis the glorious GOD! Great GOD, Thou givest this matter such a tendency; Thou keepest it in its operation! There is no other cause for gravity, but the will and work of the glorious GOD. I am now effectually convinced of that ancient confession, and must effectuously make it, 'He is not far from every one of us.' When I see a thing moving or settling that way which its heavy nature carries it, I may very justly think, and I would often form the thought, 'It is the glorious GOD who now carries this matter such a way.' When matter goes downward, my spirit shall therefore mount upward, in acknowledgment of the GOD who orders it. I will no longer complain, 'Behold, I go forward, but He is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive Him: on the left hand, where He does work, but I cannot behold Him: He hideth Himself on the right hand, that I cannot see Him.' No, I am now taught where to meet with Him; even at every turn. He knows the way that I take; I cannot stir forward or backward, but I perceive Him in the weight of every matter. My way shall be to improve this as a weighty argument for the being of a GOD. I will argue from it, 'Behold, there is a GOD, whom I ought forever to love and serve and glorify.' Yea, and if I am tempted unto the doing of any wicked thing, I may reflect, that it cannot be done without some action, wherein the power of matter operates. But then I may carry on the reflection: 'How near, how near am I to the glorious GOD whose commands I am going to violate! Matter keeps His laws; but, O my soul, wilt thou break His laws? How shall I do this wickedness and therein deny the GOD, who not only is above, but also is exerting His power in the very matter upon which I make my criminal misapplications!'17

The very repetitiousness of Mather's inexhaustible pen demonstrates the persistence of his search for advantages to do good methodically, ingeniously. Besides recording his resolutions, drawing up proposals, preparing indexes, he completely revised his annual diaries so that they might be useful to other readers. Then he copied the relevant portions of these revised versions into 'Paterna', for his son, and he copied relevant incidents, some of them extensive, into Bonifacius, making appropriate revisions. At his death he left two grand unpublished books, 'The Angel of Bethesda' and Biblia Americana, which form part of this same resolute plan. 'The Angel of Bethesda' is a collection of medical advice and cures incorporating the kind of spiritual usefulness proposed' in Bonifacius, and Biblia Americana condenses, with Mather's own contributions, centuries of commentary on the Bible.

The energy that performed such prodigies undoubtedly drew some strength from vanity as well as from piety. Although Bonifacius was published anonymously, Mather's effort to seem expert in varied professional subjects will seem amusingly pretentious to modern readers, especially when he alludes to legal authors. Yet the conscious purpose of such allusions is to win the respect of those to whom the author offers moral advice useful in their professions, and to exemplify the kind of ingenuity he has been prescribing. The author of Bonifacius has taken the trouble to inform himself of at least a few good books and a few specific means for lawyers to do good. In medicine, Mather had no less training and was better read than many practicing physicians.

The pastor's concern with social health leads Mather to express in Bonifacius a number of ideas that would be interesting to modern readers even outside the context I have tried to establish. He declares that none but a good man really lives, and that one becomes more alive as one acts for good. Concern for the soul and interest in method led him to encourage rewards rather than punishment in educating children. He opposes beating except for the most serious offenses. He condemns tyrannical schoolmasters as a curse. He advises ministers to preach on subjects of particular use to their congregations and to ask the people to suggest topics for sermons. He favors the practical education of girls. He advises physicians to treat the poor without charge and to attend not only to the patient's soul but also to the 'anxiety' that may be causing his illness. He tells lawyers never to appear in a dirty cause, always to eschew sharp tricks, and to defend the principle of restitution. He condemns that usury which charges interest for money that the debtor never gets to use. He tells the rich to use their money for good while they live, rather than leave large estates.

All these proposals issue from the same pious concern that asks landlords to oblige their tenants to pray, pious societies to look out for their neighbors' sins, schoolmasters to teach Duport's verses on Job instead of Homer. What we must seek if we wish to know Mather is the man who could believe in both these kinds of proposals at once. For him witches, devils, angels, remarkable interventions of Providence, and the certainty of eternal judgment were as real as gravity. For his mind there was no contradiction between working for social justice and spending two or perhaps three days a week in secret fasts; no conflict between hailing Copernicus and Newton and preaching the imminence of the millennium, now that the seven last plagues of the Vial are about to be poured out on the Papal Empire; no conflict between studying the Talmud and preaching the Covenant of Grace.

Evaluation of Mather's literary achievement ought to profit from the same kind of attention to his prose style, which has too often been dismissed as fervid and pedantic. The remarkable quantity of his work, the cleanness of his manuscripts, and the testimony of his son all indicate that he wrote very rapidly, but the charge that his writing is fervid seems superficial. Although a small portion of his work fits the description, its importance has been exaggerated by the typographical devices used in his books and by the dubious belief that he was 'neurotic' and therefore unable to control his rhetoric.

The prevalence of learned allusions and foreign quotations has also been exaggerated, partly because Mather defended these useful ornaments and partly because readers of his history of New England must traverse an unusually thick jungle of classical fact and lore, with a name dropping from every tree, before they can escape from his self-conscious introduction into the history itself. All this may be of little comfort to readers of Bonifacius, who will find that Mather studded some pages with what he liked to consider jewels of Latin and Greek. Those who are not completely antagonized may take some comfort in noting how aptly many of these come forth from the index of Mather's Quotidiana or the electronic computer of his extraordinary mind. Repeatedly, the quotation is apt, and Mather's comment repeatedly makes it so.

Notice, too, how much of the prose in Bonifacius is plain, forceful, precise. Mather's speed makes his paragraphs repetitious, and it is difficult for us to avoid overemphasizing his italics, but I am convinced that much of Mather's writing is plainer than any by Thomas Hooker or John Cotton. Even in Bonifacius this passage on brutal schoolmasters seems as representative as the more elaborate classical quotations:

Ajax Flagellifer may be read at the school. He is not fit for to be the master of it. Let it not be said of the scholars, 'They are brought up in the school of Tyrannus. ' Pliny says that bears are the fatter for beating. Fitter to have the conduct of bears than of ingenuous boys, are the masters, that can't give a bit of learning, but they must give a knock with it. Send 'em to be tutors of the famous Lithuanian school, at Samourgan. The harsh, fierce, Orbilian way of treating the children, too commonly used in the school, is a dreadful curse of God upon our miserable offspring, who are born children of wrath. It is boasted now and then of a schoolmaster, that such and such a brave man had his education under him. There is nothing said, how many that might have been brave men, have been destroyed by him; how many brave wits, have been dispirited, confounded, murdered, by his barbarous way of managing them.

Bonifacius is an important historical document because it brings to bear on the world of affairs all the piety and ingenuity that New England Puritanism had been nourishing, despite theological and political troubles, for eighty years. Without wavering from the central conviction of Puritans that man exists to glorify God, Cotton Mather exhorts all Christians to hunt opportunities to do good in the world. It is from this perspective, rather than by focusing on practical rewards, that we can best understand Puritan influences on Benjamin Franklin, later reformers, and American benevolence in the twentieth century. We continue to say, with the author of Bonifacius, that the ways of honest men are simple and the ways of the wicked are subtle, but we seek to devise a similar ingenuity for doing good around the world. We may also find it especially interesting that Mather the American, unlike his English predecessor Richard Baxter, says not a word about the danger that our efforts to do good may lead to disaster.


1 12 May 1784.

2 Perry Miller, The New England Mind: from Colony to Province (Cambridge, Mass., 1953), pp. 402-16.

3 Cotton Mather, Small Offers toward the Service of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness. Four Discourses accommodated unto the Designs of Practical Godliness (Boston, 1689), pp. 108-11.

4 Here Mather seems clearly to have been following Richard Baxter's How to Do Good to Many: or, the Publick Good is the Christian's Life. Directions and Motives It (London, 1682), p. 5: 'But as all motion and action is first upon the nearest object, so must ours; and doing good must be in order: First we must begin at home with our own souls and lives, and then to our nearest relations, and friends, and acquaintance, and neighbors, and then to our societies, church, and kingdom, and all the world. But mark that order of execution, and the orders of estimation and intention differ. Though God set up lights so small as will serve but for one room, and though we must begin at home, we must far more esteem the desire and good of the multitude, of city and church and commonwealth; and must set no bounds to our endeavours, but what God and disability set'.

5 Cotton Mather, Early Piety, Exemplified in the Life and Death of Mr. Nathanael Mather … (London, 1689), p. 39.

6 Mather, Small Offers, p. 37.

7Ibid., pp. 19ff.

8 See Theopolis Americana. An Essay on the Golden Street of the Holy City: Publishing a TESTIMONY against the CORRUPTIONS of the Market-Place. With some Good HOPES of Better Things to be yet seen in the AMERICAN World (Boston, 1710), p. 48.

9Ibid., p. 5. The text was Revelations 21:21. The sermon was preached on 3 November 1709.

10 See A. Whitney Griswold, 'Three Puritans on Prosperity', New England Quarterly, VII (1934), 475-93.

11Theopolis Americana, pp. 13-14.

12Ibid., p. 21.

13 He did not say, 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you', but rather: 'All things whatsoever ye would, that men should do to you, do ye even so unto them.' He cited Matthew 7:12. See Theopolis Americana, pp. 14-16.

14Ibid., pp. 18-22.

15 Baxter, How to Do Good to Many, p. 15.

16 A book-length autobiographical manuscript addressed to Mather's son and concentrating on the father's devices for piety. The manuscript is in the Alderman Library, University of Virginia. Many of these passages had been copied in turn from Mather's Reserved and Revised Memorials, which have since been published as The Diary of Cotton Mather, two vol., ed. Worthington C. Ford, in Massachusetts Historical Society, Collections, seventh ser., VII-VIII (Boston, 1911-12).

17 This passage is quoted, with the permission of the University of Virginia, from the manuscript 'Paterna', pp. 304-5. I have modernized the spelling and capitalization.

Peter Gay (essay date 1966)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8577

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 lived on to 1672, but after publishing his Wonder-Working Providence of Sions Saviour in New England—that naive military bulletin reporting Christ's victories against Satan in America—he allowed his official duties to engross his time, and wrote no more.

They had all been devout chroniclers, looking up to heaven as their dearest country, but significantly they had all been laymen, public servants who composed their annals from a found of political experience. The generation of historians that took their place were all clerics. They were scarcely less active in public affairs than the statesmen who had preceded them, and no more fanatical, but as the appointed guardians of the Puritan conscience, they turned the writing of history into a self-conscious pursuit. Intermittent warfare with the Indians in the 1670's and 1680's produced some splendidly artless chronicles, narratives alive with terror and the pious thirst for blood, but for the most part the production of history became a tribal rite, almost a religious act.

The historians of the second generation drew heavily on the first for their documentation, their standards of excellence, their mode of historical thinking. Their derivative mentality was not wholly regrettable; what they lost in originality, they gained in professional piety for the work of the Founders, notably for Bradford. This was only reasonable: Bradford's authority was deservedly high, and Bradford had recorded the critical events from which the New England myth was to be constructed. But while Of Plimmoth Plantation deserved its eminence, the loneliness of that eminence called attention to the flatness of the surrounding landscape. New England historians from Nathaniel Morton to Thomas Prince, from Cotton Mather to Thomas Hutchinson, diligently consulted and generously copied Bradford's manuscript: to check colonial historians of New England against one another is all too often to check Bradford against Bradford. Piety for Bradford was indeed reasonable, but it was also a symptom of resignation, a demonstration of the very decay that would be the dominant theme of the histories written in the second half of the seventeenth century.

The very purpose of these histories was borrowed from the Founders. Bradford had made it plain that he was filling his history with circumstantial detail so that the Puritans' "children may see with what difficulties their fathers wrastled in going through these things in their first beginnings, and how God brought them along notwithstanding all their weaknesses and infirmities."1 By the 1670's, the call for didactic history had become general, and its reasons were Bradford's reasons. But the tone had a new pathos. In 1672, the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony voted to encourage the collecting of special providences, of events "beyond what could in reason have binn expected," so that Puritans might be led to serve their Lord.2 In the following year, Urian Oakes said in a famous plea: "It is our great duty to be the Lords Remembrancers or Recorders." God had been good to his children, and "it were very well if there were a memorial of these things faithfully drawn up, and transmitted to Posterity." Such a history of New England would register in men's hearts now, and remind later generations, how much the Lord had done for his elect. "It is a desirable thing, that all the loving kindnesses of God, and his singular favours to this poor and despised out cast might be Chronicled and communicated (in the History of them) to succeeding Ages; that the memory of them may not dy and be extinct, with the present Generation."3 And three years later, in 1676, Increase Mather pleaded the utility of history, the encouragement Scripture gives to its writing, and the propriety of divines to write it, as weighty support to his earnest wish that "some effectual Course may be taken (before it is too late) that a just History of New England be written and published to the World. That," he added, forgetful or disdainful of the histories already available, "is a thing that hath been often spoken of, but was never done to this day, and yet the longer it is deferred, the more difficulty will there be in effecting of it."4

Considering the frequency and solemnity of such calls for history, the response was tepid: if the American Puritans had any special vocation for history, they did not show it. Nathaniel Morton, Bradford's nephew and a diligent official in his own right, anticipated much of the public demand with his New Englands Memoriall, published in 1669, a compilation drawn largely from his uncle's manuscript. William Hubbard, the learned and urbane minister of Ipswich, discovered his historical talents with an effective history of the Indian wars, published in 1677, and then turned to a General History of New England from the Discovery to MDCLXXX; it closely followed Morton's Memoriall and Winthrop's Journal, but took its own course with its relatively skeptical view of providential intervention in history. In 1682, the General Court voted to pay Hubbard £50 in support of this history, but it remained in manuscript: neither its intellectual dependence nor its theological independence, it seems, appeared an adequate answer to New England's need for a reliable past. The most alert, most obedient response to Increase Mather's invitation came from his son, Cotton Mather, who always responded to his father's invitations.


Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana, written between 1693 and 1697, and published in London in 1702, is an erudite, informative, sprawling, and puzzling book. It is extraordinarily ambitious: its subtitle, "The Ecclesiastical History of New England," though suggestive of its orientation, falls markedly short of its scope. In seven books, the Magnalia offers a cursory outline of New England's history from the Plymouth settlement to the end of the seventeenth century; a set of brief biographies of governors and other officials; a far larger set of far more massive biographies of "Famous Divines"—for, Mather said, "of all History it must be confessed, that the palm is to be given unto Church History; wherein the dignity, the suavity, and the utility of the subject is transcendent";5 a history "Harvard-College" complete with the lives of some prominent ministers who graduated from it; the "Acts and Monuments" of the Puritan churches in America; a "Faithful Record" of "many Illustrious, Wonderful Providences" as they fell upon God's children in New England; and, in conclusion, a history of "The Wars of the Lord," of Antinomians, Quakers, clerical impostors, and other plagues that beset the elect in the wilderness. Of all the Puritan intellectuals in New England in his time, only Cotton Mather could have written this history.

Cotton Mather has been widely, and often justly, maligned. If he had never existed, no village atheist would have had the wit to invent him. He was a seeker who drove the Puritan habit of self-examination, and the Puritan affliction of self-doubt, to morbid lengths: he writhed in the dust for his loathsome idleness after spending the day in exhausting charitable endeavor; weeping and praying, day after day, he looked for sure signs of grace; he performed in public as the omniscient guardian of morality while in private he moaned over his unclean soul; he tried to do justice to the leading role that his powerful father had assigned to him and, in a sense, acted out for him in his own versatile career, but, in the midst of success, surrounded by the trophies of his power, the son saw himself as a pathetic failure. Cotton Mather was singularly unfortunate in these symptoms: they display so much self-deception, so much self-indulgence, that they invite psychoanalytical probing, but without the clinical benevolence that the psychoanalyst extends to his patients. Cotton Mather lusted all his life for the presidency of Harvard, a post his father had held, and which the son affected to despise, especially after others were chosen; he was a prig and a meddler; an unscrupulous ideologue and a windy orator; a scribbler who praised simplicity in flowery circumlocutions, so anxious to see his productions in print that it might be said of him, with little fear of exaggeration, that he would rather lose his soul than misplace a manuscript.

Yet this same man, and without any apparent sense of strain, was also a patient husband and affectionate father; a responsible clergyman who gave generously of his time to counsel young people and new churches; an intelligent bibliophile and often discriminating reader; a curious observer of God's handiwork, interested enough in science to become a Fellow of the Royal Society—or, at least so eager for the right to bear the initials F.R.S. that he made extensive, if sometimes absurd, inquiries into nature. He was less responsible, and less courageous, in the witchcraft episode than some of his fellow Puritans, but also less credulous, and far less sadistic, than most of his fellow divines. He was, in sum, a cultivated man with a good mind and an international reputation. His stature, and his oddities, make him remarkable, but he was neither unique nor eccentric among the Puritans; what gives him significance is precisely that he was characteristic of his time and of his tribe.

It is Mather's representative quality that makes his Magnalia such an informative witness to the Puritan mind in America. Yet, though informative, it is also a reluctant witness: its meaning lies concealed in the maze of its organization and the tangled wilderness of its prose. Its opening line—"I write the WONDERS of the CHRISTIAN RELIGION, flying from the depravations of Europe, to the American Strand,"—evokes Vergil, but the rest of the book bears no resemblance to Vergil's classical balance and lovely melody. The Magnalia displays learning as Othello displayed love, not wisely but too well. No American writer has been called pedant more often than Cotton Mather, no American writer has deserved the epithet more than he. As early as 1708, the hostile English historian John Oldmixon recognized, and proclaimed, the literary limitations of the Magnalia: the book, he wrote, is "cramm'd with Punns, Anagrams, Acrosticks, Miracles and Prodigies."6 Oldmixon was right: the Magnalia is a showcase of pedantry and elephantine wit. It is overloaded, and often overwhelmed, with expansive and irrelevant introductory passages, with far-fetched parallels, embarrassing puns, fatiguing alliterations, puerile anagrams; the writing is prolix, arch, involuted, imprecise, repetitive, and hysterical. It is also reactionary, a retreat to the ornate Mandarin writing fashionable half a century before. The Magnalia, as Oldmixon shrewdly observed, was like one of those "School Boys Exercises" of "Forty Years Ago."7

For all that, Mather prided himself on his style—another instance of his failure to achieve self-knowledge. He claimed that he had written his Magnalia in a "simple, submiss, humble style," and he never ceased to express his affection for Puritan simplicity. In the Magnalia he promises to record the lives of Puritan divines without "figure of rhetorick";8 he enjoys retelling the story of young John Cotton giving up metaphysical preaching and embracing the plain style after his conversion; and he holds up his grandfather Richard for his "way of preaching," which was "very plain, studiously avoiding obscure and foreign terms, and unnecessary citations of Latin sentences."9 As the reader of the Magnalia knows, the grandson did not imitate his grandfather, at least not in this.

Yet there were times when Cotton Mather actually wrote well; in some of his scientific letters and didactic pamphlets, in several narrative passages in the Magnalia itself, he was direct, economical, even dra matic. But these felicitous passages only arouse the suspicion that Mather's style was more a symptom than a policy. His modes of writing appear not as the result of deliberate choices, but of irrational forces; Mather is not in control of his materials. His vacillations, his incoherence, like his profusion of words and deluge of allusions, suggest—it is no more than an impression—that Mather had something to hide, some besetting uncertainty, some fear of an unpalatable or unbearable truth, perhaps some doubt about the vocation of the Mather dynasty in God's New England.

The organization of the Magnalia strengthens this impression. Its seven books, as I have said, proceed from topic to topic, each in roughly chronological order. Hence decisive events, like the expulsion of the Antinomians, the troubles at Harvard College, the execution of the Quakers, may be reported several times, or reported only in passing. Mather offers much documentary evidence—he reprints the Statutes of Harvard, and the resolutions of Synods, in full—and he does not shun narration: he gives detailed descriptions of rescues at sea and battles with Indians. But over and over again Mather interprets critical moments in Puritan society as personal crises, social conflicts as the struggles of individual Christians with Satan. Mather dissolves history into biography.

The result is strangely soothing, especially since the lives that Mather celebrates appear as almost wholly admirable. Samuel Clark, the prolific English biographer whom Mather read with much interest though not without some reservations, had laid it down that the biographer "must eye" his subjects "not to observe their weaknesses, to discover their shame, for this is a poysonous disposition"; but "eye them, as we look into Glasses, to dress, and adorn ourselves thereby." He "must eye them for imitation": he must "look upon the best, and the best in the best."10 Cotton Mather cheerfully agreed. "How can the lives of the commendable be written without commending them?"11 he asked, and answered his rhetorical question in 1,400 pages.

The scores of biographies that populate the Magnalia are indispensable to Mather's irenic strategy. They were a sound choice: in the seventeenth century, biographies enjoyed enormous popularity. They were the kind of history everyone could understand, and they permitted readers to measure themselves against giants or identify themselves with sufferers. Biography, wrote John Norton in his life of John Cotton, gave witness to "many full and glorious triumphs over the World, Sin and Satan, obtained by persons in like temptations, and subject to like passions with ourselves."12 Such a genre simply could not fail. "When many excellent Lives are collected into one or more Volumes," Samuel Clark said confidently, "they do continue, and will do so, till Printing shall be no more."13 Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana was a collection of excellent lives.

Cotton Mather was too great an admirer of his "incomparable Plutarch" to reduce his biographies to mere eulogies.14 Mather knew everyone of consequence in New England, and he used his position intelligently: he secured private letters and intimate diaries, sought out eye-witnesses, and then wove his precious materials into a coherent narrative. At the same time, Mather subordinated the individuality of his lives to their pedagogic purpose. He strove to entertain, but to entertain for the sake of giving instruction, and to instruct—as Samuel Clark, and before him, many other biographers, had said—for the sake of inducing imitation.

The biographies in the Magnalia are, therefore, exemplary lives, cut from a single pattern. A typical life runs somewhat like this: One: the young man converts to a religious walk of life, and his conversion is attended with deep misery and high illumination, lengthy turmoil and a tormenting conviction of unworthiness. Two: close study of Scriptures convinces him that Anglican ceremonies are affected with popish pomp, and Anglican beliefs laden with popish trash; the true Christian, he discovers, must be a Puritan, living, as all Puritans do, in the primitive simplicity of the early Church. Three: this conviction subjects him to harassment by hardened sinners, Satan's minions in England, and leads to his decision to flee to the American strand. Four: Laud's dreaded pursuivants try to capture the convert that they may torment him, but they are miraculously diverted from their prey. Five: the young Congregationalist crosses to America, and his passage is beset by dreadful storms and near disaster, but a special Providence—secured after fervent prayers—calms the sea and eases the voyage (at this point, the pattern provides an alternative: God grants his saint smooth passage to America). Six: once in New England, the saint performs wonderfully well in his calling, securing conversions, guarding the churches, keeping peace in the colony. Seven: when the time for settling down is ripe, the saint contracts a marriage that is a model of mutual devotion and Christian love, with husband cherishing wife and wife obeying husband—all marriages in New England, at least all marriages in the Magnalia, are blissfully happy. Eight: as he grows older, the saint leads an unspotted private life, bringing up grave—Mather's word is "old"—young men and women who are filled with concern for their salvation and the love of death, and showing worldly men the road to sobriety and devotion. Nine: since Satan never sleeps, the saint suffers repeated assaults of temptation, but fights them all off. Ten: the saint grows rich in years and honors, and dies an edifying death, commemorated by the poems of his friends, celebrated by the eulogy of his pastor, and witnessed by his tearful, unconsolable wife. Eleven: widow remarries.

