Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Cotton Mather & the Puritans: A Brief History

Cotton Mather (1663 – 1728) was a socially and politically influential New England Puritan minister who wrote nearly 450 books and pamphlets. In one of his books, The Family Well-Ordered, Mather taught on how to make a family well-ordered and pleasing to God, although he often wrote in an unflattering way about his wives in his personal diary. [1] He was also known for his hell-fire and brimstone preaching, although he struggled with stuttering. [2]

Living a Separated Life
Puritans, by definition, felt that the English Reformation had not gone far enough, and that the Church of England was tolerant of practices which they associated with the Catholic Church. Puritanism wanted to purify their national church by eliminating every shred of Catholic influence. They advocated greater "purity" of worship and doctrine, as well as personal and group piety.[3]

Puritan marriage choices were influenced by young people’s inclination, by parents, and by the social rank of the persons involved. As a Puritan woman, she legally accepted her role as managing her husband’s household, fulfilling her duty of “keeping the home, educating her children, keeping and improving what is got by the industry of man.” [4]

Bounds were not set on enjoying sexuality within the bounds of marriage, as a gift from God. Wives were disciplined if they did not perform their sexual marital duties, in accordance with 1 Cor. 7 and other biblical passages. Puritans publicly punished drunkenness and sexual relations outside of marriage. [5]

The first Puritans of New England disapproved of Christmas celebrations, as did some other Protestant churches of the time. Celebration was outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681, and revoked in 1681 by an English-appointed governor who also revoked a Puritan ban against festivities on Saturday night. It was not until the mid-19th century that celebrating Christmas became fashionable in the Boston region. The colonies banned many secular entertainments, such as games of chance, maypoles, and drama, on moral grounds.

Puritans were not opposed to drinking alcohol in moderation. Laws banned the practice of individuals toasting each other: it led to wasting God's gift of beer and wine, as well as being carnal.

Cotton Mather's Education
Mather attended Boston Latin School, where his name was added to its Hall of Fame, and graduated from Harvard in 1678 at 16 years of age. After completing his post-graduate work, he joined his father, Increase Mather, as assistant pastor of Boston's original North Church. In 1685 Mather assumed full responsibilities as pastor at the Church.

Personal Life
Grief marked Cotton Mather's life. In 1686 he married Abigail Philips; they had nine children. She died in 1702, and he married again a year later to widow Mrs. Elizabeth Hubbard; they had six children. She died in 1713, then his last wife, Mrs. Lydia George, who went insane. Of his fifteen children, only six lived to adulthood and only two outlived him. Three widowed sisters depended largely on him, and he was burdened by severe money problems. [4]

Witch Trials
Cotton Mather is often remembered for his role in the Salem witch trials. In Wonders of the Invisible World, he sided with the witch trial judges more so than he did with the accused women. He encouraged and supported the trials, which more often than not resulted in the deaths of the women accused.

Mather was in Salem to witness the execution of ex-minister George Burroughs for witchcraft. When, on Gallows Hill, Burroughs was able to recite the Lord's Prayer perfectly (something that witches were thought incapable of doing) and some in the crowd called for the execution to be stopped, Mather intervened, reminding those gathered that Burroughs had been duly convicted by a jury. Mather was given the official records of the Salem trials for use in preparation of a book that the judges hoped would favorably describe their role in the affair. [5]

After the trial, Cotton Mather was unrepentant for his role. Of the principal actors in the trial, only Cotton Mather and William Stoughton never admitted any guilt.

Decline of Power
The Massachusetts Bay Colony had been an extreme, Bible-based community of "saints," whose existence was an example to the rest of the world. During Mather's lifetime the separation of church and state, the development of the frontier, and of a society absorbed in business, made the people's interest in church lessen.

His Death
Cotton Mather outlived his father by only five years, dying on February 13, 1728, in Boston. They are buried together in a tomb at Copp's Hill Burying Ground.

(YouTube link)

One Last Note
Prior to Cotton Mather's birth, the Pilgrims witnessed the first UFO sighting in Boston.[6] As a young man, Mather saw an unidentified flying object as he looked through a telescope. Extraordinary as it was during that period in history, he saw a moving light across the surface of the moon.