Darla Burl on Cotton Mather

Papers from Hillsdale College
REL 319 -- Eighteenth Century Theology:
Jonathan Edwards and American Puritanism

Cotton Mather

by Darla Burl

Cotton Mather (1663-1728) remains one of the strongest clerical figures of the early New England Puritan society. He was a brilliant and yet quiet man who had spent his childhood studying Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, by which he felt greatly rewarded. Receiving his Harvard degree at the young age of sixteen, Cotton went on to join his father, Increase Mather, in the pastorate of the Second Church in Boston. However, before joining his father, he studied the sciences and medicine, for his childhood aspirations of becoming a minister were quickly becoming destroyed by a childhood stammer. He was able to overcome his speech impediment with the aid of his teacher and friend Elijah Corlet. Once Cotton began to settle down in his new position next to his father in the ministry, he realized he had some rather large shoes to fill. His ministerial ancestry was full of leaders in the church and in political matters, including his grandfathers Richard Mather and John Cotton who were strong leaders in the founding generation of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Because Cotton Mather had late in his teens conquered his speech impediment, the lack of self-confidence he had followed him into his adulthood. However, because of this he became a prolific writer who wrote over 400 books in his lifetime. A theological and ethical background in Christianity had inspired him to write about science and his findings in the subject (Beall 123). He even introduced the smallpox inoculation in 1721 during an epidemic breakout (the worst colonial America had ever seen.) However, Cotton's greatest work did not revolve around the sciences, but it focused on the history of Christ in America. This great piece of literature, Magnalia Christi Americana (The Great Achievement of Christ in America 1702) was a detailed history of the first fifty years in New England. He wrote after the prayers for blessing in the colonies were answered that "Religion begat prosperity, and the daughter devoured the mother" (Magnalia).

Cotton also heavily involved himself in political issues that were rising in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. When the Cambridge Platform was being challenged Cotton took a stand against it and suggested that times were a'changing so looking to the half-way covenant was the way to go. Perhaps the period in his life that made him so unpopular with the Puritans of early New England remains the Salem witchtrials. Cotton wrote about and spoke against making accusations of diabolical assistance. He knew that many of the demon-possessions were legit, but he also warned against spectral evidence such as strange markings on the body. His thoughts and actions involving him with the trials angered many people so they took a strong opposition against him.

Cotton Mather's sermons seem to bypass theological complexities and he focuses on a more evangelical conversion experience that comes by human initiative. Cotton came up with his own form of simplified theology which he wrote about in Essays To Do Good (1710) (Levin 220). Mather remained preoccupied with the idea of unity among all denominations of Christendom. His publications do not appear to be written to a particular denomination or group, but they address international and interdenominational audiences.

The influence that Cotton Mather had on Puritan New England may never be fully recognized. His medical and science journals have not all been published, bu they are some of the first American studies in the sciences. His strong opinions about the witch trials seemed to have scarred his reputation for life along with the fact that he was not a skillful politician. Many people have heard the name "Cotton Mather," but aside fromt hat and maybe an association with Puritanism, that is all.

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Last updated: 25 March 1998