This, Cotton Mather tells his readers over and over again, this is how men lived in New England, this is how they should live, but this is how they live no longer. Mather was the Plutarch of Puritan America, but he was a pathetic Plutarch. In an age of Jeremiads the Magnalia Christi Americana is the greatest Jeremiad of them all.


The second generation of American Puritans lived under the doom of divine displeasure. They were certain of it, largely because they incessantly confirmed each others' apprehensions. In 1662, "in the time of the great drought," Michael Wigglesworth found an appropriate designation for the Puritans' malaise; it was a sign, he said, of "God's Controversy with New-England."15 To us, such a controversy appears as a projection, a sign of inner uncertainty. But to Wigglesworth, as to his fellow Puritans, it was an objective reality: Puritans had planted New England and prospered there, but now they were declining, living in the daily expectation of divine punishment. To be sure, New England still harbored "many praying saints"—to appeal to them was, after all, the point of Wigglesworth's poetic effort—but the saints must act before it was too late:

Wigglesworth was a pastor, but devout laymen echoed his judgment. "New-England is not to be found in New England, nor Boston in Boston," Joshua Scottow, a prosperous businessman, wrote mournfully in 1691. "We must now cry out, our Leanness, our Leanness, our Apostacy, our Atheism, Spiritual Idolatry, Adultery, Formality in Worship, carnal and vain Confidence in Church-Privileges, forgetting of GOD our Rock, and Multitude of other Abominations."16 Everyone ar ticulate enough to publish tracts or sermons agreed that spiritual decay was a pervasive rot, attacking New England at its roots, and inviting the most dreadful disasters; the cheerful remnant was silent. The General Court proclaimed official Days of Humiliation, and in its call compiled appalling lists of military defeats, bad harvests, epidemic outbreaks, interchurch rivalries, and untimely deaths. Puritan preachers above all, who had always found portentous warnings an entertaining theme for their sermons, specified for their parishioners the counts of the great indictment under which they all lay. Boston is the new Babylon, its fair face pock-marked with alehouses and whorehouses; merchants dream of profits and imperil their immortal souls; the rising generation forgets its obedience; shameless daughters of Zion parade about with naked arms and naked breasts; sinners drunk with prosperity imitate English fashions and invite the lightning by wearing periwigs. All these evils, and others, Increase Mather said in 1679, are "a sad sign that we have in great part forgotten our Errand in this Wilderness."17

The function of these laments was plain to performer and audience alike. The Jeremiad was a stylized history, designed to shame the present generation out of its erring ways by recalling the surpassing virtues of its fathers. The modern Jeremiah prayerfully expected that the celebration of the Founders would change the course of affairs and prepare a future worth celebrating.

There was nothing new about this purposeful scolding; in fact, it derived much of its strength from its respectable ancestry. The prophets of the Old Testament—and not Jeremiah alone—had reminded their flocks of a heroic time when men walked with God; urbane Greek poets had composed their nostalgic pastorals to move their readers to a purer life; Roman orators, historians and poets had sought to cure the corruption and decadence of an imperial city by constructing Republican fantasies about courageous, simple men, and chaste, dutiful women. Like their secular ancestors, the New England Jeremiahs astutely mixed historical fact with edifying fiction; like their religious ancestors, they impregnated their tirades with mythical thinking. God, they insisted, was angry, and manifested his anger with dire visitations. One way—the Puritan divines thought the best, probably the only way—of reconciling him to his children was to acknowledge the visitations, to dwell on them with the kind of pleasure that only self-punishment can give, to accept them humbly, with real repentance, and to resolve to do better. Doubtless there were some practicing Congregationalists who listened to these Jeremiads and enjoyed them as a conventional ceremony; doubtless there were others who used them unscrupulously to score debating points against political opponents: it was all too easy to see the hand of Satan in the maneuvering of a rival minister, and to interpret his prosperity as a visible token of New England's decline. There were some, too, who took the Jeremiad as a rite of propitiation, hoping to avert the jealousy of higher powers by dramatizing the Puritans' afflictions, on the age-old principle that God humbles the happy. But most of the Jeremiads—and there were many—bear the unmistakable mark of absolute sincerity. They speak of decay because they see decay; they say that God's hand is on his sinful children because they see God's hand in Indians winning battles and beloved relatives dying young. The Jeremiad was a ritual and a remedy, but the ritual was grounded in the Puritans' most intimate convictions and most pressing anxieties, and the remedy was not prescribed lightly. For the devout Puritan in Cotton Mather's day, the enterprise of New England was sick unto death; the dismay of the aging John Winthrop and William Bradford had become the dominant temper of the orthodox.

The Jeremiads were implicit histories, the histories were explicit Jeremiads. Cotton Mather was perfectly clear about this. "De tristibus, " he said, "may be a proper title for the book I am now writing."18 The book he wrote began with triumphant settlements, and with that magnificent invocation of Vergil; it ended with an account of afflictions, and a quotation from the most pathetic book of the Old Testament: "We have been under the lamentable punishments of our sins for two lustres of years together, 'tis time for every man, and for all of us as one man, to say, as in Lamentations iii, 40, 'Let us search and try our ways, and turn again unto the Lord.'"19 To ask men to turn again unto the Lord suggests, plainly enough, that they have turned away from him. "I saw a fearful degeneracy," Mather intoned, adjusting the mantle of the Old Testament prophet around his shoulders, "creeping, I cannot say, but rushing in upon these churches; I saw to multiply continually our dangers, of our losing no small points in our first faith, as well as our first love, and of our giving up the essentials of that church order, which was the very end of these colonies; I saw a visible shrink in all orders of men among us, from that greatness, and that goodness, which was in the first grain that our God brought from three sifted kingdoms, into this land, when it was a land not sown."20

With the sure instinct of a trained polemicist, Mather couched his warnings in the commonplaces current among his peers: there was grave danger, he said, that New England might forget its "errand into the wilderness";21 it is "very certain," he said, that "the God of heaven had (and still hath!)" a "controversie" with New England.22 In this emergency, Mather saw his duty. Obviously, "speedy care" must "be taken to preserve the memorables of our first settlement," lest the "laudable principles and practices of that first settlement" be utterly "lost in our apostasies." Mather resolves to recall, and by recalling revive primitive worship: "To advise you of your dangers," he tells the churches of Connecticut, "and uphold the life of religion among you, I presume humbly to lay before you the life of that excellent man," Thomas Hooker. "What should be done for the stop, the turn of this degeneracy?" Mather asks himself, and replies: "I'll shew them the graves of their dead fathers."23

Obviously Mather's readers liked nothing better; the Magnalia soon acquired and long retained great au thority. It was valuable enough to be stolen: in 1720, a burglar ransacking Jonathan Belcher's well-stocked warehouse included in his booty "a Book Entituled, Magnalia Christi Americana."24 Approval such as this did not rest on shared necrophilia alone; the Magnalia told the Puritans what they wanted to hear. It told them, to begin with—and it was edifying to hear it from a philosopher who corresponded with savants in Europe—that the old theology, the theology of William Bradford and, indeed, St. Augustine, need not be revised in the light of modern knowledge. Moses still was, as he had always been, "the first and the best historian in the world."25 God himself had cast "a long series of preserving and prosperous smiles" on the early settlers of New England, and now that "the enchantments of this world" had "caused the rising generation" to "neglect the primitive designs and interests of religion propounded by their fathers," God was blast ing harvests, drowning sailors, burning houses, and filling the air with pestilence.26 The marvelous stories about pious divines rescued at sea by a special Providence, the affecting stories about dying children converting their unregenerate fathers with the Lord's help, the fitting last words of convicted criminals led by God to say the appropriate thing, the poetic justice dealt out to blasphemers by a watchful and vengeful Lord—all these were true. The visible world, like the invisible world, was full of wonders.

This was reassuring enough. But the Magnalia did not stop here. It also told its readers that Puritan New England was important, its cause just, and its conduct irreproachable. Doubtless there were scoffers—there were always scoffers. "But whether New-England may Live any where else or no," Cotton Mather wrote, with slightly tremulous pride, "it must live in our History." Admittedly, "a war between us and a handful of Indians" may "appear no more than a Batrachomyomachie to the world abroad." But to New Englanders "at home it hath been considerable enough to make an history."27 Thinking of his own Magnalia, Mather could feel confident that his modesty was misplaced: New England was considerable enough to make a history abroad as much as at home.

It deserved to live in history because it was fulfilling a great calling. Like other New England Jeremiahs, Cotton Mather had two masks: tragedy for domestic, comedy for foreign consumption. Of course, New England was decaying: that was the point of the Jeremiads; of course, New England was imperfect: that was the nature of man. Still, New England remained a city upon a hill: "I perswade myself," Mather suavely observed, "that so far as they have attained," the Congregational churches in America "have given great examples of the methods and measures wherein an Evangelical Reformation is to be prosecuted." To be sure, "I do not say, that the Churches of New-England are the most regular that can be; yet I do say, and am sure, that they are very like unto those that were in the first ages of Christianity."28 It was the highest praise Mather could bestow.

These complex judgments confirm the impression that Cotton Mather had something to hide. The Magnalia proves the Puritans guilty, and pronounces them innocent. Mather reaches this gratifying verdict by emphasizing consensus at the expense of conflict: he forgets inconvenient facts, refuses to call things by their right names, and defends the indefensible. It is possible to reconstruct the battles among the churches of New England by reading the Magnalia with infinite care, but infinite care is needed, for Mather calls this vicious internecine warfare, "little controversies."29 In 1668, John Davenport, a founder of New Haven and pastor there, accepted a call from the First Church in Boston, despite his advanced age and despite the reluctance of his parishioners to let him go. His supporters in Boston suppressed vital evidence to secure his appointment; Davenport himself, eager to sit in the place once graced by John Cotton, gave it as his opinion that "whither it be from errour in judgment" or from "designe," it was "evident Satan hath a great hand" in the resistance of his opponents.30 The parishioners of the First Church, and with them the city of Boston, divided into vituperative factions; before it was all over, the minority had walked out and formed a congregation of their own—Old South Church. Of these proceedings, known to all, ugly in tone, unprecedented in acrimony, there is scarcely a trace in the Magnalia; Mather omits all specific details and instead says airily that Davenport's "removal from New Haven was clogged with many temptatious difficulties"—but then, would it not be a miracle if on so long a journey one did not meet some stumbling stones? And in any event, Davenport "broke through them all, in expectation to do what he judged would be a more comprehensive service unto the churches of New-England, than could have been done by him in his now undistinguished colony."31 And so, an old man's ambition, and an undignified squabble, are transmuted into glorious service to God.

Vagueness is a favorite weapon of apologists, and Cotton Mather uses it with admirable deftness. He waves aside the fierce contentions among the Connecticut churches: "There arose at length some unhappy contests in one town of the colony, which grew into an alienation that could not be cured" without a bitter parting. Still, all was for the best: "These little, idle, angry controversies, proved occasions of enlargements to the church of God; for such of the inhabitants as chose a cottage in a wilderness," just moved "peaceably higher up the river, where a whole county of holy churches has been added unto the number of our congregations."32 After this, it comes as no surprise to read Mather's bland biography of the subtle John Cotton, and Mather's expansive account of the Antinomian crisis, in which Cotton's prevarications are disguised behind a few portentous phrases and dissolved in a cheerful denouement: "An happy conclusion of the whole matter. "33 Retelling the career of William Bradford, obviously with the manuscript of Plimmoth Plantation before him, Mather has no difficulty seeing Reverend Lyford as a hypocrite, a liar, and a plotter—that, after all, is what Bradford had called him. But when it comes to Bradford's interception and opening of Lyford's letters to England—an illegal action which Bradford justifies in considerable detail—Mather improves on his source in the interest of making his saint more saintly: "At last there fell into the hands of the governour" Lyford's letters "home to England."34

What Mather does not achieve with dilution, he achieves with suppression. Mather is uncomfortably aware that the treatment of the Quakers has given the American Puritans a bad name: "A great clamour hath been raised against New-England for their 'persecution of the Quakers.'" He refuses to defend it—"if any man will appear in the vindication of it, let him do as he please; for my part, I will not"—and then proceeds to defend it. He regrets the executions: "Haereticide" is not an "evangelical way for the extinguishing of heresies"; neglect, or contempt, would have been sufficient. Yet they were madmen, these Quakers, lunatics, energumens, enemies to the civil and sacred order of Massachusetts: the authorities, he is sure, would "gladly" have released them.35 This is not unreasonable: the Quakers who came back to Massachusetts with full knowledge that their return would lead to their death were courting a martyr's fate. But Mather's account, though reasonable, is not candid: it is wholly silent about the poignant sufferings of the miserable sectaries, about the insults, the bloody whippings, the brutal legislation enacted expressly against them; it is largely silent about Governor John Endicott, that tightlipped fanatic, who of all the Quakers' scourges in New England was the worst. Cotton Mather's impulse to decency was strong, but he could not afford to indulge it to the full. The Puritans wanted their myth, and Cotton Mather, obliging as always, supplied the demand.


The Magnalia Christi Americana was tribal history, expressing Puritan sentiments, feeding Puritan anxieties, and sustaining Puritan pride. But it was also something more specific: it was family history constructed on the single principle that the Mathers were always right.

This principle is not as parochial as it may sound; in New England, as in old England, party history was family history writ large. The Mathers were a potent and far-flung dynasty—Cotton Mather never forgot that he was the grandson of Richard Mather and John Cotton—and while they were wrong to identify family wishes with the public good, they had every right to claim that their private interests were inextricably interwoven with public policy. There were no modern political parties in the New England of Cotton Mather's day; there were stable groupings and shifting coalitions, confused contests for power, for status and rewards, in which alliances were formed, dissolved, and reorganized. The alignments were as varied as the issues, and largely depended on them: they arose from struggles for grants of land, competition for profitable intimacy with English officials, quarrels within congregations, and, on occasion, abstract questions like toleration. Politics in Mather's day, as in our own, was a serious game in which suppressed passions found their outlet: ambitious men exercised their energies, and quarrelsome men gratified their lust for trouble, by competing for office. It was also a religious game: to say, as we must say, that Puritan politics was interest politics is not to say that it was secular politics. Most New Englanders, urbane Anglicans and plain Congregationalists alike, were deeply religious men, and could contest religious issues with as much fervor as economic ones—and more.

By the time Cotton Mather wrote his Magnalia, New England had transformed itself from a collection of rude settlements into a civilized, diversified community, complete with social and political conflict. New England was still underpopulated: by 1700, it had about 100,000 inhabitants—Boston, its commercial and intellectual capital, had about 7,000—and most of this population were simple farmers and craftsmen. Yet, hard as the orthodox Puritans tried to retain traditional simplicities, New England society was too large, too complex, too prosperous, too civilized, to resist the need for change. England, in those days of slow and hazardous travel, still seemed far away, but more and more as the century went on, it influenced affairs in its American dependencies. The great traumatic events in New England's history all occurred, or were all caused by events in England.

The early settlers had been singularly fortunate. They had built their Utopia with practically no interference from the home government—they had violated their charter, disregarded instructions from England, and in general conducted themselves like an independent power. But after the Restoration of Charles II, in 1660, this was no longer possible, and, to many New Englanders, no longer desirable. Merchants who developed extensive interests in international trade, gentry hungry for land and status, Anglican settlers who resented the Puritan monopoly of civic rights and political power, looked to England for protection, for profits, for comforts, for symbols of distinction. Merchants might be restive under the restrictions of the English Navigation Acts, but they preferred a remote monarchy that limited their profits to a watchful oligarchy that kept them politically impotent and socially insecure. The stirring events of the 1680's, culminating in a rather belated Glorious Revolution in New England in the Spring of 1689, realigned political alliances for a while: Puritan oligarchs, prosperous merchants, ambitious politicians found it expedient to make compromises, to cooperate under the new Protestant monarchy, and to work for the restoration of their Charter.

But while social groupings found uneasy peace in their demand for partial self-government and their search for a social organization capable of coping with new realities, the Puritan oligarchy itself was fatally divided. Protestantism has an irrepressible tendency toward fission; as Roman Catholics had argued since the sixteenth century, the exercise of private judgment must lead to the splintering of sects. The Puritan leadership in America had fully recognized this danger and had sought, at times desperately, to find the right middle way—some of the Magnalia's denials of trouble in paradise read like a frantic attempt to wish it out of existence. Yet, as the synods show by their Resolutions—by the very need to call them—the tensions inherent in Congregationalism could not be permanently kept down. Puritans prized religious experience but abhorred the chaos of private inspiration and unchecked enthusiasm; Puritans wished an orderly church but disliked the centralized authority of the Presbyterians. Puritans thought a church should be a gathering of saints, but they needed to insure its survival by admitting the saints' descendants: the uneasy and unenforceable compromise of the Half-Way Covenant, which they devised in the early 1660's—a procedure granting to children of church members who had had no saving religious experience of their own the right to all privileges of membership save only the Lord's Supper—was a symptom of their embarrassment. Puritans wanted no nonsense about toleration: why tolerate Satan? Yet there were many among them, and not among Cromwell's men alone, who hated persecution and thought many theological disagreements "indifferent," which is to say, harmless. Puritans accepted Calvin's uncompromising teachings about God's absolute sovereignty and man's total depravity, but their experience taught them that virtuous and vicious actions have their effect in the world and even on God: the Jeremiads were intended to have results, to change the mind of the Lord and the course of events.

Tentatively in the first generation, vigorously in the second, an increasing number of Puritans tried to resolve these tensions in what they liked to call a "Catholick spirit," a flexible attitude toward questions of doctrine, church polity, and the relations of the sacred to the secular power. They remained good Congregationalists; they believed in divine Providence, miracles, witches, and Satan. But their temper was tolerant and expansive, and by the 1690's they were a distinct party, powerful enough to be recognized by Cotton Mather. "In my own country," he wrote in the Magnalia, there is "a number of eminently godly persons, who are for a larger way, and unto these my Church-History will give distaste."36 It was not for this group that Mather wrote his history. "I have endeavoured, with all good conscience, to decline this writing meerly for a party,"37 he proclaimed, but he was in fact writing for a party, and its head was named Mather.

This required some judicious navigation, for the Mathers had changed their minds. Increase Mather had first opposed, and then supported, the Half-Way Covenant; both Increase and Cotton Mather had accepted toleration with reluctance: it was imposed on them partly by developments in the New England churches, largely by the Glorious Revolution. In the Magnalia, Cotton Mather reports the first reversal as a blessing, and antedates the second reversal to give the Mathers credit they did not deserve.38 The Magnalia was more than an apology for the Mather clan—it derived its persuasiveness from the excellence of much of its research and documentation. But in the end, the apologetic aim of the Magnalia overwhelms its historical scholarship, and it becomes a Jeremiad in the service of a tribe in retreat.


This interpretation of Cotton Mather and his most famous book may seem uncharitable. Did not the Magnalia itself show traces of a Catholick temper? Was it not, besides, a young man's work? Did not Mather's conduct, in the thirty years that remained to him, reveal a flexible spirit? Was it not a manifestation of admirable tolerance to have Mather preach at the ordination of a Baptist minister? Did he not show a progressive mentality during the inoculation controversy of 1721-1722, when he bravely stood by science and reason? Did he not write The Christian Philosopher, a pioneering work in natural theology which (in Kenneth Murdock's words) expounded an "advanced intellectual position" that looked forward to Emerson, offered "proof positive of his intellectual development," and proved "him to have been far more 'modern' than his times"?39

The facts are true enough, but they will not bear the strain that our historical piety places on them. To be sure—I have insisted on it—Cotton Mather was civilized, intelligent, and often reasonable. He had nothing but distaste for the more egregious forms of fanaticism; especially in his mature years, his pronouncements on religious toleration were irenic for temperamental, not merely for political reasons. He abhorred heresy, but he preferred combating it by persuasion to stamping it out by force. His cultivation, the fruit of wide reading and high ambition, compelled him into a certain breadth of view. But none of these qualities made him a modern man. Not even his celebrated appearance in a Baptist church in 1718 justifies our calling him more modern than his times: he went to perform his good deed mainly to gratify his vanity; he was eager to bear "a Testimony to the grand Intention of an Union for good Men upon the Maxims of Piety" by ordaining a Baptist pastor, but he luxuriated in the awareness that his action would "cause much Discourse and Wonder," and "occasion various Discourse in the world."40

There was nothing that caused more discourse in the world of Boston than Cotton Mather's defense of inoculation. When the smallpox visited New England in 1721, Boylston inoculated a number of Bostonians, and Cotton Mather, to the dismay of many, supported him. Someone threw a bomb into Mather's house, and this bomb—which did not go off—has made him into a martyr to progress.41 But the issue was not between science and superstition: most of the leading physicians, and many educated Puritans, thought inoculation an absurd and dangerous fad: Dr. William Douglass, who led the medical opposition, likened Mather's support of inoculation to Mather's support of the witchcraft trials thirty years before—another instance of "mistaken Notions." Mather was on the right side, and for good reasons: he had first read of inoculation in the Philosophical Transactions. But he supported the practice in the spirit of a Christian virtuoso, certain that to cure a great evil by enduring a lesser one was to obey the ways of Providence: Increase Mather had discovered, and Cotton Mather rejoiced to see, that among those who approved of inoculation, only a few were men of "a Prophane Life and Conversation," while on the contrary, "it cannot be denied, but that the known Children of the Wicked one, are generally fierce Enemies to Inoculation."42 To support inoculation under these circumstances was not to advance secularism but to combat Satan.

Cotton Mather wrote his Christian Philosopher in the same combative mood. If the book was indeed the first defense of natural theology in Puritan America, this reflects not the modernity of Mather but the provinciality of the Puritans. To prove the existence, the goodness, the glory, and the omnipotence of God by pointing to his manifestations in nature, to suggest that God had revealed himself first by his works and then by his words, was to utter an antique commonplace of Christian apologetics—and a safe one: Mather was at one with other apologists in insisting that natural religion taught not naturalism but humble submission to God's splendid decrees: "A PHILOSOPHICAL RELIGION: And yet how Evangelical!"43

Such philosophical religion had deep roots in the books that the Puritans studied with unwearied devotion. "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handy-work. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge."44 Thus the Psalmist. "For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they"—the ungodly and the unrighteous—"are without excuse."45 Thus St. Paul to the Romans. The great Reformers, for all their insistence on divine sovereignty and inscrutability, all their preachment of the arbitrariness of Providence, commented on these Biblical passages with pious approval. Calvin above all insisted that "the knowledge of God shines forth in the fashioning of the universe and the continuing government of it," so that everyone must see his splendor: "The clarity of God's self-disclosure strips us of every excuse" for denying his "wonderful wisdom." It is not only astronomy, medicine, and other sciences intended to elucidate "recondite matters" that declare God's handiwork, but common, ordinary experiences, "which thrust themselves upon the sight of even the most untutored and ignorant person."46 In 1728, in their obituary sermons, polite Catholick preachers like Benjamin Colman found much to praise in Cotton Mather; but after all, there was much to praise, and besides, he was safely dead.47 Yet the politeness of the eulogies could not conceal the distance of the new Congregationalists from the Mather faction. Far from looking ahead to Emerson's transcendentalism, Mather's thought looked back to the Church Fathers.

