Cotton Mather, like many famous men, has more than one life in historical memory. There is, first, the Mather of popular imagination, a sanctimonious, vindictive, witch-hunting Puritan zealot, the very personification of all that was worst in early colonial Massachusetts. It is a picture with little connection to reality, but such symbols of the past seem to be indispensable to popular historical understanding and despite all efforts will never be eliminated. A symbol is needed, and Mather, precisely because of his excessive ambition over a 50-year period to play a vital and vigorous part in every aspect of the life of his community, is the available figure. His ardent officiousness led to caricature even in his lifetime, and the next step after caricature is legend.
The second historical life he inhabits is the biographical, the man seen in personal terms, irrespective of his prodigious accomplishments. It is here, particularly over the Mather revealed in his published diaries, that most of the controversy swirls, for he has been roundly detested for a long time, accused of hypocrisy, megalomaniacal vanity, insufferable pedantry, and more. Vernon Parrington in 1927 was convinced that Mather had “a crooked and diseased mind” and charged him, among other things, with being “oversexed.” Even Perry Miller, the historian who more than any other is responsible for lifting Puritan studies to a position of pre-eminence in American historiography in the last 40 years, found it impossible to like the “frenetic genius” of Cotton Mather, characterizing him at one point as a “nauseous human being,” although Miller also recognized him as “the greatest intellectual in the land.”
Finally, there is the scholarly assessment not of the person of Mather but of the public figure, the author of Essays to Do Good, which Benjamin Franklin admired, and the Magnolia Christi Americana, the epic work of the “Lord’s remembrancer” that like Moby Dick has become ever more of a classic in the eyes of the 20th century; the courageous defender of smallpox inoculation in the face of ignorance and reaction; the Fellow of the Royal Society; the astonishingly prolific author of more than 400 publications; and the owner of a library of 3,000 volumes or more that an informed contemporary called “the Glory of New England, if not of all America.” If one cannot say that the scholarly assessment of Mather’s achievements has been all positive as the popular image in contrast has been all negative, yet there are elements in the record that have always wrung, even from Mather’s worst enemies, grudging admiration. Indeed, it is above all in the image of the public figure that irreversible change for the better has occurred. The growth in sophistication of Puritan studies since the 1920’s has demolished the myths and misinformation that made it possible for Parrington and others to rejoice that “most of the printed output of Cotton Mather has fallen into the oblivion it deserved,” being “barren of ideas, and marred by pedantic mannerisms.”
When a figure as important as Cotton Mather seems to convey such disparate images in historical reflection, there is an inherent challenge to the historian to try to bring the man into a single focus. What are the unifying themes and patterns in his life by which he may be understood as a whole person? The difficulty of the task is increased in Mather’s case by his conscious determination to leave for posterity the didactic image of a man totally devoted to the cause of religion and piety at the expense of himself, a program that at times he in fact carried forward to the point of absurdity. Nobody has ever attempted more indefatigably than Mather the experiment of sanctifying through works and prayer every moment of practical existence.
David Levin’s superbly written, quietly perceptive biography succeeds to a notable degree in the task of integrating and humanizing the life of a personality whose extremes of temperament, fantastic visions, and religious emotions are hardly credible in the 20th century. The work has the shortcoming, however, of cutting off the story when the hero has still before him 25 more years of activity, a last, poignant period in Mather’s career that poses problems for the biographer at least equal in difficulty to those presented by the first 40 years. Yet Levin’s concentration on Mather’s youth has its advantages. We are enabled by the author’s reconstruction of events in Mather’s college and even pre-college years to get to the foundations of his character and to know him more familiarly and intimately perhaps than acquaintance alone with the developed peculiarities of the mature pastor allows.
