Mather, Cotton a very celebrated American divine of colonial days, the most noted of the Mather family, the grandson of Richard Mather and son of Increase, is one of the trio spoken of in the old doggerel tombstone inscription:
"Under this stone lies Richard Mather, Who had a son greater than his father, And eke a grandson greater than either."
Cotton Mather was born at Boston Feb. 12, 1662-63. His early education he received under the eye of his father, and as a lad of twelve he entered at Harvard. At this time he is spoken of as a fine classical scholar. Four years afterwards, when he graduated, Dr. Oakes, the president of the college, addressed him in a Latin speech, lauding in glowing terms his past conduct and attainments, and predicting a glorious future. But it was not in worldly knowledge only that he was so advanced a student. The descendant of a line of ministers, he seemed to be himself, by his aptness in learning and early seriousness, specially marked out for the ministry. When only in his fourteenth year, Cotton Mather's mind had begun to be greatly exercised with religious thoughts. He at this time laid down a system of rigid fasts, which he continued to practice monthly or weekly, and sometimes oftener through the rest of his life, of strict and regular self-examination, and of prolonged times of prayer, to which he afterwards added frequent nightly vigils. It is necessary to mention these things in order to understand some points in his character and conduct in future years. For awhile he was diverted from his purpose of becoming a minister by a growing impediment in his speech, and he began to study medicine. But being shown how by a "dilated deliberation" of speech he might avoid stammering, he returned to his theological studies, and commenced preaching when scarcely eighteen years old. In 1680 he received a unanimous call from his father's congregation, then the largest in Boston, to become assistant pastor, and in January, 1682, was settled as a colleague of his father. His labors in the ministry were characterized by great zeal and earnestness, and he soon came to be considered a prodigy of learning and ability. He was not only a most attentive pastor, but a superior preacher, and withal found time for a large amount of literary labors: he published three hundred and eighty-two distinct works, most of them of course small, consisting, besides his sermons, of devotional works, and other contributions to practical religion. In addition to all these labors he was engaged in the accumulation of material for greater works. Nor did he any more than his father shrink from the political duties which the ministerial office had been supposed to cast upon those who held it. "New England," he wrote, "being a country whose interests are remarkably enwrapped in ecclesiastical circumstances, ministers ought to concern themselves in politics." When, therefore, his father was sent to England to seek relief from the arbitrary proceedings of Charles II and James II, Cotton Mather regarded himself as the natural leader of the citizens, and on their seizing and imprisoning the obnoxious governor, he drew up their declaration justifying that extreme measure.
The freedom of thought in politics, however, made its inroads into the Church also, and fearing a falling away from the purity of the old faith, and fancying that he saw the evil one busy in turning away the hearts of the people, he was led to a life of asceticism, which involved him in religious controversies.
The daughter of one Goodwin, a respectable mechanic of Boston, accused a laundress of having stolen some of the family linen. The mother of the suspected person, an Irish emigrant, expostulated in no very gentle terms against such a charge, and, as was averred, not content with abuse, cast a spell over the accuser. The younger children soon began to suffer similarly, and the poor Irishwoman was denounced as a witch. Cotton Mather, fearing that the excesses of superstition would have a still more derogatory effect on the religious life of the colonists, determined to investigate this case of witchcraft. He took the eldest girl, then about sixteen years old, into his house, and her vagaries soon left on his mind no doubt that she was really under the influence of an evil spirit. The poor Irishwoman was tried, condemned, and executed; and Mather printed a relation of the circumstances, and an account of such influences in other places. The book, which was published with the recommendation of all the ministers of Boston and Charlestown, was entitled Memorable Providences relating to Witchcraft and Possessions, with Discoveries and Appendix (Lond. and Bost. 1689, 8vo; 2d edit. 1691, 12mo; Edinb. 1697, 12mo). Both in the colony and in England the book was read by everybody. In the old country it had the honor to be introduced by the eminent divine, Dr. Richard Baxter, who wrote a preface for the work, and argued that it was "sufficient to convince all but the most obdurate Sadducees." The question here arises whether or not Cotton Mather was himself a believer in witchcraft, and whether or not he wrote the book simply to explode the "delusion" which was fast making converts, especially in and about Massachusetts. Even to our day this question has not been satisfactorily solved.
