COTTON MATHER (1662/3-1727/8). The eldest son of New England's leading divine, Increase Mather, and grandson of the colony's spiritual founders Richaard Mather and John Cotton, Mather was born in Boston, educated at Harvard (B.A. 1678; M.A. 1681), and received an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Glasgow University (1710). As pastor of Boston's Second Church (Congregational), he came into the political limelight during America's version of the Glorious Revolution, when Bostonians deposed their royal governor, Sir Edmund Andros (April 1689). During the witchcraft debacle (1692-93), Mather both warns the Salem judges against admitting "spectral evidence" as grounds for indictment and advocates prayer and fasting to cure the afflicted, but he also writes New England's official defense of the court's procedures on which his modern reputation largely depends: The Wonders of the Invisible World (1693). As the Lord's remembrancer and keeper of the Puritan conscience, he writes the grandest of American jeremiads, his epic church history Magnalia Christi Americana (1702). Like his father a staunch defender of Puritan orthodoxy, Mather persuades Elihu Yale, a London merchant and practicing Anglican, to endow Yale University (1703) as the new nursery of Puritanism, when Harvard seemed to become too liberal in its teaching and too independent in its thinking. If such endeavors bespeak Mather's partisan politics on the one hand and his transcendent thinking on the other, it is his chiliastic credo that leads him to champion Pietist ecumenism, his effort to unite all Christian denominations in New England, nay all Christians, Jews, and Moslems in the Orient and Occident, under the umbrella of his "3 Maxims of Piety" to hasten the Second Coming of Christ. Likewise, his interest in the New Sciences and in new medical theories distinguishes Mather from his American contemporaries. He is elected Fellow of the Royal Society of London (1713), defends and popularizes the new scientific theories of Henry More, William Derham, John Ray, Thomas Burnet, William Whiston, Sir Isaac Newton, and others, and staunchly advocates a new germ theory and inoculation against smallpox in the face of the united opposition of Boston's physicians during the epidemic of 1721. Whereas Increase Mather never quite made the transition into the Enlightenment, his son Cotton had come full circle; he represents the best of early Enlightenment thinking in colonial America. His contributions to the literature of the New England Errand are as diverse as his publications are prolific and inexhaustible. In all, he published more than four hundred works on all aspects of the contemporary debate: theological, historical, biographical, political, and scientific. It is therefore deplorable that Mather's reputation is still largely overshadowed by the specter of Salem witchcraft.
No single work of Mather's gargantuan publication record does justice to his long, productive career in New England's foremost pulpit, but several representative types afford a glimpse at his overall achievement. The Diary of Cotton Mather (Vol. I, 1911; II, 1912; III, 1964) provides a more comprehensive insight into his volatile nature than his autobiography Paterna (1976). His Diary is a Puritan document par excellence. It focuses on him as an instrument of divine providence in the world. If his public persona in his sermons is overbearing and bombastic, his private persona in his Diary is modest and unostentatious: a doting son, loving father, affectionate husband, and caring Pastor Evangelicus--fully aware of his own weaknesses.
Mather's mythic image still rests on his involvement in the Salem witchcraft debacle (1692-93) and on Robert Calef's libelling allegations in More Wonders of the Invisible World (1700). Mather's most important publications on the supernatural are Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions (1689) and Wonders of the Invisible World (1693). The former mostly recounts the possessions and antics of the Goodwin children, the eldest of whom Mather observed in his own home and eventually cured through fasting, prayer, and patient reassurance. While to modern readers the narrative smacks of singular gullibility, Mather's practical tests, careful observations, and--most important--sanative procedure in indemnifying the girl's excesses, bespeak his experimental treatment of the case. The latter work aims at several purposes. On the one hand, Wonders is New England's official defense of the court's verdict and testimony to the power of Satan and his minions; on the other, it is Mather's contribution to pneumatology, with John Gaul, Sir Matthew Hale, John Dee, William Perkins, Joseph Glanvill, and Richard Baxter in the lead. Before Mather excerpts the six most notorious cases of Salem witchcraft, he buttresses his account with the official endorsement of Lt. Governor William Stoughton, with a disquisition on the devil's machinations described by the best authorities that the subject affords, with a previously delivered sermon at Andover, and with his own experimentations. Mather's Wonders, however, does not end without a due note of caution. While exposing Satan's plot to overthrow New England's churches, Mather also recommends his father's caveat Cases of Conscience (1693), thus effectively rejecting the use of "spectral evidence" as grounds for conviction and condemning confessions extracted under torture. What ties the various parts together is Mather's millenarian theme of Christ's imminence, of which Satan's plot is the best evidence. Robert Calef's accusation that Mather and his ilk incited the hysteria is, perhaps, unfounded, but Calef's charge of Mather's ambidextrous disposition seems warranted. For while Mather defends the court's verdict and justifies the government's position, he also voices his great discomfort with the court's procedure in the matter. Wonders appeared in print just when the trials were halting, but it remains, in his own words, "that reviled Book," a bane to his name.
