The popular image of the Puritans in New England is not a positive one. From uptight religious values to harshly patriarchal social stances and a focus on conformity, popular culture has not exactly boosted the Puritans’ reputation. Yet everything in history is more complex than it might initially appear. With Cotton Mather, this is absolutely true.
Cotton Mather definitely embodied many of the qualities listed above. He was undoubtedly uncompromising theologically. However, he was also highly opinionated about the issues of his day, especially when it came to world news, religion, and even science. The enormous written trail he left behind reveals the complexities of one of colonial Boston’s most renowned ministers — warts and all.
The Early Life of Cotton Mather
Cotton Mather was born on February 12th, 1663 — the son of Puritan theologian Increase Mather and Maria Cotton. His family had deep religious roots. Both of his grandfathers, John Cotton and Richard Mather, had been important Puritan ministers. Increase Mather had studied at Harvard College in Boston, going on to serve as the institution’s president from 1685 to 1701. Young Cotton followed his father to Harvard, graduating with a Master of Arts degree at the age of eighteen. Unfortunately for him, he would never earn his father’s title as Harvard’s president.
In 1685, Increase Mather appointed his son as his co-minister at Boston’s Second Church. In this role, the Mather family’s influence in Boston remained strong well into the eighteenth century. Unfortunately for Cotton Mather, however, his father’s power and influence would eclipse his own well into the 1690s. That being said, Cotton Mather did start to make a name for himself as a writer after his ordination. Given his multitude of interests and opinionated personality, this seems to have been a suitable outlet.
1. The Boston Revolt of 1689
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The Boston Revolt of April 18th, 1689, can be seen as the New England theater of the so-called Glorious Revolution in England. This famous coup d’état saw King James II overthrown by the Dutch-born William of Orange and his English wife, Mary. James, a Roman Catholic, had been incredibly unpopular among his countrymen, as was his New England representative, Governor Edmund Andros. Many prominent New Englanders resented the repeal of their previous colonial charters, so as soon as they heard about James’ overthrow, they made their move.
Both Cotton Mather and his father had opposed Andros’ rule from an early date. As Puritans, the Mathers despised Andros’ sympathetic stance toward the Church of England, which leading Puritans had vigorously fought against since their arrival in North America. They also feared King James’ Catholicism. In the Mathers’ minds, having a Roman Catholic on the throne of England threatened the character of English identity and the Puritan faith alike.
Cotton Mather quickly authored a declaration supporting the uprising against Andros. He accused the governor of multiple abuses of power, both with regards to religion and civil governance. Interestingly, Mather makes repeated references to allegedly arbitrary taxation — a grievance that would become a theme in later American history. For Mather, the revolt was nearly as much about taxation, land ownership, and traditional English freedoms as it was about religion.
Ultimately, the Boston mob forced Andros from office. Over the next two years, Parliament drafted new charters for the individual New England colonies. Massachusetts Bay Colony and Plymouth Colony merged to form the Province of Massachusetts in 1691. Cotton Mather may not have played a direct role on the ground, but he had achieved his goal of returning to the colonial status quo.
2. The Salem Witch Trials
Americans from all walks of life will cite the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692 as a stain on American history. That controversy has long since been immortalized (and heavily distorted) by literary works and popular culture. For many historians, the Salem witch trials also represent a stain on Cotton Mather’s reputation. The minister followed the trials closely. Records indicate that he even attended the executions of several of the accused.
After the executions had largely ended, Mather published a volume on witchcraft in October 1692, titled The Wonders of the Invisible World. For those in Massachusetts who already disliked the Mather family, this seemed like an endorsement of the mass killing of twenty people in Salem. Robert Calef, a prominent cloth merchant, criticized Mather with an account of his own, More Wonders of the Invisible World, in 1700. For the next three hundred years, public discourse would vilify Cotton Mather and his beliefs on witchcraft.
What did Cotton Mather actually believe, though? The available evidence is contradictory. Mather had originally warned Salem authorities about the use of spectral evidence — the idea that a witch’s spirit would appear to harm their victims. This alleged phenomenon, according to Mather, should be examined carefully but skeptically. In Wonders of the Invisible World, however, the Puritan seemed to endorse spectral evidence as valid. Only in the past three decades have historians begun to look beyond Robert Calef’s allegations against Mather. In order to truly understand the evolution of Cotton Mather’s thoughts on the Salem witch trials, historians must consult his own writings in their original context.
