Richard Mather (1596-1669), progenitor of a family dynasty of New England clergymen, was born in Lowton, Lancashire, England, in 1596, educated at Brasenose College, Oxford, and ministered to a church in Toxteth Park (Liverpool), before being twice suspended for nonconformity to the Anglican Church Discipline by Richard Neile, archbishop of York. Reading the writing on the wall, Richard Mather joined the Puritan exodus to Massachusetts, in 1635, where he supplied the pulpit of the First Church (Congregational) in Dorchester (just south of Boston), until his death in 1669. Four of his six sons—Samuel (1626-71), Nathaniel (1630-97), Eleazar (1637-69), and Increase (1639-1723)—followed their father into the ministry and became renowned clergymen in their own right in England, Ireland, and in New England. Along with John Cotton of Boston, Thomas Hooker of Hartford, Thomas Shepard of Cambridge, and John Davenport of New Haven, Richard Mather contributed in major ways to the formulation of the New England Way.
Among his published works, several books on New England’s congregational church discipline, autonomous church government, church membership, and the power of synods stand out: An Apologie of the Churches in New-England (London, 1643), Church-Government and Church-Covenant (1643), A Reply to Mr. Rutherford, or, A Defense of the Answer (1647). A Catechisme, or, The Grounds and Principles of Christian Religion (1650), and A Disputation concerning Church-Members and their Children (1659).
Ostensibly the first book-length publication to come from the newly established printing press in Cambridge, The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre (Cambridge, Mass.: Stephen Daye, 1640) is New England’s metrical version of the Psalms and is popularly known as “The Bay Psalm Book.” In revised and enlarged form, it went through more than fifty editions and remained in use for more than a century. Although several other Psalters were popular in Puritan New England, many Puritan divines on both sides of the Atlantic took exception to their inadequate translations, which seemed to sacrifice faithfulness to the Hebrew original to matters of rhyme and meter. To be sure, Richard Mather was not the sole translator of the Bay Psalm Book. In fact, the psalms were divided into portions and translated by thirty New England divines. Nonetheless, Mather was entrusted with the largest portions. The Bay Psalm Book was adopted by most congregations in Massachusetts, but the book was also known to be in use in England and Scotland.
An Apologie of the Churches in New-England for Church-Covenant (London, 1643) is a defense of the practice of covenanting as the basis of organizing a church. Mather tried to quell dissent on this issue in Old as much as in New England, where matters of personal election and the grounds for admission to church membership were viewed with suspicion. His definition of the covenant as a promise to, and commitment of, a group of Christians to bind themselves in faith and fellowship with Christ was sufficiently broad to accommodate the more recalcitrant to whom such covenanting smacked of novelty and the severing of ties with their parish churches in Old England. Harmony among the congregations of New England was foremost on Mather’s mind, when he insisted that covenanting was not an innovation at all but one of God’s ordinances present in the primitive Church. Most of all, Mather tried to reassure new arrivals from England that the ancient practice of covenanting constituted neither a rejection of their accustomed membership in their old parish churches nor a denial that they were true churches—even if they did not explicitly employ a covenant. He insisted that New England’s covenanting congregations were no separatists, like those of the Plymouth Colony. A tangible compromise between uneasy conformity on the one and radical separatism on the other, Richard Mather’s Apologie of the Churches in New-England, like his subsequent Church-Government and Church-Covenant Discussed, In an Answer . . . to Two and Thirty Questions, sent over to them by diverse Ministers in England (London, 1643), reminded recent arrivals that their baptism in Old England did not automatically entitle them to full church membership in New, because baptism was only a seal of God’s covenant, not a card blanche to partake at the Lord’s Table. On a much larger scale, the two tracts furnished a blueprint for, and justification of, New England’s church order, but also tried to influence the debates between English Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians in the Westminster Assembly of Divines (1643-49), who had gathered to restructure the discipline and government of the Church of England (1643-49).
