Meet the Puritans: Cotton Mather

Cotton Mather, born in Boston, Massachusetts, on February 12, 1663, was destined to become the most renowned member of the Mather family. He was the eldest son of Increase Mather and grandson of Richard Mather and John Cotton, after whom he was named. Both his grandfathers were founding ministers of Massachusetts.

Mather mastered Hebrew, Greek, and Latin as a child, then entered Harvard at the unprecedentedly early age of eleven, where he exhibited seriousness, a keen mind, and a capacity for strict self-examination. He graduated from Harvard with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1678 at age fifteen and a Master of Arts degree in 1681.

Mather was converted as a teenager. He overcame a speech impediment and began to preach in Dorchester and Boston at age seventeen. He was ordained in 1685 and began working with his father at North Church, Boston. His father served as preacher and Cotton Mather served as teacher, but this also involved regular preaching. He also served as pastor during his father’s absences.

Cotton Mather’s first wife, Abigail, to whom he was married for sixteen years, died after a miscarriage and a long illness in 1702. The next year, Mather married Elizabeth Clark, daughter of a Boston physician, with whom he had six children, of which one died in infancy. Elizabeth herself and three more children died in a short space of time from measles and smallpox in 1713, plunging Mather into profound grief. In 1715, Mather married Lydia, daughter of a well-known Puritan, Samuel Lee, and widow of a wealthy Boston merchant. Lydia proved to be emotionally unstable. Her wild mood swings tormented Mather until his dying day.

Upon his father’s death in 1723, Cotton Mather became the primary pastor at North Church, Boston, a position he held until his own death five years later. He wrote a large biography of his father, titled Parentator, in imitation of his own father Increase’s biography of his father, Richard. The books are very different in style, however: Increase’s is short, modest, and anonymous; Cotton’s is effusive, ornate, and bulky. Later, Cotton Mather’s son Samuel would publish a biography of his father Cotton himself, The Life of the Very Reverend and Learned Cotton Mather (1729), to complete the trilogy of the Mathers’ father-son biographies.

Cotton Mather shared his father’s commitment to promote orthodox and evangelical Calvinism and to oppose its detractors. Yet father and son were very different. Increase Mather focused on preaching and corporate worship; Cotton Mather focused on outreach, going door to door in Boston, evangelizing the unchurched. He also organized small group lay societies for Bible study and spiritual fellowship. Unlike his father, Cotton never gave up the vision of a restored and renewed nation. Instead, the idea of a faithful, covenanted nation lifted his hopes and kept him going. Cotton also traveled far less than his father, who spent a considerable amount of time in England.

Then, too, Cotton Mather, unlike his father, dabbled with mysticism. Those mystical tendencies, recorded in Mather’s diaries, became somewhat strange at times. For example, he wrote that he had meetings with angels, and even claimed that one angel told him that Christ would return in 1716.

Despite those mystical tendencies, Mather was a talented preacher and a zealous pastor. Every Lord’s Day he asked himself, “What shall I do, as pastor of a church, for the good of the flock under my charge?” However, it was his indefatigable writing that made Mather one of the most celebrated New England ministers. As a scholar of considerable learning, Mather gathered an impressive library, was a voracious reader, and wrote 469 published works on biblical subjects, theology, church history, biography, science, and philosophy. His theological writings, now largely forgotten, were greatly influential in his time. They abounded with quotations from patristic and Reformation scholarship, as well as from Greek and Roman literature.

Today, Mather is generally regarded as the archetype of the narrow, intolerant, severe Puritan who took part in the Salem witch trials of 1692. Although Mather did not approve of all the trials, he did help stir up the wave of hysteria with his Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions (1689). Later, he looked further into satanic possession with Wonders of the Invisible World (1693, new ed. 1956), in which he defended the judges in the Salem witchcraft trials as well as the use of spectral (unseen) evidence.

