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The Life and Times of Cotton Mather Paperback – November 21, 2001
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Mather came from incredible stock; the uniting of the most honored families in early New England, the Cottons and the Mathers - both grandfathers being famous Puritan preachers in early colonial history. Cotton, obviously named after both grandfathers may seem like a strange name until you know that his own father, also a well-known minister was named Increase (Cotton named one of his sons Increase, and later had a grandson by the same name; how did such a name fall out of favor?). Cotton lived from 1663 to 1728 and few have crammed so much into a lifetime. He preached hour-and-a-half long sermons (and on at least one occasion his pastoral prayer lasted two hours) at Boston's largest church, North Church. He studied medicine and science, fulfilled the full complement of the pastorate, often dabbled in politics, wrote almost 400 books and numerous articles and pamphlets. All of this while battling various illnesses, a stuttering problem, burying 13 of his 15 children and marrying three times.
With all of this production nevertheless Mather is best known for his role in the Salem witch trials and executions, a role that has been somewhat exaggerated. The bigger picture of his life would reveal that in addition to his ecclesiastical achievements he also wrote the definitive history of colonial living in America, was the first to use inoculations (smallpox) and may have actually been the first to discover the germ theory of disease.
Still, Cotton Mather was an odd man for a Puritan pastor. He communed with angels, received "Particular Faiths" (words of knowledge), often doubted his own salvation and flirted for a time with Arianism. In addition, he battled for many years with debt, and more seriously with his last wife, who left him for a time. What a life!
The Life and Times of Cotton Mather is an interesting read. I am glad I took the time.
With his Puritan background, weird name, and early involvement in the Salem witch-trials, Mather has - in Silverman's observation - become a "national gargoyle" in the US: a type of bigotry, superstition, and wrathful religion. Silverman's biography gives us all Mather's many faults and human failings (some of which repel, some of which amuse), but there is so much more here: no grim black-hatted witch-finder, Mather was in fact an early scientist and a witty man of the world who shocked ministerial colleagues with his veiw that luxuriant wigs were an "innocent fashion" rather than to be condemned. He was also in many ways humane, preaching Christian ecumenism (within limits), opposing religious persecution, and promoting smallpox innoculation in the face of sceptics.