Authors: Cotton Mather

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American minister and essayist.

February 12, 1663

Boston, Massachusetts

February 13, 1728

Boston, Massachusetts

Biography

Cotton Mather (MATH-ur), born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1663, was one of the outstanding leaders of the early New England Puritan theocracy; he was also one of the last. He came to power at a time when the control of the church was nearing its end—an end which he spent his adult life trying to prevent, yet which some historians believe he actually hastened.

Portrait of Cotton Mather.

By Peter Pelham, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Cotton was the son of Increase Mather and eventually succeeded him as minister of the Second, or Old North, Church in Boston. First, from 1680 until 1723 (the year of Increase Mather’s death), he served as his father’s assistant. During much of his tenure as assistant minister he was actually in full charge, however, his father being either absent on political missions (as in the Andros affair, which took him to England) or engaged in other activities, such as those connected with his duties as president of Harvard College.

The son of a prominent minister and a child destined to become one of the influential leaders of the colony, Cotton Mather attended Harvard. A nervous, oversensitive, and precocious child, he was a college student at the age of twelve. His first intentions were to study medicine because he had a nervous stutter that he believed would keep him from the ministry, but he mastered this defect, partly through sheer determination, and began his duties at Old North Church upon his graduation in 1680, becoming ordained in 1685, after receiving his master’s degree in 1681.

Refusing a call from New Haven, he remained at the Old North Church for the rest of his life, only to watch his power and influence wane with the passing decades. His career encompassed a series of frustrations. He could not control or influence Governor Dudley or the following colonial governors as he had Governors Phips and Andros before them. Moreover, Harvard refused to select him as his father’s successor to the president’s chair; his name was besmirched by the Salem witch trials (he has been cleared by historians of any direct part in them but is still held guilty of sins of omission), and one of his sons became a thankless ne’er-do-well.

As politician, educator, judge, and father, then, he certainly knew frustration and failure. As a writer, he was more successful. His various duties as shepherd of his flock provided him with countless opportunities to take pen in hand, and the total wordage of his writing is enormous. Its importance today, however, is slight, though some works, such as the Magnalia Christi Americana, which traces the development of the colony from its earliest times, are of interest and value to the historian. Much of what he wrote, though it was usually clear and forceful, is very limited in its appeal today because the theological approach and subject matter are of a different age.

On the other hand, Mather’s thoughts and writings about science continue to fascinate modern readers. For his Sentiment of the Smallpox Inoculated he became the first American ever elected to the Royal Society. He died in Boston on February 13, 1728.

Author Works Nonfiction: The Declaration of the Gentlemen, Merchants, and Inhabitants of Boston, 1689 Memorable Providences: Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions, 1689 The Present State of New England, 1690 Things to be Look'd For, 1691 The Wonders of the Invisible World, 1693 Problema Theologicum, 1685–1703 Pietas in Patriam, 1697 Eleutheria: Or, An Idea of the Reformation in England, 1698 Pastoral Letter to the English Captives in Africa, 1698 A Family Well-Ordered, 1699 Reasonable Religion, 1700 Magnalia Christi Americana: Or, The Ecclesiastical History of New-England, 1702 A Faithful Man, Michael Wigglesworth, 1705 The Negro Christianized, 1706 Corderius Americanus: An Essay upon the Good Education of Children, 1708 Bonifacius: An Essay upon the Good, 1710 (also known as Essays to the Good) Triparadisus, 1712 (pb. 1995) Brethren Dwelling Together in Unity, 1718 The Christian Philosopher, 1721 Sentiment of the Smallpox Inoculated, 1721 (science) The Angel of Bethesda, 1722 Parentator, 1724 Manuductio ad Ministerium, 1726 Ratio Disciplinae Fratrum Nov Anglorum, 1726 Diary of Cotton Mather, 1681-1724, 1911–1964 (3 volumes) Selected Letters of Cotton Mather, 1971 Paterna: The Autobiography of Cotton Mather, 1976 Bibliography "Biography: Cotton Mather (1662/3–1727/8)." The Mather Project, Georgia State University, 2011, matherproject.org/node/22. Accessed 16 Aug. 2017. Mages, Michael J. "Magnalia Christi Americana": America’s Literary Testament. San Francisco: International Scholars, 1999. A modern discussion of Mather’s ecclesiastical history of New England. Middlekauff, Robert. The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals, 1596-1728. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. A perspective on the Mather family’s contribution to early New England. Post, Constance J. "Signs of the Times" in Cotton Mather’s "Paterna": A Study of Puritan Autobiography. New York: AMS Press, 2000. A study of Mather’s autobiography. Silverman, Kenneth. The Life and Times of Cotton Mather. New York: Harper & Row, 1984. Helps to balance the once overly negative public estimate of Mather.

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