Cotton Mather had known this. He had found it expedient to reach an accommodation with the Colmans and the Brattles, but in December 1699, when the Brattle Street Church was being founded, the irreconcilable conflict found expression in Mather's diary. The Brattle Street group, he wrote, are "Head-strong Men," filled with "malignity to the Holy Wayes of our Churches"; these "fallacious people" delude "many bettermeaning Men," and "invite an ill Party thro' all the Countrey, to throw all into Confusion." It was necessary to take strong action against these innovators, though even the most loving reproof only "enrages their violent and impotent Lusts, to carry on the Apostasy." These were strong words, but more was to come. In January of 1700, Cotton Mather confided to his diary that he saw "Satan beginning a terrible Shake unto the Churches of New England"; a "Day of Temptation" has come, brought by men who are "ignorant, arrogant, obstinate, and full of Malice and Slander," men who "fill the Land with Lyes."48

These are the rages of a defeated man, and indeed, Cotton Mather lost battle after battle. The merchants who put profits before piety, built lavish establishments, and married their daughters to Anglicans, founded the commercial empires that moved the colonies into active competition with European traders. The politicians who discounted religious considerations in their struggle for office or their zeal for good administration broke the tribal mould of Puritan society. The Catholick Congregationalists who founded Brattle Street Church, seized Harvard College from the Mathers, and moved, however timidly, toward Arminianism, opened the windows of a provincial society to the breezes of intellectual change, and prepared educated Americans for a fruitful reunion with enlightened Europe.

Yet Cotton Mather and, through him, Puritan orthodoxy, had their revenge. For two centuries and even longer, Americans, even those who criticized the Magnalia or professed to despise its author, have seen the great struggle for New England's soul through Cotton Mather's eyes. Everyone owned his history, everyone read it, everyone, consciously or not, absorbed its views and employed its categories. For whatever the liberals and rebels in Massachusetts did—and they did much—there was one thing they neglected to do. They did not write history.


1 Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, I, 120.

2 Kenneth B. Murdock, "William Hubbard and the Providential Interpretation of History," Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, LII (1942), 23.

3New-England Pleaded With (1673), quoted in Miller and Johnson, The Puritans, I, 81.

4A Brief History of the War with the Indians in New-England, ed. Samuel G. Drake (1862), p. 37.

5 Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana, I, 28.

6 Quoted by Perry Miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (1953), p. 360.


8Magnalia Christi Americana, I, 31.

9Ibid., I, 452.

10Lives of Ten Eminent Divines (1662), A3, quoted in Donald A. Stauffer, English Biography Before 1700 (1930), p. 253.

11Magnalia Christi Americana, I, 30.

12 Kenneth B. Murdock, "Clio in the Wilderness: History and Biography in Puritan New England," Church History, XXIV (1955), 227. God himself, the American Puritans believed, had enjoined them to write history—had he not said, in the 140th Psalm, "He hath made his wonderful works to be remembered"? Murdock, ibid., 222.

13 See Stauffer, English Biography Before 1700, p. 305.

14 Mather calls Plutarch "incomparable" in Magnalia Christi Americana, I, 29. In his life of Governor William Phips, Mather announces that he intends to imitate Plutarch's method as a biographer. Ibid., I, 166.

15 A sizable selection from the poem is reprinted in Miller and Johnson, The Puritans, II, 611-616. My quotation below is at p. 616.

16Old Men's Tears for their own Declension mixed with Fears of their and Posterities Falling off from New England's Primitive Constitution, quoted in Bernard Bailyn, The New England Merchants in the Seventeenth Century (1955), p. 123.

17 Bailyn, New England Merchants, p. 141.

18Magnalia Christi Americana, II, 537.

19Ibid., II, 681.

20Ibid., I, 249.

21Ibid., I, 64.

22Ibid., II, 318.

23Ibid., I, 249-252; I, 332.

24 Clifford K. Shipton, New England Life in the 18th Century, p. 48, life of Jonathan Belcher.

25Magnalia Christi Americana, II, 109.

26Ibid., II, 316.

27Ibid., I, 27; II, 581.

28Ibid., I, 26-27.

29Ibid., I, 63.

30 See Hamilton Andrews Hill, History of the Old South Church (Third Church) Boston, 1669-1884, 2 vols. (1890), I, 24.

31Magnalia Christi Americana, I, 328-329.

32Ibid., I, 83.

33Ibid., II, 515. This incident had already been noted by Perry Miller in The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, p. 61.

34Magnalia Christi Americana, I, 60. Bradford's original account is in Of Plymouth Plantation, I, 382-388.

35 See especially, Magnalia Christi Americana, I, 298; II, 523-525.

36Ibid., I, 36.

37Ibid., I, 29.

38 See Perry Miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, pp. 103, 108.

39 Kenneth B. Murdock, ed., Cotton Mather, Selections (1926), pp. l-lii.

40 Cotton Mather, Diary, II, 531-536.

41 See ibid., II, 657-658.

42 John B. Blake, "The Inoculation Controversy in Boston: 1721-1722," New England Quarterly, XXV (1952), 497, 503.

43The Christian Philosopher, Introduction, in Murdock, Cotton Mather, Selections, p. 286.

44 Psalm 19:1; see also Psalms 104 and 145.

45 Romans 1:20.

46 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, transl. by Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill, 2 vols. (1960), I, 51-53. In his exposition, Calvin relies mainly on Romans 1:20, Psalm 104, and Psalm 145.

47 In his laudatory essay on Cotton Mather (Introduction to Cotton Mather, Selections), Kenneth Murdock quotes the opinions of Benjamin Colman, Thomas Prince, and Joshua Gee, all favorable, but all uttered upon Cotton Mather's death. It is well to remember Samuel Johnson's observation that "In lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath."

48 Cotton Mather, Diary, I, 325-326, 330.

John P. Duffy (essay date 1967)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4218

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 Cotton Mather during the past one hundred years have cut that good ground right out from under him in what might almost appear to be a conspiracy of unkindness or even malice. But in his own time, the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Cotton Mather was, as a puritan minister, a man of great force and influence. In and around Boston during his lifetime, no event of importance could occur without his participation, opposition, or considered acquiescence: when the Royal governor, Edmund Andros, was deposed in 1689, Cotton Mather led the rebellion; when the new governor, William Phips, was inaugurated in 1691, he led the prayers. In all this he was loved and admired, feared and respected by his contemporaries at home and honored in Europe. But in the twentieth century, hear with what apparent glee the historian Samuel Eliot Morison joins in the hazing of the twelve-year-old Harvard freshman: "We may feel confident that normal college life was completely restored, if that insufferable young prig Cotton Mather was being kicked about as he so justly deserved." So wrote Morison in Harvard College in the Seventeenth Century, and there is a sound basis to think that Morison may be completely wrong in his appraisal of the hazing of young Mather; he may very well have oversimplified a complex case of church and college politics.2

If Morison is wrong in this particular, the whole stereotype of Cotton Mather's puritan meddling, self-righteousness, credulity, pedantry, and reaction may call for a reexamination. Not that Mather has received much attention from those writing about American literature and history; he has been given only three brief mentions in Commager and Morison's standard two-volume history, The Growth of the American Republic, and the most substantial of these is the little anecdote about Benjamin Franklin's visit to him. When these writers do write about him, they are likely to speak of him as Perry Miller does in The New England Mind as a "frantic character who boasts, blurts, sneers, gloats, and shrieks in retrospective adulation of the Old Order,"3 then is reluctant, later opportunistic, in surrendering to the New Order. Some writers have dealt with him sympathetically, especially Barrett Wendell, but they have had little effect on prevailing opinion, either in the scholarly community or among the people. Perhaps because he is portrayed as unattractive, or perhaps because he does not merit more attention, very few biographies have been written about Cotton Mather (only one in this century), and none of these is satisfactory.

Although one commentator says, "Barrett Wendell's Cotton Mather is so excellent a study of its difficult subject as to make quite superfluous any attempt to rewrite the tale,"4 and many others seem to be in agreement, I fail to see that there is still not needed a good biography of Cotton Mather. Wendell's biography, published in 1891, and reissued three years ago, attempted to tell the story in Mather's own words from his diary and other writings. The treatment given Mather is as sympathetic as he gets anywhere, but the result is dull—a dull book about an interesting man. This dullness stems in part from Wendell's leaning too heavily on Mather's own words; at times it appears that Wen-dell is publishing his notecards.

Two more recent biographies are poorly done. The Life and Times of Cotton Mather by Abijah P. Marvin, a Congregationalist minister, was published the year after Wendell's. It is strong in New England church history but weak everywhere else. It is offensively pietistic toward the puritans, especially the clergy and their families, and defensive about Cotton Mather. In addition, the book seems to have no plan other than chronological, the life is not focused, and nothing leads up to or away from anything else. Even the paragraphs are not unified. The other, Cotton Mather: Keeper of the Puritan Conscience by Ralph and Louise Boas, is a kind of fictionalized biography. At the very outset, for example, we see the death of Richard Mather, Cotton's grandfather, through young Cotton's eyes: "In his childish mind he stored up the picture of a pious son exhorting a pious father; and with the normal child's love of imitation he projected himself into the years ahead, seeing himself a learned minister speeding his father's journey into the unknown Presence…. He, too, would be a learned man; he, too, would preach to multitudes; he, too, when he was a man, would guide his father's footsteps on the path to heaven." And in another place, "There is every reason to believe that this pamphlet was written by Cotton Mather. It may be assumed, therefore, that he was aware of the plan to present a petition to the Queen."5 So, an assumption is based on a reason to believe. These are the accustomed techniques of this book, which was probably expected to be known as a "popular" biography: guesswork, imagination and assumption, but no footnotes. It did not turn out to be popular, nor is it a dependable biography.

Many short sketches of Cotton Mather's life have been written, and most of them have been unkind. He received the worst treatment at the hands of twentieth-century writers with a strong liberal view of our history and a readiness to let their political opinions color their critical judgment. This is not true of Kenneth Murdock, who wrote a number of short sketches of Mather's life, including the one in Dictionary of American Biography, and another typical Murdock sketch in the Introduction to Selections from Cotton Mather where he makes this balanced observation: "He was human in his shortcomings, deservedly famous for his good works, and to know him well is to understand a man whose nature abounds in baffling inconsistencies, and who is the more interesting because he defies reduction to the limits of type." With this view, Murdock could have written the needed biography of Cotton Mather on the order of his Increase Mather, that excellent biography of Cotton Mather's father, though we can be grateful for his doing justice to the younger Mather by editing his great Magnalia.

Like many of the others who have written about Mather, Murdock does not always deal kindly with him but accuses him of hypocrisy and questions his integrity. This is the nub of the criticism here where Murdock makes it appear that Mather prays and fasts only to prove something: "He knew how his grandfathers had fasted and prayed, and he strove to outdo them, in a rather too conscious effort to prove that in him the fire burned as brightly as in the saints of the past."6 In every particular his action is challenged or his integrity questioned. Those who have written of him in the past one hundred years say, and Mather would readily admit it, that in leading the 1689 rebellion he was not really concerned with traditional English liberties, but with traditional puritan religion. They say that when he became an advocate of religious toleration, he did so only because it became expedient; that his conduct during and after the witchcraft trials was dishonorable; that his efforts to restore theocracy were tireless and offensive; and that his diary (which he edited and revised for others to see) reveals a person of the greatest vanity. In addition these writers find everywhere in his writing a discrepancy between the motives he claims and those which, they say, are his obvious real motives.

It is not surprising then, given these beliefs, to find these writers saying some most intemperate things about Cotton Mather. Parrington, in the short chapter he contributes to Mather in Main Currents of American Thought, is vituperative. Of course for Parrington good and bad writers are easy to differentiate: good writers contributed to the liberal social and economic development of the United States, while bad writers opposed it. Mediocre writers ignored it. Cotton Mather must have opposed this development vigorously to cause Parrington to say:

What a crooked and diseased mind lay back of those eyes that were forever spying out occasions to magnify self! He grovels in proud selfabasement. He distorts the most obvious reality. His mind is clogged with the strangest miscellany of truth and marvel. He labors to acquire the possessions of a scholar, but he listens to old wives' tales with greedy avidity. In all his mental processes the solidest fact falls into fantastic perspective. He was earnest to do good, he labored to put into effect hundreds of "Good devices," but he walked always in his own shadow. His egotism blots out charity and even the divine mercy.7

Such pictures of Cotton Mather are not accurate, yet it is hard to see how the record became so confused. However it began, it began early. In his own time Cotton Mather was a controversial man. He was involved in the politics of the Bay Colony and the politics of Harvard College. Either of these activities could assure a man some enemies, and Mather probably made more than his share, for he was hottempered and quick to say what he thought. There were other controversies, too, and he seemed to be drawn to them. The most violent of them he started, and it brings only honor to him. During an epidemic of smallpox he inoculated his children, advocated inoculation for everyone, and introduced this medical innovation into the New World. The controversy boiled, and he demonstrated great courage in the face of it. The fever this issue created was greater than that caused by the smallpox. It even caused someone to throw a granado, a bomb, through his window with a note attached which sounded almost as if it had been written by one of his twentieth-century critics: "Cotton Mather, you Dog; Dam you: I'll inoculate you with this, with a pox to you."8 It also caused someone, two centuries later, to write a little book, a fine but very specialized study published in 1954, called Cotton Mather: First Significant Figure in American Medicine. The bomb did him little harm, the book did him little good, but the controversy made for Cotton Mather a bitter enemy. This enemy, Dr. William Douglas, during the rest of Mather's life and for twenty years after his death dedicated himself to reviling every aspect of Mather's public life. Douglas, the only man in the colony with a medical degree, had opposed inoculation and lost, but he succeeded during the eighteenth century in getting his view of Cotton Mather accepted as the record.

In the eighteenth century and after, those who did not wish Cotton Mather well can be found in another and somewhat surprising place. Harvard men, and we must remember that they dominated the literary scene in New England for a long time, looked upon Mather as one who had done a disservice to their alma mater. He was a stalwart advocate of orthodoxy at Harvard, and when he was sure that it had gone finally wrong, he shifted his allegiance to Yale. He solicited funds for that institution from the wealthy merchant, Elihu Yale, and succeeded in getting the college named after him. Harvard men to the time of Wendell held the position that Mather was an alumnus in whom they took little pride.

During the nineteenth century interest in Mather as a literary figure tended to decline, although some of his writings were still available. Alan Heimert has this to say about the view of Mather in the last century: "James Russell Lowell had in 1860 set down Mather as the most 'pedantic' representative of a New England which had become soon after the Restoration 'narrow in thought, in culture, in creed.'"9 Little has been done to this day to alter that judgment among those writing about literature, although in the Literary History of the United States, Kenneth Murdock speaks with respect of Cotton Mather's control and versatility of style in his various writings.

When The Diary of Cotton Mather was published by the Massachusetts Historical Society, a derogatory essay was written as a preface by the editor, Worthington Chauncey Ford, in which he says of Mather that there is "much to repel and little to attract."10 Ford is critical of Mather's efforts to get his work published which he refers to as a "regular manufacture of matter for the press." But to see Mather thoroughly rebuked for his publishing, we must turn to Parrington again: "With a very lust for printer's ink, he padded his bibliography like a college professor seeking promotion; but in spite of all the prayers poured out in behalf of them, they would seem for the most part to have been little more than tuppenny tracts, stuffed with a sodden morality, that not even an angel could make literature of."" Mather was a prolific writer; more than four hundred of his works were published, most of them sermons or collections of sermons. His detractors criticize him for the number of his publications, his artful method of getting some of them published, and his practice of giving his books away, often without identifying the giver.

Cotton Mather's propensity for seeing visions also disturbed Ford and others. Here is how Ford speaks of them: "Believing himself to be a favorite of God, he established communication with Deity, either through agency of an angel or even more directly, and received encouragements which fortunately he was unable to express in human language, and which became little less than ridiculous in his attempts to express them, unless allowance is made for his physical and mental condition."12 Ford and others are not at all sure that Mather did see visions, and even if he did, they feel it only served to feed an already overdeveloped vanity. Most of the writers attribute the visions to the severe strain he put on an emotional and physical system not strong enough to stand up under it. Some writers attribute Mather's visions to oversexuality coupled with a puritan repression. Whatever it was, Cotton Mather made much less of the visions than do those who write of him.

Two honors which pleased Cotton Mather very much came to him in his late forties, but about both of them he was much abused in his own time. Those who abused him were his opponents in church, colony, and college politics, and the written attacks then made have been used by later writers to belittle his achievements. The first honor was the awarding of a degree of Doctor of Divinity by Glasgow University, and even before he had become accustomed to seeing the D.D. after his name someone had written a poem beginning, "The mad enthusiast, thirsting after fame." The degree was followed two years later by his election to the Royal Society. He had begun as a medical student and had maintained an interest in science, evident in his position on inoculation. Through some bungling his name was left off Royal Society membership lists, though he was a member, and this fact was used by his enemies to discredit him as though he had falsely claimed the honor. The Royal Society called a special meeting to rectify the error.

It may be said that in our time little has been written about him, and that what has been written has been unfair to Cotton Mather, and in addition, that his biographies are not particularly well done. One reason for all this might be that, despite the great number of things he wrote, Cotton Mather left little of value to a biographer. His biographers must rely heavily on Samuel Sewall's Diary and other records for basic facts about his life. Mather's own diary does not tell the biographers what they need to know.

Cotton Mather began keeping the diary in 1681 and continued it for forty-four years. He began each year on February 12, his birthday, and recorded throughout the year pious thoughts, good intentions, references to personal and family problems, and allusions to events of local or historical importance. All thoughts, intentions, references, and allusions are of equal importance in the diary, for all are concerned with the war between God and Satan in which Cotton Mather is very much concerned, and in which he sees himself as a central figure.

The diary was in manuscript until 1911 and 1912, and at that time the Massachusetts Historical Society published all known manuscripts. That publication contained the diaries for twenty-three years and was published again in 1957. Neither of these publications included the diary for 1712 which was thought to be lost until it turned up at a book sale in 1919. It was published separately in 1964.13

Cotton Mather's intention in keeping the diary seems to have been to leave a record of his times for his children, and doubtless he fully expected others to read what he had written. He left a record of what he was and what he wanted to be, but not a record of what he did. Nor did he leave a record, as historians are chagrined to learn, which sheds much light on his time. His references to people and events are vague and abstract. He seems to have an aversion to writing down people's names, substituting "my kinsman in the Indian service" or "my wife's brother's eldest nephew" and for specific events refers to "catastrophes" and "enormities." Some of these "enormities" can be understood from a reading of Sewall's Diary for the same period.

A criticism often made of Cotton Mather is that he wrote in a style fantastically ornate, loaded down in some grotesque way with puns and rhetorical flourishes. This criticism cannot be made of the diary, however, which is direct and unadorned, even telegraphic. Nor for that matter can it be said of some of his other writing; The Christian Philosopher, for example, is in a fine eighteenth-century style. Some of his critics also make much of the fact that Mather copied the diary over, as though his purpose was to expurgate. Actually only the diary for the years before 1711 was copied over, and what comes later differs little. He wrote less after 1711, but only because he felt the diary took more time than it deserved.

An increasingly large part of the later diary is devoted to "Goods Devised." Each day Cotton Mather recorded an intention to perform some good action according to a formula which assigns to each day of the week a beneficiary for this attention. For Sunday (labeled 1 G. D. in his diary), his good devised will benefit his flock; Monday (2 G. D.), his family; Tuesday (3 G. D.), alternating between relatives abroad and personal enemies; Wednesday, benefit to other people or in the country; Thursday, the societies; Friday, objects of compassion; and Saturday he devotes himself to the question: What remains for the Kingdom of God in my own heart and life?14

Despite its inadequacies the diary would seem to be a chief resource for the biographer, as it was for Barrett Wendell; but William Manierre, editor of The Diary of Cotton Mather for the Year 1712, says that it is "precisely in his diary that Mather looks least attractive." Manierre says that this results from the changing "world view" in which Mather looks unattractive from the "perspective of that newer complex of chilling thought and disillusion which Joseph Wood Krutch calls 'the modern temper.""15

To see Mather in an attractive perspective, then, would require of us a sweeping historical adjustment. We may not in the twentieth century be capable of understanding Cotton Mather's "world view." Without questioning his sincerity, integrity, or motives, we would have to sympathize, to use an older meaning of that word, with a man who believed in a very strenuous Christian religion, not only on Sunday, but all day—all week; who believed in visions and witches; and in a very real black man with a black book. And he believed all this along with many other intelligent and educated people. In many ways he had a very uncomfortable religion; this makes it hard for us to understand the religion or the man.

If one can make the historical adjustment, he may find Cotton Mather more attractive. The prayers for his enemies, for instance, and they have disturbed many of his critics, might not seem like hypocrisy. Here is a typical one:

An horrid fellow, who is one of the wickedest of men, formerly made me the object of his malice, and his fury, and his libels. He has lately endeavored a cursed slander, and a subornation of mischief, against a pious and faithful magistrate, my very good friend Mr. Bromfield…. Having him with me in my study, we together entered before the Lord, our complaint concerning that child of Belial. We first forgave him and renounced with abhorrence all thoughts of a personal revenge upon him. We asked the Lord to forgive him and make him a new creature.16

The writers so critical of Cotton Mather think the intemperate language used on his enemies while praying for them is hypocrisy, but one wonders how many pray for their enemies in any language. Cotton Mather also made a practice of praying for people who did not know he was praying for them. He prayed for people sitting at a meeting, or at dinner, or just walking along the street. When he saw a tall man he said, "Lord, give that man high attainments in Christianity; let him fear God above many," or a lame man, "Lord, help that man to walk upright," or a Negro, "Lord, wash that poor soul white in the blood of thy Son."17

There can be seen here and elsewhere a kind of generous spirit and a readiness to do God's work that does not come through in his biographies and does not correlate with the abuse heaped upon Cotton Mather by Parrington and others. Nor do the biographers portray a man who was obviously a successful pastor genuinely liked by his congregation and much in demand as as preacher. He was often requested by condemned murderers to preach their last sermon to them. His biographers never describe him as a pleasant companion, although several of his contemporaries say he was good company. He is painted as a man unsympathetic to the aspirations of youth and intolerant of their feelings, but this is not Benjamin Franklin's picture of him, or his own picture of his relationship with his children and others. He was apparently most successful in instructing children and popular enough with them to be prevailed upon by a Society of Pious Children to permit them to meet in his library.

So then, let us put Cotton Mather down as one who loved God and his neighbors, but loved God more. Under the puritan rubrics there was no alternative to this, for man was depraved. This puritan view led Cotton Mather to acts of uncharitable piety, but to many more acts of pious charity, and to countless acts of good plain generosity. At one time he was giving financial assistance to as many as ninety charity cases among his relatives, friends, church members, and even those he considered enemies of God. If this generosity is dimmed by what the writers call boasting, blurting, sneering, gloating and shrieking in retrospective adulation of the old order, it is because he thought the old order was the way of God. As a puritan pastor it was his duty to exert a leadership in every facet of the colony's life to insure that he and others found that way. His uncharitable piety is the quality most often remembered by those who write of him. This is not surprising; in any time those who loved God more than they loved their neighbors are misunderstood by their neighbors and probably misinterpreted by history.


1 Barrett Wendell, Cotton Mather, The Puritan Priest (New York, 1963), p. 4.

2 Samuel Eliot Morison, Harvard College in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, 1936), I, 82-83. For another view of the matter see David Levine, "The Hazing of Cotton Mather," New England Quarterly XXXVI (June, 1963), 147-171.

