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Cotton Mather, circa 1700
|Born||February 12, 1663|
Boston, Massachusetts Bay Colony
|Died||February 13, 1728(aged 65)|
|Parents||Increase Mather and Maria Cotton|
|Relatives||John Cotton and Richard Mather|
|This article needs additional citations for verification. (January 2011)|
Cotton Mather, circa 1700
|Born||February 12, 1663|
Boston, Massachusetts Bay Colony
|Died||February 13, 1728(aged 65)|
|Parents||Increase Mather and Maria Cotton|
|Relatives||John Cotton and Richard Mather|
Cotton Mather, FRS (February 12, 1663 – February 13, 1728; A.B. 1678, Harvard College; A.M. 1681, honorary doctorate 1710, University of Glasgow) was a socially and politically influential New England Puritan minister, prolific author and pamphleteer. Known for his vigorous support for the Salem witch trials, Mather also left a scientific legacy due to his hybridization experiments and his promotion of inoculation for disease prevention.
He was the son of Increase Mather, and grandson of both John Cotton and Richard Mather, all also prominent Puritan ministers. Mather was named after his maternal grandfather, John Cotton. He attended Boston Latin School, where his name was posthumously added to its Hall of Fame, and graduated from Harvard in 1678 at age 15. After completing his post-graduate work, he joined his father as assistant pastor of Boston's original North Church (not to be confused with the Anglican/Episcopal Old North Church of Paul Revere fame). In 1685 Mather assumed full responsibilities as pastor of the church.
Mather wrote more than 450 books and pamphlets, and his ubiquitous literary works made him one of the most influential religious leaders in America. Mather set the moral tone in the colonies, and sounded the call for second- and third-generation Puritans, whose parents had left England for the New England colonies of North America, to return to the theological roots of Puritanism. The most important of these, Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), comprises seven distinct books, many of which depict biographical and historical narratives.
From his religious training, Mather viewed the importance of texts for elaborating meaning and for bridging different moments of history—linking, for instance, the Biblical stories of Noah and Abraham with the arrival of such eminent leaders as John Eliot; John Winthrop; and his own father, Increase. Highly influential, Mather was a force to be reckoned with in secular, as well as in spiritual, matters. After the fall of James II of England, in 1688, Mather was among the leaders of the successful revolt against James's governor of the consolidated Dominion of New England, Sir Edmund Andros.
Cotton Mather was not known for writing in a neutral, unbiased perspective. Many, if not all, of his writings had bits and pieces of his own personal life in them or were written for personal reasons. According to literary historian Sacvan Bercovitch:
Few puritans more loudly decried the bosom serpent of egotism than did Cotton Mather; none more clearly exemplified it. Explicitly or implicitly, he projects himself everywhere in his writings. In the most direct compensatory sense, he does so by using literature as a means of personal redress. He tells us that he composed his discussions of the family to bless his own, his essays on the riches of Christ to repay his benefactors, his tracts on morality to convert his enemies, his funeral discourses to console himself for the loss of a child, wife, or friend.
Mather influenced early American science. In 1716, because of observations of corn varieties, he conducted one of the first recorded experiments with plant hybridization. This observation was memorialized in a letter to his friend James Petiver:
First: my Friend planted a Row of Indian corn that was Coloured Red and Blue; the rest of the Field being planted with corn of the yellow, which is the most usual color. To the Windward side, this Red and Blue Row, so infected Three or Four whole Rows, as to communicate the same Colour unto them; and part of ye Fifth and some of ye Sixth. But to the Leeward Side, no less than Seven or Eight Rows, had ye same Colour communicated unto them; and some small Impressions were made on those that were yet further off.
In November 1713, Mather's wife, newborn twins, and two-year-old daughter all succumbed during a measles epidemic. Of Mather's three wives and 15 children, only his last wife and two children survived him. Mather was buried on Copp's Hill, near Old North Church.
A huge influence throughout Mather's career was Robert Boyle. Mather read Boyle's book The Usefulness of Experimental Natural Philosophy. Mather read Boyle's work closely throughout the 1680s and his early works on science and religion borrowed greatly from it. He even uses almost identical language to Boyle.
