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
Cotton Mather; drawing by David Levine

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his own lifetime amounted to more than 400 titles; and his magnum opus, on which he labored most of his life, remains unpublished: a commentary on every verse of every book of the Bible.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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.