3 Perry Miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (Cambridge, 1953), p. 357.

4 Kenneth B. Murdock, ed., Selections from Cotton Mather (New York, n.d.), p. ix.

5 Ralph and Louise Boas, Cotton Mather, Keeper of the Puritan Conscience (New York, 1928), pp. 2-3.

6 Murdock, xiv.

7 Vernon L. Parrington, Main Currents of American Thought, I, (New York, 1927), 110-111.

8 Murdock, xxii.

9 Alan Heimert, in Wendell p. xvi. Heimert adds that this judgment was upheld by M. C. Tyler in his A History of American Literature: 1607-1765.

10 Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., Diary of Cotton Mather, 2 vol. (Boston, 1911-12), xix.

11 Parrington, 112.

12 Ford, xix.

13 William R. Manierre II, ed., The Diary of Cotton Mather for the Year 1712 (Charlottesville, 1964).

14Diary II, 24-28.

15 Manierre, xvii.

16Diary for 1712, 29.

17Diary II, 481.

Richard H. Werking (essay date 1972)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4637

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 in the Salem affair.1 Charles W. Upham, politician and Unitarian minister at Salem in the mid-nineteenth century, was particularly vociferous in his attacks on the Puritan clergy in general and Cotton Mather in particular. He accused Mather of "getting up" the Salem tragedy by publicizing a case of witchcraft that occurred in Boston in 1688; attempting to revive the matter after the Salem trials had ended by zealously and credulously attempting to cure persons allegedly victimized by witches; urging the magistrates to continue the prosecution of witches when he drafted the advice of the clergy to the judges; and failing to put forth effort to stop the witch trials, instead writing an exoneration of the judges in October 1692. Other historians, among them George Bancroft, George L. Burr, Justin Winsor, George Moore, and James Truslow Adams, have been sympathetic to Upham's charges.2

As Chadwick Hansen has recently pointed out, such has remained the popular view of Mather's place in the history of Salem witchcraft, due largely to the influence of Bancroft's work.3 This view has persisted in the face of repeated attempts by historians to place Mather in a more favorable light. W. F. Poole challenged Upham's accounts on more than one occasion in the nineteenth century, and others have followed him, among them Josiah Quincy, Barrett Wendell, Kenneth B. Murdock, Samuel Eliot Morison, and, of course, Hansen himself.4 Hansen in particular successfully defends Mather against the greater number of the accusations, showing that witchcraft was frightfully real to virtually all the residents of New England and not just to Cotton Mather, that Mather was not responsible for the outbreak of the witchcraft incidents in the first place, that he advised the judges to be extremely cautious in the use of the all-important "spectral evidence," and that he used considerable caution in his own dealings with persons whom he was attempting to cure of witchcraft's effects.5

Despite the considerable heat generated by debate over the degree of Cotton Mather's "guilt" or "innocence," something remains less than fully clarified.6 We still do not know just what Mather intended his connection with the witchcraft episode to be, or why it was what it was. In other words, why did this Boston minister, who managed not to attend a single witch trial at Salem, insinuate himself so actively into the affair in the manner that he did?7 An explanation lies in his experience with the Boston witchcraft case of 1688 and in the way he viewed his role within the context of the Puritan mission in late seventeenth-century Massachusetts.

In the eyes of the Puritan clergy, the latter decades of the century were a troubled time for the colony of Massachusetts Bay. Perry Miller has demonstrated very well the anxiety of the ministers and their increasing reliance upon the jeremiad to steer the straying colonists onto God's path.8 King Philip's War in 1675-1676 and the crown's attacks upon the colony's charter appeared as examples of divine wrath turned upon a spiritually declining people. "The countrey is Distress'd in many points," wrote Cotton Mather in 1686. "Wee are in great Hazard of losing our Colledge…. The Charters of our Colonies are in Extreme Danger also to be lost."9

According to the clergy, the great danger—and the cause for divine displeasure—was increasing secularization in the life of the colony and the consequent loss of religious zeal.10 In order to reverse this trend a number of the clergy stressed the necessity of continually reminding the people of the existence of the spiritual world and of its close connection with the material world. Joseph Glanvill and other English writers had been calling for the collection of remarkable occurrences in order to confound the secularists. "Modern relations" of such events, Glanvill wrote in 1661, "being fresh, and near, … it may be expected they should have more success upon the obstinacy of Unbelievers.""11 At a conference of the ministers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1681, Increase Mather and others repeated Glanvill's plea. Three years later, Increase published his An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences…. (better known as Remarkable Providences), in which he recorded, among other things, miraculous sea rescues, "strange apparitions," "witchcrafts," [and] "diabolical possessions."12 He intended it to be only the first in a succession of similar projects, for he explained: "In this essay I design no more than a specimen; and having (by the good hand of God upon me) set this wheel a going, I shall leave it unto others, whom God has fitted and shall incline thereto, to go on with the undertaking."13

Although the story thus far is familiar to anyone acquainted with the Salem episode, the activity that had occurred is important in explaining Cotton Mather's interest in and behavior toward the witchcraft cases, for the younger Mather would be most industrious in keeping the "wheel a going." In March 1681 he had already recorded in his diary his five most important daily duties which involved not only prayer and meditation but also the duty "to be diligent in observing and recording of illustrious Providences"14 Then, in 1688, he became prominent in the handling of the Boston witchcraft case, another well-known story. Briefly, Mather and several other ministers prayed with and for the children of John Goodwin, who had become subject to hysterical fits. When Goodwin swore out a complaint against an old woman in the neighborhood, Goody Glover, the authorities searched her house and found small images made of rags and goat hair, which in their eyes furnished evidence that she was a practicing witch.15 She confessed her guilt and received a sentence of death after being declared compos mentis by several doctors. Cotton Mather attempted to pray with her, but she refused to repent and embrace the covenant.16

Glover's execution did not halt the afflictions of the Goodwin children—an important point. They continued to suffer for some time, while Mather diligently prayed and fasted with them. He did not feel it necessary to seek out possible suspects, since he thought "we should be tender in such Relations, lest we wrong the Reputation of the Innocent by stories not enough enquired into."17 Eventually the fits left the children, and Mather gave the credit to particular techniques. "Prayer and Faith," he concluded, "was the thing which drove the Divils from the Children."18

Mather's account of the case, entitled Memorable Providences, consciously followed the work of other recorders of the spirit world's manifestations, including his father and Joseph Glanvill:

I can with a Contentment beyond meer Patience give these … Sheets unto the Stationer, when I see what pains Mr. Baxter, Mr. Glanvill, Dr. More, and several other Great Names have taken to publish Histories of Witchcrafts and Possessions unto the world. I said, Let me also run after them; and this with the more Alacrity because, I have tidings ready. Go then, my little Book, as a Lackey to the more elaborate Essayes of those learned men. Go tell Mankind, that there are Devils and Witches…. Go tell the world, What Prayers can do beyond all Devils and Witches….19

Seemingly his propensity to witness and record evidence of witchcraft made Mather more zealous than the other ministers in his efforts to help the Goodwin children.20

This twin desire to seek out and register examples of witchcraft while at the same time using the techniques of prayer, fasting, and caution also motivated Cotton Mather during the witchcraft outbreak at Salem in 1692. As he had done in the Goodwin case, he asked that he might take some of the afflicted children into his own home.21 This time he was not permitted to handle matters as he wished, and after October 1692, when he wrote the defense of a court which had tried the accused witches, his reputation suffered a blow from which it has not yet recovered.

Historians have since debated Mather's responsibility for the Salem tragedy without emphasizing the dual nature of his conduct. Defenders have continually pointed to Mather's frequent advice for caution, especially regarding the crucial question of spectral evidence. Accusers have denounced what they consider to have been his credulity in believing in witches, his zeal in seeking them out (including two communications to the judges urging them to be zealous), and his defense of the court. That both interpretations are possible suggests an ambiguity that has often gone unnoticed.22 If people were to renew the covenant, they had to be reminded of the nearness of the spiritual world, and no opportunity should be lost in doing so.23 But at the same time, a good deal of caution had to be used toward those accused of witchcraft. Here was a delicate balance, which Mather was able to maintain when he himself was investigating presumed witchcrafts, but which disintegrated when he was not. His obsession with this balance is evident in a number of his writings connected with the witch trials.

Cotton Mather's letter to his friend Judge John Richards on May 31, just before the trials began, is a most revealing document. As historians have repeatedly shown, he urged Richards to be very cautious regarding spectral evidence. At the same time, he told the judge that "the indefatigable paines that are used for the tracing [of] this Witchcraft are to be thankfully accepted, and applauded among all this people of God." The most direct proof of guilt for Mather was a confession, and toward the end of the letter he suggested:

It is worth considering, whether there be a necessity alwayes by Extirpations by Halter or fagott, [ ] every wretched creature, that shall be hooked into some degrees of Witchcraft. What if some of the lesser Criminalls, be onely scourged with lesser punishments, and also put upon some solemn, open, Publike and Explicitt renunciation of the Divil? I am apt to thinke that the Divels would then cease afflicting the neighbor-hood…. Or what if the death of some of the offenders were either diverted or inflicted, according to the successe of such their renunciation.

But I find my free thoughts, thus freely layd before your Honour, begin to have too much freedome in them. I shall now therefore adde no more….24

It was evidently more important to Mather that the reality of witches be made apparent and the covenant renewed than that witches be executed. He later returned to this theme.

In mid-June The Return of Several Ministers … was delivered to the court, which had paused to ask the advice of the clergy. One accused witch had been tried and executed, and the court was recessed temporarily. The Return, written by Cotton Mather,25 is probably the best-known document dealing with the Salem episode and has been reprinted frequently. Yet virtually every historian who has commented on it has ignored the subtlety of some key paragraphs in it.26 After discussing the suffering of the afflicted in the first paragraph, Mather wrote:

We cannot but with all Thankfulness acknowledge, the Success which the merciful God has given unto the sedulous and assiduous Endeavours of our honourable Rulers, to detect the abominable Witchcrafts which have been committed in the Country; humbly praying that the discovery of these mysterious and mischievous Wickednesses may be perfected.

We judge that in the prosecution of these, and all such Witchcrafts, there is need of a very critical and exquisite Caution, lest by too much Credulity for things received only upon the Devil's Authority, there be a Door opened for a long Train of miserable Consequences, and Satan get an advantage over us, for we should not be ignorant of his Devices.

Paragraphs four through seven continued the emphasis on caution, but Mather concluded:

Nevertheless, We cannot but humbly recommend unto the Government, the speedy and vigorous Prosecution of such as have rendred themselves obnoxious, according to the Direction given in the Laws of God, and the wholesome Statutes of the English Nation, for the Detection of Witchcrafts.

It is apparently the second and final paragraphs which have been the basis of the charge that Mather and the other clergymen "approved, applauded, and stimulated the prosecutions."27 But the second paragraph did no such thing. What Mather praised was the effort to "detect" and "discover" witchcrafts. The third paragraph began the discussion of prosecution, which was something else again, and the language was that of extreme caution. The final paragraph did urge the prosecution of persons, but only "such as have rendred themselves obnoxious," i.e., "liable to punishment or censure; guilty, blameworthy."28 Cotton Mather was praising the zealous investigation of the spiritual world in order to confound atheists and inject religious zeal, but he was simultaneously urging great caution in the handling of suspected witches encountered in the course of such activity.29

A letter in August to John Foster, member of the governor's council, demonstrates the same pattern. Cotton Mather, although more complimentary toward the judges than the language in his two communications to them might indicate, offered a way out of the increasingly bloody business at Salem.30 He suggested that perhaps "a famous divine or two" might be appointed to the court, as had occurred during an outbreak of witchcraft in England in 1645. One of the ministers, Mather told Foster, "did preach two sermons to the court before his first sitting on the bench, wherein having first proved the existence of witches he afterwards showed the evil of endeavoring the conviction of any upon defective evidence. The sermon had the effect that none were condemned who could be saved without an express breach of the law. And then, though 'twas possible some guilty did escape, yet the troubles of those places were, I think, extinguished."31 As when he had offered to take some of the afflicted children into his home, Mather was very anxious to keep his own hand on affairs.

Nevertheless, the desire for caution did not slow Mather's own quest for evidence of the diabolical. The next year he went to Salem to collect as much information as he could on the witchcrafts, because such an account "might in a while bee a singular Benefit unto the Church, and unto the World."32 By this time he had already been investigating similar phenomena in Boston. First Mercy Short, and later Margaret Rule, seemed to be victims of witchcraft. Circumstances allowed Mather to repeat the procedure he had followed with the Goodwin children: praying and fasting with the young women, suppressing as unfounded the accusations against various persons, and writing accounts of both cases. He himself published neither account but merely circulated them among his friends.33 Toward the conclusion of the Margaret Rule narrative, Mather spelled out what he viewed as the result of his activity: "The Devil got just nothing; but God got praises, Christ got subjects, the Holy Spirit got Temples, the Church got Addition, and the Souls of Men got everlasting Benefits; I am not so vain as to say that any Wisdome or Vertue of mine did contribute unto this good order of things: But I am so just, as to say I did not hinder this Good."34

This essentially was Mather's goal, and it was not necessary that witches be apprehended and executed in order to carry it out. Glover's execution did not end the Goodwin children's torment, but it seemed that prayer and fasting did. If witches happened to be apprehended, Mather hoped they would confess. Indeed, he wrote Richards that it was not so great a crime for these "wretched creatures" to be "hooked in" by the Devil as it was to fail to confess.35 If the accused were to confess and renounce the Devil "openly and publicly," perhaps the people would be made aware of their reliance upon God, the churches, and the ministers. Mather outlined the procedure in The Wonders of the Invisible World:

With a Great Zeal, we should lay hold on the Covenant of God, that we may secure Us and Ours, from the Great Wrath, with which the Devil Rages. Let us come into the Covenant of Grace, and then we shall not be hook'd into a Covenant with the Devil, nor be altogether unfurnished with Armour, against the Witches that are in that Covenant…. While others have had their Names Entred in the Devils Book; let our Names be found in the Church Book…. So many of the Rising Generation, utterly forgetting the Errand of our Fathers to build Churches in this Wilderness,… 'tis as likely as any one thing to procure the swarmings of Witch Crafts among us.36

Such a renewal of the covenant was presumably the colony's only hope. As Mather put it more succinctly a few pages earlier, "Reformation is … our only Preservation."37

We can, then, understand Cotton Mather's role at Salem only within the context of the temper of Massachusetts in the late seventeenth century and of Mather's own feeling that the spirit of the people was in decline. Not only did he feel constrained to protect the judges' reputations, but he also tried to keep the spiritual world a reality by reporting instances of witchcraft at the same time that he sought to protect persons accused in the process. Others were either less interested or less successful in maintaining that balance.


1 Robert Calef, More Wonders of the Invisible World … (1700), in Samuel G. Drake, comp., The Witchcraft Delusion in New England … (Roxbury, Mass., 1866), II and III, passim; Chadwick Hansen, Witchcraft at Salem (New York, 1969), esp. ix-xiv, 95-102, 171-172, 194-195.

2 Charles W. Upham, Lectures on Witchcraft, … (Boston, 1831), 103, 106-115, 184; Upham, Salem Witchcraft; With An Account of Salem Village …, II (Boston, 1867), 366-369, 487, 503; Upham, "Salem Witchcraft and Cotton Mather," Historical Magazine, 2d Ser., VI (Sept. 1869), 129-219; George Bancroft, History of the United States of America …, rev. ed., II (New York, 1891), 53-54, 62; George L. Burr, ed., Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648-1706 (New York, 1914), 141n, 379n; Justin Winsor, "The Literature of Witchcraft in New England," American Antiquarian Society, Proceedings, N. S., X (1895), 351-373; George H. Moore, "Notes on the Bibliography of Witchcraft in Massachusetts," ibid., V (1887-1888), 262-267; James Truslow Adams, The Founding of New England (Boston, 1921), 454-455.

3 Hansen gives a good general outline of the evolution of the anti-Mather line. Witchcraft at Salem, xi-xiv.

4 W. F. Poole, "Cotton Mather and Salem Witchcraft," North American Review, CVIII (Apr. 1869), 337-397; Poole, "Witchcraft at Boston," in Justin Winsor, ed., The Memorial History of Boston …, II (Boston, 1886), 131-172; Josiah P. Quincy, "Cotton Mather and the Supernormal in New England History," Massachusetts Historical Society, Proceedings, 2d Ser., XX (1906-1907), 439-453; Barrett Wendell, Cotton Mather, The Puritan Priest (New York, 1891), Chap. 6; Kenneth B. Murdock, Increase Mather: The Foremost American Puritan (Cambridge, Mass., 1925), Chap. 17; Samuel Eliot Morison, The Intellectual Life of Colonial New England (New York, 1956; publ. in 1936 as The Puritan Pronaos: Studies in the Intellectual Life of New England in the Seventeenth Century), 258-259, 263-264. Perry Miller's analysis, whose conclusions correspond with many of my own, falls between the two "schools." See The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (Cambridge, Mass., 1953), Chaps. 10, 11, 13.

5 More than once Mather received the names of suspected witches, but he kept such information to himself. Hansen, Witchcraft at Salem, 23-24, 179.

6 As John Demos has observed recently, the historiography of Salem has been devoted principally to judging the participants and affixing blame. "Underlying Themes in the Witchcraft of Seventeenth-Century New England," American Historical Review, LXXV (1969-1970), 1311-1312.

7 Although he was not in attendance at the trials, some historians have speculated that he may have attended one or more of the pretrial examinations. Upham, "Salem Witchcraft," Hist. Mag., 2d Ser., VI (Sept. 1869), 162; Burr, ed., Narratives, 214n.

8 Miller, New England Mind, Chap. 2.

9The Mather Papers (Massachusetts Historical Society, Collections, 4th Ser., VIII [Boston, 1868]), 389. Hereafter cited as Mather Papers. An editorial note gives 1686 as the "probable" date of this paper.

10 Miller, New England Mind, 49; Worthington C. Ford, ed., Diary of Cotton Mather, 1681-1708 (Mass. Hist. Soc., Collections, 7th Ser., VII [Boston, 1911]), xviii. Hereafter cited as Mather, Diary.

11 Burr, ed., Narratives, 5. English writers engaged in this activity included Richard Baxter, Henry More, and Matthew Poole. See also George L. Burr, "New England's Place in the History of Witchcraft," Amer. Antiquarian Soc., Proceedings, N. S., XXI (1911), 185-217.

12 (Boston, 1684; reprinted London, 1856, as Remarkable Providences Illustrative of the Earlier Days of American Colonisation), Preface, n.p. See also Robert Middlekauff, The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals (New York, 1971), 143-148.


14 Mather, Diary, 4-5. Hansen in particular tends to see Cotton as more the dispassionate observer than the Puritan minister investigating for a vital purpose. While he is certainly correct in pointing out that Mather was not "a witch hunter" and that he was "a witchcraft scholar," a more precise term would be "witchcraft hunter." Witchcraft at Salem, 172. As Perry Miller wrote some time ago, to call Mather's work an "inductive investigation … allows us to suppose the incredible: that, at the moment Mather and his colleagues were engaged in a struggle for existence, they idly embarked upon a collection of curiosal" New England Mind, 143.

15 One of Hansen's chief points is that there were at least several women in the colony actually practicing witchcraft through image-magic. He argues that, like voodoo, this often worked, since the target of the witch's ill will believed that it did. Witchcraft at Salem, x, xiv-xv, 10-11, 22-23, 70, 81-86, 219, 226.

16 As Mather related, "I Sett before her the Necessity and Equity of her breaking her Covenant with Hell, and giving her self to the Lord Jesus Christ, by an everlasting Covenant; To which her Answer was, that I spoke a very Reasonable thing, but she could not do it." Mather, Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions … (1689), in Burr, ed., Narratives, 106.

17Ibid., 107.

18Ibid., 126.

19Ibid., 98-99.

20 John Goodwin related how "Mr. Mather particularly … not only pray's with us, and for us, but he taketh one of my Children home to his own house; … a troublesome guest, for such an one that had so much work lying upon his hands and heart." Goodwin went on, in the classic pattern of the jeremiad, to thank God for the affliction which had cleansed him of sin and had effected a renewal of the covenant. The lesson was plain: "The Lord help us to see by this Visitation, what need we have to get shelter under the wing of Christ, to hast to the Rock, where we may be safe." Ibid., 129-131.

21 Mather, Diary, 151-152.

22 Perry Miller's account of Mather's activity is the one which most successfully pinpoints his agonizingly ambiguous situation. New England Mind, Chap. 13.

23 Cotton observed in his diary for early 1692 that a great "Lethargy" lay on the land, and that the churches needed to be awakened. Mather, Diary, 144-146.

24 Cotton Mather to John Richards, May 31, 1692, Mather Papers, 392, 393, 396-397. Cf. Mather's opinion some three years earlier: "That the Grace of God may be admired, and that the worst of Sinners may be encouraged, Behold, Witchcraft also has found a Pardon…. From the Hell of Witchcraft our merciful Jesus can fetch a guilty Creature to the Glory of Heaven. Our Lord hath sometimes Recovered those who have in the most horrid manner given themselves away to the Destroyer of their souls." Memorable Providences, in Burr, ed., Narratives, 135. Burr himself quoted a portion of the above passage of the letter to Richards, remarking that the failure to execute a single confessing witch was "the most striking feature of the Salem trials." Ibid., 374n.

25 Mather, Diary, 151.

26 Kenneth B. Murdock was an exception. Increase Mather, 295n. The text of the Return is taken from David Levin, ed., What Happened in Salem? Documents Pertaining to the 17th-Century Witchcraft Trials (New York, 1952), 160-162.

27 Upham, Salem Witchcraft, II, 368. Barrett Wendell felt that it was this document more than anything else which had prompted historians to burden Mather with the charge of urging "judicial murder." Cotton Mather, 98-99.

28Oxford English Dictionary.

29 For obvious reasons, I cannot agree with Hansen when he says that paragraphs three through seven constituted "the heart of this document." Witchcraft at Salem, 125. This communication was considerably more cautious than the author's letter to Richards. In that document Mather had allowed several methods of inquiry that were specifically rejected in the Return, as well as the infamous water test for witches. Hansen contends that it was the presence of Increase at the meeting of the clergy (which authorized the document) that made for the yet more cautionary tone. Ibid. He may be correct, but another explanation suggests itself as well. By mid-June, a witch trial had been held and the accused executed without a confession forthcoming. Perhaps the younger Mather now had less confidence in the judges' ability and wisdom than he had possessed previously and thus sought to limit the methods he had then sanctioned more freely.

30 When addressing themselves solely to the judges, the clergy were more outspoken in their advice for caution than they were when addressing others. As Mather recorded in his diary, "Tho' I could not allow the Principles, that some of the Judges had espoused, yett I could not but speak honourably of their Persons, on all Occasions." Mather, Diary, 151. Similarly, in early August the ministers appeared to be backing away from their stronger stand of June, again in a message meant for persons other than the judges. As Hansen very perceptively observes, the pursuit of consensus by the ministers and magistrates was all-important. Real differences had to be glossed over, for if such dissension broke out, it would be an admission that "the Massachusetts way of life was … a failure." Witchcraft at Salem, 137.

31 Hansen, Witchcraft at Salem, 143. Cf. Mather's account of a sermon he had delivered the previous May concerning religious dissenters, in which he had cautioned against "the Persecution of erroneous and conscientious Dissenters, by the civil Magistrate, " because he "feared, that the Zeal of my Countrey had formerly had in it more Fire than should have been." Mather, Diary, 149.

32 Mather, Diary, 171.

33A Brand Pluck'd Out of the Burning (1693), in Burr, ed., Narratives, 253-287; Another Brand Plucked Out of the Burning … (1693), in Drake, comp., Witchcraft Delusion, II, 23-48.