Like his Modest & Brotherly Answer to Mr. Charles Herle (London, 1644), Richard Mather’s Reply to Mr. Rutherford, or, A Defense of the Answer to Reverend Mr. Herles Booke against the Independency of Churches (London, 1647) responded to the indictment of Congregationalist independency by English Presbyterians. Independency, leading Presbyterians such as Samuel Rutherford argued, jeopardizes conformity to a unified polity and encouraged separatism or worse. Neither synods nor other means of coercion, they warned, would compel obedience in matters of church decrees, ordinations, or excommunications. Disharmony, if not chaos, would inevitably ensue. Mather’s Reply, along with his still unpublished magnum opus “Plea for the Churches of Christ in New England” (1645-46) as well as his belatedly published Catechisme, or, The Grounds and Principles of Christian Religion set forth by Way of Questions and Answers (London, 1650), were more than a mere defense of the New England Way. Like Thomas Hooker’s Survey of the Summe of Church-Discipline (London, 1648), Mather not only sought to shape the debate then taking place in the Westminster Assembly, but also tried to provide a framework for doctrinal and political issues to redress the tensions within New England’s own church polity. The consensus document that emerged to constitute Puritan orthodoxy in New England was The Cambridge Platform of Church-Discipline (Cambridge, Mass., 1649), a document which made use of Richard Mather’s “Modell of Church Government” and incorporated many of his articles on the separation of church and state, the power of magistrates and clergy in matters civil and ecclesiastical, the ordination of ministers, and the advisory function of individual congregations under the umbrella of synods. However, The Cambridge Platform rejected Mather’s broadly defined recommendation that the children of baptized, though not fully regenerate, parents be admitted to the sacrament of baptism.
If the synod of New England’s churches in adopting The Cambridge Platform felt the need to restrict baptism, communion, and the right to vote to full church members, conservative clergymen were forced to reconsider their decision less than a decade later. It is in this context that Mather’s A Disputation concerning Church-Members and their Children (London, 1659) deserves brief attention. Though published anonymously, Disputation is generally attributed to Richard Mather and reflects the debate of roughly twenty ministers, who had been summoned by the magistrates in Boston, in June, 1657. The issue at hand was a decisive one; it paved the way for New England’s “Half-Way Covenant” (1662), a controversial broadening of the admission policy and attempt to redress drastically declining numbers of church members in Massachusetts. Although he appeared to vacillate at first on the question of baptizing the children of baptized, yet unregenerate, parents, in his earlier “Plea for the Churches of Christ,” Mather advocates a much more broadly defined policy in his “Modell” and Disputation a decade and a half later. Here he argued that such children were to be considered church members and thus eligible for baptism under their parents’ covenant, but like their unregenerate parents, they were neither admitted to the communion table nor allowed to vote on church matters until they owned the covenant in their person, efficaciously repented, and publicly professed their faith. These requirements, although owned by the more conservative churches of New England until the 1690s, were drastically weakened under the “Half-Way Covenant.” If the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was a seal of the covenant and reward for regeneration under the old order, it became redefined as a saving device, a means to fostering conversion under the new. This radical liberalization was anathema to many individuals at least until the Salem Witchcraft crisis even after most churches by that time had opened their doors nearly as wide as those of Solomon Stoddard’s Northampton church.
Richard Mather, though not the equal of his more famous colleagues John Cotton or Thomas Hooker, markedly shaped the foundation and development of the New England Way. Arguably, his influence continued beyond his death in 1669, through the leadership of his famous son Increase Mather and that of his even more famous grandson, Cotton Mather.
Burg, B. R. Richard Mather of Dorchester. Lexington Kentucky: The UP of Kentucky, 1976.
Eames, Wilberforce, ed. The Bay Psalm Book Being a Facsimile Reprint of the First Edition, Printed by Stephen Daye At Cambridge, in New England in 1640. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1903.
Middlekauff, Robert. The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals 1596-1728. New York: Oxford UP, 1971.
Pope, Robert G. The Half-Way Covenant. Church Membership in Puritan New England. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1969.