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COTTON MATHER AND HIS TIMES.
COTTON MATHER may be classed with biographical writers; for his principal work, the Magnalia, contains memoirs of several worthies of the old Puritan times. From the death of this quaint author, in 1728, to the time when Benjamin Franklin concluded his autobiography (1757), we find hardly any other biographies deserving notice. In this period, men were too much engaged in active life to find time for writing. The contrast suggested by the names of Mather and Franklin shews how great had been the progress of intelligence and freedom in the course of half a century; or from the time when Mather accused witches and goblins of raising high winds and blowing down meeting-houses, to the day when Franklin drew the lightning from the clouds. In one point of view, Mather and Franklin resembled each other; for each, in his writings, drew a faithful portrait of his own character, and also gave notices of the characteristics of his own times. Mather, in his diary, like Franklin in his autobiography, wrote his own life and character so faithfully, that the reader may understand the writer more fully perhaps than he understood himself. His numerous works range over a great diversity of topics, and go beyond the bounds of this visible world into regions where we do not care to follow. With a reference to Mather's strange tales of diablerie, Flint, in his sketch of American literature, has said of the old Puritan writers: 'Their first excursions into the world of imagination were not of a nature to tempt them to go much further.'
Cotton Mather, regarded as a scholar and a writer, was the representative man of New England in the latter part of the seventeenth and early part of the eighteenth century. This assertion must not be too strictly understood, as implying either that this one quaint writer epitomised all the characteristics of his times, or that his contemporaries may all be judged by his standard. He had his peculiarities, and, while foremost as a scholar and Puritan divine, in some of his opinions he halted behind the age.
He was the son of Increase Mather, president of Harvard College, and was born in Boston February 12, 1663. His mother was the daughter of John Cotton, an eminent minister of Boston. His first ancestor, Richard Mather, settled in New England in
1 Published in the London Athenæum.
1635, and was pastor of the church in Dorchester. Cotton Mather was born to greatness.' It was expected, as a matter of course, that he must be a great scholar and prominent character. When he took his degree at college, the president, in his oration, exclaimed: “Cotton Mather! What a name !—I should have said, what names !.... I trust that in him Cotton and Mather will be united and flourish again.' After his graduation, Mather studied theology, and was ordained, in 1684, as a colleague with his father in the pastorship of the North Church in Boston. In 1690, he received the diploma of Doctor of Divinity from the university of Glasgow; and in 1713, was made a Fellow of the Royal Society. His biographers have stated that he wrote in seven languages; but this must be understood with allowance
; for the freedom of style in which such assertions have often been made. A scholar who knows what the labour is of writing or speaking well even one language beside the vernacular, must doubt the philological powers ascribed to Mather. It is, however, true that he published 380 distinct works, of which many were single sermons or mere pamphlets. His chief writings include the Christian Philosopher, the Wonders of the Invisible World, the Remarkables of Divine Providence among the People of New England (one of the most characteristic), and especially the Magnalia Christi Americana, or Ecclesiastical History of New England, written in a very odd, quaint style, with bad punctuation, and an absurd profusion of words in italics. It contains biographies of several worthies of the old times in New England.
Superstition, and an inordinate vanity, which might almost be styled a species of self-worship, were combined in Mather's character. The superstition he shared with other minds of that age; but vanity, or self-esteem, was his peculiar trait, and made him unhappily prominent in one of the darkest passages of American history. The habit of trusting his own impressions or opinions, rather than the evidence of facts, led to lamentable errors; and so far as these errors were connected with his vanity and selfishness, they seriously affect his moral character.
Following the example of his father, Cotton Mather kept a diary, in which he recorded even his inmost thoughts and feelings, and fully displayed his eccentricities. The mixture of religious meditations with the most insignificant traits of everyday life, makes this diary, which is still extant, a very singular record. As examples of his mode of finding 'edification' in common incidents-he tells us that, while his wife was employed in brewing, he was reminded of the spiritual wants of thirsty souls;' while she was baking, he meditated on the bread of life; and on washing-day he ejaculated, 'wash us thoroughly from sin.' Snuffing
a candle, winding up his watch, hearing a clock strike, knocking at a door, mending his fire, and other incidents of equal importance, were made occasions of appropriate devout exercises. For a lady carving at his table, he prayed that a rich portion of spiritual comforts' might be carved.' Seeing a lady well stricken in years,' he prayed that she might be adorned with comely virtues. (For obvious reasons, we cannot employ exactly his own words.) For a very beautiful woman, he implored that she might be most concerned for other ornaments than such as are perishable. In short, he had ejaculations prepared for all persons and circumstances, and craved, 'for a tall man,' high attainments; for a lame man, the power to walk uprightly;' for a negro, 'the washing of the spirit;' and for a very little man,' great blessings.'
His self-esteem may be sufficiently illustrated by one example taken from his diary; for though this refers immediately to the appointment of his father-Increase Mather-the father and son were inseparable colleagues during many years, and each shared the other's honour. The father, president of Harvard College, wished to be sent as a deputation to England, and the son hoped to succeed to the president's chair; but it so happened that the Court of the University found merit in other men besides the two Mathers, and refused to honour the elder in this matter. Of this, the son wrote in his diary as follows :—'I am going to relate one of the most astonishing things that ever befell in all the time of my pilgrimage. This portent proves to be nothing more than the fact, that Cotton Mather had received a strong impression-an afflatus, he calls it-to the effect that his father would be carried into England.' He concludes a passage in his strange diary by ejaculating : What! shall my father yet appear before Cæsar! Has an angel from heaven told me so! And must I believe what has been told to me! Well, then, it shall be so ! It shall be so!'