Cotton Mather's relationship with his well-known father, Increase Mather, is thought by some to have been a strained and difficult one. Increase Mather was a pastor of the Old North Church and president of Harvard College; he led an accomplished life that Cotton was determined to live up to. Despite Cotton Mather's efforts, he never became quite as well known and successful in politics as his father. He did surpass his father's output as a writer, writing over 400 books. One of the most public displays of their strained relationship emerged during the Salem Witch Trials. Despite the fact that Increase Mather did not support the trials, Mather documented them. Cotton helped convince Elihu Yale to make a donation to a new college in New Haven that would come to be Yale College.
The practice of smallpox inoculation (as opposed to the later practice of vaccination) was developed possibly in 8th-century India or 10th-century China. Spreading its reach in seventeenth-century Turkey, inoculation or, rather, variolation, involved infecting a person through a cut in the skin with exudate from a patient with a relatively mild case of smallpox (variola), in order to bring about a manageable and recoverable infection that would provide later immunity. By the beginning of the 18th century, the Royal Society in England was discussing the practice of inoculation, and the smallpox epidemic in 1713 spurred further interest. It was not until 1721, however, that England recorded its first case of inoculation.
Smallpox was a serious threat in colonial America, most devastating to Native Americans, but also to Anglo-American settlers. New England suffered smallpox epidemics in 1677, 1689–90, and 1702. It was highly contagious, and mortality could reach as high as 30 percent or more. Boston had been plagued by smallpox outbreaks in 1690 and 1702. During this era, public authorities in Massachusetts dealt with the threat primarily by means of quarantine. Incoming ships were quarantined in Boston harbor, and any smallpox patients in town were held under guard or in a "pesthouse."
In 1706, Mather's slave, Onesimus, explained to Mather how he had been inoculated as a child in Africa. Mather was fascinated by the idea. By July 1716, Mather had read an endorsement of inoculation by Dr Emanuel Timonius of Constantinople in the Philosophical Transactions. Mather then declared, in a letter to Dr. John Woodward of Gresham College in London, that he planned to press Boston's doctors to adopt the practice of inoculation should smallpox reach the colony again.
By 1721, a whole generation of young Bostonians was vulnerable and memories of the last epidemic's horrors had by and large disappeared. On April 22 of that year, the HMS Seahorse arrived from the West Indies carrying smallpox on board. Despite attempts to protect the town through quarantine, eight known cases of smallpox appeared in Boston by May 27, and by mid-June, the disease was spreading at an alarming rate. As a new wave of smallpox hit the area and continued to spread, many residents fled to outlying rural settlements. The combination of exodus, quarantine, and outside traders' fears disrupted business in the capital of the Bay Colony for weeks. Guards were stationed at the House of Representatives to keep Bostonians from entering without special permission. The death toll reached 101 in September, and the Selectmen, powerless to stop it, "severely limited the length of time funeral bells could toll." As one response, legislators delegated a thousand pounds from the treasury to help the people who, under these conditions, could no longer support their families.
On June 6, 1721, Mather sent an abstract of reports on inoculation by Timonius and Jacobus Pylarinus to local physicians, urging them to consult about the matter. He received no response. Next, Mather pleaded his case to Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, who tried the procedure on his only son and two slaves—one grown and one a boy. All recovered in about a week. Boylston inoculated seven more people by mid-July. The epidemic peaked in October 1721, with 411 deaths; by February 26, 1722, Boston was, once again, free of smallpox. The total number of cases since April 1721 came to 5,889, with 844 deaths—more than three-quarters of all the deaths in Boston during 1721. Meanwhile, Dr. Boylston had inoculated 242 people, with only six resulting in death.
Boylston and Mather's inoculation crusade "raised a horrid Clamour" amongst the people of Boston. Both Boylston and Mather were "Object[s] of their Fury; their furious Obloquies and Invectives," which Mather acknowledges in his diary. Boston's Selectmen, consulting a doctor who claimed that the practice caused many deaths and only spread the infection, forbade Boylston from performing it again.
The New-England Courant published writers who opposed the practice. The editorial stance was that the Boston populace feared that inoculation spread, rather than prevented, the disease; however, some historians, notably H. W. Brands, have argued that this position was a result of editor-in-chief James Franklin's (Benjamin Franklin's brother) contrarian positions.
Public discourse ranged in tone from organized arguments by Reverend John Williams from Boston, who posted that "several arguments proving that inoculating the smallpox is not contained in the law of Physick, either natural or divine, and therefore unlawful," to more slanderous attacks, such as those put forth in a pamphlet by Dr. William Douglass of Boston entitled The Abuses and Scandals of Some Late Pamphlets in Favour of Inoculation of the Small Pox (1721), on the qualifications of inoculation's proponents. (Douglass was exceptional at the time for holding a medical degree from Europe.) At the extreme, in November 1721, someone hurled a lighted grenade into Cotton Mather's house.
