Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Cotton Mather

Boston, MA   Visited April 2006

I’ve wrestled with this post.  Cotton Mather is difficult to capture in simple biography.  Pious but strident, thoroughly puritan but enamored with the age of science, a man committed to broad Christian charity but defined most significantly in one of the darkest expressions of religious superstition in American history.  A fascinating and perplexing subject for the blog. 


Cotton Mather was born in Boston February 1663.  Both of his grandfathers – John Cotton and Richard Mather - were pastors who emigrated from a religiously hostile England and became prominent first generation New England Puritans.  Cotton Mather’s father, Increase Mather was perhaps the dean of Puritan pastors in the late 1600’s, as well as a president of Harvard College.  To be a prominent pastor was not simply a religious standing.  In Puritan New England governing and pastoring were closely aligned.  So Cotton Mather grew up with some big shoes to fill. 


Increase Mather - Cotton's Pappy

Early in life he showed both significant academic gifting and a heart to serve God.  He entered Harvard College at age twelve, graduated at fifteen  and, after further divinity study was ordained to the ministry at age eighteen.  Mather took his first pastoral position serving under his Father at the North Church – the figurative center of Puritanism in New England.  It seems that the younger Mather’s relationship with his father/superior was at times contentious, as Cotton Mather sought to distinguish himself and his ministry from the shadow of his illustrious father. 


Mather's magnum opus - Magnalia Christi
Americana - a history of New England

Ultimately Cotton Mather found his place in his world primarily through his writing.  He was a prolific and diverse author, composing over 400 books in his lifetime on theology, politics, history and science.  Mather was one of the early colonial proponents of germ theory and inoculations – scientific ideas that many clergy members opposed.  He was also was an early proponent of hybridization in agriculture. 



It is indicative of Mather’s wide influence beyond the Puritan world that he developed a relationship with a young BENJAMIN FRANKLIN.  Historian John  Lienhard describes an incident that occurred on a visit by Franklin to Cotton Mather’s home.  Franklin had been an apprentice to one of Mather’s scientific critics, but found the preacher/scientist’s writing intriguing.   After a chat Franklin turned to leave. 

 “As Franklin was leaving, Mather shouted at him, "Stoop, stoop!"  Too late! Franklin struck his head on the low doorjamb, and Mather intoned: "You are young, and have the world before you; stoop as you go through it, and you will miss many hard thumps." Franklin did not miss the point. Later he said, "I often think of [Mather's words] when I see pride mortified, and misfortunes brought upon people by their carrying their heads too high."
Cotton Mather has no relation to, and should not be confused with:
Marshall Mathers, aka Eminen

Jerry Mathers, aka The Beaver

Unfortunately, to the larger world Cotton Mather is most well known in connection to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.  This tragic incident in America history is one of the most difficult for those in the modern world to comprehend.  What seems to be true is that something happened among the people of the village of Salem that was unexplainable to the minds of 17th century New Englanders.  It is also clear that a superstitious populace and an ad hoc trial system sent innocent people to their deaths.  Mather is linked to the sad affair in two ways.  His political influence had helped place the key players in the trial in their governing roles before the events started happening.  And, though he was not directly involved in the proceedings, his commentary in writing on what was going on at the time seems to have validated the charges and outcomes of the trials. 
Two very different depictions of the witch trials:

In all honesty, as I’ve read several accounts of the trials, it is difficult to know what to make of Cotton Mather’s role.  He certainly had the influence to turn the trials in a different direction had he wanted to.  But his writings are somewhat contradictory. He seems to advocate on the one hand a careful and thorough investigation of what was taking place and argued against the death penalty, but provided the theological basis for the possibility of spiritual forces at work in the town upon which the convictions rested. 
Cotton Mather's home on Hanover Street in Boston

Cotton Mather’s later years were filled with difficulty.  He had two wives die and his third wife reportedly went mad.  He fathered fifteen children but only two outlived him.  His role in the Salem trials brought criticism throughout his remaining life.  And the zeal for godliness and a fully Christian community that characterized the early years of American Puritanism began to give way to liberalism and division even as Mather sought to preach and lead and write against the secular tide.  However, as he aged he turned more and more to intercessory prayer, particularly prayer for revival of true Christian religion in new England.  On February 13, 1728, one day after his 65th birthday, Cotton Mather died in Boston.  His prayer for revival had not been answered in his lifetime, but within a few short years the Great Awakening  broke out – a revival of the very Puritan theology that Mather and his family had worked so hard to promote in the New World. 

All of the Mathers are buried in a single simple tomb at historic Copp’s Hill Burial Ground.  It is a beautiful spot overlooking Old North Church in one direction and Breed’s and Bunker Hills across the Charles River in the other.  (I found this short amateur Video somebody made on a tour as they walked through the cemetery on the way to the Mather site).  Copp’s Hill is the second oldest burial ground in Boston and is directly on the Freedom Trail.    As my picture (and the video) show, the tomb was in a sad state of disrepair.  I would love to see more made of this historic family and their contribution to the religious and cultural heritage of our country.  But the sad irony is that the Mathers and the Reformed theology they espoused are both disregarded in the New England that owes so much of its character to their formative influence. 

Maybe Cotton Mather's own words offer a helpful perspective on posterity:
“History is the story of events, with praise or blame.”


Your blogger at the Mathers tomb

Cotton Mather has had a couple of interesting pop culture incarnations since he passed from the scene.  Marvel comics created a villain for the Spider Man series in the seventies called Cotton Mather.  Here’s a description:
Powers/Abilities: Mather powers' origin are unknown (probably they were granted to him by the Dark Rider). Mather could sense and find magic beings, project his voice (or thoughts) at very long distances, control and command other's will by touching them or hitting them with the fire shot from his wooden cross. Mather seemed stronger than a normal human. Mather used a wooden cross as weapon. The cross could shoot a "purifying" fire, not burning things, but strong enough to hurt Spider-Man and drive the Vision off. The fire also allowed him to control Scarlet Witch's will.


A little more image-friendly tribute came in the form of the 1990’s Austin, Texas band Cotton Mather.  The alt/pop band became an underground sensation particularly in England with the release of their self-produced album Kontiki.   It was re-released in 2012.  Here’s promo for it.