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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Cotton Mather
Cotton Mather was the grandson of two of the most influential first-generation Puritans in Massachusetts: John Cotton, after whom he was named, and Richard Mather. His father, Increase Mather, rose during the first half of Cotton’s life to become pastor of Old North Church and president of Harvard College; he also secured a new charter for Massachusetts from King Charles II and selected the first governor and council to serve under it. As the eldest son, Cotton intended to follow in Increase’s footsteps. A child prodigy, he graduated from Harvard at age sixteen.

In 1685, Mather matched his father’s first accomplishment by becoming the ordained pastor of Old North Church, a position he held until his death. He never became president of Harvard, although he was offered (and refused) the presidency of Yale. He wished to match his father’s achievements, yet his political influence never approached that of Increase Mather. In fact, Cotton Mather’s influence, like his father’s, declined from 1694 on, largely as a result of political changes brought on by the new Massachusetts charter. A more serious embarrassment, however, was the Salem witch trials of 1692, which Increase opposed but Cotton supported.

Cotton’s reaction to Salem’s alleged witches, while pronounced, was not unusual in an age still absorbed by providences. Seventeenth-century Puritans had inherited a Platonic world-view, believing that the spiritual and the earthly realms overlapped, so that the events of this world were but temporal shadows of an eternal reality. If, as the Puritans believed, God revealed his will in the events of the material world—in the veiled form of storms, martial wins and losses, miraculous cures, and so on—they also believed that the devil influenced the outcome of earthly events, often through his demonic minions: fallen angels, witches, heretics, and “heathens.”

Broadly speaking, Mather’s narratives of both the Salem witch trials and the Indian wars provide a psychological barometer of the Puritans’ anxiety over their perceived status as God’s chosen and the status of their colony as a holy community. From the 1660s, a decade in which the Bay Colony buried the majority of its founding generations, Puritan ministers in the second and third generations began to see omens of spiritual decline, clear signs of a gradual abatement of religious fervor and a withdrawing of God’s favor. Britain’s Puritan Commonwealth had fallen shortly after Oliver Cromwell’s death in 1658; and the following three decades brought two Catholic kings to the restored throne. Once again headed by the monarchy, the Anglican Church renewed its claims of religious hegemony. And as the imperial interests of Great Britain began to outstrip the provincial and religious interests of its colony, the monarchy began a systematic program to strip the Boston leadership of its chartered powers.

Still more devastating, third-generation Puritans, though devout in their spirituality and vigilant in their religious observations, increasingly lacked a genuine conversion experience and were thus unable to provide a testimony of their knowledge of personal salvation. Without this requisite ritual of regeneration—which triggered the individual’s transformation from a member of the congregation to a covenant-member of the visible “Church”—an individual could not enter the covenant of “visible saints.” By the 1690s, the decade in which Mather would write most of the works anthologized here, the Puritan clergy saw in their community’s afflictions the signs of God’s displeasure. The French Canadians and their Indian allies began to retaliate after decades of Protestant oppression. And a “knot of witches” in Salem threatened the moral welfare of the colony.

Mather used both the witch trials and the Indian wars to generate a narrative that would encourage a spiritual awakening in the face of widespread religious complacency. Like his grandfather John Cotton, Mather believed that New England was the fulfillment of a bibical “type.” Thus the witch trials and Hannah Dustan’s Indian captivity were rendered as biblical tropes. While the devil’s assault upon Salem was cast as the Philistine attack on Israel—with the role of the prophet-warrior Samuel going to the witch-trial judges—Dustan’s captivity, her miraculous escape, and her brutal retaliation upon her sleeping captors were rendered as the Old Testament story of Jael, the Hebrew woman who violently killed a Canaanite king for holding her people captive.

Although his treatment of these “demonic” forces has given him more lasting (if dubious) fame than his scientific writings, Mather was as intrigued by the visible world as he was by the invisible. He was elected to the preeminent scientific body, the Royal Society, in 1713; he was an early proponent of vaccination; and he published such influential scientific works as The Christian Philosopher (1720). Careful scientific observation is to be found in his sermons, papers, and personal letters.