Several opponents of smallpox inoculation, among them John Williams, stated that there were only two laws of physick (medicine): sympathy and antipathy. In his estimation, inoculation was neither a sympathy toward a wound or a disease, or an antipathy toward one, but the creation of one. For this reason, its practice violated the natural laws of medicine, transforming health care practitioners into those who harm rather than heal.
As with many colonists, Williams' Puritan beliefs were enmeshed in every aspect of his life, and he used the Bible to state his case. He quoted Matthew 9:12, when Jesus said: "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick." Dr. William Douglass proposed a more secular argument against inoculation, stressing the importance of reason over passion and urging the public to be pragmatic in their choices. In addition, he demanded that ministers leave the practice of medicine to physicians, and not meddle in areas where they lacked expertise. According to Douglass, smallpox inoculation was "a medical experiment of consequence," one not to be undertaken lightly. He believed that not all learned individuals were qualified to doctor others, and while ministers took on several roles in the early years of the colony, including that of caring for the sick, they were now expected to stay out of state and civil affairs. Douglass also felt that inoculation caused more deaths than it prevented. The only reason Cotton Mather had success in it, he said, was because Mather had used it on children, who are naturally more resilient. Douglass vowed to always speak out against "the wickedness of spreading infection."
Speak out he did: "The battle between these two prestigious adversaries [Douglass and Mather] lasted far longer than the epidemic itself, and the literature accompanying the controversy was both vast and venomous." In the end, Douglass grew to accept inoculation, but he stood his ground on the need for professional standards.
Generally, Puritan pastors favored the inoculation experiments. For example, Cotton's father Increase Mather was joined by prominent Puritan pastors Benjamin Colman and William Cooper in openly propagating the use of inoculations. "One of the classic assumptions of the Puritan mind was that the will of God was to be discerned in nature as well as in revelation." Nevertheless Williams questioned whether the smallpox "is not one of the strange works of God; and whether inoculation of it be not a fighting with the most High." He also asked his readers if the smallpox epidemic may have been given to them by God as "punishment for sin," and warned that attempting to shield themselves from God's fury (via inoculation), would only serve to "provoke him more."
Puritans found meaning in affliction, and they did not yet know why God was showing them disfavor through smallpox. Not to address their errant ways before attempting a cure could set them back in their "errand". Many Puritans believed that creating a wound and inserting poison was doing violence and therefore was antithetical to the healing art. They grappled with adhering to the Ten Commandments, with being proper church members and good caring neighbors. The apparent contradiction between harming or murdering a neighbor through inoculation and the Sixth Commandment - "thou shalt not kill" — seemed insoluble and hence stood as one of the main objections against the procedure. Williams maintained that because the subject of inoculation could not be found in the Bible, it was not the will of God, and therefore "unlawful." He also explained that inoculation violated The Golden Rule, because if one neighbor voluntarily infected another with disease, he was not doing unto others as he would have done to him. With the Bible as the Puritans' source for all decision-making, lack of scriptural evidence concerned many, and Williams vocally scorned Rev. Mather for not being able to reference an inoculation edict directly from the Bible. Mathers disagreed, and most, if not all, Puritan pastors stood with Mather.
With the smallpox epidemic catching speed and racking up a staggering death toll, a solution to the crisis was becoming more urgently needed by the day. The use of quarantine and various other efforts, such as balancing the body's humors, did not slow the disease's spread. As news rolled in from town to town and correspondence arrived from overseas, reports of horrific stories of suffering and loss due to smallpox stirred mass panic among the people. "By circa 1700, smallpox had become among the most devastating of epidemic diseases circulating in the Atlantic world."
Mather strongly challenged the perception that inoculation was against the will of God and argued that the procedure was not outside of Puritan principles. He wrote that "whether a Christian may not employ this Medicine (let the matter of it be what it will) and humbly give Thanks to God's good Providence in discovering of it to a miserable World; and humbly look up to His Good Providence (as we do in the use of any other Medicine) It may seem strange, that any wise Christian cannot answer it. And how strangely do Men that call themselves Physicians betray their Anatomy, and their Philosophy, as well as their Divinity in their invectives against this Practice?" The Puritan minister began to embrace the sentiment that smallpox was an inevitability for anyone, both the good and the wicked, yet God had provided them with the means to save themselves. Mather reported that, from his view, "none that have used it ever died of the Small Pox, tho at the same time, it were so malignant, that at least half the People died, that were infected With it in the Common way."
