Cotton Mather – Encyclopedia of U.S. History

Cotton Mather was a Puritan clergyman in Boston, Massachusetts, in
the colonial period. Born into the third generation of a New England
founding family, he was educated at Harvard College and had a lifelong
interest in science. He played a controversial role during the Salem
witch trials, holding personal opinions against the trials but receiving
public blame for them.
Early life
Cotton Mather was born in March 1663 in Boston, the leading town in
the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Mather’s parents were Increase and
Maria Mather. Increase was the Puritan minister of the Second Church
in Boston as well as an agent of the colony in its affairs with England
and, from 1865 to 1701, president of Harvard College. He used science
in his sermons to fight superstition concerning comets and other natural
Mather was an intelligent child who learned Latin and Greek. At age
twelve, he entered Harvard College, where he studied Hebrew, philosophy, and science. He received a bachelor’s degree at age sixteen and, after
studying medicine, a master’s degree at age nineteen. In 1865, Mather
became assistant minister at the Second Church under his father.
Mather married three times. His first wife,
Abigail Phillips, died in 1702; they had nine
children. His second wife, Elizabeth Hubbard,
died in 1713; they had six children. His last
wife, Lydia George, whom he married in 1715,
eventually became insane. Only six of Mather’s
fifteen children lived to maturity, and only two
of them outlived him.
In 1688, Increase Mather sailed to England to
try to have the charter restored for the
Massachusetts Bay Colony. In Increase’s
absence, Cotton was in charge of the Second
Church. He also led local opposition to King
James II (1633–1701) and the king’s representative in Boston, Governor Edmund Andros
(1637–1714). James II was removed from power
in England, and Increase returned to Boston in
1692 with a new charter and a new governor, Sir William Phips
One of Phips’s first acts as governor was to hold witch trials, after
which nineteen people were hanged for the crime of witchcraft. The
judges at these trials used controversial procedures and evidence, including spectral evidence. Spectral evidence was testimony by a person who
said he or she could see the ghostly apparition of the tormenting witch.
Mather personally disapproved of the procedures used at the witch
trials. His father signed a letter by ministers urging courts not to convict
on the basis of spectral evidence alone. Mather, however, did not speak
out against the trials as they occurred. Because of his position in the
community and his published writings on witchcraft, many blamed him
for the panic that led to the witchcraft trials.
Later years
Mather was an avid writer, writing over four hundred books. He wrote
about witchcraft, history, biography, theology, science, and poetry.
Mather also had a strong interest in science. During a smallpox epidemic
in Boston, he urged the community to use inoculation, a technique one
of his slaves brought from Africa. Many religious people believed that
preventing disease with inoculation interfered with God’s plan for life
and death. Mather’s belief in the technique demonstrates how he
blended religious faith with scientific knowledge.
Increase Mather died in 1723, which elevated Mather to minister of
the Second Church. Mather lived only another five years, dying in
Boston in February 1728 at the age of sixty-four.