34 Mather, Another Brand, in Drake, comp., Witchcraft Delusion, II, 47.

35 George L. Haskins has emphasized that confession and repentance were an important part of legal theory in 17th-century Massachusetts. He argues that the most important and striking influence of the Puritans upon the law can be found in their emphasis on "moral persuasion in order to reform the offender" rather than on retribution. Law and Authority in Early Massachusetts, A Study in Tradition and Design (New York, 1960), 204. See also 91-92, 121, 209-212; Hansen, Witchcraft at Salem, 123; Miller, New England Mind, 180, 197, 199. One critical observer of the witch trials noted, too, that the judges were upset when the accused showed no tears of remorse. Thomas Brattle to—, Oct. 8, 1692, Mass. Hist. Soc., Collections, 1st Ser., V (Boston, 1798), 67. But the importance of a confession of guilt and a reaffirmation of established values has not been confined solely to residents of colonial Massachusetts. Witness the amount of praise that has been heaped on Samuel Sewall, one of the trial judges, for his public confession in 1697. Bancroft, History of the U. S., II, 66; Morison, Intellectual Life, 164-165; Marion Starkey, The Devil in Massachusetts, A Modern Inquiry into the Salem Witch Trials (New York, 1949), 272-274; Charles A. and Mary R. Beard, The Rise of American Civilization, I (New York, 1927), 150.

36 Cotton Mather, The Wonders of the Invisible World … (London, 1862), 101-102; Middlekauff, The Mathers, 160.

37 Mather, Wonders of the Invisible World, 95.

Sacvan Bercovitch (essay date 1972)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7194

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 capitulation to Arminianism or as a conscious transition from piety to moralism. Undoubtedly, they were so adapted later in the eighteenth century, but we ought not to burden the author with the sins of his readers. He held adamantly to Orthodox Calvinism, the system erected by the master's Swiss, Dutch, and English disciples, which, despite basic modifications, built upon the notions of man's depravity and impotency. A year before his death, Mather denounced the Arminians as vigorously as had his grandfathers. Deism he regarded as a front organization for the atheist conspiracy. He respected the intellect, like the earlier Puritans, as a dignified but decisively limited faculty. With his father, he supported the Half-Way Covenant because he believed it carried forward the theocracy's original design. When he directed the saints' unconverted heirs to will themselves to heaven, he was articulating what he considered, with good reason, to be a theory indigenous to the New England Way. Virtually every major first-generation theoretician (as Increase argued impressively in 1675) had assumed that church-membership tests reliably segregated the sheep from the goats, and that, for the most part, the line of election ran "through the loins of godly parents." Virtually all of them believed that the spiritual seed passed genetically from father to son. By this logic (a consequence or extension of the doctrines of preparation, visible sainthood, and providential-teleological historiography), the unconverted-but-baptised children were saved in all ways but one, their unthawed wills, just as their once-repentant-but-backsliding parents were already redeemed, though in need of corrective affliction, and just as the colonial errand, which by God's time was long since accomplished, demanded their present services.

To that unique community, and not to the world at large, Mather thundered the duty actively to seek after salvation. For them alone he stressed social responsibilities in sermons on Free-Grace Maintained (1706) and The Salvation of the Soul (1720); only before an American Puritan congregation did he claim that baptism indicates that God "has Praeingaged those Children for Himself." What elsewhere would be flat self-contradiction, what had in fact been denounced abroad as well-nigh heretical presumption, became a paradox of faith in the pulpit of Boston's North Church: "it is Grace, pure Grace that helps us; God is with you, while you are with Him"; or again: "there is a COVENANT OF GRACE; And by our Consent unto this most gracious Covenant, we are to make choice of the Great GOD for Our God, and [thereby] make sure of His being so"; or once again, at the close of a covenant-renewal ceremony: "Let us Request for, and Rely on, the Aids of Grace for a Self-Reformation" and for "ALL the [outward] Designs of Reformation; the Land mourns and fades because we have broken the everlasting Covenant. Wherefor if we would be recovered," one and all, now and ad aeternum, "tis the Covenant that must Recover us, the Covenant of Grace, which is Brought unto us all as have been Admitted unto any [!] Ecclesiastical Priviledges among us."

Mather's approach varies not so much in thought as in expression from that of his forebears: in the confident, easy sweep of his language. Yet here too the variance betokens a qualitative distinction. Transferred to the domain of letters, the struggle for a Holy Commonwealth issues in the foregone triumph of the absolute over the temporal. By means wholly of rhetoric Mather subdued reality in his political sermons and accredited himself as prophet-watchman; by those means elsewhere, especially after 1700, he integrated that role with his functions as pastor. Forced back from the political arena, he absorbed himself in the possibilities for public awakening provided in his vocation, turned increasingly to the "watchfulness in particulars" which led Samuel to say that "the Ambition and Character of my Father's life was Serviceableness," and Ben Franklin to acknowledge Mather as an inspiration for his own way to wealth, benevolence, and moral self-improvement. This tendency also underlies the familiar charge that Mather launched the national success ethos, with its unsavory alliance of grace and cash, and the popular definition of the Puritan as an inveterate meddler, driven by the fear, as Mencken put it, that someone, somewhere, might be enjoying himself.

Whatever justification these charges may have in Mencken's America, they belie the character of Mather's writings. In the first place, insofar as doing good expresses an immemorial Christian attitude (reinforced anew by the Reformation), Mather's pre-occupation reveals him as a conservative rather than an innovator. He modeled his views, as he takes pains to point out, upon scores of earlier authorities, and in this sense his sermons on serviceableness stand with his political sermons as an effort to recover the theocratic ideal. "We live in faith in our vocations," said John Cotton, "in that faith in serving God serves men, and in serving men, serves God." Secondly, judged from a practical standpoint, Mather's well-doing is genuinely well-meant. When we read of him as "a Man of Whim and Credulity," dangerously eager "to make Experiments on his Neighbours," we should remember that those phrases originated during the smallpox epidemic with the opponents of immunization. His own words suggest at least a different motivation: "They have lived longest in the world, who have done the most good in the world; whatever contributes unto the welfare of mankind, and a relief of their miseries, is to glorify God." His pastoral advice follows his precept. In sermon and treatise he urges the practice (not merely the profession) of charity, denounces the slave trade, extols the benefits of ecumenism. He instructs parents to look to their own ways before mending those of their children, and to discipline, when necessary, by example rather than brute authority. So, too, he would have teachers attend to "not only the brains, but also the souls" of their pupils, supplementing instruction with tutorials designed to bolster the student with "expectations and encouragements". He applies similar strictures to the relations between master and servant, ruler and subject, minister and layman, lawyer and client, physician and patient.

Bonifacius (1710) is Mather's classic formulation of the nature and meaning of these "essays to do good." At some level, predictably, he intended the book as an advertisement for himself. His exhortations about rising to an "afflatus that will conquer temptations," about being such "a son that the best surname for the glad father would be, the father of such an one," about responding with Christ's meekness to "vile INGRATITUDE from Communities as well as individuals"—these and many other imperatives (buttressed by quotations from his previous writings) unmistakably mirror his most private aspirations. Most telling of all in this respect is the tree image which grows into the controlling metaphor of the work. According to its preface, "to plant trees of righteousness is the hope of the book now before us"; its first section argues that "we begin to bring forth good fruit by lamenting our own unfruitfulness"; the next section explains how "to live fruitfully" for others; subsequent sections make the obligations specific: ministers must seek "pardon for unfruitfulness," the prosperous must remember that "gathering the fruit relieves the tree," the educated must share their learning like "a tree that brings forth fruit." In every instance, the delegated function becomes the means of replanting oneself, in unity with all men, within the garden of God, like the Second Adam "abounding in the fruits of well-doing."

The harvest, Mather promises, will yield blessings both in this world and the next. In light of current criticism, it needs to be re-emphasized that the promise does not mark a departure from orthodoxy. It was standard fare in the early colonial churches, intrinsic to the rationale for corporate calling and for preparation for salvation. Like his forebears, Mather circumscribed the discussion by positing first that sanctification is not a means to redemption ("Woe unto us if it were!") and then by limiting it effectually to the visible saints. "Though we are justified, yet good works are demanded of us to justify our faith," he puns; the agency of free grace compels us (in time) and, simultaneously, disposes us (from eternity) to the outward forms of Christianity. To be sure, the staggering difference between the principle and its local application—and the problematic distinction in the latter context between the virtues and vices of wealth—required delicate exposition to the world at large; his predecessors had tread warily in the realm of theory. Like them, he sought to hedge his position with traditional denunciations: "Riches are a Fine, Gay, speckled Bird; but it is a Bird in the Bush"; he who "has nothing but Gold & Silver in his mouth" is a fish swimming into "the Nets of Perdition". But because he knew that prosperity might follow the labor of the convenanted (in the New Israel above all other lands), he set his sights upon its positive ramifications; and because he could not resolve the tension between dogma and practice, between a flourishing New England as it should be and as it was, he turned as usual to rhetoric in order to dissolve it. With an effortless fluency which has shocked later theologians, he elaborated on the metaphor that the righteous are the trustees of God's world, on the parable of the bread thrown upon the waters, and on the prophecies concerning the blessed remnant. In these terms he measured the distance between the saintly rich and those who rise by fraud, and, affirming the correspondence between God's providential and absolute aid, he urged parents never to "Concern themselves more to get the World than Grace for their Children," since "if God giveth them Grace, Earthly blessings shall never fail."

In Bonifacius he incorporates these various explanations into an imaginatively more heightened and more comprehensive approach, one which absorbs the transitory, at all levels, into the eschatological. As he develops his argument, every good work becomes magnified into a momentaneous demonstration of the judgment to come. When he states that "the more good any man does, the more he really lives," he means "life" as an emblem of eternity, wherein "the only wisdom of man" lies in his union with God. When he terms "GOOD DEVICES the most reasonable religions," he does so to persuade the reader to embrace them "with rapture, as enabling him directly to answer the great END of his being." On these foundations he proposes beneficence as a bridge between the visible and the invisible. "To do good, is a thing that brings its own recompense," he writes; it stands of itself as "your powerful, and perpetual vindication." It must begin, like conversion, in the soul-struggle to be perfected in the image of God. Subsequently, of its own accord it leads outward to others; but its essential motive, "the greatest and highest of its glories," remains first and last atemporal. Thus morality seeks no worldly remuneration (in fact, "your conformity unto Him, yet lacks one thing" if you are not "despised and rejected of men"); thus also it may be said to win heaven ("the more you consider the command in what you do, the more assurance you have" of redemption); and thus, finally, the elect may find material recompense. As the saint in solitude prepares himself for life by meditating upon death, so conversely the well-doer, by eschewing the gloria mundi, shows himself worthy of the earthly blessings vouchsafed to certain servants of the Lord.

Even on a practical level Mather's notions merit our respect. They signify a wholesome if chimerical reaction against the "Private Spirit" he had long lamented, an effort to impose some spiritual cohesion upon a community that was disintegrating under the "liberating" ruthlessness of enlightened self-interest. Appropriately, one of the key terms in Bonifacius is relatedness. The section on "Home and Neighbourhood," for example, reminds us that not only family members but "Neighbours stand related unto one another," and that in both spheres the relationship entails duties: "relieving the afflicted with all agreeable kindnesses," assisting the destitute with gifts or loans (the latter to be repaid not on a certain day but when the borrower should find himself able to repay it, without inconvenience). Emanating from the center of one's concern for his soul, such circles of relatedness, as Mather conceived them, would widen progressively to envelop the whole body social. His most ambitious conception devolved upon "reforming societies." None of his projects has come under sharper attack, and none more unjustly. His intent was neither repression nor prurience but the desire to curb expediency by attaching the mean to an ideal—without, however, discarding the notion of the mean: he asked for temperance, not prohibition, and taught his "sodalities" (the prototypical graduate seminars he inaugurated) "rather Socratically than Dogmatically," aware that "what is now most in vogue may anon be refuted like its Predecessors." If he required zeal of his "Societies of Young Men Associated," he sought to temper excess through compassion and discretion. What he envisioned at most was a "blessed concord" of visible saints, "bound up in one bundle of love," "charitably watchful over one another" and rejoicing in "opportunities to do good."

His scheme had immediate precedents in Augustan England; more important for him, certainly, was the parallel it offered with the bonds of church-covenant which knit together, "as one man with one soul," the citizens on a hill. To the degree that we grant him the validity of the parallel, Bonifacius stands, Janusfaced, as a crucial document in the continuity of the culture. Hopelessly nostalgic from one perspective, it looks forward from another not only to Franklin's "Clubs for Mutual Improvement" but to Edwards's "Blessed Unions." Its connection with the Great Awakening, indeed, appears to be the more basic of the two. I refer to Bonifacius's consuming eschatological thrust, personal and social, its emphasis alike upon conversion and upon groups animated by "the wondrous force of united prayers," with "the savor on them of the saints" of old, seeking to revivify a dead land by doing that only, in Edwards's words, which added to "the glory of God or the good of men." Above all, I refer to the book's pervasive millennial expectations. That Mather never abandoned those expectations is evident everywhere in his published and unpublished works; and if after 1700 he had little or no following at home he found support abroad. Through his enormous European correspondence, to which he increasingly gave his energies, he aligned himself with the millenarians in Scotland. In 1709 he came into contact with August Hermann Francke and German Pietism, whose influence was extending through many regions of Europe, including England and Scotland, and whose missions had reached across the Atlantic to the East Indian Islands.

The full impact of Franckean Pietism upon colonial thought remains to be explored. It may be gleaned in different ways from Samuel Mather's Vita Franckii (1733) and from Edwards's tribute in his History of the Work of Redemption to Francke's leading role in the events which led to the Revival. Cotton Mather was especially affected by Francke as a kindred spirit whose efforts (unlike his own) met with "amazing" success. To further their "Marvellous Effects" he contributed to Pietist enterprises at Halle and advocated their emulation in America. He had himself urged similar enterprises often before. Now, however, he felt emboldened by the support of a gathering international movement, one that based its social beneficence on the same chiliastic Reformed historiography as that which informed the Great Migration (though transferred to a spiritual migration from local corruption). Like Edwards, he carefully insisted on the priority in all this of the New World theocracy; the American church, he pointed out, was "pulcherrima inter mulieres," the most beautiful of Christ's brides, and so had "the Honour of making the First, Right, Fair and Genuine Beginning."1 But he was eager to express his gratitude and solidarity. He did so most notably by assimilating the Pietists' techniques and terminology: their integration of homilectic "uniting maxims," for instance, with the neo-Joachite "Everlasting Gospel," their emphasis on the "prophecy of Joel" in conjunction with the emergent "Age of the Holy Spirit," and, in general, their shifting sense of the apocalypse, from the premillenarianism of the New England planters toward something approaching the postmillenarianism that characterizes American thought from the Great Awakening onwards—toward a view, that is, which sees the chiliad within history rather than as the result of a cataclysmic, supernatural break with history.

The shift was not a radical one. With the other Franckean concepts he espoused, it was consonant with the emigrants' gradualistic-typological soteriology, in which the church-state served both as antitype of the Old Testament Jerusalem and as figura of the Jerusalem-to-be. What German Pietism offered Mather was in essence what Coleridge and Carlyle offered Emerson: the potential for a renewed activism within an established national mythos, as well as a means of reaffirming the mythos within a contemporaneous intellectual-spiritual Zeitgeist. It was too late in life, too far into the Yankee apostasy, for Mather to recall his political ambitions. (Though he continued to interfere in public affairs, he recognized that he would never command the authority he once dreamed of, and exercised momentarily two decades before, in his father's absence). But he could transfer the momentum of Pietism's burgeoning success into literary summons and "Goods Devised." "I am dismissed from any expectation of much encouragement," he confessed in 1717 to an English correspondent. "And the truth is, I have dismissed and even divorced myself in a great measure from every party, but one which is now going to be formed." Yet that party of the future, already combining as it did the best of the past and the present (the New England Way and the Franckean revival) provided encouragement enough.

Its impact upon his schemes for doing good appears in his revived enthusiasm for local reform, particularly in the ministry and in education.2 It is evident, too, in his reanimated call for missionary endeavors, to awaken not only the Indians but the Jews. Through the 1690s he had made several gestures, as another "Evangelical Elias," toward bringing about the restitution of Israel. A ten-year silence on the issue followed. When he then returned to it, his new-found fervor, he explained, stemmed from the "Tokens for Good" at Halle, and the "miraculous" conversion of several Jewish children in Berlin. He set forth his convictions in 1718 in Faith Encouraged, an expanded version of the Berlin miracle, and, most dramatically, in Psalterium Americanum, whose preface and commentary magnify the enterprise of translation into a concerted missionary service, preparatory to the Marriage of the Lamb with His first- and still-beloved spouse at the altar of the apocalypse.

Of course, Mather stresses that the Psalms also pertain to every spiritual Israelite. Insofar as they continuously invoke Christ, they may ensure the Christian reader "here the Character of those who are to be admitted into the Messiah's glorious Kingdom." And insofar as they contain the "Key of David" to "the Mysteries of the Great Salvation," they illuminate the contours of Christian history, from the church's persecution under Antichrist to its victory on the fields of Gog and Magog. But beyond such private aids, they may also provoke the reader to a sublime serviceableness, one that concerns the mightiest of the end-time events. Nowhere, cries Mather, is the progress of the Jews more vividly depicted and (metaphorically) enacted than in the Psalter. Indeed, "the Design of the PROPHETIC SPIRIT in the PSALMS all along has been to describe the Sufferings" and "predict the Recovery of the Jewish Nation." What nobler service, therefore, could a second Baptist aspire to, what surer means for making way for the City of God, than to render their meaning intelligible? What time could be more suitable than the present, when "the condition of the Jewish Nation is like to be"—by that very nation—"more considered than in the former Ages"? What place, finally, could be more advantageous for the task than the New World, since the Psalms specifically hold out "Hopes for Americans," predicting (Ps. 18:43) that after "Our Saviour had seen and known Asians, Africans, Europeans," He would turn, at the close of history, to the unknown continent at the world's fabled fourth corner? Taking all this into account, "the Psalms put into the hands of the Jews with so Entertaining a Commentary thereupon, may be a powerful and perswasive Engine" for guiding them into "the Grand Revolution which concludes our Bible."

To that end Mather gears the whole machinery of translation and commentary, recasting the Psalter into a divine comedy of the wandering House of Israel. Substantiating his figurai and Christological readings by way of rabbinical opinions (his most frequently used source), he expands the poetry into a prophetic saga of decline and recovery: the destruction of Jerusalem and Babylonian captivity; the Hebrews' stiffnecked disobedience, culminating in their rejection of Christ; their subsequent pitiful persecution, wonderful preservation, and happy restoration. Threading the narrative is the theme of National Conversion; over one-third of the Psalms (by Mather's account) center on this concept. The focus alternates, between linear advance and vertical revelation, in what becomes a dialectic of human action and divine will, promise and fulfillment. The process itself takes several forms. Sometimes it shapes the meaning of an individual set of verses, as in Psalm 69, which is said to relate the agones of Christ and the Jews. More often it evolves by juxtaposition, so that the Jews' songs of praise upon their rejuvenation (Psalms 96 and 97) seem to flow logically into the cosmic jubilee at the Second Coming (Psalm 98).

Characteristically, the process unfolds in separable series or blocks of poems, all built around the same theme, though following one another with rising intensity. Thus Psalms 125 through 136 describe successively the grounds of Israel's perseverance, its retrospective lament for sins past, and its thankful devotions to the Lord of its salvation; the next series (137-50) opens by recapitulating the sorrows of the dispersed Jews, then recounts their prayers for help, announces their redemption, and ends in an extended encomium to the New Jerusalem. In every case the movement proceeds from the urgency for conversion; and through the book as a whole the reiterated "Miracles to be wrought when Israel shall be returned from Exile" increasingly broaden to encompass the well-doer, beneficent societies, and, in the "transcendent efficacy" of the end-time wedding-ritual, "the supreme and final true PIETY" whose signs have already appeared:

DOUBTLESS, the Day approaches wherein the Kingdom of GOD will appear in brighter displays than the World has ever yet been Enlightened withal. There are certain MAXIMS OF PIETY wherein all Good Men and United. GOD will bring His People to receive one another upon these generous MAXIMS. An admirable Peace and Joy will arise from the operations of the Holy Spirit; and Joels Prophecy will be accomplished. ANGELS shall Fly thro' Heaven, having the Everlasting Gospel. That cry Babylon is fallen will ensue upon it; and wondrous Changes upon the World [reflecting in grander form the accomplishments of New England] will turn an horrid and howling Wilderness into a Paradise.3

The strains of Psalterium Americanum thus lead back to Bonifacius, as do most other aspects of Mather's pietism. Written in the first flush of his contact with Halle, Bonifacius unites his earlier concepts of doing good with the possibilities newly opened by the Franckean revival. His proposals here for missionary undertakings extol those of the Pietists—they should "animate us, to imitate them"—and affirm New England's superiority in this respect by a detailed summary of the work "formerly done for the Christianizing of our Indians." Now, he promises, our missions will extend much further. The Holy Spirit will clear our path, as it did in the infancy of Christendom, with irresistible influences which will "cause whole nations to be born at once" and "render this world like a watered garden." A century before, the Bay emigrants had carried those influences to a new continent; the children of that exodus are to amplify the joyful sound to all peoples. As for the Hebrews, Mather would seem here to summon them primarily by the example of the reborn New World garden (as Increase did in 1669, in The Mystery of Israel's Salvation, and Edward Johnson in 1654, in Wonder-Working Providence). In general, he refers over and again to rabbinical dicta: partly to prod the colonists to "outdo Judaism," as a rule to remind all his readers of the way of living which the rabbis foretell for "the generation wherein the Messiah comes," the perfect serviceableness which will characterize that "illustrious state of the Church of God, which is to be expected, in the conversion of the Jews."

This millennial way of living most fully embodies Mather's essays to do good. It also serves most lucidly to explain his position as precursor of Franklin and Edwards. The rags-to-riches stories he recounts (in a number of biographies as well as in Bonifacius) become "charming examples" of godliness chiefly in terms of his pietistic eschatology. It is a distinction which separates him from the conventional Protestant apologists for laissez-faire; and it is a distinction which applies, in different ways, to the spirit of the Great Awakening, and, later, to the concept of national mission. For Mather's vision of well-doing, beyond the material benefits it brought, beyond its excellence per se, beyond even its value as a private passport to heaven, carried forward the standard of the Everlasting Gospel. The chosen heirs of the uttermost parts of the earth could hardly consider their redemption merely as single, separate persons; assuredly, too, their "relatedness," under the ascending sun of the Holy Spirit, would never stop short at secular goals. "In engaging as many others as we can, to join with us," Bonifacius insists, we are "promoting His Kingdom among the children of men." The "springs of usefulness" we dig open by each act, "having once begun to run, will spread into streams, which no human foresight can comprehend"; each proposal realized, "like a stone falling into a pool," will cause "one circle (and service) to produce another, until they extend" ad infinitum. So our magistrates will enact solely those laws by which the reign of holiness may be advanced; so our universities, charged with "collegia pietatis, like those of our excellent Franckius," will accomplish "wonders in the world"; so our societies, "Propagating the Maxims wherein His Will shall be done on Earth as it is in Heaven," will by that "blessed symptom be together associated in the Heavenly City"; and so, comprehensively, we will reconstitute ourselves, what once we were, what God wishes us to be again, a serviceable light to the world, a knot of saints associated whose "works of the day fall in with the designs of Divine Providence."