While Cotton Mather was experimenting with the procedure, prominent Puritan pastors Benjamin Colman and William Cooper expressed public and theological support for them. The practice of smallpox inoculation was eventually accepted by the general population due to first-hand experiences and personal relationships. Although many were initially wary of the concept, it was because people were able to witness the procedure's consistently positive results, within their own community of ordinary citizens, that it became widely utilized and supported. One important change in the practice after 1721 was regulated quarantine of inoculees.
Although Cotton Mather and Dr. Boylston were able to demonstrate the efficacy of the practice, the debate over inoculation would continue even beyond the epidemic of 1721–22. After overcoming considerable difficulty and achieving notable success, Boylston traveled to London in 1725 where he published his results and was elected to the Royal Society in 1726.
Mr Cotton Mather was the most active and forward of any Minister in the Country in those matters [the Goodwin children and Goody Glover], taking home one of the Children, and managing such intrigues with that Child, and after printing such an account of the whole, in his Memorable Provinces [published in 1689], as conduced much to the kindling of those Flames, that in Sir Williams time [i.e. Salem Witch Trials] threatened the devouring of this Country."
Historian Charles Wentworth Upham, writing in 1869 says that both Mathers "are answerable... more than almost any other... for the opinions of their time. It was indeed a superstitious age, but made much more so by their operations, influence, and writings, beginning with Increase Mather's movement at the assembly of Ministers in 1681 and ending with Cotton Mather's dealings with the Goodwin children, and the account thereof which he printed  and circulated far and wide." Upham refers to the afflicted in Salem as the "imitators" of the Goodwin children.
Mather was influential in the construction of the court for the trials from the beginning. Sir William Phips, governor of the newly chartered Province of Massachusetts Bay, appointed his lieutenant governor, William Stoughton, as head of a special witchcraft tribunal and then as chief justice of the colonial courts, where he presided over the witch trials. According to Bancroft, Mather had been influential in gaining the politically unpopular Stoughton his appointment as lieutenant governor under Phips through the intervention of Mather's own politically powerful father, Increase. "Intercession had been made by Cotton Mather for the advancement of William Stoughton, a man of cold affections, proud, self-willed and covetous of distinction.":83 Apparently Mather saw in Stoughton an ally for church-related matters. Bancroft quotes Mather's reaction to Stoughton's appointment as follows:
"The time for a favor is come," exulted Cotton Mather; "Yea, the set time is come.:84
Mather claims he did not attend the trials in Salem (though his father attended the trial of George Burroughs). Two contemporaries, Thomas Brattle and Robert Calef, place him at executions (see below). Mather began to publicize and celebrate the trials well before they were put to an end: "If in the midst of the many Dissatisfaction among us, the publication of these Trials may promote such a pious Thankfulness unto God, for Justice being so far executed among us, I shall Re-joyce that God is Glorified..." Mather calls himself a historian not an advocate, but his writing largely presumes the guilt of the accused and includes such venomous comments as calling Martha Carrier "a rampant hag" (Wonders of the Invisible World).
Mather's most fatal influence over the trials was in composing the answer to the question of whether or not to allow spectral evidence, that is, allowing the afflicted girls to claim that some invisible ghost of the defendant was tormenting them, and for this to be considered evidence of witchcraft by the defendant, even if the defendant denied it and professed their own strongly held Christian beliefs. An opinion on the matter was sought from the most esteemed ministers of the area and Mather took credit for their response when anonymously celebrating himself years later: "drawn up at their desire, by Cotton Mather the younger, as I have been informed." (The Life of Sir William Phips; first published anonymously in London in 1697)
On May 31, 1692, Mather wrote to one of the judges, John Richards, a member of his congregation, expressing his support of the prosecutions, but cautioning; "do not lay more stress on pure spectral evidence than it will bear... It is very certain that the Devils have sometimes represented the Shapes of persons not only innocent, but also very virtuous. Though I believe that the just God then ordinarily provides a way for the speedy vindication of the persons thus abused."
