INCREASE MATHER (1639-1723). Even more than his illustrious son Cotton, Increase Mather, is representative of American Puritanism in seventeenth-century New England. As a leader of Boston’s ministry, he became the defender of Puritan orthodoxy during its decline; as president of Harvard, he guided the college through its most difficult period; as a political figure, he secured a new charter for Massachusetts when the old had been revoked; and as a voluminous writer, he published in widely diverse disciplines.
Born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and educated at Harvard (B.A., 1656) and Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland (M.A., 1658), Mather served during the last years of the Interregnum as a congregational minister in southern England (1658-1661). Nonconformity to Anglicanism forced him to return to New England, where he became a controversial spiritual and political leader. As teacher of Boston’s Second Church (1664-1723), he staunchly opposed the Half-Way Covenant (1662), governing church admission, and Solomon Stoddard’s open-door policy in the Northampton churches. During his Harvard presidency (1685-1702), he implemented a new curriculum and championed the study of science. As New England’s envoy to England (1688-1692), Mather negotiated with James II and his successor William III and obtained a new charter, securing most of the colony’s former privileges. Hostility toward the Second Charter at home, his support of the new governor Sir William Phipps, his controversial involvement in the Salem witchcraft trials (1692-1693), his resignation from his Harvard presidency (1702), and his unpopular support of small pox inoculation (1721) characterize the gradual decline of the Mather dynasty and its waning political power in New England.
Of his 135 publications, several representative types can be singled out. Like all Puritan biographical writings, The Life and Death of That Reverend Man of God, Mr. Richard Mather (1670; 1989) and The Autobiography of Increase Mather (publ. 1962) reveal the Puritan penchant for didacticism. The former presents his father as typological exemplar; in the latter, Mather reshapes the events of his life for the moral edification of his posterity. What emerges is a characteristic Puritan hagiography prominently recording the providential events of conversion and his life of visible sainthood, while subordinating the details of his mundane accomplishments.
Like most Puritan histories of seventeenth-century New England, Increase Mather’s A Brief History of the Warr With the Indians in New-England (1676) fosters an American mythology born out of crises and rooted in the Old Testament language of Israel. He bewails New England’s departure form its original Errand, for which apostasy God employs the Indians as a punishing rod to chastise his backsliding children. The specific events are cast in analogous patterns of the past, the OT type foreshadowing its latter-day antitype and God’s dealings with ancient Israel becoming a blueprint for how He would deal with his new English Israel. Thus, Mather’s history of New England’s war with the Algonquian King Philip (Metacom) is set in a framework of cosmic struggle between good and evil, God’s elect warding off Satan’s minions. What emerges is less an impartial account of the Indian war (June 1675-Aug. 1676) than a Puritan mythology couched in OT parallels and shaped in the style of biblical lamentations. The thematic unity of the various events underscores Mather’s didacticism: while the disastrous war signifies divine displeasure, God has not abandoned New England, for he uses both avenger and victim for his own purposes and, perchance, pardons where He seems most to punish.
Typical of the period’s ever popular providence books, Mather’s An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences (1684) is a case study of natural phenomena, from which he draws epistemological inferences. Covering such topics as lightning, thunder, magnetism, gravity, comets, as well as ghostly apparitions, demons, and possessions, he develops a physico-theological assessment of natural and supernatural phenomena in an attempt to reconcile the new science with biblical revelation, the Book of Nature corroborating the Book of Scripture. Mather’s achievement, however, lies less in his attempt to harmonize theological and scientific theories than in popularizing in New England the latest scientific discoveries of the Royal Society of London. Moreover, his discussion of preternatural activities of witches and their apparitions—a widely-held belief at the time—cautions his readers not to mistake purely natural for supernatural phenomena. Like his later Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits (1693), a discussion of Salem witchcraft, The Illustrious Providences discourages the admission of “spectral evidence” in a court of law and denounces torture as a means of extracting confessions. Though firmly believing in the existence of witchcraft and its deadly power, Mather also cautions against superstition and its dangerous potential. Thus both texts can be seen as the last vestiges of medievalism on the verge of New England’s transition into the Enlightenment.
Of his hermeneutical tracts combating the rise of philological criticism and historical contextual interpretations of the Bible, Mather’s The Mystery of Israel’s Salvation (1669) and A Dissertation Concerning the Future Conversion of the Jewish Nation (1709) deserve to be singled out. Mystery is his response to the wide-spread expectation of the Second Coming of Christ in the wake of the Shabbatean Movement, which fostered the return of European and Ottoman Jews to the Holy Land in the 1660s. His Dissertation continues this line of argument, but specifically targets his European colleagues Richard Baxter, John Lightfoot, Henry Hammond, and Hugo Grotius, who allegorized St. Paul’s prophecy of Israel’s conversion (Romans 11) by insisting on a preterit fulfillment of this event in the historical past. Any future expectation—so crucial to millennialists of the period—was therefore null and void.
Increase Mather’s greatest contribution to the literature of early America is, perhaps, his American jeremiad, a homiletic lamentation of New England’s departure from its original Errand into the Wilderness. His The Day of Trouble is Near (1674) and Ichabod: or, The Glory Departing (1702) are representative examples of this genre. Characteristically, Mather assumes the persona of the OT prophet Jeremiah, whose chosen people in the New World are the antitype of God’s ancient Israel, the type; he reminds the colony of its Federal Covenant with God and threatens the Saints with divine retribution for their backsliding. In spite of its gloomy vision, Ichabod—like all jeremiad sermons—ends on a note of millenarian hope: the Almighty will not abandon his covenanted Saints if only they repent and reform before it is too late. Thus while holding the rod of punishment in one hand, Mather offers God’s dove of peace in the other. A response to the declining numbers of new church communicants, the jeremiad as a sermon sub-genre came to its full flowering in the decades following New England’s Half-Way Covenant (1662). As a means to incite people to action, the jeremiad also flourished during the Great Awakening and beyond the American Revolution and Manifest Destiny into the early nineteenth century, when the pursuit of the millennium culminated in the Second Great Awakening.
The selection reprinted below, An Earnest Exhortation To the Inhabitants of New-England (1676)—courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society—is his theological explication of King Philip’s War (1675-76) as God’s punishment of his people for their backsliding. Characteristic of the homiletic tradition of the jeremiad is Increase Mather’s paradigmatic response to the war with the Indian Sachem Metacom and his action plan to appease his wrathful God. An Earnest Exhortation is one of the most revealing documents of the period of how the Puritan ministry squarely located cause and effect of all their actions in God’s providential and soteriological design for New England.