Cotton Mather (1663-1728)
Kenneth Alan Hovey and
Classroom Issues and Strategies
The challenge in teaching Mather is to humanize him without sacrificing
the complexity that makes him so fascinating. One solution might be to
stress his burdens as an eminent figure in a demanding family, at a time
of radical change.
Students might identify with Mather's strenuous attempts to live up
to his perfectionist father, Increase Mather, who in his prime dominated
the Bay's intellectual life. Cotton's protracted stuttering suggests how
fierce the struggle sometimes was; and there often seems to be a contest
in his life between optimistic self-assertion and an equally potent despair.
Prodigious works like the Magnalia Christi Americana show Mather
responding to cultural shocks in the same way he confronted personal ones--by
attempting to insert them in ever larger and more glorious contexts. Instructors
may then explore the tools with which he does so: both the typological
figures that convey Mather's optimism and the ambiguities and contradictions
that confess his despair.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
As New England became ever more secular and commercial, Mather strove,
both ideologically and personally, to adapt to the change. A guardian of
tradition, he was nevertheless an avid naturalist, a member of the Royal
Society, a leader in the revolt against Edmund Andros, and, through his
interest in evangelical piety, a religious progressive. His numerous biographies
assert the continued vigor of New England's millennial role, in elaborate
figures linking the colony with both ancient Israel and the Apocalypse.
Underlying his interest in witchcraft, for example, is the conviction that
such troubles would mount as the last days approached; and his portrait
of John Eliot suggests an American Moses redeeming the lost remnant of
Israel. Yet Mather's writing often reveals as well the tensions in his
hard-won position. His marking off of witches, Native Americans, and the
disorderly suggests not only a constant need to police his ideology, but
also an acknowledgment of its increasingly rapid erosion.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Mather's distinguishing literary characteristic is the degree to which
he merges history and autobiography. Certain elements of Mather's approach
to church history, for example, can be found in the numerous models he
used, among them Bradford.
But whereas Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation is narrated in the
modest, self-effacing manner one associates with Puritan saints, Mather
constantly intervenes, forcing his own voice upon the reader. Such obtrusiveness
makes sense if one realizes that Mather's real interest lies not only in
conveying the facts of men's lives but also in turning lives into instructive
"examples"-- examples that allow him, in turn, to extend his
own sense of errand. In this regard, it may be useful to compare Mather's
self-presentation with that of Rowlandson,
whose wilderness ordeal also spoke to New England's providential fortunes.
Mather's treatment of cultural "others" also bears notice.
His treatment of Native Americans, for example, has neither the sympathy
of William Byrd's nor
the sharp-eyed detail of Rowlandson's portraits. What it does, rather,
is expose the ideological uses to which Mather put Natives, as figures
in New England's cosmic drama. Conversely, although his plea, in The
Negro Christianized, for justice to African-American "servants"
stopped short of calling for emancipation, it nevertheless maintained that
God is colorblind. Converting slaves contributed to the rising glory of
Christian America, as Mather found by ministering to his own slave, Onesimus,
whom he acquired in the same year he published The Negro Christianized.
Mather was apparently a humane, liberal, but suspicious owner, teaching
Onesimus to read and write and allowing him outside income, but keeping
him under strict surveillance.
Finally, Mather has been profitably compared with much later figures
such as Henry Adams,
whose cultural inheritance left them unprepared for change.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. Compare the rather dry court records of Wonders of the Invisible
World to Mather's account of the Goodwin children in Book VI of the
Magnalia. What kinds of concerns does Mather bring to these more
2. Compare Mather's benevolent projects in Bonifacius with those
described in Franklin's Autobiography. What impulses unite the two
endeavors? How are they different?
3. Sample other sections of the Magnalia. If Mather intends for
New England, whether it " Live any where else or no,"
to " Live in [his] History," what kinds of materials
does he choose to preserve it, and how successful is his project?
4. Compare Mather's The Negro Christianized to Samuel Sewall's
The Selling of Joseph. How does the possibility of miscegenation
and the confusion of radical identities serve both to limit and clarify
the Puritan sense of self?
In addition to the secondary works mentioned in the anthology, instructors
might consult David Levin, Cotton Mather: The Young Life of the Lord's
Remembrancer (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1978), Richard
Lovelace, The American Pietism of Cotton Mather (Grand Rapids: Christian
University Press, 1979), Mason Lowance, The Language of Canaan (Cambridge,
Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1980), and Michael Winship, Seers of
God (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).