Hutchinson sums the letter, "The two first and the last sections of this advice took away the force of all the others, and the prosecutions went on with more vigor than before." (Reprinting the letter years later in Magnalia, Mather notably omitted the fateful "two first and the last" sections.)
The original full version of the letter, called Return of the Several Ministers, was dated June 15, 1692, and had been reprinted in late 1692 in the final two pages of Increase Mather's Cases of Conscience. It is a curious document and remains a source of confusion and argument. Calef calls it "perfectly Ambidexter, giving as great as greater Encouragement to proceed in those dark methods, then cautions against them... indeed the Advice then given, looks most like a thing of his Composing, as carrying both Fire to increase and Water to quench the Conflagration."
Regarding his view on Spectral evidence, Upham concludes that "Cotton Mather never in any public writing 'denounced the admission' of it, never advised its absolute exclusion; but on the contrary recognized it as a ground of 'presumption' ...[and once admitted] nothing could stand against it. Character, reason, common sense, were swept away."
The S. G. [Salem Gentlemen] will by no means allow, that any are brought in guilty, and condemned, by virtue of spectre Evidence... but whether it is not purely by virtue of these spectre evidences, that these persons are found guilty, (considering what before has been said,) I leave you, and any man of sense, to judge and determine.
The later rejection of Spectral evidence in the trials of January 1693 resulted in no convictions. Bancroft notes that Mather considered witches "among the poor, and vile, and ragged beggars upon Earth,":85 and Bancroft asserts that Mather considered the people against the witch trials to be witch advocates.:85 Calef places Mather at the scene of the execution of Mr. Burroughs (and four others who were executed after Mather spoke) and shows him playing a direct and influential role:
Mr. Buroughs (sic) was carried in a Cart with others, through the streets of Salem, to Execution. When he was upon the Ladder, he made a speech for the clearing of his Innocency, with such Solemn and Serious Expressions as were to the Admiration of all present; his Prayer (which he concluded by repeating the Lord's Prayer) [as witches were not supposed to be able to recite] was so well worded, and uttered with such composedness as such fervency of spirit, as was very Affecting, and drew Tears from many, so that if seemed to some that the spectators would hinder the execution. The accusers said the black Man [Devil] stood and dictated to him. As soon as he was turned off [hung], Mr. Cotton Mather, being mounted upon a Horse, addressed himself to the People, partly to declare that he [Mr. Burroughs] was no ordained Minister, partly to possess the People of his guilt, saying that the devil often had been transformed into the Angel of Light. And this did somewhat appease the People, and the Executions went on; when he [Mr. Burroughs] was cut down, he was dragged by a Halter to a Hole, or Grave, between the Rocks, about two feet deep; his Shirt and Breeches being pulled off, and an old pair of Trousers of one Executed put on his lower parts: he was so put in, together with Willard and Carrier, that one of his Hands, and his Chin, and a Foot of one of them, was left uncovered.—Robert Calef
In the years after the trials, Cotton Mather remained unrepentant for his role. Of the principal actors in the trial, whose lives are recorded after, only he and his ally William Stoughton never admitted any guilt.:98 Indeed, in the years after the trial Mather became an increasingly vehement defender of the trials. At the request of then Lt.-Gov. William Stoughton, Mather wrote Wonders of the Invisible World written during the trials and published in 1693.:67 The book contained a few of Mather's sermons, the conditions of the colony and a description of witch trials in Europe.:335 Mather somewhat clarified the contradictory advice he had given in Return of the Several Ministers, by defending the use of spectral evidence.:209 Wonders of the Invisible World appeared at the same time as Increase Mather's Cases of Conscience.":455
Cotton Mather did not sign his name or support his father's book initially, and seemed more concerned with blow-back on himself and the judges than ensuring the protection of the innocent:
There are fourteen worthy ministers that have newly set their hands unto a book now in the press, containing Cases of Conscience about Witchcraft. I did, in my Conscience think, that as the humors of this people now run, such a discourse going alone would not only enable the witch-advocates, very learnedly to cavil and nibble at the late proceedings against the witches, considered in parcels, while things as they lay in bulk, with their whole dependencies, were not exposed; but also everlastingly stifle any further proceedings of justice & more than so produce a public & open contest with the judges who would (tho beyond the intention of the worthy author & subscribers) find themselves brought unto the before the rashest mobile [mob]--Oct. 20, 1692 letter to his uncle John Cotton.
