20 Cotton Mather (1663-1728)

Sonya Parrish


Born in Boston in 1663, Cotton Mather was the son of Increase Mather and the grandson of Richard Mather and John Cotton. This legacy of famous Puritan ministers and community leaders shaped Mather’s life and was the driving force behind many of his achievements. Encouraged in his early education and dedication to Puritanism by his father, he entered Harvard at age 12 and graduated with a BA and MA in 1678 at the age of 15. Ordained in 1685, he became the pastor of Second Church of Boston where he remained until his death. Often viewed as an aggressive, vain genius by his contemporaries, he had a stutter from childhood to early adulthood and suffered from various nervous conditions in his life. He lost three wives to death or insanity in his lifetime, and of the fifteen children he fathered only two survived to his death. Despite tragedies and controversy, he published over 400 works in his lifetime and is today seen as one of the most influential religious and historical writers from the seventeenth-century Puritan community.

Mather’s prolific writing career was matched by his willingness to explore all issues he felt impacted his Puritan community. He was a minister, historian, natural scientist, and prolific writer. He openly criticized the slave trade and encouraged the new science of smallpox inoculation while simultaneously endorsing the use of spectral evidence in trials of witchcraft and encouraging the mass destruction of the Native American population in New England. He was vilified later in his life for his endorsement of the Salem Witch Trials, although he did not personally participate in the proceedings. His writing, both historical and religious, hearkened back to the Puritan underpinnings of New England and worked to preserve Puritan theocracy in a community he viewed as becoming more concerned with secular political and social issues. More stylistically ornate than many of his contemporaries, Mather’s writing was also consistently thoughtful and effective in its use of rhetoric. No matter the subject, Mather showed a vast knowledge and deft use of language in all his work. Like previous authors in this anthology, such as William Bradford and John Winthrop, his Puritanism dominates his writing, and his admiration and reverence for such early colonial leaders is echoed throughout his life and writing.

The following excerpts come from two of his works, Wonders of the Invisible World and Decennium Luctuosum. Wonders of the Invisible World, first published in 1693, is Mather’s infamous defense of the Salem Witch Trials. During these trials, which lasted from February 1692 to May 1693 in the towns of Salem Town, Salem Village, Ipswich, and Andover in the Massachusetts colony, one hundred forty-four people were brought before the court, fifty-four confessed to witchcraft, nineteen were hanged, one man was pressed to death by heavy stones, and two dogs were executed — the community lived in fear. In his recounting and justification of the trials, trials he never attended, Mather gathered material from the court records available to systematically prove both the deeds of the Devil and God’s triumph in a court of law in New England while also asserting his right to speak on such matters and defending his position during the trials. The work examines the supernatural as reality, and it reveals anxieties over continued Puritan identification as God’s chosen people and a holy community to emulate. Mather, like many third generation New England residents, looked to such events to show God’s simultaneous displeasure and favor, and he relied on rhetorical argument structures, logical assertions based on contemporary belief, and the use of Biblical tropes and allusions to establish a narrative of affliction and triumph for his community. However, for Mather this triumph was short-lived. Community backlash condemning the trials began at the turn of the century, and much of Mather’s loss in popularity is attributed to the writing of this text in particular. In Decennium Luctuosum, Mather again turns to the justification of recent history, although the subject matter is less religious in nature. Recounting the war with Native Americans that raged in New England from 1688 to 1698, this history presents causes, justifications, and “remarkable occurrences” from this period in American colonialism. While it does attempt to present causes for the war from both sides, the excerpt here shows the way many English writers often portrayed Native Americans as murderous savages. It is filled with animalistic language used to demean Native Americans for its English audience, and offers a perspective not only into the historical events covered, but the English view of Native Americans in the late seventeenth century. In addition to representations of Native Americans, this excerpt also highlights the intelligence and rhetorical skill of Mather, who uses ancient and contemporary literary allusions throughout to cement his scholarly ethos to establish his reliability and knowledge for an audience of well-read and educated Puritans.
Cotton Mather

Full Text

Wonders of the Invisible World:  http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/etas/19/

