We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  Cotton Mather (1663–1728), by Peter Pelham, in or before 1727 Cotton Mather (1663–1728), by Peter Pelham, in or before 1727
Mather, Cotton (1663–1728), minister in America and author, was born on 12 February 1663 in North End, Boston, Massachusetts, the first of ten children born to , minister and president of Harvard College, and his wife, Maria (1641–1714), daughter of John Cotton. Both grandfathers, and John Cotton, were founding ministers of Massachusetts.

Mather entered Harvard College at the unprecedentedly early age of eleven. He was by then fluent in Latin, familiar with Greek and Latin literature, and had started Greek and Hebrew grammar. Young as he was, he already exhibited several lifelong characteristics. He habitually directed others how to improve their spiritual lives. He was a voracious reader and became easily the widest-read man in Anglo-America. He acquired a personal library inferior to none. Passionate, voluble, and extroverted, he was also vain and sensitive to slights real or imagined. He expounded all subjects at the drop of a hat. He wrote and published as much as he talked, kept a large journal, and carried on an equally large correspondence with men in England, Scotland, and throughout Europe. His writing was always self-referential, and despite incessant protestations of modesty, he was immodestly aware of his extraordinary mental powers: ‘Proud thoughts flyblow my best performances’ (Levin, ‘Trying to make’, 170). His writing was larded with quotations from and allusions to classical Greek and Roman literature, as well as patristic and Reformation scholarship. He freely invented new words.

Of his approximately 380 separate published titles, these are thought to be the most important: Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions (1689); The Wonders of the Invisible World (1692); Magnalia Christi Americana (1702); Bonifacius, Essays to do Good (1710); The Christian Philosopher (1721); Parentator (1724); Manuductio ad ministerium (1726); Ratio disciplinae (1726). Book-length manuscripts unpublished at Mather's death included ‘Biblia Americana’, ‘Angel of Bethesda’, and ‘Triparadisus’. The last two were published in the twentieth century.

Mather suffered at Harvard College, where he was roughly handled by the older students and developed a stammer that he largely overcame later. His brilliance was quickly recognized, and he received important preaching requests before he was twenty. He was ordained teacher in his father's North Church in Boston in 1685, and preached there the rest of his life. Shortly after ordination he married, on 4 May 1686, his first wife, Abigail Phillips (1670–1702). The couple had nine children, but miscarriage, infant mortality, accident, and disease took a heavy toll. Four children survived their mother in 1702: Katharine (1690–1716), Abigail (1694–1721), Hannah (b. 1697), and Increase (1699–1724).


Shortly after Mather's marriage he brought home Martha Goodwin, an emotionally disturbed girl who was believed to have been a victim of witchcraft. He laboured to exorcise the evil spirits. During this exhausting face-to-face encounter with a disturbed but physically active teenage woman, Mather believed he was engaging in the great contest over materialism and atheism. His traditional view was that a myriad of invisible, malicious spirits filled the air. They ‘swarm like the frogs of Egypt in every chamber of our houses’ (Silverman, Life, 91). He believed that failure to come to grips with this reality would open the door to materialism, disbelief in Satan, and ultimately atheism itself. After six months Martha Goodwin left, completely restored, thus confirming Mather in his world-view and his belief in the power of prayer. He wrote his first important book about that experience, Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions (Boston, 1689). It was immediately successful and published in both London (1691) and Edinburgh (1697).

When eighteen people were executed in Salem for witchcraft three years later, in 1692, other ministers questioned the trial procedures, but Mather, intent on the reality of evil spirits, wrote another book, The Wonders of the Invisible World, in which he defended the judges. The Salem witchcraft trials became a fixture in American historical memory, and those two widely read books ruined Cotton Mather's reputation there for ever.

