It is a cruel irony of history that Cotton Mather (1663-1728) is generally pictured unsympathetically as the archetype of a narrow and severe intolerance, who proved his mettle by prosecuting the Salem witch debacle of 1692. In fact, he never attended the trials--he lived in the distant town of Boston--and actually denounced them once he saw the tenor they had taken.
And as for his Puritanism, it was of the most enlightened sort. Mather was a man of vast learning, prodigious talent, and expansive interests. He owned the largest personal library in the New World--consisting of some 4000 volumes ranging across the whole spectrum of classical learning. He was also the most prolific writer of his day, producing some 450 books on religion, science, history, medicine, philosophy, biography, and poetry. His greatest work Magnalia Christi Americana, dripping with allusions to classical and modern sources, was published on this day in 1702.
He was the pastor of the most prominent church in New England--Boston's North Church. He was active in politics and civic affairs, serving as an advisor to governors, princes, and kings. He taught at Harvard and was instrumental in the establishment of Yale. He was the first native-born American to become a member of the scientific elite in the Royal Society. And he was a pioneer in the universal distribution and inoculation of the small pox vaccine.
His father, Increase Mather, was the president of Harvard, a gifted writer, a noted pastor, and an influential force in the establishment and maintenance of the second Massachusetts Charter. In his day he was thought to be the most powerful man in New England--in fact, he was elected to represent the colonies before the throne of Charles II in London. But according to many historians, his obvious talents and influence actually pale in comparison to his son's.
Likewise, both of Cotton Mather's grandfathers were powerful and respected men. His paternal grandfather, Richard Mather, helped draw up the Cambridge Platform which provided a constitutional base for the Congregational churches of New England. And with John Eliot and Thomas Weld, he prepared the Bay Psalm Book which was the first text published in America, achieved world-wide renown, and remains a classic of ecclesiastical literature to this day. His maternal grandfather was John Cotton who wrote the important Puritan catechism for children, Milk for Babes, as well as drawing up the Charter Template with John Winthrop as a practical guide for the governance of the new Massachusetts Colony. The city of Boston was so named in order to honor him--his former parish work in England was at St. Botolph's Boston.
According to historian George Harper, together these men laid the foundations for a lasting "spiritual dynasty" in America. Even so, according to his life-long admirer, Benjamin Franklin, "Cotton Mater clearly out-shone them all. Though he was spun from a bright constellation, his light was brighter still." And according to George Washington, “He was undoubtedly the Spiritual Father of America’s Founding Fathers.”