(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Increase Mather 1639–1723

American essayist and theologian.

Increase Mather was a highly influential Puritan minister in seventeenth-century Massachusetts. The Puritans were a branch of the Congregationalist Church, more progressive than Presbyterians but less so than radical Protestants. Puritans wanted to reform the Church of England whereas Separatists, the other branch of Congregationalists, wanted to leave the Church altogether. Mather is the author of many religious, political, and scientific works; many were originally copied by members of his congregation for publication. His writings are studied today more for the historical insights they offer than for their literary merit. An influential church leader, Mather played a central role in the course of the Salem witch trials of the 1690s, using his Cases of Conscience (1692) to call for limiting the use of spectral evidence at the proceedings.

Biographical Information

Mather was born the youngest son of the influential Puritan minister Richard Mather and his wife, Katherine, on June 21, 1639. He entered Harvard College at the age of twelve, graduated in 1656, and delivered his first sermon on his eighteenth birthday, in 1657. He sailed for England later that year. His older brother Samuel had a congregation in Dublin, Ireland; Mather stayed there and entered Trinity College, from which he earned a Masters of Arts degree in 1658. He then worked as a preacher in England, serving churches at Devonshire, Gloucester, and Dorchester. He refused to convert to Anglicanism at the time of the Restoration, however, and instead returned to America to preach in 1661. He married his step-sister Maria Cotton the next year, and together they eventually had three sons and seven daughters. Mather also made his first major public appearance in 1662 as a delegate to an ecclesiastical synod. There he opposed his father and the clergy on the Half-Way Covenant, which would have made it easier to become a member of the church, because he believed that less-stringent requirements would weaken the role of the Church in society. Mather later reversed his stance on the issue and, in 1675, wrote A Discourse Concerning the Subject of Baptisme and The First Principles of New England, Concerning the Subject of Baptisme and

Communion of Churches, supporting the measure. Most historians believe that experience taught Mather that churches would not flourish unless they accepted new members. Mather received invitations from several congregations in New England but decided to stay in Boston and assume teachership of the Second, or North, Church in 1664. Mather had a lively, yet unscholarly, interest in scientific study. He attempted to use "pseudo-science" to explain contemporary natural phenomena in order to illustrate the power of God in all things. This enthusiasm for science prompted Mather to encourage its study while he was president of Harvard, a post he held from 1685 until 1701. During that time, he was chosen by regional Congregational churches to petition King William III for a new charter to replace the one withdrawn by the former monarch in 1683. Mather sailed for England in 1688 and remained there until 1692. With the new charter that Mather helped secure, the colonists lost their right to elect their own governors but retained the power to elect the representative assembly. The king allowed Mather to select the governor and other officers who would serve for the first year of the new government, subject to approval of the king. When Mather and the new governor, Sir William Phips, returned to Boston, many people there were under arrest for suspicion of witchcraft, and Phips appointed a court to try the accused. The court relied heavily on spectral evidence, and the public was divided over using such evidence as the sole basis for conviction and execution. Although Mather was a highly influential person by this time, he took no official stance on the trials until early that fall, when he was asked by several clergymen to render a decision regarding the admission of spectral evidence. By early October he had produced Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men, a discourse on the use of spectral evidence in the Salem witch trials. In it, Mather argued that spectral evidence—testimony by a person who claims to have been afflicted by an accused person while the accused was in the form of a witch or ghost—was not sufficient evidence for execution. Mather's statement that it is better for ten witches to go free than for one innocent person to be executed, indicates to some critics that it was Mather's intention only to slow the rate of executions, since he stops short both of calling previous executions a mistake and of condemning the court. Today, critics tend to disagree about the impact of the Cases of Conscience on the witch trials. Some argue that Mather wisely used his influence to stop the trials; others believe he reacted too slowly and too passively. Critics also disagree on whether Mather's scientific reasoning helped or hindered his judgement on the trials. Most critics agree that Cases of Conscience played a major role in ending the witch trials. After the trials, Mather's political influence declined. He had chosen the governor and agreed to the charter, and when they proved unpopular, Mather became so, too. He resigned his position at Harvard in 1701 when his opponents demanded that he leave Boston and live in Cambridge; Mather chose instead to stay with his church. Maria Mather died in 1714, and in 1715 Increase married his nephew's widow, Ann Cotton. Mather's constant interest in science was again exercised in 1721 when he supported the controversial measure of inoculation for smallpox in Several Reasons Proving that Inoculating or Transplanting the Small Pox, is a Lawful Practice. He died in 1722.

