Increase Mather (1639–1723) Illustrious Puritan minister and intellectual who viewed witchcraft and supernatural happenings as evidence of God’s growing displeasure with New England. While his son, Cotton Mather, became a strident witch-hunter, Increase Mather remained more cautious in evaluating cases and accusations.
Mather was the son of Richard Mather, an English Puritan minister who moved his family to New England in 1635 to escape persecution by the Church of England. Increase was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard University in 1656 and Trinity College in Dublin in 1658. He worked as a minister for the Church of England until 1661, when, like his father, he returned to Massachusetts for reasons of religious differences. He became pastor of the North Church in Boston and served as president of Harvard from 1685 to 1701.
Mather was an orthodox Puritan, believing firmly in strict fidelity to a covenant with God and strict obeyance of the laws set forth in the Bible. The beginnings of witchcraft cases in the colonies disturbed him; with Cotton, he investigated a number of alleged witchcraft and possession cases.
Mather attributed witchcraft to a decline in religion; he voiced this belief in An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences, a collection of supernatural and witchcraft incidents and his views on the subjects in general. Published in 1684, the book was intended to warn people of the need to get their spiritual houses in order, reminding them that as Puritans and Pilgrims, they were players in a cosmic battle between God and Satan for control of the New World and, therefore, of the history of mankind. For reasons known only to God, the Devil was permitted to infest the world with legions of Demons to test the moral mettle of humans.
Providences immediately captured public interest— perhaps more for its accounts of the supernatural than its moral lectures—and became a best-seller, garnering numerous letters of praise from readers in New England and abroad.
Mather did nothing to prevent the tragedy of the Salem witch hunt (see Salem Witches), but in the wake of the public backlash to the hysteria, he did speak out for greater caution in his Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men; Witchcrafts, Infallible Proofs of Guilt in such as are Accused with the Crime (1693). While he acknowledged that spectral evidence alone was insufficient grounds for convicting accused witches, he supported the Salem convictions on the grounds that other, sufficient evidence was given: the testimony of neighbors and the fact that some of the afflicted girls were relieved of their fits when a concoction of rye paste, water and the Hair and Nail clippings of the accused witches was mixed together and set afire. Mather did not personally attend any of the Salem trials except for that of George Burroughs. He would not have acquitted Burroughs, Mather said, because others testified to his diabolical activities.
- 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, Increase. An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences. Introduction by James A. Levernier. 1684. reprint, Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars’ Facsimiles and reprints, 1977.———. Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men; Witchcrafts, Infallible Proofs of Guilt in such as are Accused with that Crime. Boston: 1693.
- Starkey, Marion L. The Devil in Massachusetts. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1950.