Public life

When William of Orange landed in England in 1688 Increase Mather was already in London to negotiate a new colonial charter. Cotton Mather found himself in charge of the large, influential North Church. Before his father returned he admitted the first new members under the half-way covenant, an important step toward wider access to the church, as it extended baptism to the children of baptized adults. He found himself drawn increasingly into public life. When Boston learned of the success of William in England, the city arrested the governor, Sir Edmund Andros, and disarmed his two regiments and a frigate in the harbour.

That afternoon a ‘Declaration of the Gentlemen, Merchants and Inhabitants of Boston, and the Country Adjacent’, which declared Boston loyal to William and Mary, was read to the crowd in the streets. The declaration spoke largely in the terms of English civil liberties rather than the providential language of puritanism. Although there is no direct evidence, many scholars believe Cotton Mather composed it. One month afterwards he was chosen by the magistrates to deliver the election day sermon, a much sought-after privilege never before given to one a mere twenty-six years old. It was the high point of Mather's political reputation.

Political developments after 1690 centred on the new colonial charter and the royal governor provided for in it. The Mathers, father and son, supported the new governor, Sir William Phips (1651–1695), who was a member of their church but a poor choice for governor. Afterwards they were unable to gain the good graces of his successor, Joseph Dudley (1647–1720). Their nemesis in the world of New England politics was the Cook family. Elisha Cook (1637–1715), a physician and contemporary of Increase Mather, and his son, a merchant, also Elisha Cook (1678–1737), thought to be the wealthiest man in New England, actively opposed both Mathers. They finally managed to remove Increase from the presidency of Harvard College, and later prevented Cotton from attaining that cherished post.

Mather's puritan New England

In 1693 Cotton Mather began work on his magnum opus, a history of puritan New England. By 1700 he was able to send to London a large manuscript, about 850 folio pages, Magnalia Christi Americana, or, The Ecclesiastical History of New England. It was published in London in 1702 in a large folio volume closely printed in double columns. Magnalia is an ambitious project that envisages the movement of Christian civilization from Europe to America. Mather fancied himself as Boston's Virgil. The opening lines of his general introduction, ‘I write the wonders of the CHRISTIAN RELIGION, flying from the Depravations of Europe, to the American Strand’, echo George Herbert's
Religion stands on tiptoe in our land,
Readie to pass to the American strand.
(Murdock, 89)
The whole comprises seven ‘books’ very disparate in character. These include important biographies of governors and ministers, some already published separately, histories of Harvard College, the conflicts with the American Indians, and selected churches, and an engraved ‘Ecclesiastical map of the country’.

Magnalia was at once controversial. The British historian John Oldmixon used its information, but ridiculed its pedantry and errors. The University of Glasgow, on the other hand, awarded Mather an honorary degree of doctor of divinity in 1710. In 1818 the editor of the North American Review described Magnalia in a way characteristic of detractors for three centuries:
a chaotick mass of history, biography, obsolete creeds, witchcraft, and Indian wars, interspersed with bad puns, and numerous quotations in Latin, Greek and Hebrew which rise up like so many decayed, hideous stumps to arrest the eye and deform the surface.
He called Mather a ‘credulous, pedantick, and garrulous writer’ (Murdock, 33). But two years later, in 1820, Thomas Robbins, a bibliophile in Connecticut, published the first American edition (2 vols., 1820; 2nd edn, 1853, 1855). It was the American editions that were important in the American literary renaissance of the mid-nineteenth century. For Herman Melville in 1856, ‘His style had all the plainness and unpoetic boldness of truth’ (Silverman, Life, 54). Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864), Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896), and Elizabeth Stoddard (1823–1902) are among the American writers who were inspired by Magnalia. Twentieth-century scholars continued these opposing patterns: for some, scathing ridicule of Mather's pedantic, overblown prose, and for others, admiration for the coherence, power, and influence of his vision.

