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

A Brief Biographical Sketch
of the Reverend Increase Mather

by Andrew Mitchell

Ever since John Winthrop's sermon on Christian charity, given on board the "Arabella," the Puritan colonists of New England envisioned themselves to be a unique creation. They were citizens of "a citie vpon a hill" [sic], a model, planted by God to shine forth from among men. They had a message to present to the world, and each member of that first generation of settlers felt deeply the import of such a vision. As time passed, and as new colonists entered the region, the overall spirituality of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and its environs began to decline. The maturing adults of the second generation were not as interested in bringing their families into the federal covenant, and many preachers felt that their respect was falling. Eventually, the perfect "citie" envisioned by the early Puritans would fade away, the traditions conquered at last by change. One man saw the dying out of the old ways and the transition to the new. His name was Increase Mather. The Reverend Increase Mather, a leader among second generation Puritans, fought hard to keep the original principles and Divine mission of New England alive, but even he could not keep the inhabitants of Massachusetts from backsliding and other sins. His life is one of constant conflict and struggle; an uphill struggle against the passage of time.


The Mather family emigrated to America in 1635, where Richard Mather-the head of the clan-assumed the post of a minister in Dorchester, a small town outside of Boston. On June 21, 1639, his last son, Increase Mather was born. Increase was brought up in a household where religion was just as much a part of life as food and drink. His mother, Katherine, a godly and devout woman, had a strong influence on him. It was her prayer that above all else, her son might be a good Christian and a good scholar. Mather would live to fulfill his mother's prayer.

In 1651, at the age of 12, he entered Harvard, though because of his sickly and frail frame, he resided off campus with the Reverend John Norton. In March of 1655, soon after his mother died, Mather began to grapple with the real faith of Christianity and how one claimed it for his own. He was convicted with anguish and horror in his soul as he contemplated the evils in his life. As an act of purging himself from the guilt that he was burdened with, Mather took a piece of paper and wrote down his sins on it. He then offered upon a prayer of confession to the Lord and burnt the paper. He talked more and more with Rev. Norton about grace and its saving effects. For two months he struggled with this until finally, in May, he felt a spirit of peace enter his soul. A year later, Mather graduated from Harvard and began devoting himself to the pulpit, where he felt a special calling. His first sermon was delivered in June 1657, but he was not to remain in America for very long. Increase left for Europe three weeks after giving his first message in order to study at Trinity College in Dublin. He received an M.A. in 1658 from the institution, was offered a fellowship, and invited to stay on as a teacher. Increase, still feeling called to the ministry, politely declined the invitation and instead moved to the Channel Island of Guernsey, where he served as a garrison chaplain from 1659-1661. Upon the restoration of the monarchy to England, and the rise of Anglicanism over Puritanism, Increase felt it unsafe to remain in the Old World and soon left for New England and home.

In March of 1662, Increase married his step-sister, Maria Cotton, and the following February, their eldest son, Cotton Mather was born. Cotton would grow up admiring his father and would fight alongside him in many debates. Cotton became Increase's hope that the next generation of Puritans might continue to live according to the same principles as their fathers. In 1664, Increase was invited to preach at the Old North Church in Boston, one of the most prestigious places of worship in the whole colony. Governors and assemblymen would attend the church during sessions, and several of the elite merchants too were members of Mather's congregation. Increase would hold this post until his death almost sixty years later. He was quickly established as a voice of authority in the colony, and soon was looked up to as a prominent leader both in the church as well as in the state. During the year 1669, Mather would lose first his father and then his brother within three months of each other. The shock threw Increase into severe melancholy from which he never completely recovered. In 1684, the Massachusetts Bay Colony's charter was revoked by Charles II, and a new charter, including tolerance for non-Puritans, was forced upon the New Englanders. Under the next king, James II, Massachusetts and its surrounding colonies became a royal dominion, and a new governor, Sir Edmund Andros, was sent over to act as the king's man. In 1687, a Declaration of Indulgence was issued by the king, which prohibited any discrimination against Catholics. This decree, combined with the tyrannical of Andros made the Puritans quite upset; the next year, they sent Increase Mather over to England, in order that he might persuade James to revoke the royal charter and to give New England back its old one. No sooner had Increase arrived and nearly convinced James, than he was overthrown and a new pair of monarchs, William and Mary, assumed the throne of England. Again Mather tried to lobby for the old charter of Massachusetts, but to no avail. In 1692, a four years of fruitless petitioning, Mather sailed back home, never to return again to the home of his ancestors.