His most enduring and, at once, most famous legacy is his Puritan epic Magnalia Christi Americana (London, 1702), an ecclesiastical history of New England in the contemporary tradition of providence literature. In seven books of uneven length, Mather commemorates on an epic scale virtually every aspect of New England's formative period (1620-1698). From a literary point of view, Mather's Plutarchan biographies of New England's governors and ministers (book 2) are of greatest interest. Puritan heroes are juxtaposed with heroes of classical and biblical antiquity, with the former surpassing the latter by emulating their outstanding characteristics. Even though each life follows the pattern of medieval hagiography, he does not fail to mention some of his heroes' shortcomings and how they overcame them. Since its appearance, Magnalia Christi Americana has been criticized for its lack of thematic unity, bombastic style, and undigested material. However flawed by modern standards, each of the seven books develops a specific theme, unified by Mather's Virgilian theme of the mighty works of Christ in the Western hemisphere; Mather's Baroque style--though outdated by his standards of his time--is entirely consistent with his own stylistic principles delineated in Manuductio ad Ministerium (1726): to entertain with stylistic flourishes while instructing with pearls of wisdom. Finally, Mather's consistent narrative voice and rhetorical intent unifies his subject matter as the grandest of jeremiads that American Puritanism has brought forth.
Out of Mather's Pietist impulse and scientific endeavor grow three strands of works, the best examples of which are his civic-minded Bonifacius (1710), his compendium of the New Sciences The Christian Philosopher (1720/1), his medical handbook The Angel of Bethesda (wr. 1723/24, publ. 1972), his manual for the ministry Manuductio ad Ministerium (1726), and his hermeneutical defense of eschatology The Threefold Paradise: "Triparadisus" (wr. 1712, 1720-27; publ. 1995). Mather's Bonifacius, An Essay . . . to Do Good represents the most comprehensive expression of his life's purpose: "Fructuosis," to be serviceable to one's fellow man. His lifelong interest in the German Pietist movement of his Frederician colleague August Hermann Francke, of Halle (Saxony), convinced Mather that specific practical advice rather than pious exhortations could engender social reform. His subsequent essays (chapters) address all classes of society and their various occupations.
In typical Renaissance fashion, Mather was at home in virtually every discipline of human knowledge, ancient and modern. Though a theologian by vocation, he was a virtuoso of science by avocation, as his Curiosa Americana (1712, 1714) and his Christian Philosopher (1720/1) attest. In the former, he describes in more than 23 separate epistles his pseudo-scientific observations of the American flora and fauna, ornithology, birth defects, rattlesnakes, earthquakes, Indian customs, and many other American curiosities. Perfectly consistent with European standards of the time, "Curiosa" also pioneers theories of psychogenic causes of disease and of plant hybridization, the earliest known account, which became the basis for the Linnaean system of botany. The Royal Society of London bestowed upon Mather the prestigious title of F.R.S. (1713). He was only the eighth colonial American to become a Fellow. Like Increase Mather's Illustrious Providences (1684), Cotton Mather's Christian Philosopher provides a rational foundation for Christianity, attempting to reconcile Scripture revelation with the New Sciences. But unlike his father's earlier work, Christian Philosopher moves with ease between scientific explanations and theological justifications. Above all else, Cotton Mather demonstrates the adaptability of Calvinism to a new philosophy in its progress toward the Transcendentalism of the nineteenth century.
