Cotton Mather (1663-1728)

    Contributing Editors:
    Kenneth Alan Hovey and
    Joseph Fichtelberg

    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 personal encounters?

    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).