Wonders of the Invisible World: Author’s Defense

‘Tis, as I remember, the learned Scribonius who reports that one of his acquaintance, devotedly making his prayers on behalf of a person molested by evil spirts, received from these evil spirits a horrible blow over the face: And I may myself expect not few or small buffetings from evil spirits for the endeavors wherewith I am now going to encounter them. I am far from insensible that at this extraordinary time of the Devil’s coming down in great wrath upon us there are too many tongues and hearts thereby set on fire of hell that the various opinions about the witchcraft which of later time have troubled us are maintained by some with so much cloudy fury as if they could never be sufficiently stated unless written in the liquor wherewith witches use to write their covenants; and that he who becomes an author at such a time had need be fenced with iron and the staff of a spear. The unaccountable forwardness, asperity, untreatableness, and inconsistency of many persons every day gives a visible exposition of that passage, “An evil spirit from the Lord came upon Saul,” and illustration of that story, “There met him two possessed with devils, exceeding fierce, so that no man might pass by that way.” To send abroad a book among such Readers were a very unadvised thing if a man had not such reasons to give as I can bring for such an undertaking. Briefly, I hope it cannot be said “They are all so:” No, I hope the body of this people are yet in such a temper as to be capable of applying their thoughts to make a right use of the stupendous and prodigious things that are happening among us. And because I was concerned when I saw no abler hand emitted any essays to engage the minds of this people in such holy, pious, fruitful improvements as God would have to be made of His amazing dispensations now upon us, therefore it is that one of the least among the children of New England has here done what is done. None but the Father who sees in secret knows the heartbreaking exercises wherewith I have composed what is now going to be exposed, lest I should in any one thing miss of doing my designed service to His glory, and for His people; But I am now somewhat comfortably assured of His favorable acceptance; and, I will not fear; what can a Satan do unto me!

Having performed something of what God required in laboring to suit His words with His works, at this day among us, and therewithal handled a theme that has been sometimes counted not unworthy the pen even of a king, it will easily be perceived that some subordinate ends have been considered in these endeavors.

I have indeed set myself to countermine the whole plot of the Devil against New England, in every branch of it, as far as one of my darkness can comprehend such a work of darkness. I may add that I have herein also aimed at the information and satisfaction of good men in another country a thousand leagues off, where I have, it may be, more, or however more considerable, friends than in my own; And I do what I can to have that country now, as well as always, in the best terms with my own. But while I am doing these things, I have been driven to do a little something likewise for myself; I mean, by taking off the false reports and hard censures about my opinions in these matters, the parters portion which my pursuit of peace has procured me among the keen. My hitherto unvaried thoughts are here published; and I believe they will be owned by most of the ministers of God in these colonies: not can amends be made me for the wrong done me by other sorts of representations.

In fine, for the dogmatical part of my discourse, I want no defense; for the historical part of it, I have a very great one. The Lieutenant Governor of New England, having perused it, has done me the honor of giving me shield under the umbrage whereof I now dare to walk abroad.

“The Trial of Martha Carrier at The Court of Oyer and Terminer, Held by Adjournment at Salem, August 2, 1692”

I. Martha Carrier was indicted for the bewitching of certain persons, according to the form usual in such cases. Pleading not guilty to her indictment; there were first brought in a considerable number of the bewitched persons who not only made the court sensible of an horrid witchcraft committed upon them, but also deposed that it was Martha Carrier, or her shape, that grievously tormented them, by biting, pricking, pinching and choking of them. It was further deposed that while this Carrier was on her examination before the magistrates, the poor people were so tortured that every one expected their death upon the very spot, but that upon the binding of Carrier they were eased. Moreover the look of Carrier then laid the afflicted people for dead; and her touch, if her eye at the same time were off them, raised them again. Which things were also now seen upon her trial. And it was testified that upon the mention of some having their necks twisted almost round, by the shape of this Carrier, she replied, “It’s no matter though their necks had been twisted quite off.”

II. Before the trial of this prisoner, several of her own children had frankly and fully confessed not only that they were witches themselves, but that this their mother had made them so. This confession they made with great shows of repentance, and with much demonstration of truth. They related place, time, occasion; they gave an account of journeys, meetings and mischiefs by them performed, and were very credible in what they said. Nevertheless, this evidence was not produced against the prisoner at the bar, inasmuch as there was other evidence enough to proceed upon.