Neither the natural nor the supernatural world, however, interested Mather as much as the lives of men, especially his forebears who had founded New England as a celestial empire. Mather’s longest and most admired work is the Magnalia Christi Americana. At once an encyclopedic account of New England’s history and a gallery of its eminent lives, the Magnalia attempts to preserve a sense of the colony’s sacred mission. To that end, most of Mather’s biographies are quite similar, for each New England hero is made to fit a common, saintly pattern from early conversion experience to oracular deathbed scene, and each is highly eulogized. But in each life distinctive features are emphasized, and many of these clearly reflect the author’s own reforming interests. For example, Mather emphasized John Eliot’s role as “apostle to the Indians” and to African slaves; Mather himself would advocate similar apostolic missions in The Negro Christianized (1706) and India Christiana (1721). He praised past models to stimulate present action, whether by individuals or by “reforming societies” like those described in Bonifacius or Essay to Do Good (1710). Inspired by Bonifacius, men like Benjamin Franklin went on to “do good” singly or to form groups devoted to improvement in secular and religious life.

Despite Cotton’s failure to match Increase’s political career, the son far surpassed the father as a writer. Well over four hundred separate publications marked his literary career, and when he died he left a& substantial body of still unpublished manuscripts, including one he considered his masterwork, the Biblia Americana. One feature that sets Mather’s works apart from those of his contemporaries is their mode of expression. Full of ingenious turns of phrase and richly adorned with allusions, often in Latin, Greek, or Hebrew, this style was aptly described by Mather himself as a golden cloth “stuck with as many jewels as the gown of a Russian ambassador.” Such sheer delight in verbal play seems a strange accompaniment to serious Puritan content, but both the style and the religion are deeply rooted in sixteenth-century models. Mather, however, clearly outdid his models—and at a time when Baroque ornamentation and orthodox theology were being simplified; thus, his florid style was often attacked by rationalist critics in his own day. Nevertheless, the rich poetics of his work often has a deeper sense, linking the nation’s past with the patterns of sacred history.

Kenneth Alan Hovey
University of Texas at San Antonio

Gregory S. Jackson
University of Arizona

In the Heath Anthology
from The Wonders of the Invisible World: [The Devil Attacks the People of God] V. The Trial of Martha Carrier at The Court of Oyer and Terminer, Held by Adjournment at Salem, August 2, 1692 (1692)
from Ducennium Luctuosum: An History of Remarkable Occurrences in the Long [Indian] War (c.1699)
Hannah Dustin's Captivity (1699)
Galeacius Secundus: The Life of William Bradford, Esq., Governor of Plymouth Colony (1702)
from The Negro Christianized (1706)
from Bonifacius. . . With Humble Proposals . . . to Do Good in the World (1710)
Magnalia Christi Americana; or, The Ecclesiastical History of New-England
      from "A General Introduction" (1702)

Other Works
The Christian Philosopher (1720)
Manductio ad Ministerium (1726)

Cultural Objects
Image fileFears of Witchcraft in the Seventeenth Century

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Cotton Mather: An Annotated Bibliography
Part of a student project; an annotated bibliography containing descriptions of useful Mather resources.

A beautifully painted and scanned portrait of Mather.

The Tryal of G.B. at a Court of Oyer and Terminer, Held in Salem, 1692
A trial of one Salem witch.

Writings of Cotton Mather
Some of Mather's texts including The Duties of Children to Their Parents and The Duties of Parents To Their Children.

Secondary Sources

Sacvan Bercovitch, "Cotton Mather," in Major Writers of Early American Literature, ed. Everett Emerson, 1972

Sacvan Bercovitch, The Puritan Origins of the American Self, 1975

Mitchell Breitweiser, Cotton Mather and Benjamin Franklin: The Price of Representative Personality, 1984

Janice Knight, Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism, 1994

Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity, 1998

Robert Middlekauff, The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals, 1596-1728, 1971

Kenneth Silverman, The Life and Times of Cotton Mather, 1984

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1980