In 1702, the year that Magnalia was published in London, Abigail, Mather's wife of sixteen years, died in Boston after a miscarriage and a long illness, on 28 November. Eight months later, on 18 August 1703, Mather married Elizabeth (1684?–1713), daughter of John Clark, a Boston physician, and widow of four years of Richard Hubbard. She and Cotton had six children, of whom one died in infancy and three more succumbed with their mother in a single month in 1713 to measles and smallpox. Two children from this marriage survived her: Elizabeth (1704–1726), who in 1724 married Edward Cooper, a shipmaster, and Samuel (1706–1785).

Through the ten years of this second marriage Mather continued to work furiously. Once his concerned father wrote from London, ‘do not Let him kill Himself. He will do it if you do not hinder him’ (Silverman, Life, 77). Cotton published no fewer than 135 separate titles in the first decade of the new century. By far the most important of these was Bonifacius, Essays to do Good (1710, title varies).

Bonifacius is a small book by Mather's standards, and perhaps for that reason his most widely read. He published it anonymously in Boston in 1710. There was a second Boston edition in 1845, and many London editions appeared throughout the nineteenth century under the title Essays to do Good. Writing to ‘all Christians’ Mather put the question ‘What service is there that I may now do for my Saviour, and for His People in the world!’ (Levin, introduction, 31). He answers with practical suggestions, first for ‘the Duty to Oneself’, and then in separate chapters suggestions for doing good in family, neighbourhood, and among several different occupations and social classes. The book is ‘warm, friendly, helpful, encouraging’ (Holmes, 1.92). It was the perfect book to introduce the new century of pietism and experiential religion. Although Benjamin Franklin started out ridiculing it, in his mature years he gave credit to Bonifacius for being an important influence on him. Bonifacius put Mather squarely in the mainstream of the German pietism emanating from the university at Halle and reaching America's middle colonies. In 1711 he opened a correspondence with August Herman Francke at Halle that lasted many years, and brought Mather into contact with like-minded men around the world.

Natural science

Many of Mather's letters to England were about the natural sciences. In 1712 he sent the first of several accounts of unusual natural phenomena to John Woodward, a prominent English geologist. He followed up with letters addressed to John Waller, secretary of the Royal Society, with the hope that they be published in the society's Philosophical Transactions. From 1712 to 1724 Mather sent a total of eighty-two such letters, known collectively as ‘Curiosa Americana’. Many were printed in the Transactions. Mather made no secret of his wish to be included among the circle that made up the Royal Society, and was elated when news came of his election to the fellowship in 1713. Thereafter with great pride he put FRS after his name. In 1714 he sent to London a large manuscript epitomizing the science of the day that was published in 1721 as The Christian Philosopher. The chapter on astronomy, according to a modern historian, is ‘The finest example of how Newtonian Science came to America and was disseminated’ (Theodore Hornberger in Holmes, 1.137). Already the indefatigable Mather had started another large survey, this time of medical practice. He called it ‘Angel of Bethesda’. Like the other, it reviewed the work of scores of European scientists. Mather sent the manuscript to England in 1724, but it remained unpublished until the twentieth century. He was
the first native-born American colonial to advance beyond the status of a mere field agent for European scientists in the New World and to demonstrate a genuine philosophical approach to science, with scientific ideas and hypotheses of his own. (Stearns, 426)
Mather's contributions to the Transactions often seem rather credulous by recent standards. Twice, however, he made experiments that have stood the test of time. In 1712 he experimented in his own garden with strains of Indian corn that produced red and black kernels. Reasoning correctly from the evidence, he described the process of plant hybridization.