The last event in Mather's involvement with witchcraft was his attempt to cure Mercy Short and Margaret Rule.:202 Boston merchant Robert Calef began his eight-year campaign against the influential Mathers.:455 Calef's book was inspired by the fear that Mather would succeed in once again stirring up new witchcraft trials, and the need to bear witness to the horrible experiences of New Englanders in 1692. He quotes the public apologies of the men on the jury and one of the judges. Upon reading Calef's More Wonders of the Invisible World Increase Mather, Cotton's father, publicly burned the book in Harvard Yard.:22
In 1869, William Frederick Poole quoted from various school textbooks of the time demonstrating they were in agreement on Cotton Mather's role in the Witch Trials:
"If anyone imagines that we are stating the case too strongly, let him try an experiment with the first bright boy he meets by asking,..
'Who got up Salem Witchcraft?'...he will reply, 'Cotton Mather'. Let him try another boy.....
'Who was Cotton Mather?' and the answer will come, 'The man who was on horseback, and hung witches.'"
Poole was not a historian, but a librarian, and a lover of literature, including Mather's Magnalia "and other books and tracts, numbering nearly 400 [which] were never so prized by collectors as today." Poole announces his intention to redeem Mather's name, using as a springboard a harsh critique of a recently published tome by Charles Wentworth Upham, Salem Witchcraft Volumes I and II With an Account of Salem Village and a History of Opinions on Witchcraft and Kindred Subjects, which runs to almost 1,000 pages, and a quick search of the name Mather (referring to either father, son, or ancestors) shows that it occurs 96 times. Poole's critique, in book form, runs less than 70 pages but the name "Mather" occurs many more times than the other book, which is more than ten times as long. Upham shows a balanced and complicated view of Cotton Mather, such as this first mention: "One of Cotton Mather's most characteristic productions is the tribute to his venerated master. It flows from a heart warm with gratitude."
Upham's book refers to Robert Calef no fewer than 25 times with the majority of these regarding documents compiled by Calef in the mid-1690s and stating: "Although zealously devoted to the work of exposing the enormities connected with the witchcraft prosecutions, there is no ground to dispute the veracity of Calef as to matters of fact." He goes on to say that Calef's collection of writings "gave a shock to Mather's influence, from which it never recovered." Poole's critique might better be understood as aimed at Calef, Mather's contemporary, who saw fit to ascribe to him, and his influence, the largest portion of blame. Calef produced only the one book; he is self-effacing and apologetic for his limitations, and on the title page he is listed not as author but "collector". Poole, champion of literature, cannot accept Calef whose "faculties, as indicated by his writings appear to us to have been of an inferior order;..." and his book "in our opinon, has a reputation much beyond its merits." Poole refers to Calef as Mather's "personal enemy" and opens a line, "Without discussing the character and motives of Calef..." but does not follow up on this suggestive comment to discuss any actual or purported motive or reason to impune Calef. Upham responded to Poole in a book running five times as long and sharing the same title (referring to Poole as "the Reviewer.") Many of Poole's arguments were addressed, but both authors emphasize the importance of Cotton Mather's difficult and contradictory view on spectral evidence, as copied in the final pages, called "The Return of Several Ministers." of Increase Mather's "Cases of Conscience".
In 1914, historian George Lincoln Burr sided with Upham in a note on Thomas Brattle's letter, "The strange suggestion of W. F. Poole that Brattle here means Cotton Mather himself, is adequately answered by Upham..." Burr reprinted Calef in full and dug deep into the historical record for information on the man and concludes "...that he had else any grievance against the Mathers or their colleagues there is no reason to think." Burr finds that a comparison between Calef's work and original documents in the historical record collections "testify to the care and exactness..."
Poole's views have found followers and the revision of Cotton Mather continues, while Calef's book is arguably less well-known.
