Cotton Mather (1663–1728) was an esteemed Puritan minister who helped to fuel witch panics in New England, including the Salem Witches hysteria. “my Hearers will not expect from me an accurate Definition of the vile Thing,” the reverend Cotton Mather stated once in a sermon on witchcraft, “since the Grace of God has given me the Happiness to speak without Experience of it. But from Accounts both by Reading and Hearing I have learn’d to describe it so.” Thus did Cotton Mather admit his own limitations in dealing with a highly volatile subject.
The son of Increase Mather, a Boston minister and president of Harvard University, Mather was a precocious student, unimpeded by a stutter he suffered. At age 12 he entered Harvard. By age 25 he had assumed a leadership role in his father’s North Church in Boston. He viewed himself as one of those chosen by God to ensure the salvation of the Puritans, “a People of God settled in those, which were once the Devil’s Territories.”
He had an intense interest in the “dark side,” including violent crime, the sins of drink, dance and cursing, natural disasters and hell, writing dozens of books on these and other objects over the course of his life. With his father, he investigated cases of alleged witchcraft and possession of young girls, avowing that prayer and fasting were the only methods of treatment.
Mather accepted without question the writings of William Perkins and others attesting to the existence and evil nature of witches. Even witches who professed to be “white witches” were in fact evil, Mather asserted, and used good deeds to wreak havoc later. As for proof of the existence of witches, Mather often cited references in the Bible, especially to the Witch of Endor, and the “evidence” amassed at English and European trials, including “voluntary” confessions. A confession, even if unsupported by evidence, was enough to convict, he said.
When witchcraft cases began cropping up in New England in the 1640s, Mather defended the trials and executions. He made his case against witches in Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions, published in 1689. The book laid the groundwork for the hysteria that was to result from the Salem witch trials in 1692.
Mather was appointed official chronicler of the trials by the colony’s governor, Sir William Phips. Mather doubted the validity of spectral evidence, heavily relied upon in the trials, but did little to cool the rising hysteria beyond cautioning the judges. He encouraged the identification and punishment of all witches.
Mather believed the Salem trials exposed the Devil’s plot against New England: the Puritans were so righteous and virtuous as to enrage the Devil and drive him to try to destroy the community. He cited the Curse of a New England witch, executed about 40 years earlier, who had announced that a “horrible plot” of witchcraft existed against the populace, which would threaten to pull down all the churches if not discovered. That plot, Mather said, was discovered and destroyed at Salem.
Mather attended the hanging of George Burroughs, one of the convicted “witches.” Given the infallible test of reciting the Lord’s Prayer perfectly, Burroughs did so, shaking the faith of the crowd in his conviction. Mather launched a savage, impromptu speech negating the prayer recital and convincing the crowd to carry on with the execution.
Mather’s account of the trials, On Witchcraft: Being the Wonders of the Invisible World, appeared in 1693. He wrote it in stages, without the help of court documents (which did not arrive in his possession until most of the book was completed), relying instead on his own colored opinions.
When the public backlash to Salem occurred, Mather entrenched himself even deeper in his beliefs. The backlash was so great that Mather’s father, Increase, was moved to speak out against the Salem trials, criticizing the spectral evidence and stating that it would be better to let 10 guilty witches go free than to punish one innocent person.
Cotton Mather, however, continued to fan the fires of hysteria. In September 1693 a Boston woman, Margaret rule, claimed spectral evidence of witchcraft, and Mather declared she was telling the truth. A new panic broke out but was calmed by more reasoned voices.
Mather himself came under fire, most notably from Robert Calef, Boston merchant and author of the book, Another Brand Pluckt Out of the Burning or More Wonders of the Invisible World. Calef presented caricatures of Cotton and Increase Mather as lecherous men who were titillated by young girls whose possessions had lewd overtones. No publisher in New England was willing to touch More Wonders; it finally appeared in 1700 in London and made its way back to the Colonies.
The backlash, the credulity of Wonders and the mockery of More Wonders helped to tarnish Mather’s reputation. He was passed over several times for the presidency of Harvard, which left him bitter and prompted him to aid in the founding of Yale University.
Mather defended his views on witchcraft to the end of his life, by which time he was ignored by an increasingly skeptical public.
FURTHER READING :
- Boyer, Paul, and Stephen Nissenbaum. Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974.
- Demos, John Putnam. Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.
- Hansen, Chadwick. Witchcraft at Salem. New York: New American Library, 1969.
- Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1987.
- Mather, Cotton. On Witchcraft: Being the Wonders of the Invisible World. mt. Vernon, N.Y.: The Peter Pauper Press, 1950. First published 1692.
- Starkey, marion L. The Devil in Massachusetts. New York: Alfred knopf, 1950.
Back to Witchcraft