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Featured Books

Salem Witchcraft: Comprising More Wonders of the Invisible WorldSummary and Reviews of Salem Witchcraft: Comprising More Wonders of the Invisible World
The Christian PhilosopherSummary and Reviews of The Christian Philosopher
Magnalia Christi Americana Or The Ecclesiastical History Of New EnglandSummary and Reviews of Magnalia Christi Americana Or The Ecclesiastical History Of New England
Essays to Do Good Addressed to All Christians Whether in Public or Private CapacitiesSummary and Reviews of Essays to Do Good Addressed to All Christians Whether in Public or Private Capacities
Corderius Americanus or An Essay Upon the Good Education of ChildrenSummary and Reviews of Corderius Americanus or An Essay Upon the Good Education of Children
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Cotton Mather

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Cotton Mather (1663-1730) was a third generation religious leader in Massachusetts.  Though he didn’t quite have the influence over the colonists that Richard or Increase, or even his maternal grandfather, John Cotton, had, he far outranked them in literary skill.  While Increase Mather became president of Harvard, Cotton Mather remained the pastor of Old North Church in Boston until he died.  He may have missed an opportunity when he refused the presidency of Yale, but if he had not refused, we may not now have the benefit of his literary output.

Two main factors conspired to keep Mather from becoming the leader that he wanted to be.  The first factor was the new charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, granted by the English monarchy in 1691.  The new charter combined Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, and Maine, and, more importantly, eliminated church membership as a prerequisite for voting rights.  Congregationalism, better known as Puritanism, continued to be the established Church in New England, but because of this change, the Puritan clergy, including Mather, who had wielded power from the beginning, could not stop non-Christians and members of other denominations from increasing their share of the influence in New England.

The second, less gradual and subtle, factor that hampered Mather’s leadership aspirations was the famous Salem witch trials.  Cotton Mather reluctantly supported these proceedings, and he paid a price.  Modern histories of these trials generally do not convey the fact that Mather actually learned from this experience.  Although he continued to believe that God worked in the common occurrences of every day life, he never interpreted them so hastily as evidence of personal evil again.

In the middle of all this turmoil, Mather was prolific in his writing.  Ironically, The Christian Philosopher, a work of science, was among his major works.  Even his sermons display his penchant for scientific observation, and he advocated vaccination from its early stages.  However, his writing on the spiritual world increasingly brought him attention over the centuries.  His Wonders of the Invisible World, though well written, unfortunately sealed his fate as an infamous emblem of overreaction to supposed supernatural episodes.  The preachy account of the trials started in motion a snowball effect, starting with Washington Irving’s use of it as Ichabod Crane’s most beloved volume, which led to the modern impression that Puritans were religious fanatics.

Modern readers, who dare to go beyond Wonders of the Invisible World, will find that Cotton Mather was not the simple-minded dolt that time has made him seem to be.  Besides his masterwork history of New England’s clergy, Magnalia Christi Americana: or, the Ecclesiastical History of New England, he also wrote sympathetically about the Native Americans and, while stopping short of denouncing slavery, he believed that black slaves should be educated.  India Christiana seems to be out of print, but The daring reader can learn to appreciate Mather’s relative progressiveness by reading The Negro Christianized.  Modern scholars admire Mather’s writings for their creative phrasings and allusions, and, despite his faults, the open-minded reader just might appreciate it, too. 

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