Last reviewed: June 2018
American minister and essayist.
February 12, 1663
February 13, 1728
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.
Portrait of Cotton Mather.
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.