However, the court ruled that it should not be so, and Cotton Mather again opened his diary, and wrote: What shall I make of this wonderful matter?-Wait! wait !' He waited in vain; the court finally decided that Increase Mather should remain in Boston; and both father and son were left in their astonishment. The fact that their own ambition could not, in this instance, be gratified, appeared inconceivable.
Cotton Mather's writings are full of uncouth puns: in his taste for these strange ornaments of style, he was not singular: other Puritan writers loved to torture words and play fantastic tricks with language. In writing of a worthy man, unfortunately named Partridge, who suffered some persecutions, Mather chooses to describe him as 'hunted;' as having - neither beak nor claws' for defence; as escaping 'by flight' over the sea, and finding
covert' in Plymouth. Even at the grave, the grim punster will not leave his game, but proposes for an epitaph the word avolavit
our partridge has flown away!' Mather describes his own habit of crowding his pages with many quotations, as "salting my sentences now and then with short, instructive, and unforced intermixtures of something or other I have read of.' He seems unable to express his own thoughts without the assistance of other judicious writers.'
These notices of a quaint author and self-complacent character might be regarded as unworthy of record, they were not connected with something more important in the sequel. But Mather's self-esteem made him prominent in the annals of New England : that trait of his character which appeared merely ludicrous in minor affairs, became exceedingly mischievous in the end. This quaint author and learned divine was virtually one of the chief rulers of New England. Like other men of that time -including such divines as Richard Baxter-he believed in miraculous signs, omens, haunted places, witchcraft, and other delusions; in fact, demonology formed a very great portion of his religious belief. So far, he fairly represented the lingering popular faith of those times, when 'Indian bows were seen in the sky, and scalps in the moon;' when 'northern lights became an object of terror,' and 'phantom-horsemen careered among the clouds,' or were heard galloping invisibly through the air :1 but as Mr Upham? and other writers have shewn, a mischievous vanity and obstinate self-esteem made Mather's superstition more formidable than it could have been without such allies.
Four years before the outbreak of the popular delusion (or conspiracy ?) in Salem, Mather “had studied the nature of witchcraft,' and had especially examined a case occurring in the house of a neighbour. In this instance, the girl supposed to be troubled by witches' uttered at least one true prediction ; for, speaking of Mather's book on the subject, she told him that he would quickly come to disgrace by that history.' The sequel made this prediction rather remarkable.
Having formed his theory, he determined to make all facts bend to it, and popular ignorance aided his efforts. In the course of his experiments in the first supposed case of 'possession,' he came to the conclusion that demons are well skilled in languages, and understand Latin and Greek, and even Hebrew;' but he found them imperfect in one of the Indian dialects!' He was assured that over himself the powers of air had no power; they could not enter his study.' Sadducees' and the Quakers 1 Hildreth's
History of the United States, vol. i. p. 483. 2 Upham's History of the Delusion in Salem, 1692.
opposed the delusion, and Mather's reputation became involved in the controversy on witchcraft. In his book on the subject, he treated his opponents as ignorant, uncivil, and impudent persons. This book, printed in 1689, was circulated in New England, and soon reached the mother-country, where it was republished by Richard Baxter.
When the minds of the people had been sufficiently excited, and were prepared to receive new wonders, Mather found a ready assistant in Samuel Parris, minister of Salem. In February 1692, Tituba, an Indian female-servant in the household of Parris, was accused of having bewitched two of his children. She was not put to death, because her confession was so valuable as a refutation of the “Sadducee' doctrine. The children supposed to be afflicted gained great notoriety, and new cases were soon dis- . covered. It was one of the most curious features in the affair, that the confessions of certain parties, and the evidence given by others, so exactly accorded with the statements of Mather's book on witchcraft, that they almost appeared as quotations. This admitted two modes of explanation, but of course Mather received it as a confirmation of his own doctrine. Examinations and commitments for witchcraft became more and more nume
In the popular panic thus excited, several poor creatures, hoping to escape the punishment of death, made absurd confessions of having practised certain witcheries. Of one aged woman, who was hanged as a witch, Cotton Mather states, that 'she gave a look towards the great and spacious meeting-house of Salem, and immediately a demon, invisibly entering the house, tore down à part of it.' To believe all that Mather had said and written of demonology, was the only way of safety: to doubt the reality of witchcraft, was to court suspicion and inquiry; and the party brought to a trial had scarcely a chance to escape conviction. When confessions, or accounts given by witnesses, were full of self-contradictions, it only suggested the notion that demons had deprived the speakers of memory! If the accused trembled, his guilt was manifest; if he stood firmly, the demon supported him. * At the trial of George Burroughs (a minister], the bewitched persons pretended to be dumb. “ Who hinders these witnesses," said Stoughton, “from giving their testimonies ? "_“I suppose the devil,” answered Burroughs. “ How comes the devil," retorted the chief judge, "so loath to have any testimony borne against you ? ” and the question was effective.'1 Cotton Mather decided that the evidence was enough,' and the jury brought in a verdict of guilty.
1 Bancroft's History of the United States, vol. ii. chap. 19.