3. The Huguenot Refuge: A Sign of the Apocalypse?
Unlike his involvement with the previous two events, Cotton Mather’s interest in the Huguenot refugee crisis of the late seventeenth century does have a clear end date. In fact, he continued to mention events in France in his diary until his death. The frequency of these diary entries fluctuated over the years, but Mather remained fascinated by the international dimensions of Protestant Christianity.
What was it about the Huguenots— French Reformed Protestants —that concerned Mather so much? It started out as an interest he shared with his father. In 1682, Increase Mather had delivered a sermon about King Louis XIV’s persecution of Protestants in his kingdom. Seeking to establish both royal and Catholic supremacy, the French monarch had coopted localized pogroms against Huguenots into royal policy.
Louis’ efforts would culminate in the Edict of Fontainebleau, which he issued in October 1685, banning the Protestant religion in French domains. While immigration was prohibited, over 150,000 Huguenots managed to flee France for nearby countries. In his sermon, Increase Mather urged his fellow Puritans to show solidarity with their French coreligionists.
Cotton Mather took his support for the Huguenot cause a step further. In his view, Louis XIV’s efforts to stamp out the Reformed tradition were not an isolated incident. It was actually part of a greater effort by the Catholic Church to destroy the true faith of Jesus Christ. As with the Boston Revolt of 1689, Mather saw the Pope and the French king as agents of a Catholic conspiracy. He saw a kinship between New England’s Puritans and the Huguenots as frontline soldiers in a vast, apocalyptic battle. To Cotton Mather, Armageddon was occurring during his own lifetime.
Mather also went further than his father by establishing direct contact with leading French ministers in the North American colonies. Notably, he developed a friendship with Ezéchiel Carré, the minister of the French Church in Boston. He wrote the preface to Carré’s 1689 sermon, The Charitable Samaritan, and sought to learn French. While Carré ultimately left New England for Britain in the late 1690s, Mather’s diary continued to sporadically mention the Huguenots for years. His apocalyptic beliefs and vested personal interest in global Protestantism never faded.
4. The Boston Smallpox Outbreak: Mather and Science
Colonial America wouldn’t be complete without outbreaks of disease. Illnesses like smallpox were endemic among Europeans, and they had wreaked havoc on Native American populations since the sixteenth century. In the early eighteenth century, smallpox would rear its ugly head in Boston again. This outbreak would be the city’s largest and would lead to a war of words over how to best respond to the crisis.
Previously, a tactic known as variolation had been used in other countries, such as China and the Ottoman Empire. This method — a precursor to modern vaccination — involved using smallpox-infected materials to produce infection in people. The hope was that the infection via variolation would be less severe than acquiring the virus naturally, yet it would still provide long-term immunity. From the outset, European Americans did not agree on how to best implement variolation. Many in colonial Massachusetts staunchly resisted the practice.
When smallpox hit Boston in April 1721, Cotton Mather was an early advocate of variolation to mitigate the epidemic. Mather wrote that a West African slave he owned, named Onesimus, had told him years earlier about a form of inoculation he had received in his homeland. As a curious intellectual, Mather never shied away from reading about other countries. He corroborated Onesimus’ story with those of other Africans. From that point, Mather became Boston’s staunchest proponent of disease control.
Mather’s main problem was that not everybody was convinced variolation would work. A doctor named William Douglass cautioned that no colonists had tested variolation before. He worried that the tactic might only intensify the disease’s spread. Some Puritan ministers believed trying to cure the disease artificially would be akin to playing God. Mather even received death threats. However, another doctor, Zabdiel Boylston, sided with Mather and started inoculations.
Variolation did risk a person developing a smallpox infection, sometimes dangerously. Yet the data collected by Mather and his associates does suggest that the procedure worked. Ten months after the first infection, the outbreak had subsided. True vaccination remained decades away, but Cotton Mather had helped to pioneer an early public health measure.
Cotton Mather’s Legacy
In his final years, Cotton Mather remained focused on his lifelong interests in theology, science, and global affairs. He was even recognized in 1724 by the Royal Society of London for his efforts during the Boston smallpox epidemic. He died shortly after his 65th birthday in February 1728.
Mather outlived two of his three wives and thirteen of his fifteen children. A Bostonian to the end, he was buried at Copp’s Hill Burying Ground — the same cemetery where his father had been laid to rest five years earlier. All in all, Cotton Mather left behind a vast written legacy, never failing to share his opinions on major issues in the world he inhabited.