Cotton Mather, FRS was a socially and politically influential New England Puritan minister, prolific author and pamphleteer; he is often remembered for his role in the Salem witch trials. He was the son of Increase Mather, and grandson of both John Cotton and Richard Mather, all also prominent Puritan ministers.
Mather was named after his maternal grandfather, John Cotton. He attended Boston Latin School, where his name was posthumously added to its Hall of Fame, and graduated from Harvard in 1678 at age 15. After completing his post-graduate work, he joined his father as assistant pastor of Boston's original North Church. In 1685 Mather assumed full responsibilities as pastor at the Church.
Cotton Mather wrote more than 450 books and pamphlets, and his ubiquitous literary works made him one of the most influential religious leaders in America. Mather set the moral tone in the colonies, and sounded the call for second- and third-generation Puritans, whose parents had left England for the New England colonies of North America, to return to the theological roots of Puritanism.
The most important of these, Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), comprises seven distinct books, many of which depict biographical and historical narratives to which later American writers, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Elizabeth Drew Stoddard, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, would look in describing the cultural significance of New England for later generations after the American Revolution. Mather's text thus is one of the more important documents in American history, because it reflects a particular tradition of seeing and understanding the significance of place. Mather, as a Puritan thinker and social conservative, drew on the language of the Bible to speak to contemporary audiences. In particular, Mather's review of the American experiment sought to explain signs of his time and the types of individuals drawn to the colonies as predicting the success of the venture. From his religious training, Mather viewed the importance of texts for elaborating meaning and for bridging different moments of history—linking, for instance, the Biblical stories of Noah and Abraham with the arrival of such eminent leaders as John Eliot; John Winthrop; and his own father, Increase Mather.
Through his writings the intellectual and physical struggles of first- through third-generation Puritans created an elevated appraisal in the minds of Americans about its appointed place among other nations. The unease and self-deception that characterized that period of colonial history would be revisited in many forms at political and social moments of crisis (such as the Salem witch trials, which coincided with frontier warfare and economic competition among Indians and French and other European settlers) and during lengthy periods of cultural definition (such as the American Renaissance of the late 18th- and early 19th-century literary, visual, and architectural movements, which sought to capitalize on unique American identities).
Highly influential because of his prolific writing, Mather was a force to be reckoned with in secular, as well as in spiritual, matters. After the fall of James II of England, in 1688, Mather was among the leaders of the successful revolt against James's governor of the consolidated Dominion of New England, Sir Edmund Andros.
Mather also influenced early American science. In 1716, because of observations of corn varieties, he conducted one of the first recorded experiments with plant hybridization. This observation was memorialized in a letter to a friend:
My friend planted a row of Indian corn that was colored red and blue; the rest of the field being planted with yellow, which is the most usual color. To the windward side this red and blue so infected three or four rows as to communicate the same color unto them; and part of ye fifth and some of ye sixth. But to the leeward side, no less than seven or eight rows had ye same color communicated unto them; and some small impressions were made on those that were yet further off.
Of Mather's three wives and 15 children, only his last wife and two children survived him. Mather was buried on Copp's Hill, near Old North Church.
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