Cotton Mather, Puritan Clergyman and Early American Scientist

Portrait of Cotton Mather
Engraved portrait of Cotton Mather (1663-1728), a Boston Congregationalist minister and writer whose writings include a commentary on the witchcraft trials in Salem, Massachusetts. Mather also supported the controversial introduction of smallpox inoculations in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Bettmann / Getty Images

Cotton Mather was a Puritan clergyman in Massachusetts known for his scientific studies and literary works, as wells as for the peripheral role he played in the witchcraft trials at Salem. He was a highly influential figure in early America.

As a leading scientific mind of his day, Mather was one of only two colonial Americans (the other being Benjamin Franklin) admitted to the prestigious Royal Society of London. Yet as a theologian, he also believed in non-scientific ideas, in particular the existence of witchcraft.

Fast Facts: Cotton Mather

  • Known For: Early American Puritan clergyman, scientist, and influential author
  • Born: March 19, 1663 in Boston, Massachusetts
  • Died: February 13, 1728, age 65
  • Education: Harvard College, graduated 1678, received master's degree 1681
  • Key Accomplishments: One of two American scientists named to prestigious Royal Society of London. Author of hundreds of works, ranging from pamphlets to massive works of scholarship and history.

Early Life

Cotton Mather was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on March 19, 1663. His father was Increase Mather, a prominent citizen of Boston and a noted scholar who served as the president of Harvard College from 1685 to 1701.

As a boy, Cotton Mather was well educated, learning Latin and Greek, and was admitted to Harvard at the age of 12. He studied Hebrew and the sciences, and after receiving a degree at the age of 16, intended to pursue a career in medicine. At 19 he received a master’s degree, and he remained involved in the administration of Harvard for the rest of his life (though he was disappointed to never be asked to serve as its president).

His personal life was marked by recurring tragedies. He had three marriages. His first two wives died, his third went insane. He and his wives had a total of 15 children, but only six lived to be adults, and of those only two outlived Mather.

Minister

In 1685 Cotton Mather was ordained in the Second Church in Boston. It was a prestigious institution in the city, and Mather became its pastor. From the pulpit his words carried weight, and he thus had considerable political power in Massachusetts. He was known to have opinions on just about any issues, and was not shy about expressing them.

Cotton Mather's
Title page of Cotton Mather's "The Wonders of the Invisible World", a book on witchcraft.  Library of Congress / Getty Images

When the notorious trials of accused witches began in Salem in the winter of 1692-93, Cotton Mather approved of them, and by some interpretations actively encouraged them. Eventually, 19 people were executed and many more jailed. In 1693 Mather wrote a book, "Wonders of the Invisible World," which made the case for the supernatural, and seemed to be a justification for the events at Salem.

Mather later recanted his views on the witch trials, eventually considering them to have been excessive and unjustified.

Scientist

Mather had a deep interest in science since his childhood, and as books about discoveries by scientists in Europe reached America, he devoured them. He also corresponded with scientific authorities in Europe, and though positioned in the American colonies, he managed to stay up to date with the works of men such as Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle.

Over the course of his life, Mather wrote about scientific subjects including botany, astronomy, fossils, and medicine. He became an authority on common diseases, including scurvy, measles, fevers, and smallpox.

One of the major contributions Cotton Mather made to science in early America was his support for the concept of vaccinations. He was attacked and threatened for advocating that the public receive vaccinations for smallpox (a disease which had killed some of his children). By 1720, he was the foremost American authority on vaccinations.

Author

Mather possessed boundless energy as a writer, and over the course of his life he published hundreds of works, ranging from pamphlets to hefty books of scholarship.

Perhaps his most significant written work was "Magnalia Christi Americana," published in 1702, which chronicled the history of the Puritans in New England from 1620 to 1698. The book also serves as something of a history of the Massachusetts colony, and it became a cherished and widely read book in early America. (The copy owned by John Adams can be viewed online.)

Title page of "Magnalia Christi Americana," by Cotton Mather. Cotton Mather / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons 

His writings show his typical wide range of interests. A book of essays, "Political Fables," was published in 1692; "Psalterium Americanum," a work in which he set the psalms to music, was published in 1718; and "The Angel of Bethesda," a medical manual, was published in 1722.

"Bonifacius, Or Essays to Do Good," which Mather published in 1718, gave practical advice for doing good works. Benjamin Franklin credited the book as having influenced him as a youth.

Legacy

Cotton Mather died February 13, 1728, at the age of 65. By creating so many written works, Mather left an enduring legacy.

He inspired Benjamin Franklin, who pursued simultaneous careers as writer, scientist, and political activist. And later American writers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne all acknowledged debts to Cotton Mather.

Sources:

  • "Cotton Mather." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 10, Gale, 2004, pp. 330-332. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Mather, Cotton." Colonial America Reference Library, edited by Peggy Saari and Julie L. Carnagie, vol. 4: Biographies: Volume 2, UXL, 2000, pp. 206-212. Gale Virtual Reference Library.