At present, one of the most hated people in American church history is Cotton Mather (1663–1728). Vilified for nearly three centuries, he has been portrayed as sinister and bloodthirsty, “the representative of all the hateful features of his time,” an “insufferable young prig,” “the Salem witch-hanger,” having “a crooked and diseased mind.” Mather is so infamous, in fact, it would be hard to find a person more hated in all of American history, save his own father.
Why so much hate? One reason is that the Mathers are seen as representative figureheads of the Puritan age in America—an age often viewed as dark, oppressive, and Pharisaical. Consequently, the events surrounding the Salem witch trials have effectively served to nullify the influence of not only the Mathers but an entire century of American Puritans. With the help of cultural icons such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, secular society, standing diametrically opposed and hostile to the doctrine and witness of the Puritans, has been more than happy to pin the worst of evils typified by Salem onto Puritanism and cast it aside as an unfortunate historical aberration.
Puritanism’s enemies have made strange bedfellows with anyone who would heap on it scorn upon scorn. With little discernment, liberal historians have welcomed virtually any and every accusation regardless of how nonsensical it may be. Furthermore, this mountain of shame has caused modern Christian believers to avert their eyes, to refuse to set foot into the world of American Puritanism out of fear of sharing in their guilt.
However, in not dealing with the Mathers, the church has abandoned them to the secular academy, which has attacked them not only for their idiosyncrasies but also for their Bible, their theology, and their gospel. We have allowed non-Christian scholars to stand in judgment of biblical Christianity and American Puritanism, I fear, mostly because we do not want to face our uncomfortable history.
But armed with intellectual honesty and a courageous curiosity, we would do well to face American Puritan history head-on, warts and all, remembering that Christianity is not built on the virtue of flawed heroes, but on the perfect sacrifice of the only true hero, Jesus Christ the Righteous, who gave Himself on the cross for sinners such as Peter and Paul, Augustine and Athanasius, John Calvin and Martin Luther, and Increase and Cotton Mather.
Early Life and Ministry
Cotton Mather was born to Increase Mather (1639–1723) and Maria Cotton on February 12, 1663, in Boston. Descending from two founding giants, John Cotton (1585–1652) and Richard Mather (1596–1669), Cotton would have quite the legacy to live up to, a challenge he would meet. At age eleven, he became the youngest student in history admitted to Harvard, where he received a fine education. Naturally gifted with a prodigious intellect, young Cotton excelled at reading, writing, memorization, and recall. Such a gifting led him into studying the Bible, theology, homiletics, church history, classic literature, science, astronomy—practically anything he could get his hands on. And when his appetite for knowledge became insatiable, he ventured out into other languages such as Greek, Hebrew, French, and Latin.
After graduating from Harvard at age fifteen, Cotton soon began to feel a call to ministry. While initially content to live in his father’s towering shadow, the opportunity soon arose for Cotton to minister alongside him as a pastoral equal. Increase, a seemingly cold and distant man, initially balked at the notion of co-laboring with his son, but he capitulated when the congregation of North Church in Boston voiced its overwhelming support of Cotton.
The young Mather was a pastor-scholar par excellence. Unlike his reclusive father, he engaged in a very public ministry, visiting church members, praying with the sick, and catechizing children. In addition to his pastoral presence, it is estimated that Cotton wrote more than 450 books in his lifetime. The scope of his writing is broad: he wrote works of theology such as The Everlasting Gospel of Justification (1699); practical works of piety including Bonifacius, or Essays to Do Good (1710); the first science textbook written in America, The Christian Philosopher (1720); and works of history such as his magnum opus—Magnalia Christi Americana (1702). He even composed a 4,500-page Bible commentary, Biblia Americana (1693–1728), which was unpublished until twenty-first-century scholars began taking up the task.
The ever-curious Cotton was captivated by learning across many disciplines. As a Christian intellectual, he endeavored to reconcile the miraculous claims of the Bible with science and reason. While a beloved pastor and respected scholar internationally, he was also known to be fussy, quirky, and awkward at times. Cotton kept a detailed diary of his thoughts, feelings, meditations, and confessions, and many of his entries are embarrassingly honest.
His modern biographers have noted his nuanced and complicated personality. At times, they are sympathetic; other times, they are critical. In his evaluation of Kenneth Silverman’s Pulitzer Prize–winning biography The Life and Times of Cotton Mather, Jan Stievermann writes, “For all its great merits and wonderfully lucid consideration of cultural and historical contexts, even Silverman’s biography frequently drifts into a rather heavy-handed psychologizing of Mather that is as speculative as it is unfair and patronizing.” However, historian Robert Middlekauff typifies the modern consensus on Cotton:
[He] was a bewildering man, capable of selfishness and selflessness, given both to excesses and to asceticism, noble and self-effacing at times, and petty and self-righteous at others. He could be the pleasant and witty gentleman to his friends, yet he distrusted wit and laughter. He despised and feared sexual gratification, but he married three times, fathered fifteen children, and enjoyed the marriage bed at least as late as his fifty-fifth year when his wife’s illness forced celibacy upon him. He was an opponent of Quakers and Antinomianism, but his private worship approached enthusiasm.
The modern Mather scholar sees a very human figure—a contemplative, assiduous, haughty, self-deprecating, idealistic, brilliant, faltering, stuttering Christian entranced with glory of Jesus Christ.
But popular opinion of Cotton is far less favorable.
Trapped in Salem
American history likes to portray Cotton Mather as the architect and executioner of the Salem Witch Trials. His book The Wonders of the Invisible World is often seen as his tacit endorsement of the trials based on his belief in strange stories of spirits and witchcraft. However, it is the belief of noted historian Perry Miller that Mather had been pressured by Governor William Phips and Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton to write the damning account. Miller writes, “If ever there was a false book produced by a man whose heart was not in it, it is The Wonders.” In fact, most modern historians concur with Miller’s assessment that Mather “was insecure, frightened, [and] sick at heart” over the whole ordeal. Furthermore, Mather decried the use of spectral evidence (testimony that the spirit of an accused witch appeared to the witness) to convict the accused, though his cries were ignored.