Mr. Bancroft, our great historian, has treated Cotton Mather as guilty of having provoked the excitement known as the "Salem witchcraft delusion." Within the last few years, however, one of our ablest writers, Mr. Poole, formerly librarian of the "Boston Library," has come forward to clear Cotton Mather of any and all insinuations, holding that "the opposite" of what is generally charged against Mr. Mather "is the truth." "His gentler treatment," we are told, "cured and Christianized them [the believers of witchcraft]. He opposed, with his father and the rest of the clergy — with but three exceptions — the course of the judges in deeming every possessed person guilty, the ministry holding that the devil might enter innocent persons, and that the fact of their improper conduct was no ground for adjudging them criminals. He also opposed taking spectral testimony, or the words of a confessed witch. It must be ordinary legal witnesses and testimony that could alone convict. He also offered to take six of the accused persons into his own house, at his own expense, and to make upon them the experiment of prayer and fasting which had been so successful with the Goodwin children of his own congregation." Mr. Poole also proves or makes it quite credible that it was Mather and not Mr. Willard who wrote the most vigorous tract of the times against the Salem movements, and who made the Boston and Salem treatment noted for their difference even at that day. SeE SALEM; SEE WITCHCRAFT.
There can hardly be any question about the fact that Cotton Mather is, in a measure at least, responsible for the blood that was shed at Salem between 1685 and 1692. But it is folly indeed to question his goodness, as some have done, or even to bring charges against his sincerity because of his fanatical treatment of the deluded Salemites. We need only remember that even the very men who built up the Church of Protestantism in the 16th century were not entirely free from mistakes, and failed in a manner very much like their good Puritan descendant. Sublimely ridiculous, then, appears the judgment pronounced by a writer in a late number of Zion's Herald (May 20, 1869): "At twenty-three he was in the midst of this terrific panic of mortal fear and its fatal results; and, even at this boyish age, bore himself with such manly courage, prudence, and coolness that he was the only minister, and even the only person, except his father, who may have been said to have stood solidly on his feet, and who won from his contemporary the praise that 'had his notions been hearkened to and followed, these troubles would never have grown unto that height which they now have." The quotation is from Poole's article in the North American Review of April, 1869. While we would not forget the merits of our ancestors, but would rather extol them and laud them for their virtues, we cannot afford to be blind to their faults and mistakes. Salem witchcraft persecution certainly must not find an advocate in the nineteenth century, surely not at the expense of the truths of history. But to turn to the brighter side of Mather's life. Says a writer in delineating his character, while acknowledging the failing we have felt constrained to condemn: "It was the great ambition of his whole life to do good. His heart was set upon it: he did not therefore content himself with merely embracing opportunities of doing good that occasionally offered themselves, but he very frequently set apart much time on purpose to devise good; and he seldom came into any company without having this directly in his view. It was constantly one of his first thoughts in the morning, What good may I do this day? And that he might more certainly attend to the various branches of so large and comprehensive a duty, he resolved this general question, What good shall I do? into several particulars, one of which he took into consideration while he was dressing himself every morning, and as soon as he came into his study he set down some brief hints of his meditations upon it. He had ordinarily a distinct question for each morning in the week. His question for the Lord's-day morning constantly was, What shall I do, as pastor of a Church, for the good of the flock under my charge? Upon this he considered what subjects were most suitable and seasonable for him to preach on; what families of his flock were to be visited, and with what particular view; and how he might make his ministry still more acceptable and useful." He died Feb. 13,1728.
Though many of Cotton Mather's productions are indeed but small volumes, as single Sermons, Essays, etc., yet there are several among them of a much larger size; as his Magnalia Christi Americana, or the Ecclesiastical History of New England from its first Planting in 1620 to 1698 (Lond. 1702, folio; Hartford, Conn., 1820, 2 vols.8vo); his Christ. Philosopher (Lond. 1721,12mo); his Ratio Disciplinae Fratrum Nov- Anglorum; his Directions to a Candidate for the Ministry — a book which brought him as many letters of thanks as would fill a volume. Besides all these, the doctor left behind him several books in manuscript; one of which, viz. his Biblia Americana, or Illustrations of the Sacred Scriptures, was proposed to be printed in three volumes, folio. The true motive that prompted him to write and publish so great a number of books, appears from the motto that he wrote on the outside of the catalogue which he kept of his own works, viz. Joh 15:8, "Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit." Dr. Mather was one of the most peculiar men that America has produced. He doubtless possessed larger learning than any other minister of his time, but his mind was better adapted to acquire than to create. He lacked in strong judgment, in original genius, and in sustained power. He had no ability to generalize, no wide and penetrating vision. The most noted benefaction of his life to the country was introducing vaccination for small-pox, which proved a great blessing. See his Life, written by his son (Bost. 1729); also by Enoch Pond and Dr. Jennings; Jones, Chris. Biog. s.v.; Sparks, Amer. Biog. 1st series, 6:161 sq.; Sherman, New England Divines, p. 76 sq.; Duyckinck, Cyclop. Of Amer. Lit. 1:59; Allibone, Dict. of Brit. and Amer. Auth. vol. ii, s.v.; Bancroft, tist. of the U. S. 3:71, 76, 95, 98; North Amer. Rev. 43:519; 46:477; 51:1; Meth. Quar. Rev. 1:430; Christian Examniner, v. 365. (J. II. W.)