His most famous scientific experiment was the use of inoculation against smallpox. Accounts from Turkey had already appeared in the Transactions, and Mather had word-of-mouth accounts from Africa. He and his friend Dr Zabdiel Boylston, in the face of vicious public protests, inoculated over 200 people during an epidemic in Boston in 1721. They kept statistical records that raised the whole procedure from the realm of anecdote. The following year he sent a full description to the Royal Society, which considered it at three consecutive meetings. Mather and Boylston provided Britain with first-hand evidence that inoculation against smallpox worked, in Mather's words, ‘upon both Male and Female, both Old and Young, both strong and weak; Whites, and Blacks; on Tawnies, Women in childbed … on Women with child, at all Seasons’ (Silverman, Life, 362). As usual, Mather's every action spurred extremes of hostility. In Boston someone tried to assassinate him. At this time of heated pamphleteering over inoculation, Benjamin Franklin, a youthful sixteen, lampooned Bonifacius with an enduring literary character, Silence Dogood.

Later years

Eighteenth-century Boston was no longer a city upon a hill. Merchant wealth fostered English fashions in dress, homes, and thought; big houses and new churches sprang up everywhere. Disgruntled members broke from Mather's North Church to form the New North Church three blocks away. Church of England chapels multiplied, Quakers built a meeting-house, and, a sure sign of religious pluralism, in 1718 Cotton Mather himself helped install the pastor at the new Baptist church, observing ‘Liberty of Conscience is the Native Right of Mankind’ (Silverman, Life, 302).

Mather's second wife, Elizabeth, died on 8 November 1713 in a measles epidemic. A year and a half later he found a third wife in Lydia (d. 1734), daughter of the well-known puritan , and widow of John George, a wealthy Boston merchant. George died in November 1714 and left Lydia a large fortune. Mather and Lydia married on 5 July 1715, after signing a pre-nuptial agreement that gave her the entire control of her fortune and left Mather unprotected. It turned out to be an unfortunate marriage. Lydia was emotionally unstable. Her wide swings of mood tormented Mather. He was sued for debts arising from her first husband's business affairs, and as a consequence was repeatedly thrown on the mercy of wealthy members of his church. He and Lydia had no offspring; she outlived him and died on 17 January 1734.

Mather's father died in 1723. Cotton wrote a large, fulsome biography, Parentator, in imitation of Increase's famous biography of his own father, Richard Mather. The two books are in sharp contrast. Increase's is slim, anonymous, written in the third person. Cotton's biography fits the new, post-puritan century. It is personal, immodest, ornate, and rich in its praise. It was followed five years later by yet a third of these father–son biographies, when Mather's son Samuel published a biography of Cotton himself, The Life of the Very Reverend and Learned Cotton Mather (1729).

In 1724 Cotton's first-born son, named Increase after his grandfather, died at sea. Two years later, in 1726, his daughter Elizabeth, now Elizabeth Cooper, died, and only two of Mather's many children remained alive—Hannah, who had been badly scarred in childhood and remained unmarried, and Samuel (1706–1785). Despite these disappointments and being besieged by creditors, Mather remained as energetic as ever. He continued adding to a huge compendium of scriptural comments, ‘Biblia Americana’, but failed to get it published. He maintained his very large correspondence. In 1726 he brought out two more noteworthy books: Manuductio ad ministerium and Ratio disciplinae fratrum Nov-Anglorum.

Manuductio ad ministerium: Directions for a Candidate to the Ministry (1726, 1781, 1789) is an urbane summary of a life spent in the ministry. In it Mather advised young men to do good, and also to study languages, sciences, poetry and style, natural philosophy, mathematics, and history, in short to imitate himself. He urged young candidates to an evangelical ministry. Perry Miller thought it the culmination of one century and ‘the beginning of a new era’, the age of reason (Holmes, 2.631). Manuductio is said to have been in use in Britain into the nineteenth century.

Ratio disciplinae fratrum Nov-Anglorum (1726) is a description of Congregational practice in Massachusetts. Mather began it in 1701, but as happened so often with his projects, he kept working on the text for many years. By 1726 his ecumenical description of the church contrasted sharply with his grandfather Richard Mather's famous description of the early puritan church, Cambridge Platform (1648). In 1726 Mather no longer wrote of New England as ‘Immanuel's land’, as his father had. That signature of seventeenth-century puritanism had faded with the passage of time. Silverman (Life, 404) describes Ratio disciplinae as a statement to the world of a uniquely American church, comparable to Hector St John de Crèvecoeur's description of the distinctively American citizen in Letters from an American Farmer (1782).

