Cotton Mather, circa 1700
|Born||February 12, 1663|
|Died||February 13, 1728 (aged 65)|
Cotton Mather (February 12, 1663 – February 13, 1728). A.B. 1678 (Harvard College), A.M. 1681; honorary doctorate 1710 (University of Glasgow), was a socially and politically influential Puritan minister, prolific author, and pamphleteer. Cotton Mather was the son of influential minister Increase Mather. He is often remembered for his connection to the Salem witch trials.
Mather was named after his grandfather, John Cotton. He attended Boston Latin School, and graduated from Harvard in 1678, at only 15 years of age. After completing his post-graduate work, he joined his father as assistant Pastor of Boston’s original North Church (not to be confused with the Anglican/Episcopal Old North Church). It was not until his father’s death, in 1723, that Mather assumed full responsibilities as Pastor at the Church.
Author of more than 450 books and pamphlets, Cotton Mather’s ubiquitous literary works made him one of the most influential religious leaders in America. Mather set the nation’s “moral tone,” and sounded the call for second and third generation Puritans, whose parents had left England for the New England colonies of North America to return to the theological roots of Puritanism.
The most important of these, Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), is composed of 7 distinct books, many of which depict biographical and historical narratives which later American writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Elizabeth Drew Stoddard, and Harriet Beecher Stowe would look to in describing the cultural significance of New England for later generations following the American Revolution. Mather’s text thus was one of the more important documents in American history because it reflects a particular tradition of seeing and understanding the significance of place. Mather, as a Puritan thinker and social conservative, drew on the figurative language of the Bible to speak to present-day audiences. In particular, Mather’s review of the American experiment sought to explain signs of his time and the types of individuals drawn to the colonies as predicting the success of the venture. From his religious training, Mather viewed the importance of texts for elaborating meaning and for bridging different moments of history (for instance, linking the biblical stories of Noah and Abraham with the arrival of eminent leaders such as John Eliot, John Winthrop, and his own father Increase Mather).
The struggles of first, second and third-generation Puritans, both intellectual and physical, thus became elevated in the American way of thinking about its appointed place among other nations. The unease and self-deception that characterized that period of colonial history would be revisited in many forms at political and social moments of crisis (such as the Salem witch trials which coincided with frontier warfare and economic competition among Indians, French and other European settlers) and during lengthy periods of cultural definition (e.g., the American Renaissance of the late 18th and early 19th century literary, visual, and architectural movements which sought to capitalize on unique American identities).
A friend of a number of the judges charged with hearing the Salem witch trials, Mather admitted the use of “spectral evidence,” (compare “The Devil in New England”) but warned that, though it might serve as evidence to begin investigations, it should not be heard in court as evidence to decide a case. Despite this, he later wrote in defense of those conducting the trials, stating:
- “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 Re-joyce that God is Glorified…” (Wonders of the Invisible World).
Highly influential due to his prolific writing, Mather was a force to be reckoned with in secular, as well as in spiritual, matters. After the fall of James II of England in 1688, Mather was among the leaders of a successful revolt against James’s Governor of the consolidated Dominion of New England, Sir Edmund Andros.
Mather was influential in early American science as well. In 1716, as the result of observations of corn varieties, he conducted one of the first experiments with plant hybridization. This observation was memorialized in a letter to a friend:
- “My friend planted a row of Indian corn that was colored red and blue; the rest of the field being planted with yellow, which is the most usual color. To the windward side this red and blue so infected three or four rows as to communicate the same color unto them; and part of ye fifth and some of ye sixth. But to the leeward side, no less than seven or eight rows had ye same color communicated unto them; and some small impressions were made on those that were yet further off.”
Of Mather’s three wives and fifteen children, only his last wife and two children survived him. Mather was buried on Copp’s Hill near Old North Church.
Cotton Mather is the ancestor of Rev. George A Mather, author of numerous books on cults and religion.
Mather and smallpox inoculation
A smallpox epidemic struck Boston in May 1721 and continued through the year.
The practice of smallpox inoculation (as opposed to the later practice of vaccination) had been known since 1706. A slave, Onesimus, had explained to Mather how he had been inoculated as a child in Africa. The practice was an ancient one, and Mather was fascinated by the idea. He encouraged physicians to try it, without success. Then, at Mather’s urging, one doctor, Zabdiel Boylston, tried the procedure on his only son and two slaves–one grown and one a boy. All recovered in about a week.
In a bitter controversy, the New England Courant published writers who opposed inoculation. The stated reason for this editorial stance was that the Boston populace feared that inoculation spread, rather than prevented, the disease; however, some historians, notably H. W. Brands, have argued that this position was a result of editor-in-chief James Franklin’s (Benjamin Franklin’s brother) contrarian positions. Boylston and Mather encountered such bitter hostility, that the selectmen of the city forbade him to repeat the experiment.
The opposition insisted that inoculation was poisoning, and they urged the authorities to try Boylston for murder. So bitter was this opposition that Boylston’s life was in danger; it was considered unsafe for him to be out of his house in the evening; a lighted grenade was even thrown into the house of Mather, who had favored the new practice and had sheltered another clergyman who had submitted himself to it.
After overcoming considerable difficulty and achieving notable success, Boylston traveled to London in 1724, published his results, and was elected to the Royal Society in 1726.
Mather and Slavery
Mather thought it his Christian duty to introduce slaves to Christianity, which was not an unusual view for his time. “Within his own household, two of his slaves – Onesimus, bought for Mather by his congregation in the mid 1700s, and Ezer, a servant in the 1720s – knew how to read, although we do not know who taught them. Mather even set up and paid for an evening school for blacks and Indians that lasted from at least January 1718 to the end of 1721. Significantly, Mather offered no writing instruction at this school (even though he envisioned such instruction for his own domestic slaves): the school was to instruct its students only in reading the scriptures and learning the catechism.” (Monaghan, E.J.) During the colonial period of America writing was not taught to the enslaved.
- Wonders of the Invisible World (1693) ISBN 0-7661-6867-0 Online edition (PDF)
- Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) ISBN 0-674-54155-3
- The Negro Christianized (1706) Online edition (PDF)
- Theopolis Americana: An Essay on the Golden Street of the Holy City (1710) Online edition (pdf)
- Bonifacius (1710) ISBN 0-7661-6924-3
- The Christian Philosopher (1721) ISBN 0-252-06893-9
- Religious Improvements (1721)
- The Angel of Bethesda (1724)
- Manuductio ad Ministerium (1726)
- A Token for the Children of New England (1675) ISBN 1-877611-76-X (inspired by the book by James Janeway and published together with his account in the American volume)