Who Was Cotton Mather?
At present, one of the most hated people in American church history is Cotton Mather (1663–1728). Vilified for nearly three centuries, he has been portrayed as sinister and bloodthirsty, “the representative of all the hateful features of his time,”1 an “insufferable young prig,”2 “the Salem witch-hanger,”3 having “a crooked and diseased mind.”4 Mather is so infamous, in fact, it would be hard to find a person more hated in all of American history, save his own father.
Why so much hate? One reason is that the Mathers are seen as representative figureheads of the Puritan age in America—an age often viewed as dark, oppressive, and Pharisaical. Consequently, the events surrounding the Salem witch trials have effectively served to nullify the influence of not only the Mathers but an entire century of American Puritans. With the help of cultural icons such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, secular society, standing diametrically opposed and hostile to the doctrine and witness of the Puritans, has been more than happy to pin the worst of evils typified by Salem onto Puritanism and cast it aside as an unfortunate historical aberration.
Puritanism’s enemies have made strange bedfellows with anyone who would heap on it scorn upon scorn. With little discernment, liberal historians have welcomed virtually any and every accusation regardless of how nonsensical it may be. Furthermore, this mountain of shame has caused modern Christian believers to avert their eyes, to refuse to set foot into the world of American Puritanism out of fear of sharing in their guilt.
However, in not dealing with the Mathers, the church has abandoned them to the secular academy, which has attacked them not only for their idiosyncrasies but also for their Bible, their theology, and their gospel. We have allowed non-Christian scholars to stand in judgment of biblical Christianity and American Puritanism, I fear, mostly because we do not want to face our uncomfortable history.
But armed with intellectual honesty and a courageous curiosity, we would do well to face American Puritan history head-on, warts and all, remembering that Christianity is not built on the virtue of flawed heroes, but on the perfect sacrifice of the only true hero, Jesus Christ the Righteous, who gave Himself on the cross for sinners such as Peter and Paul, Augustine and Athanasius, John Calvin and Martin Luther, and Increase and Cotton Mather.
Early Life and Ministry
Cotton Mather was born to Increase Mather (1639–1723) and Maria Cotton on February 12, 1663, in Boston. Descending from two founding giants, John Cotton (1585–1652) and Richard Mather (1596–1669), Cotton would have quite the legacy to live up to, a challenge he would meet. At age eleven, he became the youngest student in history admitted to Harvard, where he received a fine education. Naturally gifted with a prodigious intellect, young Cotton excelled at reading, writing, memorization, and recall. Such a gifting led him into studying the Bible, theology, homiletics, church history, classic literature, science, astronomy—practically anything he could get his hands on. And when his appetite for knowledge became insatiable, he ventured out into other languages such as Greek, Hebrew, French, and Latin.
After graduating from Harvard at age fifteen, Cotton soon began to feel a call to ministry. While initially content to live in his father’s towering shadow, the opportunity soon arose for Cotton to minister alongside him as a pastoral equal. Increase, a seemingly cold and distant man, initially balked at the notion of co-laboring with his son, but he capitulated when the congregation of North Church in Boston voiced its overwhelming support of Cotton.
The young Mather was a pastor-scholar par excellence. Unlike his reclusive father, he engaged in a very public ministry, visiting church members, praying with the sick, and catechizing children. In addition to his pastoral presence, it is estimated that Cotton wrote more than 450 books in his lifetime. The scope of his writing is broad: he wrote works of theology such as The Everlasting Gospel of Justification (1699); practical works of piety including Bonifacius, or Essays to Do Good (1710); the first science textbook written in America, The Christian Philosopher (1720); and works of history such as his magnum opus—Magnalia Christi Americana (1702). He even composed a 4,500-page Bible commentary, Biblia Americana (1693–1728), which was unpublished until twenty-first-century scholars began taking up the task.
The ever-curious Cotton was captivated by learning across many disciplines. As a Christian intellectual, he endeavored to reconcile the miraculous claims of the Bible with science and reason. While a beloved pastor and respected scholar internationally, he was also known to be fussy, quirky, and awkward at times. Cotton kept a detailed diary of his thoughts, feelings, meditations, and confessions, and many of his entries are embarrassingly honest.5
His modern biographers have noted his nuanced and complicated personality. At times, they are sympathetic; other times, they are critical. In his evaluation of Kenneth Silverman’s Pulitzer Prize–winning biography The Life and Times of Cotton Mather, Jan Stievermann writes, “For all its great merits and wonderfully lucid consideration of cultural and historical contexts, even Silverman’s biography frequently drifts into a rather heavy-handed psychologizing of Mather that is as speculative as it is unfair and patronizing.”6 However, historian Robert Middlekauff typifies the modern consensus on Cotton:
[He] was a bewildering man, capable of selfishness and selflessness, given both to excesses and to asceticism, noble and self-effacing at times, and petty and self-righteous at others. He could be the pleasant and witty gentleman to his friends, yet he distrusted wit and laughter. He despised and feared sexual gratification, but he married three times, fathered fifteen children, and enjoyed the marriage bed at least as late as his fifty-fifth year when his wife’s illness forced celibacy upon him. He was an opponent of Quakers and Antinomianism, but his private worship approached enthusiasm.7
The modern Mather scholar sees a very human figure—a contemplative, assiduous, haughty, self-deprecating, idealistic, brilliant, faltering, stuttering Christian entranced with glory of Jesus Christ.
