The Puritan You Love to Hate

Cotton Mather: The Young Life of the Lord’s Remembrancer, 1663-1703

by David Levin
Harvard University Press, 360 pp., $16.50

Cotton Mather is one of those classic figures of American history who can’t be left out. One has to explain him or explain him away, redeem him or denounce him. After almost three centuries it seems almost impossible to speak of him without taking sides. Why?

Not simply because of his role in the Salem witch trials of 1692. Although his reputation has suffered from the false accusations made against him by the Boston merchant Robert Calef in 1697, accusations that he had stirred up the trouble, it can be demonstrated easily enough that he did not. It is more difficult to prove that he did not approve of the trials. But who at the time disapproved, apart from the accused? At worst he can be condemned for taking an equivocal attitude toward the irregular procedures followed by the court. In that he was no worse than other ministers (and modern readers perhaps need to be reminded that no minister sat on that court or on any other court in seventeenth-century Massachusetts).

Not because he played a significant role in public life. The only important event in which he was involved was the overthrow of Governor Edmund Andros in the Massachusetts counterpart of the English Revolution of 1688. And here again his role was equivocal. He is the reputed author of the Declaration that justified the overthrow, but he did not sign it, probably because it would have been thought improper for a minister to mingle so directly in politics (no other minister signed either).

Why then? Part of the answer lies in his enormous energy. That energy found its most conspicuous outlet in print. Cotton Mather’s publications in his own lifetime amounted to more than 400 titles; and his magnum opus, on which he labored most of his life, remains unpublished: a commentary on every verse of every book of the Bible. Anyone who leaves that kind of record behind issues an irresistible invitation to historians, who commonly have to work from mere scraps of information in their efforts to reconstruct what happened in early America. Cotton Mather deluges them with sources. And Mather, like Captain John Smith (who furnished us with most of what we know about the first years in Virginia), was not one to slight his own part in the story. His diary, which was not published until this century, reads as though it were written for publication and provides us with vital information about events that would otherwise remain unknown.

Yet it is not the information about contemporary events that gives the diary and Mather’s other writings their fascination for historians. It is rather the unconscious or half-conscious revelations about himself and—we cannot help thinking—about other men of his time who may have resembled him. It seems impossible that there could have been such a man at any other time or place. He is unique, but still we cannot help feeling that we are witnessing something that was present in less palpable form in his contemporaries.

The almost obscene egotism of the diary has perpetuated Mather’s unenviable reputation among historians otherwise given to charitable judgments. V.L. Parrington, for example, writing in the 1920s found the diary “a treasure-trove to the abnormal psychologist.” And he went on: “The thing would be inconceivable if the record were not in print. What a crooked and diseased mind lay back of those eyes that were forever spying out occasions to magnify self! He grovels in proud self-abasement. He distorts the most obvious reality. His mind is clogged with the strangest miscellany of truth and marvel. He labors to acquire the possessions of a scholar, but he listens to old wives’ tales with greedy avidity. In all his mental processes the solidest fact falls into fantastic perspective.” And so on.

Parrington wrote before the renaissance of scholarly interest in Puritanism sparked by Samuel Eliot Morison and Perry Miller (though Kenneth Murdock’s biography of Increase Mather in 1925 preceded Parrington). Morison effectively relieved Cotton Mather of any guilt in starting the witch trials and dismissed his accuser with a memorable sentence: “Robert Calef, who had it in for Cotton Mather, tied a tin can to him after the frenzy was over; and it has rattled and banged through the pages of superficial and popular historians.” Miller, however, in his greatest work, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, which was neither popular nor superficial, responded, not altogether fairly I think, that “the right can was tied to the proper tail, and through the pages of this volume it shall rattle and bang.”

Rattle and bang it did. Although the witchcraft episode held little interest for Miller, he missed no opportunity to show his distaste for Mather. And the opportunities were numerous: Mather is the central figure in Miller’s volume, and he occupies that position because of the very qualities that disturbed Parrington and continued to disturb Miller. Mather, Miller tells us, “was in a hundred respects too neurotic a creature to be quite typical of his generation; yet, possibly because of that disability, he was the most hypersensitive to the slightest nuance.”

Miller specialized in nuances. Colony to Province remains the most powerful study yet written of any aspect of American intellectual history because of Miller’s own sensitivity to the changes that overtook New England Puritanism at the end of the seventeenth century, changes that transformed it almost beyond recognition and yet could hardly be noticed while they were taking place. Cotton Mather furnished Miller with the clues to understanding those changes, and he has furnished subsequent historians with the means of refining and revising Miller’s insights. It is no accident that Robert Middlekauff’s reassessment of the history of American Puritanism1 took the form of a study of the Mathers, in which Cotton Mather is again the central figure, or that Mather also figures largely in David Hall’s comparable study of the New England ministry,2 or that Sacvan Bercovitch has found in one chapter of Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana a key to the development of American identity.3 Cotton Mather remains, for whatever reasons, a challenge to the historian.

It is therefore with some excitement that we come to a new biography of him, covering the first forty years of his life. It is a careful piece of work and a fair one. The author does not try to conceal Mather’s shortcomings, and he pronounces a balanced judgment on controversial episodes like the witch trials and the overthrow of Andros. He has not, he tells us, learned to love Cotton Mather, but in writing the book has come “to admire and respect him, both as a writer and as a man.”

