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Cotton 1663-1728 Mather

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MATHER, COTTON (1663-1728), American Congrega tional minister and author, son of Increase Mather (q.v.), lived all his life in Boston, where he was born on Feb. 12, 1663. From 1685 till his death he was a minister of the Second Church there. He took his A.B. at Harvard in 1678 and his A.M. in 1681.

In 1688 and 1689 when some of the colonists opposed the royal governor, Sir Edmund Andros, Mather was one of their leaders. When Sir William Phips, one of his disciples, became governor in 1692, Mather became influential in politics, but the ill success of Phips's administration and perhaps Mather's own lack of diplomacy lessened his power. After 1702, when Joseph Dudley became governor, he lost most of his political prestige. He was made a fellow of Harvard in 1690, but gave up this office in 1703 of ter his father had been ousted from the presidency of the college. He longed to be president himself, but those who opposed his con servative views on church polity, differed with him politically, or disliked his too dictatorial tone on public affairs, prevented his being chosen. He turned much of his attention to Yale which he hoped might remain a stronghold of Congregational orthodoxy now that Harvard was less strict, and in 1722 seems to have declined an offer of the presidency of the Connecticut college.

Perhaps his most tangible public service was his advocacy of inoculation for smallpox in 1721. He interested Dr. Zabdiel Boyl ston, and his fearless scientific attitude in the face of opposition did much to advance the new weapon against the disease.

In his own day his fame was international. He corresponded with several distinguished European scholars, was elected to the Royal Society in 1713, and the University of Aberdeen gave him an honorary degree in 1710. His contemporary reputation was based partly on his writings—he published some 450 works on history, science, biography and various aspects of theology and religion—most important of which is a collection of biogra phies and historical fragments bearing on the "church history of New England" and called the Magnalia Christi Americana (1702). In spite of manifest defects this was the most elaborate book of the kind thus far produced in the Colonies, and is still of great historical value. It has also some real literary merit. In part, too, he was famous for his scholarship—which, judged by the standards of his time, was great—for his amazingly wide reading, for his preaching, for his interest in and knowledge of current science and for his zeal in promoting piety and religion.

Ever since 1728 Cotton Mather has been more celebrated than any other American Puritan. Part of his notoriety is based on the theory that he was to some extent personally responsible for the witchcraft prosecution at Salem in 1692. He believed in witch craft, investigated cases of supposed diabolic possession, and wrote before 1700 several books on the subject, among them an account of some of the Salem trials. Thus he may have stimulated the popular excitement of 1692, but that he tried to do so or was malicious in intent is not shown by the evidence. He warned the witch judges that some of their methods were unfair, and was convinced that some of the victims were unjustly sentenced.

A conservative, he kept abreast of many of the newer ideas of his time, and grew in tolerance toward other sects than his own. In 1718 he helped to ordain a Baptist minister; in 1726 he boasted that his own church had admitted to communion members of other denominations. In his writing he achieved some admirable prose, though he was archaic in his love of learned ,llusions and quota tions. Nervously sensitive, hot-tempered, too eager in controversy, he had traits of the fanatic ; vanity and ambition were elements in his character. None the less, throughout his life he gave himself unsparingly for what he believed was the good, spiritual and ma terial, of his fellow men. However much some aspects of his na ture and methods may repel, one must respect the nobility of his motives and his devotion to an ideal. He married three times. Nine of his 15 children died young, and only two outlived him.


Cotton Mather's Diary, ed. W. C. Ford (1911-12), and the biographies by Samuel Mather (1729), Barrett Wendell (1891, 1926), and A. P. Marvin (1892). For bibliography see J. L. Sibley, Biograph ical Sketches of Harvard Graduates, vol. iii. (1873-85), and Cambridge History of American Literature, vol. i. (1917--/I) ; see also K. B. Murdock, ed., Selections from Cotton Mather (1926), which contains a biographical and critical introduction. Many of the numerous short articles or. Mather's life and activities are in the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society and of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and in the Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachu setts. See also B. Wendell, Cotton Mather, the Puritan Priest (1926) ; R. P. and L. Boas, Cotton Mather, Keeper of the Puritan Conscience