Thursday, February 12, 2009

February 12: Clergyman, Author, and Witch Hunter

Do you know who this is?
-He had a speech impediment (stuttering)
-He survived three wives and 13 of his 15 children
-He was a prolific writer, authoring over 400 books and pamphlets

He was the son and grandson of a clergyman and was born in Boston, Massachusetts on February 12, 1663. He himself would become noted not only as a clergyman recognized in is own right, but also a prolific author and – perhaps most notably – as one of the judges in the Salem Witch Trials.

Cotton Mather was the eldest child of Increase and Maria Mather. He was given his first name after the family name of his mother, who was the daughter of John Cotton who, in turn, was one of the most recognized American religious theologians of the day. Cotton knew as a child that he was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. His father was the minister of the Second Church in Boston, an respected and loyal agent of England in the colonies, as well as the non-resident President of Harvard College. This expectation created a very serious child, dedicated to his studies, and whose fear of failing his parents showed up in a speech impediment: a stutter when he spoke. It would take years of practice before Cotton overcame his speech problem.

Cotton attended the Boston Latin School under its most famous 17th century headmaster, Ezekiel Cheever. He would enter Harvard College at the age of twelve, and would graduate from Harvard in 1678 at the age of 15. His father would hand him his first degree. At the age of nineteen Cotton would receive his master’s degree, and in 1690 was made a fellow of Harvard College and was involved in the affairs of the college throughout his life. He would begin studying theology, but because of his stuttering he was forced to give it up. He began studying medicine instead. Later he would conquer his stuttering, and would finish his preparation for the ministry. In 1681 he was elected the assistant pastor of his father’s church. In 1688, at the age of twenty-five, he was left in charge of the largest congregation in New England when his father went to England as an agent for the colony. Cotton would become the full minister of the Second (or North) Church of Boston upon the death of his father in 1723.

Cotton would marry several times during his life, each marriage ending in sadness. In 1686 he married Abigail Philips, having nine children by her before her death in 1702. A year later he married a widow, Mrs. Elizabeth Hubbard, by whom he had six additional children before her death in 1713. He married a third time in 1715 to another widow, Mrs. Lydia George. She would go insane. Of his fifteen children, only six lived to adulthood, and only two outlived him.

Perhaps Cotton is best known for his involvement in the Salem witchcraft trials.

During the 17th Century, the idea that New England occupied what was known as the Devil’s land established a deep-set fear and concern among the English Puritan settlers that the Devil would fight back against the invaders. They also feared a divine retribution from God over an apparently increasing lack of faith and piety among New Englanders.

This was the climate that existed in New England when the Goodwin children incurred a strange illness. Cotton saw this as an opportunity to explore the spiritual world and treated the children with fasting and prayer, writing a detailed account of the illness in a booklet titled Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions. In 1692 the same strange illness the Goodwin children had began appearing in others, and the cry of witchcraft surfaced. Massachusetts governor Sir William Phips established a court to try the suspected witches that had recently been arrested in Salem, Massachusetts. Cotton would not be a judge at the trials, although his influence, sermons, investigations, and writings had – in effect – caused the trials to be held, and he would attend several of the trials. However, his voice on the existence of witchcraft was heard through his sermons and his writings. Still, although he had urged strong punishment of the devil's work, he suggested much milder punishment than death for those found to be guilty of witchcraft (the use of magic). His approach was both religious and scientific. He separated himself from the trials as such and in fact warned the judges against "spectral [ghostlike] evidences". However, the judges did not heed his advice. In his Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) Mather declared his disapproval of the methods used in the trials, even though he did not join the public protest while the trials were being held. Later criticism of the trials would fall in part on Cotton because of his beliefs and stands on the spiritual world and his early involvement with the unusual occurrences in Salem.

Despite a loss in popularity after the trials, Cotton would continue to contribute positively to the New England colonies. He received a doctorate in divinity from the University of Glasgow in 1710, and was honored in 1713 by being elected to the Royal Society of London. He advocated the use of vaccinations against smallpox, and was threatened for doing so – with a bomb being thrown through the window of his house. He regularly wrote letters to various men of learning around the world, was active in church and community, and continued to pastor the North Church. He continued to write and publish, and many later American writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Harriet Beecher Stowe, James Russell Lowell, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow all acknowledged their debt to him. Even American icon Benjamin Franklin noted the influence of some of Cotton’s writings on his life and his beliefs.
Cotton Mather died on February 13, 1728, in Boston and was interred in Copps Hill Burying Ground, Boston.

No biographries are available locally

1911 Encyclopedia
Cotton Mather Homepage
Notable Biographies

Library of Congress

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