Perhaps because of this admiration and respect the book does not escape an apologetic tone. In the effort to avoid condescension the author has tried in so far as possible to see through Mather’s eyes. Since Mather saw some things, particularly angels, that have been hidden from the rest of us, the technique occasionally strains credulity or invites amusement, as when we are told of “a successful prayer for rain that brought the first relief from the summer’s unusually bad drought.” The technique does permit us to get closer to the man than other writers have wished to. If the proximity reinforces our contempt, it is Mather’s fault, not the author’s.

What the technique does not do, however, at least as used here, is to enable us to discern the shape and direction of the intellectual currents that Mather was caught up in. We learn to know the writer and the man in his day-by-day, year-to-year existence, but we do not learn anything new about the development of Puritan thought. The quarrel with Solomon Stoddard over church membership, the growth of presbyterian tendencies in church organization, the magnification of the minister’s functions in the church, and the assimilation in New England of the new science all appear only fleetingly in these pages. Many of these developments emerged in full force only after the close of the century, but they were already making themselves felt in the years covered by the book. One would wish to see Mather more clearly in relationship to them; for that relationship, which was both close and controversial, is what makes Mather so important a figure for our understanding of the New England mind.

Nevertheless in keeping his focus close to the man, Levin has given us an image of him that does enable us to see graphically what had already happened to one Puritan and was probably happening to others by the end of the seventeenth century. We must beware, as always, of taking Cotton Mather as typical, but it is instructive to see how sharply his understanding of day-to-day events contrasted with that of the first generation of Puritans. The founders of Massachusetts were quick to see the hand of God in everything that happened around them. If things went well, it was by God’s favor. If things went badly, he was chastising them. They thought of themselves as a people bound in covenant with God, and they examined their daily lives in order to mourn the delinquencies that might bring God’s wrath on the community. Private events took on a public significance, and a Michael Wigglesworth would search his soul to see whether his sins might have contributed to the divine displeasure exhibited in a bad harvest or an epidemic of sickness.

Cotton Mather was heir to these attitudes, but in him they somehow came out in an opposite way. Mather’s most persistent trait as exhibited in Levin’s pages was “a lifelong habit of converting political and religious conflicts into personal battles.” Mather devoted himself to preserving the New England of the founders, but every victory in that effort was a personal victory, every defeat a personal defeat. Instead of dwelling on the public significance of personal events, he transformed public into personal. The effect was to trivialize whatever he engaged in.

In this perspective his relation to the witchcraft episode becomes all the more odious. Mather was convinced that the devil was operating with unprecedented intensity in Massachusetts in 1692, and the reason why was simple. Even other people, he says, had suggested it to him: “this assault of the evil angels upon the country, was intended by Hell, as a particular defiance, unto my poor endeavors, to bring the souls of men unto heaven.” He could scarcely have questioned the prevalence of witchcraft, whatever he thought of the conduct of the trials, without diminishing the cosmic dimensions of his own superior godliness.

It will come as no surprise that so considerable an antagonist of Satan continually received messages of encouragement from on high. He called them Particular Faiths, and they came dangerously close to the kind of revelation for which Anne Hutchinson had been banished from Massachusetts in an earlier generation. Mather’s particular faiths generally assured him of the good things that God was going to do for or through him. At one point his angel told him that “My Lord Jesus Christ, shall yet be more known, in the vast regions of America; and by the means of poor, vile sinful me, He shall be so. Great Britain shall undergo a strange revolution and reformation; and sinful I shall be concerned in it. France will quickly feel mighty impressions from the almighty hand of my Lord Jesus Christ: and I shall on that occasion sing His glorious praises. Nor was this all, that was then told me from Heaven: but I forbear the rest.”

Much of this can be dismissed as the ravings of an egomaniac, but it is symptomatic of the changes that had overpowered New England by the end of the seventeenth century. The founders had converted their own wrestlings with the Lord into a mode of shaping and understanding the world around them. They had come on an errand into the wilderness, to build a society dedicated to carrying out the will of God so far as sinful men could hope to do it. Mather would have liked nothing more than to continue their quest. But internal conflicts and contradictions had blunted the purpose of New England; and external pressures—the loss of the Massachusetts charter and the failure of Mather’s father to recover it—had taken away the autonomy that the founders’ generation had enjoyed. New Englanders, having lost their sense of direction, were turning inward, and none more so than Mather. Because of his massive egotism he turned most visibly toward himself, but he also turned, as Middlekauff has shown, toward an evangelical piety that aimed at saving the world only by saving souls.

That turning signaled the end of Puritanism in any sense that can be applied to the original movement. Mather can appropriately be considered, not as the last Puritan, but as one of the first of a new breed of New England divines, men who gave up trying to change the world from the top down and devoted themselves to changing it from the bottom up. It would be many years before the implications of that change were fully apparent in evangelical preaching, in religious revivals, in religious liberty; but Mather’s leaving of public life, or his exclusion from it, with which Levin closes his study, was a product of the change, and the change was not for the worse. The later life of the Lord’s Remembrancer, if less exciting than his young life, was more fruitful and less nauseating.


The Witch Trials March 22, 1979

  1. 1

    The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals, 1596-1728 (Oxford University Press, 1971).

  2. 2

    The Faithful Shepherd: A History of the New England Ministry in the Seventeenth Century (University of North Carolina Press, 1972).

  3. 3

    The Puritan Origins of the American Self (Yale University Press, 1975).