1902 Encyclopedia > Cotton Mather

Cotton Mather
New England Puritan minister, author and pamphleteer

MATHER, COTTON (1663-1728), was the most learned and widely known of a family which through four generations enjoyed singular consideration, and exercised commanding influence upon New England in its first century. Richard, son of Thomas Mather of Lowton (Winwick), Lancashire, England, after studying for a time at Brasenose, Oxford, and teaching and subsequently preaching at Toxteth Park, went to New England, for nonconformity's sake, in the summer of 1635, where, till his death in 1669, at seventy-three, he was pastor of the Congregational church in Dorchester (now a part of Boston), - acquiring large repute, writing three or four instructive and constructive treatises upon polity, and being much trusted as to the foundations of both church and state. His youngest son Increase took his first degree at Harvard College in 1656, at seventeen, - returning, after a visit to the old country, in which he served several pulpits, to take at twenty-five the pastorate of the second (or North) church in Boston, which place he held till his death in 1723 at eighty-five, while, in addition, he had been acting, or actual, president of the college most of the time from 1681 to 1701, the author of one hundred and sixty books or tracts, and for four of its most perilous years the choice of all its citizens to represent the Massachusetts colony before the English Government. His wife Maria was daughter of the famous John Cotton, and their first-born received both family names, and when he took his B.A. degree at less than sixteen, at Harvard, in 1678, his promise tempted President Oakes to say in his presence, referring to his two distinguished grandfathers : " Cottonus atque Matherus tam re quam nomine coalescant et reviviscant." After a short time spent as tutor, and a period of diligent toil ending in the conquest of an impediment of speech which endangered success in the family profession, he became assistant to his father, in two years being ordained co-pastor, and holding the pulpit for nearly three and forty years, till his death at sixty-five. As a private Christian, Irons his frank diaries, it is clear that he laboured much with himself, in a single year devoting more than sixty clays to fasting and twenty nights to vigil. As a preacher he was conscientious and successful, - always diligently studying his discourses, in one year delivering more than seventy public sermons, with nearly half as many in private houses, sometimes thus "pressing a glorious Christ" through eleven successive days, and, with six competitors by his side, maintaining to the last his hold upon the largest congregation in New England, having about four hundred gifted communicants. As a pastor he was exceptionally laborious, - systematically exhorting and praying with his people at their homes, making conscience of spiritualizing every casual interview, and now and then spending days upon his knees with the names of his flock before him to prompt his intercessions for them, and for himself that he might better reach their peculiar need.

As a philanthropist, while abundant in personal benefactions, he originated more than twenty societies for public charity, bore the cost of a school for Christianizing the negroes, and, at the risk of life, in the face of popular opposition medically led, advocated and vindicated the introduction of inoculation as a protection against the then terrible ravages of the small-pox. Aa an author he was learned - publishing in French, Spanish, and Algonkin as well as English - and voluminous, three hundred and eighty-two of his printed works having been catalogued, several of which are elaborate books, and one a folio of 800 pages ; while his Biblia AmerLana, by him considered the great work of his life, remains in six huge volumes of manuscript to this day. As a scholar he was better known across the sea than any other American of his time, once contemporaneously corresponding with more than fifty learned Europeans, in his forty-seventh year being made doctor of divinity at Glasgow, and receiving election as a Fellow of the Royal Society - in those days eminent distinctions for a colonist. With all this it must be confessed that he had some grave defects. His common sense was not uniformly equal to his need. Always ambitious and self-opinioned, he was occasionally irritable and conceited. He lacked good taste, and it was his unconcealed grief that he was never elected to preside over Harvard College. His enormous knowledge did not digest well, and his use of learning tended to be crude. He was superstitious, and it was his misfortune that, as to witchcraft, he was not, as with vaccination, in advance of his generation, any more than such men as Richard Baxter and Sir Matthew Hale. Of his works, the Magnatia and Ratio Disciplinw are indispensable to the student of New England history.

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