III. Benjamin Abbot gave in his testimony that last March was a twelvemonth, this Carrier was very angry with him, upon laying out some land near her husband’s: her expressions in this anger were that she would stick as close to Abbot as the bark stuck to the tree; and that he should repent of it afore seven years came to an end, so as Doctor Prescot should never cure him. These words were heard by others besides Abbot himself; who also heard her say, she would hold his nose as close to the grindstone as ever it was held since his name was Abbot. Presently after this, he was taken with a swelling in his foot, and then with a pain in his side, and exceedingly tormented. It bred into a sore, which was lanced by Doctor Prescot, and several gallons of corruption ran out of it. For six weeks it continued very bad, and then another sore bred in his groin, which was also lanced by Doctor Prescot. Another sore than bred in his groin, which was likewise cut, and put him to very great misery: he was brought unto death’s door, and so remained until Carrier was taken, and carried away by the constable, from which very day he began to mend, and so grew better every day, and is well ever since.

Sarah Abbot also, his wife, testified that her husband was not only all this while afflicted in his body, but also that strange, extraordinary and unaccountable calamities befell his cattle; their death being such as they could guess at no natural reason for.

IV. Allin Toothaker testified that Richard, the son of Martha Carrier, having some difference with him, pulled him down by the hair of the head. When he rose again he was going to strike at Richard Carrier but fell down flat on his back to the ground, and had not power to stir hand or foot, until he told Carrier he yielded; and then he saw the shape of Martha Carrier go off his breast.

This Toothaker had received a wound in the wars; and he now testified that Martha Carrier told him he should never be cured. Just afore the apprehending of Carrier, he could thrust a knitting needle into his wound four inches deep; but presently after her being seized, he was thoroughly healed.

He further testified that when Carrier and he some times were at variance, she would clap her hands at him, and say he should get nothing by it; whereupon he several times lost his cattle, by strange deaths, whereof no natural causes could be given.

V. John Rogger also testified that upon the threatening words of this malicious Carrier, his cattle would be strangely bewitched; as was more particularly then described.

VI. Samuel Preston testified that about two years ago, having some difference with Martha Carrier, he lost a cow in a strange, preternatural, unusual manner; and about a month after this, the said Carrier, having again some difference with him, she told him he had lately lost a cow, and it should not be long before he lost another; which accordingly came to pass; for he had a thriving and well-kept cow, which without any known cause quickly fell down and died.

VII. Phebe Chandler testified that about a fortnight before the apprehension of Martha Carrier, on a Lordsday, while the Psalm was singing in the Church, this Carrier then took her by the shoulder and shaking her, asked her, where she lived: she made her no answer, although as Carrier, who lived next door to her father’s house, could not in reason but know who she was. Quickly after this, as she was at several times crossing the fields, she heard a voice, that she took to be Martha Carrier’s, and it seemed as if it was over her head. The voice told her she should within two or three days be poisoned. Accordingly, within such a little time, one half of her right hand became greatly swollen and very painful; as also part of her face: whereof she can give no account how it came. It continued very bad for some days; and several times since she has had a great pain in her breast; and been so seized on her legs that she has hardly been able to go. She added that lately, going well to the house of God, Richard, the son of Martha Carrier, looked very earnestly upon her, and immediately her hand, which had formerly been poisoned, as is abovesaid, began to pain her greatly, and she had a strange burning at her stomach; but was then struck deaf, so that she could not hear any of the prayer, or singing, till the two or three last words of the Psalm.

VIII. One Foster, who confessed her own share in the witchcraft for which the prisoner stood indicted, affirmed that she had seen the prisoner at some of their witch-meetings, and that it was this Carrier, who perusaded her to be a witch. She confessed that the Devil carried them on a pole to a witch-meeting; but the pole broke, and she hanging about Carrier’s neck, they both fell down, and she then received an hurt by the fall, whereof she was not at this very time recovered.

IX. One Lacy, who likewise confessed her share in this witchcraft, now testified, that she and the prisoner were once bodily present at a witch-meeting in Salem Village; and that she knew the prisoner to be a witch, and to have been at a diabolical sacrament, and that the prisoner was the undoing of her and her children by enticing them into the snare of the devil.

X. Another Lacy, who also confessed her share in this witchcraft, now testified, that the prisoner was at the witch-meeting, in Salem Village, where they had bread and wine administered unto them.

XI. In the time of this prisoner’s trial, one Susanna Sheldon in open court had her hands unaccountably tied together with a wheel-band so fast that without cutting it, it could not be loosed: it was done by a specter; and the sufferer affirmed it was the prisoner’s.

Memorandum. This rampant hag, Martha Carrier, was a person of whom the confessions of the witches, and of her own children among the rest, agreed that the devil had promised her she should be Queen of Hell.

Cotton Mather

Decennium Luctuosum




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Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature Copyright © by Sonya Parrish is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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