In this perspective, as in subsequent American millenarianism, secular employment contrasts as unequivocally with the "work of the day" as does the house built upon sands with the stone cast upon the waters of eternity. The one stands self-contained, trapped in the limits of space and time; the other swells sui generis into an image of the entire human-divine order, dilating concentrically, ineluctably, from the personal sphere to the "federal" and the universal, imaging simultaneously the Neo-Platonic circle of salvation and the spiralling movement of Christian teleology.4 By the same dynamic the work of the day comes also to image the order of nature. "Serious and shining Piety," Mather writes in Bonifacius, "will glorify the God of Nature. Nothing so unnatural as to be irreligious." He notes that the concept derives from Thomas Browne's Religio Medici (1643); its larger context is the "natural theology" which developed in the seventeenth century, the belief that creation, as the New Science revealed it in all its majestic, intricate symmetry, embodied God's goodness and wisdom. Mather was the first American actively to espouse the belief, in league with European religious scientists and scientifically minded clerics: William Derham, for example, author of Physico-Theology (1713), and Halle's Philip Spener, and, of course, Sir Isaac Newton, physicist and chiliast (as he was popularized in Richard Bentley's Confutation of Atheism [1693]). In Bonifacius Mather projects as part of this tradition his own Angel of Bethesda, designed to "instruct people how to improve in agreeable points of piety; and at the same time, inform them of the most experimental, natural, specific remedies for diseases." He might already have included his Wonderful Works of God (1690), his eloquent Winter-Meditations (1693), and perhaps the "Declamations on Natural Philosophy" he delivered as a student at Harvard. His most important undertaking of this kind, begun within a few months of Bonifacius, was published a decade later as The Christian Philosopher: A Collection of the Best Discoveries in Nature, With Religious Improvements.

In his scientific pursuits, Cotton Mather (again like Edwards and Franklin) was an avid dilettante, with an encyclopaedic range of interests and a predisposition toward the experimental and the pragmatic. His manuscript "Curiosa Americana," together with his communications munications to the Royal Society, reveal an amusing credulity. As historians of the subject have recognized, they also display a "striking ability to select, from the maze of 'natural philosophy,' those discoveries and problems which were eventually to prove of major importance." The Christian Philosopher unites this ability with his still more striking ingenuity in extracting "religious improvements" from the selections, drawing upon the discoveries and problems to erect a monument to the God of his fathers. The discoveries celebrate the reaches of man's mind; the problems teach him not to exceed his grasp: demonstrate that his "Reason is too feeble, too narrow a thing to comprehend the infinite," leave him "so transcended" that he will not "cavil, but adore" the "Mysteries altogether beyond [his] Penetration." The interaction between the two strains, resembling the theocracy's blend of mysticism and rationalism, conveys Mather's purpose. As in Bonifacius, he was not so much adapting Puritanism to the Enlightenment as trying to dam up the excesses of the latter by recourse to orthodoxy: in effect, updating the Ptolemaic providential-natural theology that ran from (say) Augustine's Confessions to John Cotton's Briefe Exposition upon Ecclesiastes. And as in Bonifacius, his contributions to the humanitarian-scientific outlook of Franklin and Jefferson forms the lesser aspect of his legacy. In its quality of imagination at least, The Christian Philosopher belongs to a different national tradition—meta-scientific and at some level counter-rationalistic—which includes Edwards's Images or Shadows of Divine Things and Emerson's Nature.

This is not to deny The Christian Philosopher its transitional importance in the transformation of the earlier cosmology. Unquestionably, it is a crucial expression (in the New World) of the configuration of Puritanism, Pietism, and science which has been identified as a mainstream of American thought. Unquestionably, too, Edwards's epistemology, insofar as it derived from either Berkeley or Locke, is as difficult to reconcile with Mather's spiritualizations as it is with Emerson's transcendentalism. The similarity between the three preachers hinges on the fact that their subordination of science proper to divinity resulted in comparable symbolic modes. In part, this manifests itself in terms of natural theology: in certain common sources, for example, such as Thomas Browne; or in the effort to restrain the tide of materialism stirred up by the New Science; or in the "feeling akin to the poet's" which their passages evoke (for one critic, Mather's "artistic effects" recall the method of many of Walt Whitman's poems); or in the anachronistic inconsistencies which insinuate themselves into their technical expositions (Edwards's strangely medieval notes, Mather's obstinate belief in discrete providences). But such parallels may be found in scores of European works. What distinguishes The Christian Philosopher, and what seems specifically to relate it to later American works, is the theocratic confluence of personal and social eschatology, transferred now to the mind of the awakened observer of Nature. "The whole World," writes Mather, "is a Temple of GOD," where "Every thing about me Preaches unto me" concerning "the grand End of man's Being," the "Evangelical Spirit of Charity," and "the Blessedness of the future State." This threefold pattern, integrating salvation, serviceableness, and history, informs Edwards's response to the Newtonian universe; it appears, in one secular guise or another, in Emerson's (as well as Whitman's and Thoreau's) internalization of the meaning of America; to a large extent it defines the method of The Christian Philosopher.

Mather's fundamental assumption is the correspondence between the Book of Nature and the Book of God. "We will now for a while read in the Former of these Books," he explains, "'twill help us in reading the Latter." But of course he means equally that (in Edwards's words) "the Book of Scripture is the interpreter of the Book of Nature," and he organizes his material in accordance with Genesis 1, proceeding from light to the celestial bodies to the elements to the forms of life on earth, and concluding, in the longest section, with man. Hermeneutically and rhetorically, the creation story conveys his meaning on all of its three levels. Its literal-naturalistic aptness allows him to set the progress of science within the biblical framework. On a figural plane, the first seven days shadow forth the seven ages of man, so that the natural wonders he records bespeak the impending Judgment Day and the Sabbatism to follow, when "our Saviour may feast His Chosen People with Exhibitions of all these Creatures, in their various Natures." Anagogically, the mystery of creation, like the mystery of the Scriptures, stands revealed in the Incarnation; all things refer ultimately to Christ, from the magnet to the laws of gravity a "shadow" of His parturient love. Man's cognitive process follows this paradigm in that it recreates the individual in harmony with the cosmos. The principles of plant growth or of light are bare statistics "unto him that has no Faculty to discern spiritually." Granted that agency of inner renewal, he finds the light to be correlative to his own reason, his capacity (in Christ) to overcome the powers of darkness, and his claims to the inheritance of the saints in light; he discerns in the plants' physical structure "the Analogy between their States and ours" and, spiritually, in their revival in the Spring an emblem of the resurrection and "of the Recovery which the Church will one day see from a Winter of Adversity."

Right perception, then, reconciles man simultaneously with Creation, with history, and with his Redeemer. And in so doing it unites him with himself as paragon both of Nature and of the Bible: as "a Machine of a most astonishing Workmanship," which is also "the most exquisite Figure for an holy Temple"; as "the highest link in the golden chain, whereby Heaven is joined to Earth," who is at the same time "the Microcosm" of all being. "Opera Creationis externae habent in se Imaginem Creationis internae," Mather declares, anticipating Emerson's "every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of mind." Our inner and outer worlds are synonymous: "he that speaks to MAN, speaks to every Creature"; the Me and the Not-Me reflect one another through their common generative divinity. But beyond both, for Mather, circumscribing and delimiting their linked analogies, stand the Scriptures and ecclesiastical authority. As though he divined the anarchic subjectivism, the "imperial selfhood," potential in his outlook, he requires the observer to uncover meaning rather than invent it, to guage his spiritualizing faculty by an objective hierarchy of values which lies beyond his understanding and yet communicates itself to him through concrete, restrictive obligations: the maxims of piety that "the whole creation of GOD would mind us of," the good works that result from his homage to the sun as "An Image of the Divine Goodness," the services he will render when he can feel toward his neighbor the "Law of Attraction, whereby all the Parts of Matter embrace one another."

The Christian Philosopher fails in this attempt to bridge science and pietism. Its inadequacies have been discussed from a scientific or a theological standpoint. They seem to me most glaring in the haphazard proliferation of literary modes. Allegory and analogy, sacred and secular similitude, figura and trope follow indiscriminately from one another, often within the same context. Some such confusion appears in every Bible culture; but here it tends conspicuously toward chaos, palpably betokens a dissolution of external controls (in contrast to medieval Catholicism with its boggling excess of imposed categories). It issues in a kind of democratic blur of traditionally distinct forms: a universal levelling (not unlike a Whitmanesque catalogue) which (unintentionally) discards the differences between wit, metaphor, and hermeneutic, and invokes moral authority equally through the notion that faith is a telescope to the heavenly world, that ornithology affords a norm of filial devotion, and that typology highlights the botanical curiosa of a well-tended garden. It is this collapse of rhetorical distinctions, I believe, that most clearly marks the cultural significance of the book. For one thing, it offers an interesting perspective on the failure of natural theology and, more broadly still, on the aesthetic revolution implicit in Reformed thought, which cleaved literal from spiritual, set man vis-à-vis God without an officially sanctioned intermediary network of human-divine meaning, and so opened the road to modern symbolism. In particular, it serves—precisely in its levelling of symbolic dimensions as reality is ingested and "improved" in the microcosmic imagination—to highlight the beginnings of a movement which continues through Edward's "subjective idealism" to mid-nineteenth-century "American romanticism." The continuity here should not obscure the many differences between Mather and later writers. But neither should the differences discourage us from tracing the lines of development, especially, perhaps, through the affinity Mather draws, in the metaphor of creation, between Nature, the symbolic observer, and the exemplary American, the book's autobiographical-suprapersonal protagonist who explores himself in exploring the world, and for whom, as for Emerson's Poet, the world-self "is a temple whose walls are covered with [hermeneutic] emblems, [aesthetic] pictures and [moral] commandments of the Deity."

It is true that The Christian Philosopher does not have a pronounced American setting. It does not, like (say) Thoreau's "Walking," apply the individual's spiritual rebirth in Nature to the "true tendencies" of the renovated, or renovating, wilderness. Its historiographic implications emerge in context of related undertakings, as those in Emerson's Nature may be discerned in "The American Scholar," and as those in Edwards's Images or Shadows reveal themselves by way of Thoughts on the Revival and The History of the Work of Redemption. Probably the relevant texts in this particular connection are the passages (in Bonifacius and elsewhere) dealing with American Pietism, and the manuscript "Biblia Americana," which Mather advertised in a concluding appendix to Bonifacius, and within which he intended to incorporate The Christian Philosopher. As the advertisement describes the organization of "Biblia Americana," the sixth and central section deals with "Natural Philosophy, called in to serve Scriptural Religion," where "the best thoughts of our times" on science combine with those concerning the three "grand revolutions, the making, and the drowning, and the burning of the world." Surrounding this section are a history of Jerusalem (until its "present and wretched condition, in which it waits the set time to come on"), the saga of Israel, concluding with its imminent recovery, a discussion of types and prophecies—all of which (except those pertaining to the chiliad) "have had their most punctual accomplishment"—and an exhortation on the advantages of "experimental piety." The entire configuration explains Mather's emphasis on "Americana"; his last proud words apply with equal force to Bonifacius and The Christian Philosopher: "All done By the blessing of CHRIST on the Labors of an American."


1 The point was crucial to Mather because it allowed him at once to embrace German Pietism and to fit it into the framework of New England historiography. Thus he feels obliged even in his flowery epistles to Francke and Boehme to affirm that "There is not a place in which true Christianity is more cultivated than here in New England," and to note that "American Puritanism is so much of a Peece with the Frederician Pietism" that his Magnalia would prove "serviceable to [your] glorious intentions." Indeed, he introduced Francke to the "true American Pietism" in 1710 as a system which embodied the "Principles and Practices of the Immanuelan People" (adding privately that, "admirable" as they are, the German "Professors are not without their Errours"); and in reprinting Francke's resumé of the Pietist missionary triumphs, he points out that those undertakings followed the lead of the emigrants: of John Eliot in particular ("no One is wronged if it be confessed, that our ELIOT shone as the Moon among the Lesser Stars"), and in general of the theocracy's "Pure MAXIMS of the Everlasting Gospel," harbinger of the "Mighty Showers to be expected in the Latter Days." The relations between German Pietism and American thought merit close study, not only in their direct manifestations (e.g., Mather and Edwards) but in their later indirect influences—through the writings of Schiller (for example)—in the nineteenth century.

2Manuductio ad Ministerium (1724), his chief contribution in this area, owes much of its pungent forcefulness to that enthusiasm. Fundamentally, like all his books, it is a personal testament, at once the product of his pastoral experience, an apologia for his style, a paean to the persecuted Christ-like servant, and compensation for his failure to attain the Harvard presidency. But the sublimating process is undergirded by the appeal to an immediate historic thrust: specifically to the curriculum in use at Halle; generally, to the "new type of ministerial leadership," admittedly modeled upon Francke's Manuductio, which would control "the lives of the people through pietism." The appeal begins with the familiar do-good eschatology (subordinating all studies, actions, and intentions "to an union with God"); it proceeds through the maxims of pietism—seconded by a "dear brother of mine, a professor in the Frederician University"—which raises the well-doing minister into the "state of Paradise"; its crown and essence is proclaimed in the book's running title: The Angels Preparing to Sound the Trumpets.

3Psalterium Americanum (Boston, 1718), introduction, pp. xxxii-xxxiv.

4 The concept of the circle in these terms needs fuller treatment than the present essay can allow. Briefly: the metaphor of the circle of redemption stems from the philosophy of Plotinus as this was absorbed into Christian thought from the Church Fathers through the Renaissance; the circle-as-spiral comes to symbolize the repetitive yet forward-moving history of redemption, especially as this was expounded by progressivist-typologists from Eusebius and Orosius to the Bay emigrants. Mather's conflation of the two images may be seen in his dual self-concept in the diaries, in the rhetoric of his political sermons (such as A Midnight Cry,) and above all in the notion of "representative men" he set forth in his biographies (discussed below).

Pershing Vartanian (essay date 1973)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4994

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 recognize the ease of this accommodation, have sought to explain that larger cultural transition in terms of conflict. Additionally, reading late-nineteenth-century issues back into the eighteenth century has artificially dramatized the tensions between secular and clerical thought over the relationship between religion and science. Though tensions did exist, they were more subtle, for the Puritan clergy had performed a positive role in the transition to the Enlightenment.1

In certain respects, the problem is complicated by our understanding of Enlightenment and Puritan thought. While each style had its pronounced contours, neither intellectual mode was static; consequently, orthodox Puritan thought is as difficult to delineate as is Enlightenment thought. Though Puritan thought was teleological and Enlightenment thought was naturalistic, in neither epoch was purpose or nature excluded. Moreover, while rationalism in science characterized the Enlightenment, that rationalism had a changing significance throughout the eighteenth century. As a result, while it is necessary to differentiate between the early, middle and later Enlightenment, it must be recognized that each stage flowed into the other and each possessed with differing emphasis the elements of the other.2 In its initial phases, the Enlightenment differed more in degree than in substance from late Puritan thought. While Puritan thought could not be confused with Enlightenment rationalism, as Samuel Eliot Morison implies,3 in practice the Puritans had a limited but undeniable respect for reason, a conception of the social compact in their covenantal polity, and saw in nature not simply carnality, but God's first principles in operation.4

In many essentials Puritan thought resembled the "Cosmic Toryism" of the early Enlightenment. In the Calvinist tradition, the Puritan God had always been a somewhat remote transcendent entity. If the early Enlightenment pushed God further out, it was more degree than kind. Distance did not divorce God from the universe for the intellectuals of the early Enlightenment any more than it did for the Puritans. While Newton's mathematics needed no metaphysical substructure, nevertheless his mathematics failed to abolish irregularities in the cosmic machine and Newton too found God essential to explain its operations. Gravity, he observed, was God's will manifesting itself as force in the ether. Clocks would lose their energy and bodies in motion required guidance to maintain their regular course. No one in the early Enlightenment could dispense with God to describe the operations of nature as Laplace did in saying, "I have no need for that hypothesis." God's participation in maintaining the cosmic clock was as essential to the early Enlightenment as it was to the teleological universe contemplated by the Puritans.5

Neither teleology nor mechanism dissolved the need for God any more than a mechanistic cosmos dispatched the hierarchical order expressed in the Great Chain of Being that linked the natural world with the invisible universe of spirit. Although this hierarchical cosmology rested upon a set of static relationships, it nevertheless gave rise to a subtle, persistent and pervasive optimism which gradually assumed control over human expectations to emerge as an idea of progress. As a conviction, its existence was based upon the augmentation of material, technological and intellectual improvements that were the fruits of the New Science. Science shaped the rationalism, undergirded the optimism, and altered the relationships between God, man and nature throughout the Enlightenment, while providing the era with an internal coherence. Thus, the touchstone to Enlightenment thought lies in the interest in science, and it is possible to describe the Puritan transition into the Enlightenment through such a figure as Cotton Mather, whose scientific interests pushed him, if not always fastest, furthest into the new age.6

Just as he was in life, Cotton Mather has been a contentious figure in the historical imagination. Energetic and assertive, he was a vigorous partisan. Occupying a middle position somewhat to the right of the Brattles and Leveretts, he untiringly resisted their latitudinarianism while campaigning against the congregational independence of John Wise and the presbyterianism of Solomon Stoddard. During the inoculation crisis in 1720-21 when Boston was plagued with smallpox, Mather challenged the community, and while his position was vindicated, his life was threatened, his character besmirched and his veracity questioned. His belief in sorcery, witch-craft and possession, and his role in guiding the Massachusetts colony through its first crisis under the new charter by vindicating the magistrates who presided over the Salem trials, cast an unfading shadow over his life and his historical reputation. To the nineteenth century Mather was an intolerant, illiberal and superstitious bigot whose name became synonymous with "Puritan." Neo-filialpietists like Samuel Eliot Morison and Perry Miller, despite their leadership in renovating Cotton Mather, persist in abusing Mather for allowing political expediency to override his better judgment in composing the 1693 Salem apology. Recently, however, this criticism has been redirected into a fresh perspective by Robert Middlekauff, reflecting the continued reconstruction in Cotton Mather's historical reputation.7

The modern American quest for community has contributed significantly to the new interest accorded Cotton Mather, just as it has for the Puritans. Mather, perhaps more than most, provides substance for Richard Hofstadter's exaggerated claim that as a community, the Puritans alone had been most consistently concerned with the life of the mind for its own sake. Mather's breadth of curiosity is borne out by the number and the variety of publications and the volume of unpublished manuscript material he prepared in his three-score years. That the thought which emerged from this curiosity was largely derivative is of minor importance. As Raymond Stearns has observed, Cotton Mather "demonstrated a considerable capacity for growth" and his enormous library is as much a testimony to that intellectual maturation as are his own compositions. Though Mather derived much more than he contributed, historians like Stearns have been drawn to him more for his scientific than for his religious thought.8

Cotton Mather's early interest in medicine was balanced by his interest in astronomy, mechanics, and climatology. As an experimental scientist, his enduring contributions were in genetics and preventive medicine, as well as in ornithology, attested to by his observations on corn hybridization, the passenger pigeon and his role in the inoculation issue. In natural philosophy, his role as scientist was more passive. After twenty years of sporadic labor, in 1712 Mather completed his "Biblia Americana" as a study of scripture improved by science. Though he never succeeded in having this work published, Mather extracted portions from it as the basis for his earliest contributions to the London Royal Society, a series of some hundred communiqués which began in 1712 and extended over a decade. Though the first letters to the Society in 1712 drew upon the "Biblia" as well as upon Mather's contributions to the Boston Philosophical Society in the 1680's, the vast majority of his letters thereafter broke new ground. In a sense, the Biblia and the 1712 correspondence which was later formed into the Curiosa Americana, are the beginnings of Mather's scientific thought, and not the sum, as Middlekauff has implied.9

Concurrently with his effort to establish inoculation as a smallpox preventive, Mather in 1720 completed The Christian Philosopher, and two years later finished The Angel of Bethesda. Though the Angel suggests an originality not found in The Christian Philosopher, both are intellectually related. Each digested selected aspects of some forty years of Mather's experimentations and observations into a synthesis that included the most current medical and scientific thought then available to him. Moreover, it is evident from these treatises that Mather's biological experiments and observations enriched his appreciation for natural philosophy. As had been his custom in such earlier works as The Wonderful Works of God Commemorated (1690) and Winter Meditations (1693), Cotton Mather continued to incorporate the New Science into such ostensibly non-scientific tracts as the Manuductio ad Ministerium (1726). In this work, his ordering of intellectual priorities for young ministers ranked mastery of the new sciences ahead of such traditional work as holy geography. Despite this, by 1722 Mather was drawing his exploratory and literary interest in science to a close. However, while the intellectual outline of his thought was evident in his youthful exercises, intellectually, as Raymond Stearns has observed, Mather "was not the same in the 1720's that he had been in the 1680's" (p. 405).

While Mather's later thought retained some of his earlier ideas, by the time he completed his "Biblia Americana" his central interests had changed. From 1702 to 1712, as Middlekauff has observed, Mather's interest in the Jeremiad as a religious device declined. Moreover, he abandoned the struggle to maintain organizational unity among the churches and discarded the Federal Theology. His apprehensions about the demonic receded. "'Twas Nature sent these monsters," he said reassuringly, but "nature, too, sent Hercules, the monsters to subdue." At the same time, Mather reconstructed his millennial expectations. He abandoned his many efforts to plot Christ's coming on an historical scale, instead contenting himself with infrequent but periodic descriptions of the event as he contemplated a world ruled by Christ. As Mather's preoccupation with these issues and interests declined, his thought moved in a new direction during the decade before 1712.10

In these years, Mather's interest was drawn to the New Piety and the New Science. While both were evident in his sermons from the 1690's, after 1702 his imagination fastened upon them and was transformed by them. Despite their contrary character, however, piety and rationalism never competed for dominance in Mather's thought. They emerged together and matured together and each was rooted in the other, thereby exerting a reciprocal influence one upon the other. At the same time as Mather's universe became more rational, its mechanical intricacies less mysterious and its operations more orderly and restrained, his religious life became more private and his faith more personal and spontaneous. Consequently, Mather's piety was integral to his rationalism and both were essential ingredients in his intellectual growth. Though both elements moved Mather into the early Enlightenment, only his piety has been properly explored, to the neglect of his rationalism. That rationalism grew out of Mather's interest in the New Science.11

By 1720, Mather had completed The Christian Philosopher, "a Collection of the Best discoveries in nature with religious improvements." This work was substantially rationalistic in its account of nature.12 Except for fleeting references to spirits, a rare reference to scripture and a closing affirmation of the Trinity, Mather's religious improvements were simply pious exclamations about creation: "Great GOD, Thou are the Father of all things; even the Father of Insects, as well as the Father of Spirits: And Thy Greatness appears with a singular Brightness in the least of Thy Creatures!" (p. 146). In many instances where scripture or theology could have been conveniently introduced—Jonah with whales, Moses with frogs, the Garden of Eden, Satan and sin with snakes—Mather ignored the opportunity. Such supernatural interruption in nature's regularity was inconsistent with the spirit of The Christian Philosopher.