Mather had always been an eager millenarian. 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.

In or before 1727 Peter Pelham painted Mather's portrait in oil on canvas, a shoulder-length frontal view that shows a cheerful, rubicund face under a large, fashionable wig. Contemporaries said that it was not a good likeness, but did resemble Mather's loyal son Sammy. Pelham also engraved an often-reproduced mezzotint, said to have been ‘the first mezzotint known to have been made in the New World’ (Silverman, Life, 410); it shows a more serious expression.

Early in 1728 Mather became ill, and by 10 February he was confined to bed with a cough, asthma, and a fever. On 13 February 1728 he died at home (probably Ship Street, North End), peacefully, surrounded by friends and family, aged sixty-five, in a Boston that he had left only to attend college across the river. He died intestate. The mandatory inventory of his estate does not mention the great library. Without it the estate amounted to £235 10s. 10d., and ‘500 Acres of wast land’ in Scituate valued at £36. Two children survived: Hannah and Samuel. After a state funeral, Mather was buried on 19 February in the family crypt on Copp's Hill in Boston's North End.

Cotton Mather was the most influential writer of his generation in America. He brought the puritan period of New England history to an end and started towards the evangelical pietism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. His vision of Christian religion flying to America inspired nineteenth-century writers on America's manifest destiny. In the twentieth century his writings were an inexhaustible source for a revivified intellectual history: ‘He was the one man of his time in America not dwarfed beside the virtuosi of the continent’ (Silverman, introduction, xvii).

Michael G. Hall


K. Silverman, The life and times of Cotton Mather (1984) · T. J. Holmes, Cotton Mather: a bibliography of his works, 3 vols. (1940) · D. Levin, Cotton Mather: the life of the Lord's remembrancer, 1663–1703 (1978) · D. Levin, introduction, in Bonifacius: an essay upon the good by Cotton Mather, ed. D. Levin (1966), vii–xxxi · R. Smolinski, introduction, in The threefold paradise of Cotton Mather: an edition of ‘Triparadisus’ (1995), 1–86 · D. Levin, ‘Trying to make a monster human’, Forms of uncertainty: essays in historical criticism (1992), 157–76 · K. Murdock, ‘Cotton Mather’, ‘The Magnalia’, in C. Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana, ed. K. B. Murdock and E. W. Miller, new edn (1977), 1–48 · K. Silverman, introduction, in Selected letters of Cotton Mather (1971), ix–xxxvi · R. P. Stearns, Science in the British colonies of America (1970) · S. Bercovitch, ‘Cotton Mather’, Major writers of early American literature, ed. E. Emerson (1972), 93–149 · P. Miller, From colony to province (1953) · S. Mather, The life of … Cotton Mather (1729) · R. Lovelace, The American pietism of Cotton Mather: origins of American evangelicalism (1979) · C. Robbins, A history of the second church, or Old North in Boston (Boston, 1852), 216–17 · ‘The autobiography of Increase Mather’, Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society [ed. M. G. Hall] (1962), 271–360


American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts, family papers · Mass. Hist. Soc., papers · RS, corresp. · University of Virginia, Charlottesville, MSS |  BL, Sloane MSS, letters to J. Woodward · Boston PL, Prince collection · Hunt. L. · Massachusetts Archives, Boston · NL Scot., Robert Wodrow collection, letters to John Stirling and Robert Wodrow


P. Pelham, mezzotint, 1727, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts · P. Pelham, oils, in or before 1727, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts [see illus.] · P. Pelham, mezzotint (after his earlier work), BM

Wealth at death  

£235 10s. 10d.: inventory taken by law, 23 July 1728; Suffolk county probate records, 5 Aug 1728, Suffolk county, Boston