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Cotton Mather

Cotton Mather was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1663. He was a Puritan preacher, historian, and the youngest man to graduate from Harvard College.

Cotton’s father, Increase Mather, was minister to the Second Church in Boston, agent of the colony to England, and president of Harvard College from 1865 to 1701. Cotton knew he was expected to follow his father’s footsteps. That prompted him to be a very serious child, and his fear of failing showed up in a stutter when he spoke. It took Cotton years of practice and prayer to overcome this speech problem.

Cotton was admitted to Harvard at the age of twelve. He had begun studying Hebrew and showed great interest in philosophy and science. Mather soon took up the study of medicine and at nineteen he received his master's degree. He was made a fellow of Harvard College in 1690 and was involved in the affairs of the college throughout his life.

Disappointment and grief marked Cotton Mather's life. He married several times, lost all his wives and only 2 of his 15 children outlived him. In 1685, Mather was ordained at the Second Church. He served as minister following his father’s death in 1723.

Mather attempted to show the reality of spirits, particularly evil spirits, in his study Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions … (1689). Although he had urged strong punishment of the devil's work, he suggested much milder punishment than death for those found to be guilty of witchcraft. He didn’t like the way trials for suspected witches were conducted, but he did not protest while they were going on.

Cotton maintained clear but hard attitudes toward many cultural and church changes, even though a new breed of more-open minded men gathered in the recently established Brattle Church.

Despite unpopularity, Mather's activities continued. He wrote in seven languages and also mastered the Iroquois Indian language. In his lifetime he published 392 works in many forms: history, sermons, biography, fables, books of practical faith, religious and scientific essays, and poetry. Probably Mather’s greatest work was his Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), which provides a detailed statement of the Puritan mind.

Cotton Mather recorded the passing of an era. The Massachusetts Bay Colony had been an extreme, Bible-based community of "saints," whose existence as an example to the rest of the world was to be safeguarded till Christ's second coming. In Mather's lifetime, the separation of church and state and the development of the frontier and of a society absorbed in business and profits made the people's interest in church lessen. American-born colonists turned to nature and to reason for the sources of their new identity.


Source: Cotton Mather
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