In his synthesis, Mather referred to God as the Divine Artificer. Nature's principles were consistent, he believed, in "that they come at first from a Divine Regulator" who "holds onto the springs" that make the machine function (p. 96). As the first mover, God's periodic involvement was essential for "without His continual influence the whole Movement would fall to pieces" (p. 88). Through thunder and lightning, as well as in his mechanical consistency, God often displayed his power. In addition, God, as Mather pointed out, could suspend the laws which governed the cosmic machine. While rainfall had been uniformly distributed over the globe, God withheld it from time to time to indicate his displeasure over human affairs (p. 53). Thus, Mather's belief in divine interposition was limited to such idiosyncratic features as the weather and were intimately related to his mechanistic conception of the universe.

Mather's mechanical cosmology embraced the organic as well as the inorganic. Though he speculated upon the possibility of life on the comets that shot across the heavens and the possibility of a collision with one, he marvelled at the comets' regularity.13 Living organisms too conformed to mechanical principles from reproduction to respiration: "The Body of Man being most obvious to our view, is that which we will first begin with; a Machine of a most astonishing Workmanship and Contrivance" (p. 222). He applied Harvey's studies on the circulation of blood to demonstrate that the heart cooperated with atmospheric pressure to pump the blood. As if Newton's Third Law were crucial. Mather observed "the weight of the incumbent atmosphere to be the true antagonist for all the muscles" (p. 262). Without it, breathing would be impossible and thus, the organic world responded to God's laws with the same regularity as the sun, moon and planets, and rain and snow.

In The Angel of Bethesda, written concurrently with The Christian Philosopher, Mather summarized his own inquiries into biology, psychology, and genetics; he incorporated his findings about inoculation as a smallpox preventive and introduced his belief that diseases were communicated by insects and "animaculae"—microscopic life forms which had been observed through the microscope to be on all surfaces.14 Though he marvelled at the mechanical beauty of the human body, he concluded that "there are indeed many Things in the Humane Body, that cannot be solved by the Rules of Mechanism" (pp. 68, 140)—in particular, foetal formation, infant suckling and emotional disorders or the body's capacity to mobilize itself against internal disorder. "In any other Machine," he stated, "if anything be out of Order it will remain so till some Hand from abroad shall rectify it," but not so with the human body (p. 142). Mather looked for the source of this phenomenon in his hypothesis of the Nishmath-Chajim.

As Mather developed his theory of the Nishmath-Chajim, it emerged as something more than an internal regulator. It was the link between the incorporeal soul and the body and "the Seat of our Diseases, or the Source of them." It was "the Spirit of the several Parts" with "Faculties and Tendencies from God imprinted upon it." It was, therefore, a vital principle, "the Breath of Life" (pp. 143, 139, 142, 137). He also developed this idea in the Triparadisus as the mechanism whereby the soul is conducted to heaven. While suggestions for the Nishmath-Chajim could be found among Mather's authorities (Helmont, the Galenists, Heurnius and Fernelius, among others), this was a further refinement of ideas that had first impressed him as a result of his experiments with possession and his observations regarding witchcraft and demonology in the 1690's.

The witchcraft outburst in Puritan New England from 1688 to 1693 provided Mather with an unusual opportunity to study the Satanic world. Though he had little direct contact with those either accused of witchcraft or claiming demonic possession from the accused at Salem in 1692, he had studied the instances of possession among the Goodwin family in 1688-89 and the Mercy Short and Margaret Rule incidents in 1693. Much of his thought about the "pneumatic science," as demonology was then called, was shaped by his experiences with the Goodwin case. Reflecting a spirit of intellectual inquiry, Mather sought to affirm the existence of devils, study them and provide forms of medical treatment for their victims. Mather conceded that Scripture had much to say about demons, but despite the numerous references to them, their behavior was quite mysterious. "The Word of God, having said so little in that particular concerning their way of action," he declared, "all that can be determined is important."15

For nearly a year Mather studied the Goodwin case under his own roof. In Memorable Providences, published in 1689, Mather reported upon the victim's behavior, the experiments performed and the methods used. He said: "I was not insensible that it might be an easy thing to be too bold and to go too far in making of experiments, nor was I so unphilosophical not to discern many opportunities of giving and solving many problems. I confess, I learnt much more than I sought"; but, he added, some things were not "proper to tell" (p. 31). In his experiments, Mather was interested primarily in the activities of demons, their ability to effect possession, and their limitations, if any. While his experimental procedure, his controls and his approach were simple, his tests led him to several inferential conclusions, among them that devils had finite powers. His experiments demonstrated that they could not read one's thoughts. "We could cheat them," he said, "when we spoke one thing and meant another. This was found when the children were to be undressed" (pp. 122-23). In Wonders of the Invisible World (1693), Mather noted that devils did not know all the languages nor did they have a uniform capacity to do mischief. "Some are therefore most suited to one nation than to another," he concluded, and consequently, "there might be some difference in their abilities" (p. 6). If one views the concern of science to be empirical reality, as Bernard Barber has pointed out, Mather's interest in the preternatural was clearly unscientific. Despite this, his controlled experimentation, logical consistency and inferential analysis of spirit behavior were wholly consistent with the scientific rationalism of the early Enlightenment.16

While Mather's interest had been focused upon spirit behavior, his therapeutic experiments had drawn his attention away from the devils to the behavior of the victims. "It is one of the chief arts of evil spirits," he had stated in his summary about the Salem witchcraft outburst in the Magnalia Christi Americana, "to make things which have no reality seem real to those who witness them" (I, 213). His experiments implied that the body could be affected by the mind and the mind could be treated through the body. He therefore approached the problem of possession as if it were an illness. Seeking appropriate treatment for it, his experiments followed "along the lines of what today would be termed psychosomatic medicine" (Stearns, p. 404). In general, Mather recommended prayer and fasting, as well as dietary changes. In addition, he sought the source of possession in the human psyche and for this he turned to the Nishmath-Chajim.

As an internal regulator, Mather also saw the Nishmath-Chajim as the controlling agent for mental health. Many diseases, Mather believed, were related to "a Weight of Cares, lying on the Minds of Men," thus, "our Nishmath-Chajim will go very far to help us, in the Solution of them" (Angel, pp. 145, 140). He prescribed proper diet, rest, "agreeable Conversation," and prayer as the means for revitalizing the Nishmath-Chajim. Suggesting further a relationship between this elusive vital principle, possession and mental health, Mather shifted the problem of witchcraft from external forces to internal, psychic balance. "In the indisputable and indubitable Occurrences of Witchcraft (and Possessions) there are many Things, which, because they are hard to be understood," he declared, "the Nishmath-Chajim well understood, would give us a marvellous Key to lett us into the Philosophy of them" (Angel, p. 144). Apart from recording his observations and some conclusions respecting the Nishmath-Chajim, Mather had no suggestions for proceeding with this analysis. Nevertheless, he was confident the vital principle could be understood, and through it mental disorders including possession. That confidence reflected Mather's own optimism in reason and progress, elements which had found a place in the early Enlightenment.

As Cotton Mather responded to the experimental science, his thought conformed to the beliefs of the early Enlightenment. His optimism, while reflecting a pale millennialism, derived from a conviction that the world had improved. As a concept, progress through improvement had been implicit in Mather's thought since the 1690's. In Wonders of the Invisible World, he celebrated the technological marvels his age had uncovered: the microscope, spectacles, and the lodestone magnet were remarkable achievements. Their discovery, so long in coming, had been delayed by Satan, "who does begrudge us all manner of good" (Sec. 4, p. 10). This negative expression of human progress had disappeared by the time Mather wrote The Christian Philosopher. He had turned to a positive explanation of progress in which reason emerged as an active ingredient. As he put it. "the progress which the invention of man had made" was itself divine. Such inventions as the microscope, lodestone magnet, the printing press, and the mechanical clock, were to him only a beginning: "If the Mathematicks, which have in the two last Centuries had such wonderful Improvements, do for two hundred Years more improve in proportion to the former, who can tell what Mankind may come to!" (pp. 289, 291). Though Mather's sense of progress derived from the principle of augmentation, it reflected the excellence of reason.

Mather's conception of reason was more theistic than naturalistic. It was that faculty implanted in man by God and if it did not function independently, it was at every point in harmony with God. "The Light of Reason," he recorded in his diary in 1711, "is the Work of God; the Law of Reason is the Law of God; the Voice of Reason is the Voice of God." The capacity of reason to resolve mysteries was endorsed by Mather not simply in the improvements produced through mathematics, but in his belief that reason could penetrate the mysteries of its own activities as well as those of the Nishmath-Chajim. This was an activism poised against the suspicion that he lived, if not in the best of all possible worlds, clearly in one that had much to recommend it. Reason in all its various activities had directed "that the Business of the World may be all transacted, and with Satisfaction." In this balance between a satisfactory world and one which could be improved by reason, Mather's optimism could not be restrained by the Christian's characteristic sense of a tragic loss. Despite his profound piety, this tragic sense was not the controlling spirit of his natural history.17 Instead he celebrated the idea of recovery through reason and progress. "O my Soul," Mather sang admiringly of reason in The Christian Philosopher, "what a wondrous Being art thou! How capable of astonishing Improvements! How worthy to be cultivated with the best Improvements! How worthy to have all possible endeavors used for thy Recovery from the Depravations which thy Fall from God has brought upon thee!" (pp. 291-92). Mather discounted any idea of loss that might have been implicit in this thought and directed his vision to a future in which mathematics performed its wonders.

As Mather's rationalism took root in his thought, it worked a subtle change in his perception of nature and heaven. No human achievement could replace Mather's sense of heaven. It remained God's exclusive creation, even in The Christian Philosopher. Mather's heavenly vision, however, appeared to be a divine form of a world improved by reason. To those who obeyed God, their heavenly reward was to "be fetch'd up into very comfortable Circumstances" (p. 295). It would be "a New Jerusalem," he said in the Triparadisus, which appeared the year The Christian Philosopher was published, "made of gold and studded with jewels," wherein the saints would possess an incorruptible corporeality (Middlekauff, pp. 330-31). Mather had materialized heaven. As he did so, he quite unconsciously spiritualized nature. Though much less intensely than Jonathan Edwards, Mather pondered nature's beauty, as when he quoted as "wonderful" a description of "the Moon walking in her brightness." Though paradoxical, each of these thoughts reflected the reciprocal relationship between his piety and his rationalism as Mather entered the modern world.18

Mather's intense piety has fixed his place, perhaps indelibly, in the historical imagination. Because of this, Mather's receptivity to early Enlightenment thought, his interest in the experimental science and his rationalistic outlook, are admired, but discounted. Though his views ranked in kind, if not in quality, with the men whom he accepted as authorities. in contrast to Cotton Mather, their place in the early Enlightenment has rarely been doubted. Despite this, at his death, Mather had not only attained a new plateau of piety, but that piety had acquired intensity from his acceptance of a mechanistic universe which was comprehensible through reason and which displayed signs of progressive improvement. Mather's piety sustained his optimistic vision of a rational universe and allowed him to respond to nature with a poet's sensitivity. Armed with his piety and his rationalism, between 1702 and 1712, Cotton Mather had crossed the threshold into the early Enlightenment. In his persistence in subordinating reason to God, Mather expressed the opinion of his Enlightenment authorities. No less than they, he regarded natural philosophy as only another, if potent, way to magnify God. Not for Mather, but for another generation would the two be separated and reason set free from divine regulation; but by then another phase in the Enlightenment would have emerged, one which would give birth to the Great Awakening.


1 Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker has interpreted the transformation as a conscious shift from supernaturalism to rationalism, in which the principal actors were unaware of their own intellectual transition. Viewed this way, the witchcraft frenzy at Salem in 1692, otherwise incomprehensible to him, assumes a new vitality and becomes, for him, a necessary stage in the rational development of the New England Puritans: The Puritan Oligarchy; The Founding of American Civilization (New York, 1947); see preface and chapter 9, especially pp. 289-90. On the other hand, John Van de Wetering, in his study of Thomas Prince, considers Puritan thought to be still in transition as late as 1750. Nevertheless, Van de Wetering associates the transition into the Enlightenment with a conflict between Prince's scientific rationalism and his Puritan idea of God: "The Christian History of the Great Awakening," New England Quarterly (1965), 494-507.

2 Peter Gay, The Enlightenment, an Interpretation. Vol. I The Rise of Modern Paganism (New York, 1966), Ch. 1.

3 Samuel Eliot Morison, The Intellectual Life of Colonial New England (New York, 1956), pp. 241-42.

4 Stow Persons, American Minds, A History of Ideas (New York, 1958), Ch. 1; and Perry Miller, The New England Mind; The Seventeenth Century (New York, 1939), pp. 181-206.

5 Basil Willey, The Eighteenth Century Background; Studies on the Idea of Nature in the Thought of the Period (London, 1950), Ch. 3. See also Gerald Stourzh, "Reason and Power in Benjamin Franklin's Political Thought," American Political Science Review, 47 (1953), 1092-1115; John Herman Randall, Jr., "The Religious Consequences of Newton's Thought," Texas Quarterly, 10 (1967), 279-80; and Randall's introduction to H. S. Thayer, ed., Newton's Philosophy of Nature (New York and London, 1953), ix-xvi.

6 I wish to express my appreciation to my colleague Robert Filner for directing my attention to the subtleties of scientific thought.

7 Kenneth Murdock, ed., Selections from Cotton Mather (New York, 1926); Richard H. Werking, "Reformation is Our Only Preservation: Cotton Mather and Salem Witchcraft," William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Series, 29 (April, 1972), 281-90; Robert Middlekauff, The Mathers, Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals, 1596-1728 (New York, 1971). Middlekauff's reconstruction goes so far as even to ignore, except in a passing reference (pp. 159-60), Mather's role in the witchcraft trials.

8 Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York, 1963), p. 59; Thomas J. Holmes, Cotton Mather: A Bibliography, 3 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1940); Raymond F. Stearns, Science in the British Colonies of America (Urbana, Ill., 1970), p. 404; Otho T. Beall, Jr. and Richard H. Shryock, Cotton Mather First Significant Figure in American Medicine (Baltimore, 1954); Theodore Hornberger, "The Date, The Source and the Significance of Cotton Mather's Interest in Science," American Literature, 6 (1935), 413-20.

9 Frederick T. Lewis, "The passenger pigeon as observed by the Rev. Cotton Mather," The Auk, 66 (1944), 587-92; Conway Zirkle, The Beginnings of Plant Hybridization (Philadelphia, 1935), pp. 91, 97, 100, 199; John T. Barrett, "The inoculation controversy in Puritan New England," Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 12 (1942), 169-90; Beall and Shryock, pp. 50-51; Beall, "Cotton Mather's Early Curiosa Americana in the Boston Philosophical Society, 1683," William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Series, 18 (1961), 360-72; Middlekauff's analysis of Mather's scientific thought (Ch. 16) concentrates almost entirely upon the "Biblia Americana" and ignores all Mather's thought related to science composed after 1712.

10 Middlekauff, p. 407, n. 12 and ch. 14; Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana, 2 vols. (New York, 1962). I, 211; see also II, 361-72: "I say, then, live we thus in the midst of thunders and devils too; and yet live we." In discussing Mather's millennialism, Middlekauff's approach is one of uniformity. Though he fails to stress the chronological development and change in Mather's millennialism, except incidentally, his numerous citations, when organized chronologically, reveal the shift after 1712 indicated; see Ch. 18.

11 See, for example, The Man of God Furnished (1708); A Man of Reason (1709); The Heavenly Conversation (1710); Reason Satisfied and Faith Established (1712); Middlekauff, p. 304.

12 In spirit and substance, Philosopher (rep., Gainesville, Fla., 1968) fails to sustain Stearns' judgment that Mather's naturalism was but "a momentary lapse," p. 424.

13 Notwithstanding Perry Miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (Cambridge, Mass, 1953), p. 443.

14 Beall and Shryock, Cotton Mather, pp. 87-92.

15 "Memorable Providence Relating to Witchcraft and Possession," in George Burr, ed., Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648-1706 (New York 1914), p. 95; Richard Werking follows Miller's From Colony to Province in arguing that as "a witchcraft hunter," Mather deliberately sought possessed persons in order to work a conversion upon them and induce a Christian revival. On the other hand, Chadwick Hansen's highly provocative and quite exciting study, Witchcraft at Salem (New York, 1969), follows a narrower line, suggesting that Mather's principal interest in witchcraft was as an object for study, as "a witchcraft scholar." Stearns follows Beall and Shryock in developing Mather's medical interests through his interest in witchcraft along the lines of psychosomatic medicine. William F. Poole integrated all these elements as he discussed Mather's role and interest in the Salem witchcraft controversy, in The Memorial History of Boston, 4 vols. (Boston, 1882), II, 131-72.

16 While Mather composed the Wonders (Boston and London) he pursued his experimentation with possession in the Mercy Short and Margaret Rule cases, summarizing his findings in A Brand Plucked from the Burning and Another Brand Plucked from the Burning. See Barber, Science and the Social Order (New York, 1952), p. 33.

17Christian Philosopher, pp. v, 291, 287.

18Christian Philosopher, p. 52.

Enders A. Robinson (essay date 1991)

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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 years. Morale was low, tension high, in the wake of periodic massacres by the Indians. While the heaviest fighting occurred in New Hampshire and Maine, raids had repeatedly been made on the northern towns of Essex County in Massachusetts, Andover, Billerica, and Haverhill, in particular. New England towns were hard pressed to support the war with their tax money and their young men.

On January 25, 1692 one hundred fifty Abanaki Indians attacked "wretchedly secure" York, Maine, fifty miles northeast of Salem. Most of the houses were burned, and the minister and seventy-five other men, women, and children were killed. About one hundred were marched off into captivity. The Rev. George Burroughs, the minister at neighboring Wells, Maine, supplied the authorities in Boston with a description: "Pillars of smoke, the raging of the merciless flames, the insults of the heathen enemy, shouting, hooting, hacking [the bodies], and dragging away 80 others."27 (George Burroughs was arrested for witchcraft on May 4, 1692 and hanged on August 10, 1692.)

Captain John Floyd of Romney Marsh (now Chelsea), Massachusetts, in command of a militia company which included Salem men, found the town of York in ruins. On January 27, 1692 he wrote to his superiors, "The 25 of this instant, I, having been informed that York was destroyed, made the greatest haste that I could with my Company for their relief, if there were any left, which I did hardly suspect."28

Captain John Alden of Boston was given the assignment of redeeming the York captives from the Indians. His instructions read, "It will be necessary that you represent unto them their baseness, treacheries and barbarities practiced in this war, having always declined a fair pitch battle, acting instead like bears and wolves."29 The Puritans regarded the Indian style of fighting as diabolic; today it is called guerrilla warfare.

Captain John Alden had previously negotiated a truce with the Indians, but unscrupulous traders and land speculators operating from Massachusetts soon violated its conditions, thereby inciting the Indians.30 Now that the Indians were answering in kind, the same unprincipled men, unwilling to admit their guilt, shifted the blame to Captain Alden for his efforts to reach a peaceful compromise. (Captain John Floyd and Captain John Alden were arrested for witchcraft on May 28, 1692.)

The new royal charter represented a grave threat to the Puritan rulers who saw that their provisional government was nearing its end. Now, for the first time, they would be faced with a situation where the common rabble could vote in political elections. Their Puritan church would no longer hold exclusive control over the lives of the people.

As if these external threats were not enough, the Rev. Cotton Mather found an internal threat, the threat of witchcraft. To understand why the Puritan leaders considered witchcraft such a danger in 1692, it is very instructive to study the lives and characters of the Mathers, father Increase and son Cotton.

Some historians laud the New England Puritans as begetters of the highest American virtues, while others revile them as the source of the deepest American woes. Some cherish them as the symbol of spotless devotion to religious truth; others spurn them as the epitome of icy self-righteousness. In American folklore, the Puritans always seem to fall at one extreme or the other: splendid morality or niggardly repression, religious insight or blind bigotry, political freedom or savage persecution.

Confronted with a myriad of apparent contradictions, writers seldom place a Puritan in the middle ground of history. In all accounts, however, Increase Mather fares better than his more brilliant son. The father usually is placed on the positive side, whereas the son almost invariably is placed on the negative side. Cotton Mather is seen as the one who, through his writings and sermons, triggered the witch hunt of 1692. His father is often credited with using his influence to bring the witch hunt to an end. Their positions in history are chiefly associated with their participation in this tragic story, but at opposite extremes.

The heritage of the Mathers placed them squarely in the elite of Puritan society. Increase Mather (1639-1723) was the son of Richard Mather. Richard (1596-1669) came to America in 1635 and was the minister of the Dorchester church, near Boston. The most revered of the New England Puritans was John Cotton (1585-1652). He emigrated to America in 1633 and was the minister of the First Church in Boston. The Rev. John Cotton and the Rev. Richard Mather were two Moses-like figures among the American Puritans.

Even in youth, Increase Mather demonstrated that he would equal or outshine the eminence of his father Richard. Increase graduated from Harvard in 1656. He preached his first sermon on his eighteenth birthday, and then went to Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland to obtain a Master's degree. He became the minister of the Second Church (Old North Church) in Boston. In 1662, he married the Rev. John Cotton's daughter Maria Cotton.

On February 12, 1663 the couple's first child Cotton Mather was born. Bearing the distinguished names of both Cotton and Mather, the boy may have felt destined for greatness. By 1674 he had mastered the entrance requirements for Harvard College and was accepted. Entering at the age of eleven and a half, he is the youngest student ever admitted to the college to this day. The normal time spent on the undergraduate degree was three years. When Cotton attended, the total enrollment at Harvard was never more than twenty students; in his own class there were only four. The ages of most of the students ranged from about fifteen to eighteen. As an eleven-year-old boy with a stutter, Cotton was discouraged when some of the students threatened him. After only a month at college he returned home for the rest of the freshman year, studying with his father and on his own.

Early in 1674 his father, Increase Mather, predicted that God would strike New England by the sword. The summer of 1675 fulfilled the prophecy; King Philip's War erupted, a war waged by Indians to drive the white men into the sea.31 The Indian leader was King Philip; his Indian name was Metacom. King Philip was the son of Massasoit, the Indian chief who had befriended the Pilgrims, making possible their first thanksgiving. The Indians said that "they had been the first in doing good to the English, and the English the first in doing wrong. When the English first came, their King's father [Massasoit] was as a great man, and the English as a little child. He constrained the other Indians from wronging the English and gave them corn, and showed them how to plant, and let them have a hundred times more land than now the King [Philip] has for his own people."32

The first attack was made by the Wampanoag Indians against Plymouth Colony in June 1675. As the Indians swept northward into Massachusetts, all the settlements went on the alert, no man leaving his house without a gun. Each settlement had several garrison houses where the populace would assemble for protection, often staying for weeks at a time while under siege.33

A combined colonial force was organized to prevent the powerful Narragansett Indians of Rhode Island from joining the other New England tribes. The army met the Indians near Kingston, Rhode Island in December 1675. In what came to be known as the Great Swamp Fight, the Indians' fort was demolished. The Narragansetts fled northward and, joining with other Indians, attacked settlements throughout New England. Of the ninety settlements in New England, fifty-two were attacked and thirteen completely destroyed. The white population was decimated; literally one man out of every ten was killed by the Indians, and like numbers of women and children. In proportion to the population, King Philip's War was the bloodiest war in American history.

The fighting came within twenty miles of Boston. Cotton heard his father's many prayers to God for victory, and believed them efficacious. Increase set apart a special day to beseech God to kill the Indian leader, King Philip, by a stroke of providence. In less than a week the deed was accomplished. On August 12, 1676 King Philip was shot. "This Agag was now cut into quarters, which were then hanged up, while his head was carried in triumph to Plymouth, where it arrived on the very day that the church there was keeping a solemn thanksgiving to God. God sent them the head of a leviathan for a thanksgiving-feast" wrote Cotton Mather.34 King Philip, like his father Massasoit before him, provided the Pilgrims with a reason for a thanksgiving celebration, his head instead of corn.