As an experimenter of medicine, Mather was as qualified as any medical practitioner in the Old and New World, for he studied medicine at Harvard when his adolescent stammer seemed to render him unsuitable for the ministry. His lifelong interest and solid foundation is apparent in this single, most comprehensive medical handbook in colonial America, The Angel of Bethesda (wr. 1723/24, publ. 1972). Its threefold purpose--religious, medical, scientific--is an outgrowth of his practical Pietism: to provide the indigent with a medical handbook in the absence of a physician. In 66 chapters (or Capsulae, as he wittily calls them), Mather quotes from more than 250 of the best medical authorities, borrowing remedies from the Galenical, chemical, and occult schools of medicine. Here loom large such worthies as Hippocrates, Galen, Paracelsus, Zoroaster, Plato, but also van Helmont, Boyle, and Sydenham. Each capsula follows the same pattern: (1) Mather's pious improvement on the disease, followed by (2) its clear description and interpretation, and (3) the best-known remedies and dosages for the possible cure of the ailment. Yet Mather's Angel is remarkable not for its singular medical lore, but for its highly advanced theories that are of continuing interest to modern medicine. Among still valuable recommendations are his prophylactic rules of temperate diet, physical exercise, and discouragement of smoking. His most enduring legacy, however, is his method of overcoming stammer, his benevolent treatment of psychiatric cases, his discussion of psychosomatic causes of illness, his immunological recommendations on inoculation against smallpox (eighty years before Edward Jenner developed his vaccine), and his disquisition on germ theory (animalculae)--long before Lister and Pasteur discovered their bacteriological approaches to preventive medicine in the nineteenth century. The warm, comforting, and understanding tone of Mather's Angel, its clear structure and consistent narrative voice, are characteristically embellished by his entertaining wit, nuggets of wisdom, and occasional metaphors and puns.
In light of his scientific achievements, one almost forgets that Cotton Mather was a pastor and minister first and foremost. Anticipating his imminent departure from this world, he hastened to write his Manuductio ad Ministerium (1726), a book-length manual for the ministry. Short on sectarian ideology, Manuductio embodies Mather's educational principles for the gentleman minister: Next to the traditional classical languages, he recommends such modern languages as French and Spanish; he devalues the customary Aristotelian curriculum of rhetoric, logic, and metaphysics in favor of the new Cartesian logic implemented at Harvard, and advises students to spend their time on the study of the Bible, German Pietism, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, the New Sciences, geography, ancient and modern history and biography, as well as music for refreshment and poetry for recreation. His revealing recommendations on style (not an end in itself but a means to an end), composition of sermons, and polished oratory, evince, just how far Mather had come in his old age: the minister of the future was to be above all a humane, liberal, erudite gentleman pastor, whose reformed Calvinism, humanistic scholarship, and polished grace did not neglect such practical matters as a balanced diet and physical exercise to offset the stress of his duties.
Cotton Mather's lifelong preoccupation with millennialism and its significance to his thought and work have only recently attracted full-scale attention. Beginning with Things to be Look'd for (1691), he published more than fifty works in which eschatology played a major role. In fact, it is hard to read any of his writings without finding some reference to the imminence of Christ's Second Coming. Of his major works on that topic, three stand out: Problema Theologicum (wr. 1695-1703; publ. 1994), a 95-page manuscript reflecting the principal issues in Mather's early millennialism; Triparadisus, his definitive treatment of his millenarian theories (387 ms. pages) in response to the hermeneutical debate in Europe; and his Biblia Americana, a gargantuan and unfinished critical commentary on the Bible in six folio volumes (c. 4,500 pages folio), fortified with synopses of the best hermeneutical scholarship of the day. Unlike his earlier Problema Theologicum in which Mather advances an inchoate system of pre- and postmillennialist theories, his Threefold Paradise (Triparadisus) is his most comprehensive study of apocalypticism. As a hermeneutical defense of revealed religion, Mather's discourse seeks to negotiate between orthodox exegesis of the prophecies and the new philological and historical-contextual challenges to the Scriptures by such European scholars as Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza, Richard Simon, Henry Hammond, Thomas Burnet, William Whiston, and Anthony Collins. Threefold Paradise marks Mather's decisive break from the hermeneutical positions he had inherited from his intellectual forebears but also represents the culmination of his lifelong interest in eschatology, which lay at the core of his cosmology and which was the fundamental mainspring of his ministerial and theological office. From 1720 to 1726, Mather's exegesis underwent a radical shift from a futurist interpretation of the prophecies to a preterit position--from arguing that several signs of Christ's return were still to be fulfilled, to asserting that all signs had been given several times over. Part I of Mather's Threefold Paradise delineates the history and location of the Garden of Eden as evidenced in the Pentateuch, ancient histories, patristic literature, and contemporary travel accounts. Part II is largely a refutation of psychopannychism, that is, a rebuttal of the idea that the soul is dormant, and a defense of the soul's immortality. Part III is by far the longest and most valuable discussion and covers in twelve subsections a variety of topics affected by the hermeneutical revisionism then taking shape in Europe: the tradition of a literal conflagration of the Earth, his defense of a literal New Heaven and New Earth during the millennium, his allegorization of the conversion of the Jewish people, and his prophetic timetables calculating the millennial reign of Christ. In this late work then, Mather emerges as colonial America's greatest theologian before Jonathan Edwards.