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He studied at Winwick grammar school, of which he was appointed a master in his fifteenth year, and left it in 1612 to become master of a newly established school at Toxteth Park, Liverpool. After a few months at Brasenose College, Oxford, he began in November 1618 to preach at Toxteth, and was ordained there, possibly only as deacon, early in 1619.
Between August and November 1633 he was suspended for nonconformity in matters of ceremony; and in 1634 was again suspended by the visitors of Richard Neile, archbishop of York, who, hearing that he had never worn a surplice during the fifteen years of his ministry, refused to reinstate him and said that "it had been better for him that he had begotten seven bastards".
He had a great reputation as a preacher in and about Liverpool; but, advised by letters of John Cotton and Thomas Hooker, he was persuaded to join the company of pilgrims in May 1635 and embarked at Bristol for New England.
On 3 June 1635, Richard, wife Katherine, and children Samuel, Timothy, Nathaniel, and Joseph, all set sail for the New World aboard the ship James. As they approached New England, a hurricane struck and they were forced to ride it out just off the coast of modern-day Hampton, New Hampshire. According to the ship's log and the journal of Increase Mather, the following was recorded;
At this moment,... their lives were given up for lost; but then, in an instant of time, God turned the wind about, which carried them from the rocks of death before their eyes. ...her sails rent in sunder, and split in pieces, as if they had been rotten ragges...
They tried to stand down during the storm just outside the Isles of Shoals, but lost all three anchors, as no canvas or rope would hold, but on Aug 13, 1635, torn to pieces, and with not one death, all one hundred plus passengers of the James managed to make it to Boston Harbor.
As a famous preacher "he was desired at Plimouth, Dorchester, and Roxbury". He went to Dorchester, where the Church had been greatly depleted by migrations to Windsor, Connecticut; and where, after a delay of several months, in August 1636 there was constituted by the consent of magistrates and clergy a church of which he was "teacher" until his death in Dorchester on the 22 April 1669. He was buried in the Dorchester North Burying Ground.
He was a leader of New England Congregationalism, whose policy he defended and described in the tract Church Government and Church Covenant Discussed, in an Answer of the Elders of the Severall Churches of New England to Two and Thirty Questions (written 1639; printed 1643), an answer for the ministers of the colony to 32 questions relating to church government that were propounded by the general court in 1639. He drew up the Cambridge Platform of Discipline, an ecclesiastical constitution in seventeen chapters, adopted (with the omission of Mather's paragraph favouring the "Half-Way Covenant", of which he strongly approved) by the general synod in August 1646. His Reply to Mr Rutherford (1647) is a polemic against the Presbyterianism to which the English Congregationalists were then tending.
With Thomas Welde and John Eliot he wrote the "Bay Psalm Book", or, more accurately, The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre (1640), probably the first book printed in the English colonies. He was the author of Treatise on Justification (1652).
Mather married in 1624 Katherine Hoult or Holt (died 1655), and secondly in 1656 Sarah Hankredge (died 1676), the widow of John Cotton. Of six sons, all by his first wife, four were ministers:
Horace E. Mather, in his "Lineage of Richard Mather", (Hartford, Connecticut, 1890), gives a list of 80 clergymen descended from Richard Mather, of whom 29 bore the name Mather and 51 other names, the most common being Storrs and Schauffler.