Cotton Mather, born on this day in 1663, looms large in the history of Christianity in America as one of its more prominent, yet misunderstood members. The Puritan divine lived a busy, if almost frenetic, life engaged in pastoral ministry, political engagement, academic pursuits, and even an amateur foray into the natural sciences –– all while enduring the losses of his first two wives and thirteen of his fifteen children. Having published nearly 450 books, pamphlets, and sermons and leaving behind 15 unpublished works, making sense of this enigmatic figure has become the career-long pursuit of many a historian.
If you’ve heard of Cotton Mather, it was most likely in the context of the 1692 Salem Witch Trials that resulted in the executions of nineteen people and the deaths of six others. This episode earned Mather, somewhat unfairly, a historical reputation as a vengeful witch-hunter. In truth, Mather was mostly absent from the affair due to illness, and he was one of a few to reject spectral evidence, or evidence based on visions, as the standard of conviction, and rather advocated that it merely be admissible for indictment. While the image of the stodgy, old theologian continues to dominate public memory, this article will be exploring Mather’s troubled spiritual life and his quest for assurance.
Genealogically, Cotton Mather was perhaps the living embodiment of New England Puritanism. His paternal grandfather, Richard Mather (1596-1669) was a prominent preacher in England before being persuaded by Cotton Mather’s maternal grandfather, John Cotton, to set sail for Massachusetts Bay to shepherd congregations in New England. Growing up, Mather could be an “insufferable young prig,” and often received blows from his fellow classmates. But his brilliance under the tutelage of revered Latinist, Ezekiel Cheever, earned him a spot at Harvard as its youngest ever student. Mather graduated with plans to preach, which required him to overcome a stutter that had plagued him since boyhood.
The more difficult barrier to his ministerial ambitions was not physical, but spiritual. Mather doubted his conversion for the majority of his ordination process, languishing in a pattern of assurance and doubt. Flagellating himself as a mere “Parrot of Religion,” Mather struggled with what he believed to be an inauthentic faith. The paradoxical Puritan doctrines of an inability to convert oneself and the command to work out one’s salvation with fear and trembling placed would-be converts like Mather in quite a bind. Historian Richard Lovelace rightly observed that the Puritan, when finished with the conversion process, “did not receive an objective and authoritative declaration of absolution, but only a ‘perhaps’.”
In matters of faith, “perhaps” won’t cut it.
So what did Mather do to overcome his spiritual uncertainty that prevented him from entering the ministry? Mather spent time praying and fasting, seeking the assurance of God. Eventually, he observed that God graciously granted him such assurance, “that all Controversie between Him and my Soul was done away.” With that, Mather committed his ministry to the Lord Jesus Christ and embarked on nearly a half-century of service to Boston’s North Church.
As a pastor Mather was well-liked among his congregation, and he sought to expand it quickly with a variety of social programs to convert the unregenerate and excite the regenerate to more good works. These included but were by no means limited to charity schools for poor children, particular care for orphans, small group Bible studies, charity schools for free and enslaved Black people (for whom he believed salvation to be available and necessary, but not freedom), and prayer meetings. Mather’s meticulous diaries reveal a laudable commitment to doing good, a fact that inspired a young Benjamin Franklin, who was just a boy in Boston during Mather’s lifetime, to write the Silence Dogood letters that facetiously jabbed at the moralizing nature of the Puritan establishment.
Mather’s commitment to an “all-day long faith” intensified when he struck up a correspondence with the German Pietist, August Hermann Francke (1663-1727). The exact origins of the transatlantic connection are murky, but historians maintain that the relationship was kept alive by a contact in London, a student of Francke’s named Anthony William Boehm, who worked tirelessly to promote Francke’s cause to the broader Protestant world. Mather’s active Puritanism was predisposed to accept Francke’s pietist tendencies, despite clear doctrinal differences between the Calvinist and the Lutheran.
Francke was the figurehead for the institutions at Halle that sought to institutionalize the kind of piety that Mather longed to embody. In response to a lack of pastoral care and extreme poverty, Francke founded a set of institutions “for the use of Christendom and the entire world.” The University at Halle, where Francke served as a professor proved to be a useful base for his ambitious project. Eventually, he was able to establish a pharmacy, a printing press, an infirmary, a school for girls, a divinity school, a library, a public auditorium, and a linguistic school for missionaries. Mather marveled upon reading the description of the place, calling it “the most glorious Design that ever was managed in the World.”
Mather sought to bring a version of this most glorious design to Boston, which he did to varying degrees of success. To bring about a generation of pietist minds, Mather targeted his efforts first to the grammar schools, or elementary schools. For some decades, education in the region had been slipping away from strictly religious, classical education toward more technical, secular skills. Unfortunately for Mather, his plan to put piety back in schools was unpopular with Boston’s city council. In this regard, Mather left no institutional legacy.
He also sought to reform the divinity curriculum at Harvard “for the Animation and Inflammation of PIETY among the young Men…and establish them in the Faith and Order of the Gospel in which the Churches of New England, have their Beauty and Safety.” Harvard had also followed a liberalizing path that watered down the quality of religious education available to Boston’s ministers in training, at least to Mather’s taste. After failing to win the presidency of the college twice, Mather attempted to reform from the outside with his Manuductio ad Ministerium (1726), which was granted to students who won the prestigious Hopkins Prize, hinting at some level of influence for Mather.
To close, I once again ask, where did Mather’s crusade for piety leave him? He certainly settled down in some respects from his anxious youth, such that he even promoted a global Protestantism that had room for a variety “of theologies, worship forms, and ecclesiastical structures.” This ecumenical turn came about in Mather’s last twenty years, as he maintained more contacts with Christians abroad. The works inspired by Francke certainly had to contribute somewhat to Mather’s assurance, seeing as he continued to document them to his later years. Yet, to paraphrase Lovelace one more time, it is remarkable that Mather and his fellow Puritans rarely looked to the path to assurance that Luther cherished: “a naked reliance on the work of Christ.” Throughout Mather’s storied life, we see a deep love for Christ and his church that motivated incredible works of charity that even today we should look to as ways to love our neighbors. But in seeking ways to be sure of our salvation, let’s not follow Mather in looking to our own works and instead look to the sure and steady work of Christ.