Following his graduation from Harvard with a master’s degree in 1681, Cotton Mather served as an assistant to his father at Boston’s Old North Church for the next forty years. While Mather was known to be an eager and industrious minister, often writing as many as five sermons each week, he is more widely remembered for his participation in and commentaries on various political activities of his day and for his writings.
Mather entered the ministry at a time of changing attitudes toward Puritan teachings. As early as the 1630s, rigid Puritanism had come under attack from some merchants who found its reliance on strict interpretations of Old Testament pronouncements concerning commerce to be too restrictive. Adhering to the letter of the Pentateuch was increasingly seen as damaging to New World business and trade with England. By the time the Massachusetts Bay Colony had its charter revoked in 1684 and then restored in 1691, the merchants had allied their interests into a formidable bloc of power.
The new colonial charter contained two drastic changes from earlier Puritan rule: First, the voting franchise was now based on property ownership rather than on church membership. Second, religious toleration was imposed, in contrast to the former Puritan habit of charging “heresy” against anyone who questioned ecclesiastical authority or preaching or who failed to observe any of the myriad laws and restrictions imposed by the hierarchy. Against this backdrop of greater religious freedom, Increase and Cotton Mather came to their own prominence in Boston church life.
Cotton Mather was not well suited to these changing times. In his youth and early ministry, Mather was one of those who strove to strengthen Puritan faith and practice in the colonies. At the same time, beginning early in his career and continuing throughout his life, Mather carried on correspondence on religious, scientific, and other topics with various church leaders, scientists, physicians, and other professionals from around the world. Although he never left his native New England, Mather was probably exposed to more ideas and points of view than virtually any other leading member of colonial society.
His native intelligence, coupled with his continual exposure to new ideas, made him somewhat open to the growing spirit of ecumenism as new immigrants from different lands came to the New World. But he remained firmly convinced that the Puritan theocracy he had grown up with was the only way in which God’s kingdom could exist in America, and he was in the forefront of those calling for Puritanism’s reinforcement and renewal, not its demise. Such an attitude set Cotton Mather at odds with many of his contemporaries. Further exacerbating this conflict was Mather’s personality. As a child of family and privilege, Mather early became convinced of his own special status within New England life. By most accounts (including his own words among his voluminous writings), Mather was self-centered, arrogant, and spoiled. Such traits may be found in many men of brilliance, but they are usually tempered by a willingness to engage in dialogue with those holding other opinions or positions within society; Mather evidenced no such willingness. True to his Puritan roots, he seems to have been convinced that there was only one legitimate worldview, one that held Mather himself at the center, with the success or failure of God’s plan for His people in the New World resting squarely upon the shoulders of Cotton Mather. Mather’s personality was such that he almost never entertained ideas other than his own, and his dismissal of others was rarely tactful. If someone disagreed with his Puritan vision, that person was dismissed out of hand as being an instrument of Satan.
Cotton Mather was renowned as a man of letters and science, as well as a Puritan minister. He produced more than 400 published works, the most celebrated of which is Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), an ecclesiastical history of New England. (Brown Brothers, Sterling, Pennsylvania) Not surprisingly, these personal traits of arrogance and egocentricity were damaging to Mather as a pastor and as an influential leader in the community. Unlike Mather, other prominent ministers who emerged from colonial New England were able to mix compassion and empathy with their brilliance and were accessible to and beloved by their congregations. In contrast, Mather felt himself to be far above fraternizing with his flock; in fact, many of his diary entries refer to his parishioners in such extremely derogatory terms as “insignificant lice,” “silly people,” and “foolish.” In part, Mather’s arrogance can be attributed to his belief in the Puritan tradition that New England’s highest privilege was to be ruled by the godly, among whom he considered himself. But his inability to recognize that times were changing and that changes were required on his part if he were to earn a position of influence in the new culture resulted in his failure to be the religious or civic leader he had hoped to be.