Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 568

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 568


This is the grave of Increase and Cotton Mather.

Born in 1639 in Dorchester, Massachusetts, Increase Mather grew up in a preacher family. His father and mother were among of the Puritan pioneers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Increase started at Harvard in 1651 and finished 1656, when he was 17. With Oliver Cromwell running Great Britain’s Puritan paradise, Mather went to Dublin to for a master’s degree at Trinity College. Cromwell then asked Mather to stay and become a minister there. He did until 1661, but with King Charles II back and the Puritans out, Mather decided he’d better head back to Boston. He became minister of North Church, where he remained until his death. He also became president of Harvard between 1681 and 1701, though he wasn’t particularly active in the position. He also received the first doctorate degree in the United States, when he was issued a doctorate of divinity in 1692. Harvard would not issue another for 79 years.

Mather led Puritan opposition to James II revoking the colony’s charter in 1686. James created the Dominion of New England and named Edmund Andros to head it. Andros ruled as a near dictator, including banning the town hall meetings the Puritans loved. When James issued the Declaration of Indulgence in 1686, outlawing discrimination against Catholics, Mather went ballistic. After all, there was nothing Puritans loved more than hating and killing Catholics, as Cromwell’s actions in Ireland demonstrated. Mather went to Britain and managed to negotiate a new charter for the colony after the Glorious Revolution in 1688.

Born in 1663 in Boston, Cotton Mather naturally grew up in the ministerial elite of the Puritan colony of Massachusetts Bay. He graduated from Harvard in 1678, only 15 years of age, and became assistant pastor at North Church, which his father ran. He was full pastor there starting in 1685. He didn’t have a great relationship with his father and seems to have been bitter that his father was more famous, which is not really the case today but was then. One of the biggest areas of strain between the two was the Salem Witch Trials. See, Increase was tepid in his support, though he had written about witchcraft in the past. But Cotton was all-in.

In fact, few did more to make sure those “witches” were killed than Cotton. As early as 1689, Mather published a book called Memorable Providences that warned of the scary things happening to possessed children in Boston. It’s important to take a step back here. These were pre-Scientific Revolution people. I haven’t taught the first half of the U.S. history survey in some years, but when I did, the last couple of times I gave my students a book of documents about the Salem Witch Trials to read for a paper. What is really striking in it is the overwhelming level of superstition at this time. Basically, if a cow had a stillborn calf, it wasn’t because the cow had a stillborn calf. It was because someone or something had entered the spirit of the cow, probably Satan working through a witch, and produced a monstrosity. And someone had to pay for that before they destroyed the entire community. Cotton Mather was a learned man but was a superstitious as anyone else.

So when the strange happenings began in Salem, Mather did as much as any other person in the colony to see these supposed witches slaughtered. His critics considered that 1689 book as a critical to laying the groundwork for 1692. He helped construct the courts for the special trials of the witches. He publicized and celebrated the trials. He claims not to have attended any of them, but others contradicted this and in fact he almost certainly did attend the execution of George Burroughs, also speaking there. Four other people were murdered by these religious tribunals after he spoke that day as well. He wrote, “If in the midst of the many Dissatisfaction among us, the publication of these Trials may promote such a pious Thankfulness unto God, for Justice being so far executed among us, I shall Re-joyce that God is Glorified.” On September 2, 1692, after 11 executions, Mather wrote Chief Justice William Stoughton, congratulating him “extinguishing of as wonderful a piece of devilism as has been seen in the world.” Nice guy that Cotton Mather.

Mather continued to defend the trials for years, well after the colony’s elites intervened once some of their members began to be accused of devilry and after word of this got back to London, which British officials found outrageous and intolerable. They were ready to intervene. But Mather believed he was in the front line of fighting Satan. Meanwhile, Increase published Cases of Conscience about Witchcraft, which mildly criticized the trials and which outraged his arrogant son.

Given all of this, it’s somewhat ironic that Cotton Mather would later play a critical role in advancing science in New England. That was through smallpox inoculation. Smallpox ravaged Native communities especially but of course it was also deadly to the Europeans who brought it to the Americas. Mather, who owned slaves, which itself was far more common in New England than is usually realized, heard from one of them about an interesting idea: inoculation. This slave was inoculated in Africa. Basically, this gave the person a small bit of smallpox, creating what everyone hoped was a low-level version of the disease that then made you immune. Now, it could kill you and did kill a small number of the people who went through it. But those odds were a heck of a lot better than full smallpox and in an era where people died all the time at young ages anyway, the idea of having something poked into you with the knowledge that you had a 3% chance of death in the next couple days was not that overwhelming.

Mather found inoculation interesting and kept looking into it. When a smallpox epidemic hit Boston in 1721, he took the lead in inoculation experiments in Boston. Despite some public panic over it, a doctor named Zabdiel Boylston started experimenting with it. In that epidemic, there were nearly 6,000 cases of smallpox with 844 deaths. Boylston inoculated 287 people. Only 6 died. The case was made and inoculation became the order of the day.

Over his life, Cotton Mather wrote a mere 400 books, many of which were sermon collections. His most respected at the time was Magnalia Christi Americana, a history of early New England with biographies of the early Puritan saints, written in 1702. In 1721, he continued embracing his newfound interest in science, publishing The Christian Philosopher, which was a celebration of all the new scientific discoveries and arguing that Newtonian discoveries and Christianity could coexist. Mather came a long ways from killing witches.

Increase Mather died in 1723. Cotton Mather died in 1728.

Increase and Cotton Mather are buried in Copp’s Hill Burial Ground, Boston, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other colonial American religious leaders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Roger Williams is buried in Providence, though somewhat oddly, I have never been to the monument that holds what is left of his remains after a tree over his grave basically ate most of his body. Anne Hutchinson is in the Bronx, or at least it is believed that she is there. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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