Cotton Mather
Puritan minister and theologian

1663 - 1728

Cotton Mather was a leading Puritan minister and theologian in colonial New England. His grandfather Richard Mather and his father, Increase Mather, were also famous colonial religious leaders.

Mather involved himself in all the affairs of New England. He wrote about 450 published works, most of them sermons. Many scholars consider him one of the first distinctly American thinkers. Mather spent most of his energy preaching on how to know and serve God. He taught that individuals must have an inward, personal experience with God to be saved, and that they must lead lives devoted to acts of goodness.

Among Mather's best-known works is the Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), a history of Christianity in New England in the 1600's. Bonifacius (1710) is a book of essays on how to be good. Mather gained fame and criticism for his support of smallpox inoculation during an epidemic in Boston in 1721. He blended his interest in science with a fascination with the supernatural, especially witchcraft and Bible prophecies about the end of the world. Some people accused him of prompting a hysteria over witches that resulted in the conviction and execution of 19 people as witches at Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. Today most historians dispute the charge.

Mather was born in Boston. His intellectual talents became evident at an early age. He graduated from Harvard College at 15. In the early 1680's, he joined his father on the staff of the Second Church in Boston, where he remained until his death.

Contributor: Richard W. Pointer, Ph.D., Associate Prof. of History, Trinity College.

Additional resources

Middlekauff, Robert. The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals, 1596-1728. Oxford, 1971.

Silverman, Kenneth. The Life and Times of Cotton Mather. Harper, 1984.


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