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Cotton Mather (1663-1728): Puritan Pietist

January 1995 | by George Ella

Cotton Mather
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Cotton Mather, grandson of the American Puritan pioneers John Cotton and Richard Mather, was born on 12 February 1663, in Boston, Massachusetts, the first child of Increase and Maria Mather. His life was remarkable from the beginning as he started to pray, read and write simultaneous with his acquirement of his mother tongue, so that when he started school he was already far ahead of his schoolmates both in learning and knowledge of the Lord.

Cotton absorbed his parents’ Christian teaching diligently in his earliest years. He learned to read the classical authors and study the Greek New Testament whilst other children were still struggling to read Aesop’s Fables in English. Before his school year, he was working hard at Hebrew, writing a catechism to instruct his schoolmates and composing prayers for those who wanted to follow his Christian zeal but lacked his literary abilities. During these youthful years, Cotton kept a diary of his spiritual experiences and recorded the books be read and their effect on trim. He was sent to Harvard aged eleven, as the ordinary schools could no longer teach him anything.

Boston skyline today SOURCE usmc0491/Pixabay
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Harvard University

Harvard was a sore trial. Many of Cotton’s older fellow-students considered him an ‘insufferable young prig’. When it became apparent how intelligent he was, Cotton received many a beating from youths who tried to prove their superiority with their fists rather than with their brains. Matters grew worse when it became obvious that Cotton was the darling of his professors. Nonetheless, the boy maintained a firm witness at college, at times spending whole days in fasting and prayer for his fellow-students. He gained his Bachelor of Arts at fourteen and was a Master of Arts by the time he was eighteen. He was moved to join his father’s church in Boston as a communicant member at sixteen when he preached his first sermon. Increase advised his son to fill his sermons with Christ and not with displays of academic knowledge. This is one piece of advice Cotton always kept. Indeed, it is said that he obeyed the Fifth Commandment with more devotion than any other.

In 1681 Cotton was called to the pastorate of New Haven Church but felt he should stay and help in his father’s growing work. When only nineteen, he was unanimously called to the co-pastorate of the North Church but would not allow himself to be ordained until he reached the age of maturity (then twenty-one). Soon afterwards, Increase was sent to England to bargain at the court for a better constitution for the Massachusetts colony and remained there for almost five years, having to start negotiations all over again after William and Mary succeeded James. Meanwhile the North Church grew at the rate of twenty-five to forty nine new members per year through Cotton’s pastoral work.

Salem Witch Trials

Cotton Mather was strong in his criticism of the colony’s churches. He felt they were slack in their responsibility to call ‘officers appointed by the Lord Jesus Christ’ to shepherd them. By 1692 many were being pastored by ex-merchants who had gone bankrupt and were looking for comfortable jobs, and by worldlings who had a history of violence and immorality behind them of which they boasted rather than repented. All talk of a theocracy in New England had gone. It was chiefly because of these hirelings that the notorious Salem Witch Trials of 1692 began, with such pastors being both the chief accusers and accused.

In his ministry Mather fought fiercely against superstition and a belief in witchcraft which was growing throughout the colony. He blamed this on the poor education of the day, especially that of women and slaves, and drew up curricula for their education, even writing textbooks for female pupils and handbooks for their teachers. All in all Mather wrote some 450 books in several different languages to combat ignorance and unbelief.

The real trouble started in 1688 . Four children had come under the influence of an elderly Irish Roman Catholic woman who professed to be in league with the devil. Under the ‘spells’ of the wicked woman, the children became very violent, went into terrible fits and lost the use of their senses. The Irishwoman, boasting full responsibility for the children’s anguish, was condemned to death, but shortly before her execution she claimed that the children would continue to be bewitched as the devil had other helpers to replace her. Soon numerous people around Salem were claiming to be in contact with these ‘other helpers’.

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Mather chatted with the children about the matter and prayed with them. As they were undernourished, he put them on a special nutritious diet and appealed to the whole church for prayer and support. The youngest children were soon healed but the eldest daughter was too ill for her widower father to look after her, so Mather took her to live with his own family. The girl was given good books to read and was suitably occupied so that she soon got over her ordeals. Mather then opened his home to at least six other people who were said to be in league with the devil or under an evil spell. In every single case he was completely successful in helping them return to a normal healthy life.