In 1703, a few years after his return to Boston, Mather was forced to resign his seat as president of Harvard College, a position he had held for the past twenty years. Many on the board wanted Mather to leave his ministry and settle closer to the university, but Increase refused to leave Old North Church. In April of 1714, after over fifty years of marriage, and having borne nine children, Maria Mather died. The next year, Increase remarried, this time to a relative of Maria, Anne Lake Cotton. Seven years later, on September 27, 1722, Increase blacked-out, possibly suffering a mild stroke. During the next eleven months, he was confined to bed, constantly attended to by his son, Cotton. In August of 1723, his bladder gave out, and three weeks later, in excruciating pain, Increase Mather died in his son's arms: he was eighty-four years old.


As a minister of the Word, Increase Mather was quite orderly and intellectual. He often stayed in his study for most of the day, and many criticized this seemingly lack of interest in the welfare of his congregation. Yet Mather believed that his greatest service to both God and man lay in his sermons, and as such, he devoted many long hours of preparation for them. He delivered his messages in a very plain style, without fancy rhetorical devices. He emphasized man's need to grow in grace-by applying himself to worship, study, and good works-and the complementary need of growing dead to the world. Beginning in 1675, Mather pioneered a new form of sermon: the jeremiad. Named after the weeping prophet of old, the jeremiad's purpose was to single out specific groups amid the community for exhortation. Private concerns began to be recognized in the sermons, in particular the magistrates of the law.

The jeremiad would play a key role in Mather's activities to save the future generations of Puritans. A large part of the problem lay in the overwhelming corruptness of the third generation, a problem which their parents did little or nothing to stop. Gradually the interests of New England were shifting from a religious aspect to a more worldly one. The older generation-Mather and his contemporaries-looked upon the Church of New England as a direct tie with the historical, Apostolic Church of old. As the community started to pull away from the traditions of their forefathers, the Church began to become more and more identified with New England as a whole. The colony had a Divine mission; like Israel of old, they were the chosen people of God, a model, a "citie" set upon a hill. Thus, ministers felt even more the need to reform the land.

Increase studied the history of Israel with great care. He wrote frequently on the topic in sermons, and reiterated the importance of profiting from Israel's example. Not only did he use typology for understanding Scripture, but for understanding his own times, too. He became familiar with the dreary cycle of reform and decline which the Jews experienced under the Judges and Kings, and Mather became convinced that he was in a period of great decline.

In attempting to halt this backsliding among members of the New Israel, Mather relied heavily on the State. His jeremiads were especially aimed at magistrates to stir them out of complacency. Mather was also uneasy about the effects of the Halfway Covenant, which allowed unbelieving adults the privilege of having their children baptized into the church. Some preachers, Solomon Stoddard the most notable, even extended the privileges to allow unbelievers to partake of the Lord's Supper-believing that the sacrament could effect salvation in their lives. To combat the dangerous teachings of Stoddard and others who were threatening the purity of the Church, Mather proposed that a General Court convene to provide some expedient to ensure only the qualified could serve in worship services. Later on, as more and more tolerant Puritans were appointed to the Court, Mather would lose faith in the State council, and regret that he ever made the proposal.

When the State, in which he had placed so much trust, gave way, Increase put his last hope in the saints of New England, that they might reclaim the land for the Lord. The saints must stand aloof from sinners and their sins, Mather argued, in order that they might redeem the unregenerate on earth, not in heaven. He believed man should use every lawful means to keep the Church holy, including restricting the sacraments of communion and baptism to the regenerate. Eventually, Mather would come to believe that the Halfway Covenant could maintain purity in the church, though not to the extent that Stoddard pushed it. He reasoned with himself that hypocrites had been in the Body of Christ since its inception on earth, why should he believe he could prevent them from coming in now? He still required, however, an applicant to the Supper to give his testimony of the working of grace in his soul. Thus the historical faith and the justifying faith were united in the sacrament of holy communion.


After 1703, following his dismissal from Harvard, Increase left political life altogether, and devoted his entire time to the studying and presenting of God's Word. He spoke less and less to a corporate audience, but in the manner of the jeremiad, focused on smaller parts of the congregation. To the end, he kept his messages plain and simple, denouncing the pagan philosophies of Greece and Rome that were being integrated in others' sermons. A Puritan traditionalist to the bitter end, Mather endeavored to open the hearts and minds of his flock to the truth of the Gospel, and to bring them back to the "old New England way" of their fathers. In vain did he urge them to look back; their vision was for the future, and nothing, not even the last great Puritan preacher, could prevent them.

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Last updated: 13 March 1998