Chadwick Hansen's Witchcraft at Salem, published in 1969, defined Mather as a positive influence on the Salem Trials. Hansen considered Mather's handling of the Goodwin Children to be sane and temperate.:168 Hansen also noted that Mather was more concerned with helping the affected children than witch-hunting.:60 Mather treated the affected children through prayer and fasting.:24
Mather tried to convert the Catholic Goodwife Glover before she was executed, accused of practicing witchcraft on the Goodwin children.:24 Hansen claimed Mather acted as a moderating influence in the trials by opposing the death penalty for those who confessed—or feigned confession—such as Tituba and Dorcas Good.:123 Most interesting was Mather's decision not to tell the community of the others whom Goodwife Glover claimed practiced witchcraft.:23 Robert Calef's observation of Mather's dealings with Margaret Rule suggested Mather's motivation for keeping quiet was blackmail, with Mather perceived as drawing information from her through leading questions, and possibly having a prurient interest--"Smutty" in Mather's words—in his intimate dealings with afflicted young women. Hansen also claims that most negative impressions of Cotton Mather stem from his defense of the ongoing trials in Wonders of the Invisible World. After others had lamented the roles they played in the executions of nineteen and imprisonment of hundreds, Mather remained the chief defender of the trials, which diminishes the view of him as a moderate influence.:189
Historian Bernard Rosenthal laments that Mather is so often portrayed as the rabid witch hunter.:169 Rosenthal suggests that Mather might have had guilty feelings—feigned or not—for choosing not to restrain the judges during the trial, though he was in the best position to do so.:202 Historian Larry Gragg highlights Mather's cloudy thinking and confusion between sympathy for the possessed, and the boundlessness of spectral evidence when Mather stated, "the devil have sometimes represented the shapes of persons not only innocent, but also the very virtuous.":88 And writing in the early 1980s, historian John Demos seemed to consider Mather a moderating influence on the trials.:305
The Boston Ephemeris was an almanac written by Mather in 1686. The content was similar to what is known today as the Farmer's Almanac. This was particularly important because it shows that Cotton Mather had influence in mathematics during the time of Puritan New England. This almanac contained a significant amount of astronomy, celestial within the text of the Almanac the positions and motions of these celestial bodies, which he must have calculated by hand.
When Cotton Mather died, he had an abundance of unfinished writings left behind, including one entitled The Biblia Americana. Mather believed that Biblia Americana was the best thing he had ever written, believing it to be his masterwork (Hovey 533).
Biblia Americana contained Cotton Mather's thoughts and opinions on the Bible and how he interpreted it. Biblia Americana is incredibly large and Mather worked on it from 1693–1728, when he died. Mather tried to convince others that philosophy and science could work together with religion instead of against it. People did not have to choose one or the other and in Biblia Americana Mather looked at the Bible through a scientific perspective, the complete opposite of when he wrote The Christian Philosopher, in which he decided to approach science in a religious manner (Smolinski 280–281).
The Puritan execution sermon, preached on the occasion of a public hanging, then quickly printed up in pamphlet form and sold for a few pence, was an early form of true-crime literature. Mather's first published sermon, which appeared in 1686, concerned the crime and punishment of James Morgan, a reprobate who in a drunken rage impaled a man with an iron spit. Thirteen years later, following the execution of a Boston woman named Sarah Threeneedles for killing her baby, Mather issued Pillars of Salt. This compilation of a dozen accounts (half of which, including the case of Morgan, had been previously published) stands as a landmark work, a Puritan precursor of the true-crime miscellanies that, stripped of all religious intent, would become a staple of the genre in subsequent centuries. In 2008 The Library of America reprinted the entirety of Pillars of Salt in its two-century retrospective of American True Crime.
Magnalia Christi Americana, considered Mather's greatest work, was published in 1702, when he was 39. The book includes several biographies of saints,[vague] and describes the process of the New England settlement.(Meyers 23–24) It is composed of seven total books, including Pietas in Patriam: the life of His Excellency Sir William Phips, originally published anonymously in London in 1697. Despite being one of Mather's most well-known works, many have openly criticized it[by whom?], labeling it as hard to follow and understand, and poorly paced and organized. However, other critics have praised Mather's works, believing it to be one of the best efforts at properly documenting the establishment of America and growth of the people (Halttunen 311).
In 1721 The Christian Philosopher was published. Written by Mather, it was the first systematic book on science published in America. Mather attempted to show how Newtonian science and religion were in harmony. It was in part based on Robert Boyle's The Christian Virtuoso (1690).
Mather also took inspiration from Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, a philosophical novel by Abu Bakr Ibn Tufail (whom he refers to as "Abubekar"), a 12th-century Islamic philosopher. Despite condemning the 'Mahometans' as infidels, he viewed the protagonist of the novel, Hayy, as a model for his ideal Christian philosopher and monotheistic scientist. Mather also viewed Hayy as a noble savage and applied this in the context of attempting to understand the Native American Indians in order to convert them to Puritan Christianity.
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