Major Works

Mather wrote in several contemporary genres. His biography of his father, The Life and Death of That Reverend Man of God, Mr. Richard Mather (1669), is a characteristic Puritan biography, glorifying the life of the subject rather than offering a factual portrayal of it. In 1675, Mather, who had previously opposed the Half-Way Covenant, wrote two books supporting the measure, which called for less-stringent requirements in order to become a member of the church: A Discourse Concerning the Subject of Baptisme and The First Principles of New England. Both of these writings are considered valuable for their insights into the intellectual battle grounds of New England.

One of the goals of Mather's religious writings was to show that political disorder and natural disturbances such as storms and droughts were visible evidence of sinfulness in the colony. In The Day of Trouble is Near (1674), Mather drew correlations between God's wrath as incurred by the second generation of Israelites in the Old Testament, and the spiritual troubles of New England. These similarities, Mather wrote, fore-told of imminent, apocalyptical destruction. He also used contemporary events to arouse fear in his congregation in The Times of Man are in the Hands of God (1675), when he preached that the recent destruction of a ship in Boston Harbor was an example of fiery destruction that precedes the "general calamity" told of in the Bible. In addition to arousing fear and guilt in church members, Mather used his pulpit to attack the younger generation of Puritans. The sins of youth, Mather argued, were externally apparent in the changing fashions of clothing of young women and hair length of young men.

Mather's interest in science, particularly comets, prompted him to pen several sermons regarding celestial events. Both Heaven's Alarm to the World (1681) and Kometographia. Or a Discourse Concerning Comets (1683) discuss comets and other cosmic events. In Heaven's Alarm, Mather asserted that one of the roles of a minister is to interpret signs seen in stars and comets, which he said were used by God as warnings of coming disasters. The Latter Sign (1682) was also a sermon on comets, given during an appearance of what is now known as Halley's comet. Both Heaven's Alarm and Latter Sign were reprinted in 1683 in a longer book, Kometographia. In that book, Mather used the scientific method to illustrate how God's providence is evident in nature.

A less scientific but more literary work is An Essay For the Recording of Illustrious Providences, often considered by critics as Mather's greatest literary piece; he used a crude scientific method to reach conclusions about nature that depended on theology. Mather carefully documented dramatic, potentially disastrous stories told to him by both acquaintances and strangers, and concluded that happy outcomes were brought about by the grace of God's intervention. In Illustrious Providences, Mather recounted tales of the power of Satan, as well as tales of phenomena that were considered to be events of witchcraft. Mather did not refute witchcraft but instead contended that supernatural events can be inspired by Satan as well as by God. Illustrious Providences was written eight years before the witch trials began at Salem, and very few historians link the hysteria of the trials to its publication. Mather did, however, draw upon it eight years later when he wrote Cases of Conscience at the height of the Salem trials. In Cases of Conscience, Mather again emphasized that Satan can control earthly events to harm man in the same way God can control them to benefit man. Therefore, the accusers could also be afflicted by Satan, and could then condemn innocent people. For this reason, among others, Mather wrote that while spectral evidence may be useful for raising suspicion of witchcraft, it should not be the sole determinate of guilt. Cases of Conscience was finished in early October, 1692, and presented to Governor Phips before being published. Public opposition had been growing to the trials, which had led to the executions of twenty people. In late October, Phips dismissed the court he had assigned. Critics widely believe that Cases of Conscience heavily influenced Phips's decision.

Critical Reception

To Mather's congregation, he was a well-respected man who could inspire fear, guilt, and loyalty in the people he led. Mather was popular enough to be appointed president of Harvard College and an ambassador to King William III when the colony needed a new charter. But contemporary opponents of Mather charged that he was too rigid and dogmatic and also held him responsible for the unsuccessful administration of Phips, whom Mather had chosen as governor. Mather's writings continue to be important to historians: his disciplined work habits resulted in a voluminous body of writings that record human, natural, and celestial events, and they provide a first-hand look at colonial life of his age.