But popular opinion of Cotton is far less favorable.
Trapped in Salem
American history likes to portray Cotton Mather as the architect and executioner of the Salem Witch Trials. His book The Wonders of the Invisible World is often seen as his tacit endorsement of the trials based on his belief in strange stories of spirits and witchcraft.8 However, it is the belief of noted historian Perry Miller that Mather had been pressured by Governor William Phips and Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton to write the damning account. Miller writes, “If ever there was a false book produced by a man whose heart was not in it, it is The Wonders.”9 In fact, most modern historians concur with Miller’s assessment that Mather “was insecure, frightened, [and] sick at heart” over the whole ordeal.10 Furthermore, Mather decried the use of spectral evidence (testimony that the spirit of an accused witch appeared to the witness) to convict the accused, though his cries were ignored.
Even a brief survey of Mather’s preaching and writing reveals his infatuation with the person of Jesus Christ.
Contrary to popular belief, Cotton Mather, along with most other Boston ministers, did not support the Salem court’s hasty decisions to execute those who were accused of being witches. His initial recommendation was for the afflicted girls to be “distributed to good homes where their diet and sleep could be regulated.”11 His desire was to avoid hysteria altogether, but the twenty-nine-year-old pastor would not get his way. In fact, it often escapes notice that it was his father, Increase Mather, who wrote a letter to Governor Phips, calling for the end of the trials. And when he arrived in Salem, Phips was shocked to find twenty townspeople dead and dozens more in jail. Immediately, the remaining accused were pardoned and freed, and William Stoughton, acting chief judge and prosecutor, resigned. The magistrates issued an apology, and life in Salem went on.
Why, then, is Cotton Mather’s name still dragged through the mud?
The assault on Cotton began during his lifetime primarily at the hands of a local merchant named Robert Calef (1648–1719). Frankly, he hated Cotton, along with the supernatural Christianity that he espoused. In truth, Calef’s contentions had more to do with denying the supernatural than it did with opposing Cotton, but in time the Boston minister became his sole target. At its worst point, Calef published an outlandish account of Increase and Cotton Mather sexually assaulting a bewitched girl named Margaret Rule whom they were treating. According to David Levin, “Calef at best distorted the facts and at worst lied about them.”12 At the time, no one took the charges seriously, but Cotton’s posthumous enemies seized on Calef’s account to tarnish Cotton’s name. With regards to Calef, Rick Kennedy notes that modern scholars “discount as thoroughly untrustworthy” his writings.13 In time, Calef himself gave up on his attempts to ruin Cotton Mather. Others, however, persisted.
If truly there was witchcraft going on in Salem, Cotton believed in the full use of judicial power against it, but it would need to be proven, and not based solely on spectral evidence. Cotton, not dismissing the reality of the supernatural, called for confessions to be obtained before any sentencing took place. Kennedy has pointed out that although he has become the name most associated with the witch trials, Cotton Mather “never attended the trials nor did he have any authority within the situation.”14 In fact, hardly anyone even considered Cotton’s involvement in the ordeal until decades after his death.
In the early nineteenth century, New England saw “the Unitarian takeover” sweep through the churches and religious institutions. In order to accomplish their end, however, the Unitarians had to systematically uproot and smear both the traditional Calvinist theology of the Puritans as well as their strongly elder-led brand of Congregationalism.15 To do this, they went on the attack against the most prominent Puritan hero of New England: Cotton Mather.
According to E. Brooks Holifield, a leading scholar of American religious history, the primary task of religious liberals in New England was “to subvert Mather’s reputation as an authority on church government.”16 Once church authority was undermined, new leadership could be sought, and the course of New England Christianity could be altered. Holifield notes, “By the 1820s, the Congregational churches in Massachusetts were veering toward liberalism, aided by an 1820 Massachusetts court decision that gave the liberal parish of Dedham the right to elect a liberal pastor despite the objections of the visible saints in the church.”17
To gain justification for their actions and sway the churches, prominent Unitarians such as Charles W. Upham (1802–1875) and George Bancroft (1800–1891) revived the old Robert Calef controversy, painting Cotton Mather as “the dark figure in the background of the 1692 witchcraft trials.”18 By the 1850s, it was open season on Mather, and everyone from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Washington Irving joined in dancing on the grave of the once-beloved Boston minister. To date, whatever good that was once known of Cotton Mather has been destroyed in the eyes of popular opinion.
This is sad indeed, for there is much good in Cotton Mather to know.
