Cotton Mather was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1663, into a third generation of prominent Puritans. His father, Increase Mather, was an historian and prominent Boston clergyman and his grandfather, Richard Mather (1596-1669), was a famous Puritan minister. His mother, Maria Cotton Mather, was the daughter of John Cotton (1584-1652), an equally esteemed Puritan minister. Such an impressive family background placed considerable pressure on Mather as a young boy. He was expected to become a successful theologian like his father and grandfathers, and he set about fulfilling these high expectations. By the time he was a teenager he had mastered Latin, Greek, and other ancient languages. He had also learned how to deliver formal sermons (religious speeches). When Mather was fifteen he graduated from Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and three years later he earned a master's degree from that institution. In 1685, when he was twenty-two, he was ordained (officially appointed by the church) as his father's colleague in the ministry at the prestigious Second Church in Boston. The following year Mather married Abigail Phillips.
Soon Mather was a prominent member of the New England elite (powerful and influential class). At the same time he found himself involved in a period of profound religious and social change. Although he and his father were preaching the strict Puritanism introduced by the founding fathers of the Massachusetts colony, Mather realized the world was changing. New scientific ideas were rapidly reaching the American colonies from Europe, and many of these theories undermined the traditional teachings of Christianity. For instance, Christians believed that God created and
Increase Mather, the father of Cotton Mather, was an historian and prominent Boston clergyman. He was also a leader in the scientific community. Mather adopted the new ideas of such European scientists as Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and Robert Hooke (1635-1 7G3). He even incorporated scientific theories into his sermons. For instance, he tried to combat superstition by giving realistic explanations about comets and the nature of the universe. Newton's Comet of 168G in particular inspired his interest in astronomy (the study of stars and planets). Mather organized the Philosophical Club of Boston in 1683; one of the members was twenty-year-old Cotton Mather.
In 1684 Increase Mather compiled Remarkable Providences, a collection of "proofs" of witchcraft. Eight years later he actively supported the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts. By 1693, however, he had changed his mind, calling the witch-hunts a mistake in his book Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits. This work was instrumental in bringing the executions to an end. Mather served as president of Harvard College from 1685 until 17G1.
Cotton Mather approved of the witchcraft trials held at Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692-1693, during which twenty people were executed. He published Wonders of the Invisible World (1693), defending the trials as being necessary in order to rid the colony of the influence of the devil. An excerpt from the "The Trial of Martha Carrier," a chapter in Mather's book, describes a typical case that came before the Salem court:
At the Court of Oyer and Terminer [to hear and determine], Held by Adjournment at Salem, August 2, 1692
I. Martha Carrier was indicted [brought to trial] for the bewitching certain persons, according to the form usual in such cases, pleading not guilty, to her indictment; there were first brought in a considerable number of the bewitched persons; who not only made the court sensible [aware] of an horrid witchcraft committed upon them, but also deposed [reported] that it was Martha Carrier, or her shape, that grievously tormented them by biting, pricking, pinching and choking of them. It was further deposed that while this Carrier was on her examination before the magistrates [judges], the poor people were so tortured that every one expected their death upon the very spot, but that upon the binding of Carrier they were eased. Moreover the look of Carrier then laid the afflicted people for dead; and her touch, if her eye at the same time were off them, raised them again: which things were also now seen upon her trial. And it was testified that upon the mention of some having their necks twisted almost round, by the shape of this Carrier, she replied, "It's no matter though their necks had been twisted quite off.
II. Before the trial of this prisoner, several of her own children had frankly and fully confessed not only that they were witches themselves, but that their mother had made them so. This confession they made with great shows of repentance, and with much demonstration of truth. They related place, time, occasion; they gave an account of journeys, meetings and mischiefs by them performed, and were very credible in what they said. Nevertheless, this evidence was not produced against the prisoner at the bar [in court], inasmuch as there was other evidence enough to proceed upon. . . . After recording the testimony of numerous witnesses, Mather attached this note: Memorandum. This rampant hag, Martha Carrier, was the person of whom the confessions of the witches, and of her own children among the rest, agreed that the Devil had promised her she should be Queen of Heb [Queen of Hebrews]. (From Emory Elliot,and others, editors, American Literature: A Prentice Hall Anthology, p. 190.)
Mather later reversed his position and supported the view that the witchhunts had been unjustified.
controlled the universe, whereas scientists were arguing that man could learn about the world by observing and studying nature itself. In fact, a divine creator seemed to have no place in scientific analysis.
Throughout his life Mather continued to preach traditional Christian principals. In the spirit of the Puritan fathers, he warned his congregations that God would punish unrepentant (not regretful) sinners. Mather claimed that God spoke to him in thunderstorms and appeared to him in the form of angels. Like his father, Mather approved of the witchcraft trials and executions held in Salem. When he published Wonders of the Invisible World in 1693, he defended the trials as being necessary to rid the colony of the influence of the devil. Mather later reversed his position and—again like his father— supported the view that the witch-hunts had been unjustified.
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