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COTTON MATHER, born in Boston on the 12th of February, 1663, was the son of Increase Mather, a minister already eminent, and the grandson of John Cotton and of Richard Mather, two highly distinguished ministers of the immigration. In 1678 he took his degree at Harvard College. Only three years later, in 1681, he became associated with his father as minister of the Second Church in Boston, where he preached all his life.
To understand both his personal history and his literary work, we must never forget that the Puritan fathers had
, believed New England charged with a divine mission to show the world what human society might be when governed by constant devotion to the revealed law of God. This is nowhere better stated than by Cotton Mather himself in the general introduction to his “ Magnalia”:
“ In short, the First Age was the Golden Age : To return unto That, will make a Man a Protestant, and I may add, a Puritan. 'T is possible, that our Lord Jesus Christ carried some Thousands of Reformers into the Retirement of an American Desart, on purpose, that with an opportunity granted unto many of his Faithful Servants, to enjoy the precious Liberty of their Ministry, tho' in the midst of many Temptations all their days, He might there To them first, and then By them, give a Specimen of many good Things, which he would have His Churches elsewhere aspire and arise unto: And This being done, He 1 knows not whether there be not All Done, that New England was planted for; and whether the Plantation may not, soon after this, Come to Nothing."
1 Probably a misprint for “I know not."
Whatever the political disturbances of Massachusetts under the original charter, the period between the foundation of the colony and the revocation of this charter was on the whole one of theocracy. Toward the end of this period Cotton Mather entered upon his ministry and the extreme activity of his life. At that very moment the charter was in danger; four years later it was revoked. To advocates of the old order the ensuing troubles seemed the most critical which New England had ever known. In few words the question was whether under some new government the old domination of the ministry should persist or whether the ministry must relinquish temporal power. Increase Mather hastened to England, where he hoped he might do something toward securing a restoration of the charter. Cotton Mather, still almost a boy, was left virtually at the head of the conservative party in Boston, devoting himself with untiring enthusiasm both in public acts and in private devotions to the maintenance in New England of the ancestral policy of theocracy. In 1692 came news that King William had granted a new charter which secured to Massachusetts a government as free as any in the civilised world, and that the first royal governor appointed thereunder was Sir William Phips, a devout, old-fashioned New England Calvinist, and a member of the very church over which the Mathers presided.
Cotton Mather believed that this triumphant answer to his prayers demanded on his part some peculiar act for the service of God. He looked about to see what service God most needed, and discovered thickening in the air about him a storm of occultism. Nowadays we call such things spiritualism, or hypnotism ; in the seventeenth century they were called witchcraft, and were believed to be literally the work of the Devil himself. Beyond doubt Cotton Mather was among the chief leaders of the attack on this mysterious evil which ended in the memorable tragedy at Salem; but posterity, which will never forget that the witches were hanged, has long forgotten the legal point on which their hanging
turned. No one dreamt of denying the devilish fact of witchcraft, - acknowledged by the law of the period as a capital crime. The only doubt was how it might legally be proved. A question arose whether what was called spectral evidence should be accepted; that is, whether the testimony of bewitched persons, concerning what they saw and felt in the paroxysms of their possessions, was valid against the accused. Cotton Mather's personal records declare that he warned the court against the dangers of spectral evidence in cases of life and death ; but that when against his protest the court decided to accept it, he felt bound, believing witchcraft diabolical, not publicly to oppose the decision. It was mostly on 'spectral evidence that the witches were hanged; when spectral evidence was rejected, the prosecutions soon came to an end. Then arose that deep revulsion of feeling which posterity has so bitterly cherished. For two hundred years, there has been little mercy shown the theocratic ministers who devotedly urged on the prosecution of the witches; and, whatever his actual responsibility, Cotton Mather, the least forgotten of these ministers, has borne the brunt of all the evil which tradition has fixed on the period.
The collapse of the witch trials in 1692 may be said to mark the end of theocracy in New England. Nine years later, in 1701, the orthodox party in the church had another blow. Increase Mather, after sixteen years' incumbency as President of Harvard College, was finally removed to be replaced by a divine of more liberal tendencies. This really ended the public career of both father and son. In the public life of New England, as in that of the mother country, we may say, the ideal of the Common Law finally supplanted the biblical ideal of the Puritans, and at the oldest of New England seminaries the ideal of Protestantism finally vanquished that of priesthood.
Cotton Mather lived on until 1728, preaching, writing numberless books, and doing much good scientific work; among other things, he was the first person in the Englishspeaking world to practise inoculation for small-pox. Untiringly busy, hoping against hope for well on to thirty years, he died at last with the word Fructuosus on his lips as a last counsel to his son. Undoubtedly he was eccentric and fantastic, so reactionary in temper that those who love progress have been apt to think him almost as bad as he was queer. For all his eccentricity, however, and perhaps on account of the exaggeration of his traits in general, he seems on the whole the most complete type of the oldest-fashioned divine of New England. He was born in Boston, and educated at Harvard College; he lived in Boston all his life, never straying a hundred miles away. Every external influence brought to bear on him was local. Whatever else his life and work means, then, it cannot help expressing what human existence taught the most intellectually active of seventeenth-century Yankees.
Here, of course, we are concerned with him only as a man of letters. His literary activity was prodigious. Sibley's “ Harvard Graduates” records some four hundred titles of his actual publications ; besides this, he wrote an unpublished treatise on medicine which would fill a folio volume ; and his unpublished “ Biblia Americana” — an exhaustive commentary on the whole Bible would fill two or three folios more. He left behind him, too, many sermons, not to speak of letters and of diaries, which have never seen print. Until one actually inspects the documents, it seems incredible that in fortyfive years any single human being could have penned so many words as we thus see to have come from the hand of one of the busiest ministers, one of the most insatiable scholars and readers, and one of the most active politicians whom America has ever known.
To discuss in detail such a mass of work is out of the question ; but, though many of Cotton Mather's writings were published after 1700, his most celebrated and considerable book, the “Magnalia,” which was made toward the
middle of his life and which includes reprints of a number of brief works published earlier, typifies all he did as a man of letters, before or afterwards. It was begun, his diary tells us, in 1693; and although not published until 1702, it was virtually finished in 1697. These dates throw light on what the book really means; they come just between the end of those witchcraft trials which broke the political power of the clergy, and the final defeat of the Mathers in their endeavour to retain the government of Harvard College. Though Harvard tradition still holds this endeavour to have been chiefly a matter of personal ambition, whoever comes intimately to know the Mathers must feel that to them the question seemed far otherwise. What both had at heart was a passionate desire, based on fervent, unshaken faith, that New England should remain true to the cause of the fathers, which both believed indubitably the cause of God. In the years when the “ Magnalia was writing, there seemed a chance that if contemporary New England could awaken to a sense of what pristine New England had been, all might still go well. . Despite the fact that the “ Magnalia” is professedly a history, then, it may better be regarded as a passionate controversial work. Its true motive was to excite so enthusiastic a sympathy with the ideals of the Puritan fathers that, whatever fate might befall the civil government, their ancestral seminary of learning should remain true to its colours.
At the time when the “Magnalia” was conceived, the New England colonies were about seventy years old. Broadly speaking, there had Aourished in them three generations, the immigrants, their children, and their grandchildren. The time was come, Cotton Mather thought, when the history of these three generations might be critically examined ; if this examination should result in showing that there had lived in New England an unprecedented proportion of men and women and children whose earthly existence had given signs that they were among the elect, then his book might go