Article abstract: Maintaining Puritan beliefs in seventeenth century Massachusetts, Mather led the Congregational churches of Boston to continue the status quo and sought to retain American independence from British political control. As president of Harvard College and a renowned writer, he aided in the development of higher education and culture in New England.
Increase Mather was born June 21, 1639, in the Dorchester, Massachusetts, parsonage of his father, Richard Mather. His mother, née Katharine Hoult, was a “godly and prudent maid” whose family was not Puritan. Richard Mather, a prominent Puritan minister, was much involved in the life of the new colony and chose the name “Increase” for his son to indicate God’s favor and prosperity on the new land. Increase was to be a living reflection of the New Testament scripture that describes fruitfulness: Although one person planted and another waters, “God gave the increase.”
As with most Colonial boys of that period, Increase received his elementary education from his mother, in his home. To supplement her efforts, Increase’s father tutored him in Latin and Greek grammar and later enrolled him in a nearby small schoolhouse. At age twelve, Increase entered Harvard College, from which he was graduated in 1656, planning to enter the ministry. Great Britain was then ruled by the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell, and Increase soon joined two of his brothers in Ireland for further theological studies at Trinity College in Dublin.
With the death of Cromwell in 1658, the movement to return to royal rule gained enough additional support that the Puritans lost power and Charles II ascended the throne in 1660. A staunch Puritan, Increase Mather opposed the Restoration and refused to “drink the king’s health.” Since ministers at that time were paid their salaries by the government, Mather lost his position and was even threatened with arrest. He decided to return to New England in 1661, and became teacher of the (Congregational) Second Church in Boston.
Mather thus embarked upon his life’s work, that of an influential minister in Colonial New England. His work consisted primarily of spiritual ministration to, and biblical teaching of, his congregation. His position, however, gave him great influence among many of the political and business leaders of the colony. He did, in fact, play a key role in Massachusetts’ struggle for freedom within the British Empire and for four years served as a diplomatic representative of the colony to the British Crown.
Mather’s mother had died when he was fifteen, and, in 1656, his father married the widow of his close friend John Cotton, another distinguished minister of New England. Therefore, John and Sarah Cotton’s daughter, Maria, became Increase Mather’s stepsister. After his return from Ireland, she also became his wife. Increase and Maria apparently had an excellent marriage. She managed their household well, and his “heart did safely trust in her,” as Increase expressed it, quoting from the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament. He was kind to her and loved her dearly, calling her a “great blessing” from the Lord and the “dear companion” of his “pilgrimage on earth.” For her part, she was careful to please her husband and considered Increase “the best husband and the best man in the whole world.” With words such as these in their diaries it does not take much imagination to see a happy, romantic love in their relationship.
Increase and Maria had ten children, only one of whom died as an infant. All of them had a substantial role to play in the life of the Colonies or of England. The oldest, Cotton Mather, became particularly famous, following a career similar to that of his father and grandfather.
Although Mather served his church throughout his lifetime and considered the ministry his principal calling in life, he was also elected president of Harvard College in 1681. Devoting what time he could to college administration, Mather provided a dignity and quiet stability to Harvard during many of its early and difficult years. The prestige of his new position added to Mather’s already considerable influence in the colony. It is not surprising that Mather soon found himself in the midst of a political controversy with England.
In 1678, King Charles II appointed a leading Anglican politician, Edward Randolph, collector of the king’s revenue in Massachusetts. A struggle for power ensued between the representatives of the Crown and American officials in Massachusetts. Finally, in 1683, Charles II sent to Boston a declaration which stated that unless there was “full submission, and entire resignation . . . to his pleasure, a quo warranto” would be prosecuted against the original Massachusetts charter, that is, the constitutional authority enabling Massachusetts to have its own self-government. A quo warranto proceeding was a legal investigation to determine “by what authority” an official governed or acted. Such an inquiry would have led to a revocation of the Colonial charter and Massachusetts would have lost its right of self-government.
Mather refused to yield to a tyrannical king. In January, 1684, he spoke at a town meeting:
If we make a submissive and entire resignation, we fall into the hands of men immediately. But if we do it not, we keep ourselves still in the hands of God, and trust ourselves with his providence. And who knows what God may do for us? . . . And we hear from London, that when it came to, the loyal citizens would not make a full submission and entire resignation to pleasure, lest, haply, their posterity should curse them. And shall we do it then? I hope there is not one freeman in Boston that will dare to be guilty of so great a sin.
There was great excitement among the crowd in the hall, and the vote supporting Mather’s position carried without a single dissenting vote. Boston led the way for Massachusetts and Massachusetts for New England.
The king did indeed declare the Massachusetts charter void, but within a year he was dead and his brother, James II, ascended the throne. King James was more conciliatory toward Massachusetts than his brother had been, but he sought to control the New England...
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