Then the courts decided to arrest and charge those suspected of witchcraft. Mather begged them to reconsider, offering to look after those concerned in his own home. This request was refused A.P. Marvin in his book The Life and Times of Cotton Mather says that if Mather’s methods had been ‘studied and imitated, it is possible, if not probable, that the whole awful tragedy of blood, in 1692, would have been averted’. When Increase returned, he joined his son in condemning the fact that a secular court was sentencing people to death on the grounds that they were attacking the innocent by means of spectres or visions. The judges refused to listen. Eventually the Mathers received the backing of the new governor and the trials were ended, but not before nineteen people had been hanged and one old man crushed to death.

The Salem Witch Trials were, on the whole, a shocking travesty of justice. They were conducted by men who were completely out of their depths, who thought that spiritual problems were a matter for the law-courts. Their action is a constant reminder to all that when God’s Word is not respected and superstition and worldly wisdom are used as substitutes, any evil might happen. Sadly some American school books still condemn the Mathers for attempting in the name of justice to interfere with the secular courts.

University of Glasgow SOURCE craighunter/Pixabay
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An international reputation

Cotton Mather’s theological and scientific works made him famous and soon he was corresponding regularly with at least fifty learned men all over the world. The University of Glasgow made him a Doctor of Divinity in 1710 and he became a Member of the Royal Academy in 1713. He was on especially good terms with August Hermann Franke in Germany and the Austrian Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg, and supported their missionary plans for India, exchanging letters with them of up to seventy pages. However, he became appalled at the decay he found in European evangelism, putting it down to the rationalistic duty-faith preaching of those who neglected the doctrines of the indwelling of Christ in the believer and his imputed righteousness. He criticized Isaac Watts strongly believing that his low view of Scripture led to shallow evangelicalism and Arianism. Perhaps Mather called his own faith ‘American pietism’ to distinguish it from this contemporary European downgrading.

It seems that Mather never knew, or needed, such a thing as relaxation. Charles Chauncey said that he was the greatest redeemer of time that he ever knew. Much of Mather’s earlier work was on experimental Christianity, but those were the days when there was no Socinianism, Deism or even Arminianism in New England. During the last decade of the seventeenth century, these heresies invaded the colony and Mather found himself taken up more and more with expository theology. Mather gave much of the blame to the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel which he called the Society for the Molestation of the Gospel in foreign parts. He was amazed to see one old friend after another in England, such as William Whiston, go the way of all flesh and deny their Saviour. As Arianism swept through the English churches, he advised his students: ‘Among all the subjects with which you feed the people of God, I beseech you, let not the true Bread of Life be forgotten; but exhibit as much as you can of a glorious Christ unto them; yea, let the motto upon your whole ministry be Christ is All.’

“Let not the true Bread of Life be forgotten” SOURCE marco aurelio/Pixabay
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Centred on Christ

Mather loved to point out that Paul said, ‘I determined to know nothing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified’, and always remained christocentric in his own theology, teaching that Christ is the golden key to unlock all the oracles of the sacred Scriptures. In 1702 Mather soundly attacked ‘English heresy’ before the General Convention of Ministers at Boston stressing the total depravity of man, unconditional election through God’s mercy, the effectual calling of the elect through irresistible grace, the bondage of the unregenerate will and justification by faith through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. He insisted that failure in evangelism was due to not ‘preaching the value of the doctrine of election for practical godliness, for comforting the believer and for breaking down resistance to the divine Lordship’. By suppressing the facts of election, he argued, contemporary over-cautious evangelists were substituting the gospel of the God of justice, wisdom and grace for a picture of a ‘nice’, benevolent God who could never say ‘no’. ‘We find’, he preached, ‘the doctrine of predestination proposed by our Lord, and his apostles, with a very frequent inculcation; we find that it hath a wondrous tendency to the edification of the faithful.’

Conformed to Christ

Cotton Mather’s last few years were, humanly speaking, sad ones. His beloved father died in 1723 and his son, named Increase after his father, was lost at sea in 1724. Mather’s third wife became permanently deranged and extremely violent. Her family accrued large debts, giving Mather’s name as their creditor so that, at one time, it seemed that Mather would die in a debtor’s prison. Nevertheless, Mather looked forward to his home-call, stressing that he was ‘on the borders of paradise’ longing to enter the promised land. His constant plea was revealed in his last major work Suspira Vinctorum: to be able to labour in constant prayer for a worldwide revival, to have decayed piety revived and to feel the quickening Spirit within. When the hour of death came, Mather was in a state of calmness and expectant joy. His son Samuel asked the dying man for a last word of counsel. Mather had breath left to utter just one word, Fructuosus. To be fruitful and useful in the spread of the gospel had always been Mather’s calling.