Nonetheless, Mather was remarkably broadminded. He operated in a much less diverse Protestant world than we know today, so we must appreciate his openness in relating to colleagues from other denominations. For example, in 1718, he participated in the ordination of a Baptist minister. For most Congregationalists, that was scandalous; for Mather, it was an act that signified unity in Christ beyond church differences. He also thought it was unethical that Puritans had persecuted Quakers.

Mather tried to focus on the essentials of faith. He said that ultimately, the three things necessary for a Christian are fearing God, accepting the righteousness of Christ to justify sinners by faith, and honoring God by loving one’s fellow man. By expressing briefly and simply what was essential, he tried to encourage ways of showing Christian unity. Thus, he corresponded with August Hermann Francke, a leading pietist in Germany, and was delighted at some of the stories of Christian progress that Francke sent him.

Mather also tried to simplify church membership requirements, while maintaining the purity of the church. He did not require assurance of faith in someone who wanted to join the church or partake of the Lord’s Supper; rather, he felt it was sufficient for that person to abhor his sin and have some hope in Christ.

Christianity had to have an impact on society through the good works of Christians, Mather believed. One writer said the “great ambition” of Mather’s whole life was “to do good.” He was an avid philanthropist and advocated improvements for Massachusetts, including taking care of orphans and homeless women, preventing public drunkenness, and suppressing dueling. Mather’s benevolence was reflected in his writings, such as Essays to Do Good (1710).

Mather promoted learning and education, too, and worked hard to make New England a cultural center. He was disappointed in his hopes of being president of Harvard but was influential in the founding of Yale. He was deeply interested in science and was the first native-born American to be a fellow of the Royal Society. He persuaded Zabdiel Boylston to inoculate against smallpox, supporting the unpopular procedure even when it was life-threatening.

For a time, Mather stressed the reasonableness of Christianity, but later in life he became alarmed by the deism that was affecting the church in England. So, while continuing to say that reason could be a great help and support to one’s faith, he was careful to subordinate reason to Scripture.

Mather was a minister of ministers. His Manuductio ad ministerium: Directions for a Candidate to the Ministry (1726), a standard work for theological students, advises young men to carry out a consistent evangelical ministry, studying faithfully and widely, and “doing good” in their talk and walk. In addition to theology, Mather urges theological students to study languages, history, sciences, poetry, philosophy, and mathematics—in short, to imitate himself.

Mather often dabbled in millenarian thinking. Michael Hall notes: “Between 1720 and 1726 he broke away from his father’s literalist interpretations to a preterite position similar to the new philological interpretations in Europe. This decisive break with his father’s generation and his own earlier thinking provides a link to Jonathan Edwards’s postmillenarianism of the 1740s” (Oxford DNB, 37:268).

Mather was influential in the state as well as in the church; he helped lead the revolt against the rule of Sir Edmund Andros. Then he supported the new charter and the royal governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, Sir William Phips (1692–1702).

On February 13, 1728, Cotton Mather, aged sixty-five, died peacefully at home surrounded by family and friends, and survived by two children. He was buried in the family crypt on Copp’s Hill in Boston’s North End.

Mather was easily the most influential writer of his generation in America. He became well-known for his many books, covering an amazing diversity of subjects. Thomas James Holmes’s Cotton Mather: A Bibliography of His Works (1940; reprint Newton, Mass.: Crofton, 1974) is a helpful and massive three-volume work that annotates Mather’s books and shows most of his books’ original title pages.

The three generations of Mathers were strong Puritan leaders in Massachusetts. From Richard Mather’s arrival in 1635 until Cotton Mather’s death in 1728, the Mathers formed a spiritual dynasty concerned with the spirituality, faithfulness, and purity of the church, although they differed about how much the interests of the church were tied to the success of New England as a colony and as a holy community. Cotton Mather, in particular, earnestly prayed throughout his life that God would do a great and reviving work in New England that would have worldwide ramifications. He believed that through spiritual awakening, New England could become a model of faithfulness and devotion to the world.

Only twelve years after Cotton Mather’s death, great revival did come to New England. The Great Awakening that followed extended Mather’s vision into all the colonies.


Joel R. Beeke & Randall J. Pederson, Meet the Puritans