Despite their defeat in King Philip's War, the Indians continued to fight the white man, mostly with guerrilla tactics, in northern New England for nearly another one hundred years.

At age thirteen, Cotton saw the fulfillment of another of his father's prophecies, that Boston would be punished by a judgment of fire. On the morning of November 27, 1676 his family's house burned down along with forty-five others and the Old North Church. After the fire the Mathers lived temporarily with John Richards, a prominent member of the Second Church (Old North Church).35 (John Richards was one of the witchcraft justices in 1692.)

Cotton Mather graduated from Harvard in 1678 at age fifteen. Still suffering from a speech impediment, he at first believed himself unfit for the ministry and studied medicine. In the seventeenth century, medical practitioners were divided into physicians and surgeons. The surgeons were usually barbers. They performed amputations and phlebotomy (the drawing of blood), as well as extracting teeth. Their sign is used by barbers to this day, a red pole wound with a narrow white bandage.

Physicians of that day had little knowledge of the body or mind. Their training was in certain customary remedies. They had no understanding of the reason behind administering such remedies, nor of what quantities should be used. Among the herbs employed were crude tobacco leaves, fivefinger, brambles, strawberry roots, powdered sumac, powdered elecampane roots, wormwood, wild carrot seeds, sweet fennel seeds, raisins, maiden hair, liverwort, elder buds, knotgrass, shepherd's pouch, pollipod, borrage, buglose root, rosemary, primrose, cowslips, violets, and peony seeds. Other common ingredients were red lead, lead ore, wax, oven-dried horses' livers, and the fillings of a dead man's skull. The most revolting substances, best left unmentioned, comprised many of the remedies. Physicians freely prescribed the medicines, whether or not they knew the physiological effects on the patient.

The following cure for a distracted woman is a specimen of the remedies used in that period. "Take milk of a nurse that gives suck to a male child. Also take a he cat and cut off one of his ears or a piece of it. Let it bleed into the milk and then let the sick woman drink it. Do this three times."

On August 22, 1680 Cotton Mather was invited to preach a sermon at the Dorchester church, and six months later he was made assistant in his father's church, the rebuilt Second Church (Old North Church). Five years later, he was ordained the assistant minister in the church. Apparently there were no more thoughts about violets, horses' livers, and other physic (the old word for medicine).

The Puritans clergy portrayed vivid pictures of the supernatural. They preached that any variation from the known routine of nature, however small or great, was a divine sign. Comets, for example, were supernatural manifestations set in the sky to mark some special event, such as famine, war, or pestilence. "A great and blazing comet" preceded the wheat blight of 1665 in Massachusetts. The comet of 1680 gave Increase Mather inspiration for a sermon entitled "Heaven's Alarm to the World." When John Cotton died, a comet appeared in the heavens as testimony '"that God had removed a bright star, a burning and a shining light out of the Heaven of his church here."

In 1681 a group of eminent New England clergymen, after long discussions about the dangers to religion from the growth of rationalism, decided to combat the unwelcome trend with proofs of the supernatural. They set themselves the task of gathering and publishing every instance they could find of "divine judgments, tempests, floods, earthquakes, thunders as are unusual, strange apparitions, or whatever else shall happen that is prodigious, witchcrafts, diabolical possessions, remarkable judgments on noted sinners, eminent deliverances, and answers to prayer."36

In 1684 Increase Mather completed his part of the project and published it under the title An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences?37 In his book he relates how certain holy men were preserved at sea, when all others on the ship were lost. He regarded meteorites as missiles hurled from Heaven. He assigned to the sphere of the supernatural every manifestation of nature which could not be explained. He writes, "There is also that which is very mysterious and beyond human capacity to comprehend, in thunder and lightning." He calls lightning "Heaven's arrow" and gives numerous instances in which men were smitten with the fire of God. Not until the next century would his countryman Benjamin Franklin give the scientific explanation of lightning.

On the dark side, Increase Mather promulgated the belief that the world was governed by magic and witchcraft. To him, any ill happenings were caused by the powers of the air, the Devil. A thunderstorm was the work of malignant spirits; persons in league with the Devil sank ships, ruined crops, and caused death and sickness.

In his book, Increase Mather includes essays on: "A remarkable relation about Ann Cole of Hartford." "Several witches of the colony." "Of the possessed maid at Groton." "An account of the house at Newbury lately troubled with a demon." "And of one in Portsmouth lately disquieted by evil spirits." "A woman at Ber-wick molested with apparitions, and sometimes tormented by invisible agents."

The essay on Anne Cole says that in the year 1662 she "was taken with very strange fits, wherein her tongue was improved by a demon." Various measures were tried, but "after the suspected witches were either executed or fled, Ann Cole was restored to health."

Increase Mather's account of the possessed maid at Groton is fundamental to any study of New England witchcraft. The event took place in 1671; the girl was Elizabeth Knapp, age sixteen. Mather's essay says, "Elizabeth Knapp was taken after a very strange manner, with violent agitations of her body. A demon began manifestly to speak in her. The things uttered by the Devil were chiefly railings and revilings of Mr. [Samuel] Willard, pastor to the church in Groton. She cried out in her fits that [the specter of] a woman, one of her neighbors, appeared to her, and was the cause of her affliction. The person thus accused did visit the poor wretch, and prayed earnestly with and for the possessed creature, after which she confessed that Satan had deluded her, making her believe evil of her good neighbor without any cause. Nor did she after that complain of any apparition from such an one."38

The essay on the house at Newbury says that on December 8, 1679, "there were five great stones thrown in while the man's wife was making the bed, the bedstead was lifted up from the floor, and a cat was hurled at her, a long staff danced up and down in the chimney." Such things went on for months, but "all the while the Devil did not appear in any visible shape." In their attempts to catch the Devil, sometimes "they would think they had hold of the hand that scratched them, but it would give them the slip."

His work was an immediate success, widely read in front of the fireplace, at work in the fields, over mugs in the tavern. People started to speak with awe of the magicians, witches, and imps which this eminent author held before them. At one extreme, some historians say that this book planted the seed which sprouted into the rankest harvest of witchcraft in the history of New England.39 At the opposite extreme, other historians lament that its significance as one of the first scientific writings in America is, for the most part, neglected.40 Increase Mather describes one notable "experiment" that was used on "suspected persons." Its purpose was to determine "whether the stories of witches not being able to sink under water were true. Accordingly a man and woman had their hands and feet tied, and so were cast into the water, and they both apparently swam after the manner of a buoy, part under, part above the water. Whether this experiment were lawful, or rather superstitious and magical, we shall … inquire afterward."41

The son of Increase Mather now deserves attention. Of all the Puritans. Cotton Mather is most often singled out as the epitome of their way of life. His lifetime, from 1663 to 1728, represents that period midway between the arrival of the first American settlers and the American Revolution. The object of meager praise and violent blame, Cotton Mather has not fared well in history. His few defenders have concentrated on his religious forms and literary abilities rather than his personality. Most historians hasten to disclaim any favorable interest in him, and have been almost eager to defame him. Yet he remains the best known of the American Puritans.42

Modern readers know Cotton Mather most intimately through his profuse writings. In his diary he bared his soul, undertaking to set down how God dealt with him. By putting his thoughts, acts, and spiritual experiences into words, he hoped to unravel the mystery of his fate. His diary became a testimonial to his unremitting quest for personal holiness. Of all of New England's Puritan writers, Cotton Mather appears as the most morbidly introspective. His visions gave rise to intolerable tensions for which he sought relief. The traumatic experience of looking into the pit of Hell, which was the favorite Puritan vista, seemed almost to turn his mind into a chamber of horrors.

Cotton Mather was a man tortured by his Puritanical fears and fantasies. He felt that the cosmos revolved around himself. The theme of his diary is a titanic struggle for his soul between God and Satan. God was fighting so that Cotton Mather could further His work on earth, whereas Satan was fighting to prevent it. The Deity's chief concern in the universe was Cotton Mather, his doings, the state of his soul, and his personal welfare. Repeatedly, Cotton Mather's diary affirms that God wished him well, that mercies for him were being stored up in Heaven pending his arrival, and that everything he did had Heaven's wholehearted approval.

Cotton Mather not only walked with God, but also, on occasion, talked with God. His diary was an expression of his duty to keep a record, for the benefit of posterity, of his "sweet conversation" and "extraordinary intimate communion" with God. In one entry, God told him, "Go into your great chamber and I will speak with you." Doing as directed, he had the gratification of receiving "unutterable communications from the Holy Ghost." In a 1705 entry, on a truly memorable day, he "conversed with each of the three Persons in the Eternal Godhead." Yet curiously, in all the revelations given to Cotton Mather, none offered anything new. No one who was granted the astonishing privilege of looking into Heaven and Hell emerged with a more stereotypical description of those places.

Cotton Mather's war with the Powers of Darkness took the form of an all-out effort to preserve and strengthen the old ways of his ideal Puritanism against what he saw as the corroding effects of worldliness and mercantile prosperity. When he wrestled with the Devil, he complained that a "carnal, giddy, rising generation" cheered loudly whenever Satan seemed on the point of pinning him down. Through his books and sermons he hoped to make people "serious and powerful, and afraid of sin."

The Puritan preachers in New England developed a type of sermon known as a jeremiad, with a recognizable literary style. The name comes from the Old Testament Book of Jeremiah; a typical verse is 9:4, "Take ye heed everyone of his neighbor, And trust ye not in any brother." The preachers claimed the "tyranny" of Andros was a punishment for the people's breach of the religious covenant. To sustain their appeal, the clergy needed a succession of evils. But the usual troubles, such as Indian wars, party squabbles, decay of trade, and smallpox, had begun to lose their effect.

The jeremiad labored under the continual need to pile up horrible tales of woe resulting from sin. Cotton Mather, the most expert of its practitioners, was driven to uncover fresh material. In 1689 he preached about the weakened position of European Protestants, and called upon New England to assist them through prayer and by renouncing sin.

Searching for more and more effective means to lash the conscience of New England, Cotton Mather seized on a fear lying ripe for exploitation, witchcraft. Witchcraft was an internal threat of the most insidious sort; a witch could be your neighbor, even your brother or sister, husband or wife. Cotton Mather started preaching, "Satan is marshaling his forces for a final decision." In sermon and pamphlet, he warned that the Prince of Darkness was preparing to exterminate New England. The Devil would return the country to his own children, the Indians, he said. The whole colony began to listen.

So that no one should miss the point, Cotton Mather constantly enlarged upon the sinister threats of witchcraft during the three years (1689-1692) of the existence of the provisional government. He preached that all our sins have been "at least implicit witchcrafts." Cotton Mather feared that New England would become possessed with the Devil. Through his popular writings Cotton Mather had directly influenced the general public. The ruling Board of Assistants, dominated by the old guard, gladly supported his point of view.

His close friend on the Board was Samuel Sewall. Samuel Sewall's father had settled in New England earlier, but had then returned to England, where Samuel was born in 1652. With the Restoration, the whole family fled to New England in 1661. Samuel Sewall graduated from Harvard College in 1671. He became a magistrate, an assistant to the governor, in 1684. In 1692 he was living in Boston, where he had gained a reputation for fairness. Samuel Sewall admired Cotton Mather and often went to hear his sermons. Frequently they dined together and they carried on an active correspondence. (Samuel Sewall was one of the justices in the witchcraft trials of 1692.)

In 1688 in England, Sir Isaac Newton wrote Principia Matematica, in which he gave the "System of the World." His book has governed the scientific understanding of the visible universe ever since. In the same year in New England, Cotton Mather wrote Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions. This book, published the next year, was Cotton Mather's first attempt to give a scientific account of the invisible world of the Devil. The book is based on his first-hand observation; he uses as data the experiences of the Goodwin children in the summer and fall of 1688. In Latin, he wrote, "Haec ipse miserrima vidi," or "these things these wretched eyes beheld."

The family of Boston mason John Goodwin was well regarded, and his children had been religiously educated. The eldest, Martha Goodwin, thirteen years old, was a plain girl with long, straight black hair. A pretty young Irish woman with a fair complexion worked as laundress for the Goodwin family. Martha, taking a dislike to her, accused her of stealing some of the family linen. The young woman's mother, Mary Glover, better known as Goody Glover or the Widow Glover, came to her daughter's defense.43 Goody Glover spoke harshly, perhaps profanely, to Martha. After the encounter, Martha fell into an agitated state, described by Cotton Mather as "odd fits that carried in them something diabolical." One of her sisters and two of her brothers, following her example, also fell into fits.

Cotton Mather learned of this episode soon after his father left for England in May 1688. He visited the children, and became the most active and forward of any minister in the Goodwin case. When it appeared, his book Memorable Providences gave the case credibility. Few learned persons expressed any doubt about the "facts" presented in the book, readily accepting the preternatural agency of witchcraft as the cause of the children's afflictions. Mr. Richard Baxter, an eminent English cleric, in a preface to an edition published in London in 1691, says, "The evidence is so convincing that he must be a very obdurate Sadducee who will not believe."44

In the spirit of the times, Cotton Mather wrote his book in the guise of a scientific report. He describes the "afflictions" of the children as follows. "Sometimes they were deaf, sometimes dumb, sometimes blind, and often all this at once. Their tongues would be drawn down their throats, and then pulled out upon their chins to a prodigious length. Their mouths were forced open to such a wideness that their jaws went out of joint, and anon clap together again, with a force like that of a spring-lock, and the like would happen to their shoulder blades and their elbows, and hand wrists, and several of their joints. They would lie in a benumbed condition and be drawn together like those who are tied neck and heels, and presently be stretched out, yea, drawn backwards to such an extent that it was feared the very skin of their bellies would have cracked. They would make most piteous outcries that they were cut with knives, and struck with blows that they could not bear." All their afflictions were during the day; they slept comfortably at night.

The Puritan ministers of Boston and Charlestown kept a day of fasting and prayer at the troubled house. Afterwards the youngest child had no more fits. Had not magistrate William Stoughton interposed, the matter might have ended there. Goody Glover, described by Cotton Mather as "a scandalous Irish woman," was arrested, brought to trial, and sentenced to death for witchcraft. Most scandalous of all, the underlying reason for her condemnation was that she was a Roman Catholic. Gallows were erected on Boston Common.

On the day of the hanging, November 16, 1688, the Goodwin children were present in the front row. Cotton Mather, his Bible in hand, said prayers for them, making frequent references to God and Christ. Goody Glover was brought forth. Because of the heavy chain on her legs, the gait of the witch on the way to her execution was difficult and stumbling. The hangman, eager to do his office, tightened the chain clapped about her body as he pulled her along, inflicting excruciating pain. Cotton Mather whispered to Martha that the witch was being pulled to the fire of Hell. The noose of the stiff rope was put around Goody Glover's neck. As she died, she was choked until she was black in the face. When she was cut down, Martha could see the gashing red marks left on her neck.

Goody Glover had declared that the afflicted children would not be relieved by her death because others had a hand in their affliction. According to Cotton Mather, "the three children continued in their furnace as before, and it grew rather seven times hotter than it was." Cotton Mather took Martha Goodwin as a guest into his household. He wrote, "I took her home chiefly that I might be a critical eye-witness of things that would enable me to confute the sadducism of this debauched age." For a few days she behaved normally, but on November 20, 1688 she cried, "Ah, they have found me out," and immediately fell into her fits.

Martha complained that Glover's chain was upon her leg, and, trying to walk, her gait exactly matched that of the chained witch before she died. An invisible chain would be clapped about Martha's body, and she cried out in pain and fear as the specters tightened it around her. Rushing to her aid, Cotton Mather valiantly tried to knock the invisible chain off her as it began to be fastened. He writes, "But ordinarily, when it was on, she would be pulled off her seat with such violence towards the fire, that it was as much as one or two of us could do to keep her out. And if we stamped on the hearth, just between her and the fire, she screamed out, 'That by jarring the chain, we hurt her.' I may add that the specters put an unseen rope, with a cruel noose, about her neck, whereby she was choked until she was black in the face; and though it was got off before it had killed her, yet there were the red marks of it, and of a finger and thumb near it, remaining to be seen for some while afterwards."

He gave her his Bible, the one he had taken to Boston Common, to read some scriptures, but "she said that she sooner die than read them." Yet she had read the same scriptures in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.45 She could read whole pages of a Roman Catholic book, but always skipped over the names of God and Christ. What more proof of witchcraft could there be?

Combining agility of body and quickness of mind, children are capable of extraordinary behavior. Were the "afflictions" of the Goodwin children the manifestations of witchcraft, or were they fraud, pure and simple? Cotton Mather considered this question. In the scientific spirit of the times, he decided to carry out some experiments. One experiment involved his upstairs study. He knew that the Devil would not dare enter his study, a place of God. He had observed that whenever Martha was brought up to his study, she became well. When her fits came upon her downstairs, only with extreme difficulty could she be dragged upstairs. He wrote, "The demons would pull her out of the people's hands, and make her heavier than perhaps three of herself. With incredible toil (though she kept screaming, 'They say I must not go in!') she was pulled in. She then could stand on her feet, and, with an altered note, say I am well.' To satisfy some strangers, the experiment was repeated divers times, with the same success."

After Cotton Mather finished his book, the Goodwin children became well and lived normal lives. One might conclude that his account serves as evidence of his own inattention and strong prejudice. But three centuries later, can such a simple judgment be made? Cotton Mather concluded that his experiments showed that the afflictions of the Goodwin children could only be explained by witchcraft. In the Puritan teaching, supernatural intervention was made to appear as a commonplace event. Behind the witchcraft accusation against Goody Glover lay an element of superstition, even terror. To the Puritan clergy of seventeenth-century America, the Devil was every bit as real as God.

Read by thousands of people in both New England and England, Cotton Mather's book met with much acclaim. Together with his numerous sermons and pamphlets, this book represented a major effort to instill in the minds of the people a belief in the reality of witchcraft and a fear of witches. Although witchcraft was an element in the general belief of the times, it took his aggressive and inflammatory arguments to persuade key authorities that witchcraft was the msajor enemy of New England. With unbounded faith in his own power, Cotton Mather saw himself as divinely appointed to lead in the salvation of New England by driving out the Devil.

To Cotton Mather, New England was a former realm of the Devil, and the Indians inhabitants were Satanic agents. In this fair land, God had enabled the visible saints to gain a foothold, but now the Devil had opened a counter-attack. The present Indian war was only the outward manifestation of the assault; there were also witches who would tear down New England from within. As the young and vigorous acting pastor of the Second Church (Old North Church) in Boston, Cotton Mather skillfully and cunningly had laid the groundwork for the witchcraft delusion which erupted in February 1692.


26The year 1692, at the center point of the "little ice age, " was one of the coldest years in the history of civilization.

27 Petition from Wells, January 27, 1692 (Massachusetts Archives, 37:259).

28Massachusetts Archives, 37:257; 37:318.

29 Instructions to Captain John Alden, February 5, 1692 (Massachusetts Archives, 37:305).

30 Major Richard Waldron of Dover, New Hampshire during King Philip's War had issued "general warrants" to seize every native known to be a "man slayer." Vicious Puritan traders for years used this authority to kidnap Indians and transport them to the West Indies as slaves. Their vessels would lurk in concealed inlets about the harbors of Maine with a view to this traffic. They knew that their business stirred up the Indians, but what was the peace of a few small farmers and fishermen compared to the profits of the slave trade? There were a considerable number of slaves throughout New England, and in Salem and Boston black slaves were bought and sold. Captain John Alden, a long-time trader on the Maine coast, spurned those engaged in these Indian kidnappings, as did the French Huguenots and traders of other backgrounds who had made their home there.

31 In 1675 the native population of New England was about 20,000, having declined from nearly 100,000 in the year 1600, largely due to the white man's diseases. The white population of New England was over 80,000 by 1675. The Indians had already lost an undeclared economic war, and were suffering continual degradation and loss of territory. King Philip's War, from 1675 to 1676, represented the final attempt of the Indians to retain their hold in Southern New England; they lost decisively. Philip's army had some 3,000 warriors, about 2,500 of whom were either killed or sold into slavery. Because about that many more women and children were killed, nearly one-fourth of the Indian population of New England was destroyed in the war.

32 Easton, 10.

33 The American soldiers also took scalps, and were sometimes paid bounties for them by the government. The bounty was equivalent to several thousand dollars today. In major encounters, the Americans indiscriminately killed old men, women, and children. In reporting the interrogation of an Indian woman, Captain Samuel Mosely added, "The aforesaid Indian was ordered to be torn to pieces by dogs, and she was dealt with all." Captive Indians who were not hanged were sold into miserable slavery in the West Indies. Unable to cope as slaves, many of them were killed trying to escape.

34 In its so-called mercy, the General Court shipped King Philip's nine-year-old son to Bermuda where he was sold as a slave. This was done against the advice of some ministers who advocated death.

35 John Richards had become a magistrate, an assistant to the governor, in 1680.

36 From the preface of Increase Mather, Providences.

37 The running title was Remarkable Providences.

38 In 1671, through prayer and understanding, the Rev. Willard convinced Elizabeth Knapp that her affliction was not due to the witchcraft of her neighbor. This realization not only made her well, but made her love her neighbor. In 1692, the Rev. Willard's approach, however, was decisively rejected by the authorities; they chose to take every accusation, however absurd, of the sanctioned afflicted girls as gospel. The Rev. Willard was an opponent of the Salem witch hunt. In a letter of October 8, 1692 his friend Thomas Brattle wrote, "I cannot but admire that these [sanctioned] afflicted persons should be so much countenanced and encouraged in their accusations. I often think of the Groton woman [Elizabeth Knapp] that was afflicted. There was as much ground to countenance the Groton woman, and imprison on her accusations, as there is now to countenance these afflicted persons, and to imprison on their accusations. It is worthy of our deepest consideration, that in the conclusion, after multitudes have been imprisoned, and many have been put to death, these afflicted persons should admit that all was a mere fancy, as the Groton woman did."

39 Wertenbaker, 269.

40 Murdock, Increase Mather, 167.

41 The Greek words … mean "with God," i.e., God willing. Unfortunately for Increase Mather, but fortunately for them, "the suspected persons took flight, not having been seen in that part of the world since."

42 Cotton Mather understood Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Spanish, and Iroquois, and wrote in them all. From his diary, it appears that in one year he kept sixty fasts, and twenty vigils, and published fourteen books, besides discharging the duties of his pastoral office. His publications amount in number to 382. His style abounds with puns and strange conceits, and he makes a great display of learning. So precious did he consider his time that, to prevent long visits, he placed the admonition "BE SHORT" over his study door.

43 The titles Mr. and Mrs. were reserved for men and woman of rank, with Mrs. used for either married or single women as the title Miss did not exist at that time. The common titles for a married man and woman were Goodman and Goodwife. Goody was used as a familiar form of the title Goodwife.

44 Cotton Mather (Discourse, 99) wrote, "Since there are Witches, we are to suppose that there are Devils too. It was the heresy of the ancient Sadducees in Act. 23:8. The Sadducees do say, That there is neither Angel nor Spirit. And there are multitudes of Sadducees yet in our day; fools that say, Seeing is believing; and will believe nothing but what they see."

45The Book of Common Prayer was authorized by the Church of England, and banned by the Puritans. The Church of England is also known as the Anglican church. After the American Revolution, the American branch was named the Episcopal church.

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