Forgotten Founder: Cotton Mather

Cotton Mather is one of America’s forgotten founding fathers. He was born to Increase and Maria (née Cotton) Mather in 1663. He was practically royalty in Puritan New England. His father was not only a minister in Boston, but also president of Harvard University for a time. And Increase’s father, Richard, came to New England in 1635 and also pastored in Massachusetts. Cotton’s maternal grandfather was John Cotton. He was probably one of the preeminent pastors of the Puritans both in Old England and in New England.

Cotton Mather went on to Harvard and received his bachelor’s degree when he was fifteen, and then he started pastoring as Second Congregational Church in Boston while also earning a master’s degree from Harvard. In a few years under his preaching, Second Congregational Church would grow to more than two thousand members. Not only was Mather the pastor of a busy and growing congregation, he wrote around 450 published pieces. These included sermons, small tracts on a variety of subjects, and a number of major treatises.

Among those books is his book Magnalia Christi Americana, which means, “The glorious works of Christ in America.” It was published in 1702, and it chronicles the story of the Puritans. Actually, it chronicles the story of God as He worked through the Puritans in Massachusetts and the rest of New England from 1620 through 1698. It tells the story of the founding of Harvard. It tells the gripping captivity narratives of the English who were taken captive by Native Americans. And it even chronicles an important event in which Cotton Mather was a crucial figure: the Salem Witch Trials. You can actually see John Adams’ personal copy of this book online at the Boston Public University website.

One source says Cotton Mather had an opinion on nearly everything that happened in New England. He also had an opinion on nearly every subject. He was a true polymath and a Renaissance man. He engaged in science and was intrigued by the recent work in publications of Isaac Newton. He devoured Newton’s Principia Mathematica, which was published in 1687. Mather even contributed to early attempts at smallpox inoculation and wrote many pieces on it to see if it would catch on. And yes, as a side note, this was the same smallpox inoculation that Jonathan Edwards partook of and that caused Edwards’ death in 1758.

There were French and even some Spanish Catholics in New England. Mather taught himself French and Spanish so that he could discuss with them and evangelize them. Mather also learned Algonquian and published much material in that language so that he could also evangelize the Algonquian Indians living in New England.

Cotton Mather, a man of many talents, a man of many gifts, applied all of those gifts to all things as he lived in New England and as he ministered there in Boston.

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