A Christ-Centered Minister
While not without his sins and flaws, Cotton Mather was first and foremost a Christian. He loved his ministry as well as the church he pastored. But most of all, he loved Jesus Christ. Middlekauff notes:
Christ provided the center in all [his] pulpit efforts. Mather was dazzled by the splendor of Christ’s sacrifice and humble before it. If Mather’s listeners heard anything he said they must have received the impression that they too should worship the miracle of Christ’s incarnation. . . . Theologically Mather’s reasoning was impeccable: the God of predestination chose men according to His pleasure and nothing they could do affected His choice. And Christ’s sacrifice supplied the righteousness to satisfy the guilt of the fallen.19
Even a brief survey of Mather’s preaching and writing reveals his infatuation with the person of Jesus Christ. Church historian Richard Lovelace notes: “One of the strongest . . . features of Cotton Mather’s work, which has escaped the notice of most of his commentators, is the Christocentric thrust of his preaching. This was a heritage from Increase Mather, who told his son to fill his sermons not with his own learning or moral precepts but with Christ.”20 In his preaching and exhortations, Mather longed for people to experience Christ to the fullest.
However, Mather knew that his relationship with Christ was not rooted in his emotions or strivings. He lived and died by the doctrine of justification by faith alone. He wrote, “A man cannot be Righteous before God, and Accepted and Entitled unto Life, without the Righteousness of God Imputed unto him.”21 Therefore, sinners must possess “A Justifying Faith” that is “Receiving of, and . . . Relying on, the Gift of Righteousness from God, by our Lord Jesus Christ.”22
However, Mather also firmly believed in a tireless and courageous pursuit of Christlikeness in all areas of life: “In fine, a Christian is nothing without courage. That man will never walk as the Lord Jesus Christ walked who is not in his own goings like the stately lion which turneth not aside for any. This is the full purpose of heart which a Christian is to take up, ‘I will imitate the holy walk of the Lord Jesus Christ, whatever it cost me.’”23
The real Cotton Mather—the one who has since been forgotten—was a beloved pastor who loved Christ with all of his heart. And while an admitted sinner, he joyfully exulted in the love of God in Christ Jesus, praising Him for His glorious grace. “O! that I may feel the Virtue of His Death, in a Death brought upon all my evil Appetites; O! that I may feel the Virtue of His Life, in my being brought unto the Life of God, and so quickened from Him, that I may be no longer I that live, but CHRIST living in me.”24
- Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Alice Doane’s Appeal,” (1834), cited in Kenneth Silverman, The Life and Times of Cotton Mather (New York: Welcome Rain, 1984), 53. ↩︎
- Samuel Eliot Morison, History of Harvard in the Seventeenth Century, cited in Rick Kennedy, The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2015), 23. ↩︎
- Robert Lowell, “New England—and Further,” (1977), cited in Silverman, Cotton Mather, 278. ↩︎
- Vernon Parrington, Main Current’s in American Thought, cited in eds. Reiner Smolinski and Jan Stievermann, Cotton Mather and Biblia Americana—America’s First Bible Commentary: Essays in Reappraisal (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2010), 16. ↩︎
- Richard F. Lovelace insightfully notes, “It is true that Mather was a complex personality; though he was probably no more so than any other human being, few other human beings have revealed themselves to us as fully as he did.” The American Pietism of Cotton Mather: Origins of American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Christian University Press, 1979), 2. ↩︎
- Jan Stievermann, “Cotton Mather and ‘Biblia Americana’: America’s First Bible Commentary; General Introduction” in Smolinski and Stievermann, Cotton Mather and Biblia Americana, 17n18. ↩︎
- Robert Middlekauff, The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals, 1596–1728 (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1999), 194. ↩︎
- David Levin notes that The Wonders is “the book that enabled Robert Calef to tie on the name of Cotton Mather a tin can that has rattled through nearly three centuries.” Cotton Mather: The Young Life of the Lord’s Remembrancer, 1663–1703 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978), 120. ↩︎
- Perry Miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953), 201. ↩︎
- Miller, The New England Mind, 201. ↩︎
- Kennedy, The First American Evangelical, ix. ↩︎
- Levin, Cotton Mather, 242. ↩︎
- Kennedy, The First American Evangelical, 147. ↩︎
- Kennedy, The First American Evangelical, 64. ↩︎
- Jan Stievermann, “Cotton Mather and ‘Biblia Americana,’” 15. ↩︎
- E. Brooks Holifield, “The Abridging of Cotton Mather,” in Smolinski and Stievermann, Cotton Mather and Biblia Americana, 84. ↩︎
- Holifield, “The Abridging of Cotton Mather,” 95. ↩︎
- Holifield, “The Abridging of Cotton Mather,” 96. ↩︎
- Middlekauff, The Mathers, 254. ↩︎
- Lovelace, The American Pietism of Cotton Mather, 46. ↩︎
- Cotton Mather, The Everlasting Gospel: The Gospel of Justification by the Righteousness of God (Boston, 1700), 4. ↩︎
- Cotton Mather, The Everlasting Gospel, 16. ↩︎
- Cotton Mather, Christianity to the Life: A Call to Imitate Christ, ed. Garnetta Sweeney Smith (Peterborough, Ontario: H&E, 2019), 28. ↩︎
- Cotton Mather, Baptismal Piety (1727), cited in Lovelace, The American Pietism of Cotton Mather, 155. ↩︎