The crucial relationship in Mather’s life, it seems, was that with his father, Increase, who is placed only a few rungs below Cotton in eminence as a Puritan literary figure and was his superior in importance in the political affairs of the Bay colony. As a descendant of several pious Puritan greats besides his father and as the first-born son at a time of severe insecurity concerning the political and religious future of the colony, Cotton was handed almost at birth a sense’ of mission that treated as one and inseparable the goals of the Congregational ministry in Massachusetts, God’s purposes, and Cotton’s personal future. A prodigy who entered Harvard College at age eleven with full mastery of Latin and Greek, Cotton Mather was from the beginning not only a promising child but a promised child, the potential restorer of the supposed golden age of primitive Christianity as practiced in Massachusetts in the 1630’s and 40’s. In all of this his father was revered teacher, exemplar, and intimate co-worker, a figure that managed to survive to 1723, dying at the age of 84 only five years before Cotton himself was translated to heaven. Increase was always there for Cotton at decisive moments, and Levin educes not only the influence of the father upon the son, which is to be expected, but Cotton’s sense of himself as a complement to his father, a team as it were.
Thus, perhaps Cotton’s most fateful action in its effect upon posterity’s view of him was his publication in 1693 of The Wonders of the Invisible World, which was widely regarded as a whitewash of the judicial murder of 20 people for witchcraft. That Mather was primarily a spectator throughout the whole affair in Salem Village, critical of the rules of evidence that were applied in the case, is now accepted by most scholars. If he had been the one in effective control of events, there probably would have been no executions. Why then did he write the despised apologia? Increase, who, like Cotton, was also critical of the court’s procedures, wrote a book at the same time that was sufficiently condemnatory of the trials to discredit the episode forever, Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits (1692). With Increase having assumed the divisive responsibility of censurer of the trials, it was left to Cotton to perform what he thought would be the complementary healing function of preventing in the aftermath “a bloody quarrel between Moses and Aaron.” There was not a trace of disagreement between father and son in viewpoint, although Increase has emerged in history as the denouncer of the repugnant trials and Cotton as the defender. Cotton hoped only to write a book (it had in fact been solicited by the authorities) that would reunite the community he felt personally identified with. Such magnanimity had a predictable result: the alienation of everybody.
Levin’s biography gives to Mather’s life the shape of tragedy, although the brilliant minister’s long career was not unprosperous in many respects. There is, however, the characteristic American pathos, classically represented in The Education of Henry Adams, of the genius consecrated by dint of parentage to the fulfillment of a promise that the force of events has made no longer historically realizable. In Mather’s case the reversal and recognition occurred in the 1690’s, when in quick succession the entire political status of the Bay colony in relation to the empire was altered unfavorably to the ruling group of which the Mathers were a part, the witchcraft executions brought disgrace on the unity of state and church, the Mathers were cut off from significant influence on the development of Harvard College, and Cotton, for the first time, came to doubt that his subjective intuitions of God’s intentions toward him (his “particular faiths”), formerly trusted beyond good sense, were entirely reliable.
As this biography ends, Mather is 40, with a quarter of a century left to live usefully, but it was to be a more tormented, thankless, and private existence, utterly different from what he had anticipated or expected for himself. In the face of this loss, the “identification of his own life with the history and prospects of his native land,” incurred “at great personal cost,” was transferred from practical expression in the external political affairs of the day to the composition of the Magnolia, a celebration of the founding myths and purposes of Massachusetts Bay deliberately cast in imitation of the Aeneid, that “deserves a place,” Levin believes, “beside the best histories of George Bancroft, William H. Prescott, Francis Parkman, and Henry Adams.” “Whether New-England may Live any where else or no,” Mather wrote in the Introduction to the Magnolia, “it must Live in our History!”
All of his life, Levin observes, Mather “struggled in obedient Christian exercises to subdue his vanity and pride.” But his “literary achievements, his divine assurances, the love and care of his own angel, and his frequent exposure to large audiences—all nurtured the very vanity that offended some of his critics.” Even the fasts, hundreds and hundreds of them, and the frequent prostration in the dust of his study floor, designed to “commemorate his superlative filthiness” in the eyes of the Lord, “expressed the vanity that they were supposed to check.” Governed by “an irrepressible impulse toward constant action in God’s service,” and gifted to a degree that his provincial community could hardly absorb, Cotton Mather suffered from the excusable flaw of never being able to disentangle himself from the high purposes of family and religion to which he believed he was born.