Mather, Cotton

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Mather, Cotton

Cotton Mather (măŧħ´ər), 1663–1728, American Puritan clergyman and writer, b. Boston, grad. Harvard (B.A., 1678; M.A., 1681); son of Increase Mather and grandson of Richard Mather and of John Cotton. He was ordained (1685) and became a colleague of his father at North Church, Boston, serving as pastor in his father's absences and after his father's death (1723). It was principally by his indefatigable writing that he became one of the most celebrated of all New England Puritan ministers. He was a scholar of parts, working industriously to gather a library and volubly setting forth what he learned. Thus his Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) is a miscellany of materials on the ecclesiastical history of New England, vaguely intended to show how the history of Massachusetts demonstrated the working of God's will. His theological writings, now largely forgotten, had great influence in his time. He was a power in the state as well as in the church, was a leader in the revolt against the rule of Sir Edmund Andros and an adviser in Sir William Phips's government. Today he is generally pictured unsympathetically as the archetype of the narrow, intolerant, severe Puritan, and his part in the Salem witch trials in 1692 is often recalled. Although he did not approve of all the trials, he had helped to stir up the wave of hysterical fear by his Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions (1689). Later he further pursued his inquiries into satanic possession with Wonders of the Invisible World (1693, new ed. 1956), which was sharply answered by Robert Calef. Even Mather's benevolence—expressed in his actions and reflected in his writings, as in Essays to Do Good (1710)—had a core of smugness. Yet he helped to forward learning and education and to make New England a cultural center. He was disappointed in his hopes of being president of Harvard but was one of the moving spirits in the founding of Yale. He was deeply interested in science and was the first native-born American to be a fellow of the Royal Society. He persuaded Zabdiel Boylston to inoculate against smallpox and supported the unpopular inoculation even when his life was threatened.

See biographies by B. Wendell (1891, repr. 1963), R. P. Boas and L. Boas (1928, repr. 1964), and K. Silverman (1985); studies by R. Middlekauff (1971) and J. P. Wood (1971); bibliography by T. J. Holmes (3 vol., 1940).

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