Cotton Mather was undoubtedly the most widely read man in America in his day. At a time when an established colonial minister’s library might respectably contain fewer than 30 volumes, Mather’s consisted of over 3,000 books. During his lifetime, he himself produced over 400 published works, although many of these were short, cheap volumes, which often took advantage of public interest in some current community event (for example, an execution of a criminal might prompt Mather to publish an essay warning against sin). His topics ranged from folklore to science to his primary concern, theology. An examination of Mather’s works reveals that though he had a gift for the craft of writing and studied many new ideas his philosophical rigidity left him lacking in the willingness to reconsider his worldviews. Of all his writings, two stand out as being particularly worthy of comment.
Wonders of the Invisible World (1693) addressed the widespread interest in and fear of witchcraft of the day. It recounts the events of the Salem witch trials of the previous year as Cotton Mather and his father Increase had been present at those trials. Both Mathers had been among those calling for severe prosecution of the accused witches, although to their credit, as the trials continued and the hysteria escalated, both came to urge caution and to denounce the reliance on spectral evidence (tales of ghosts and evil spirits inhabiting those accused of being witches) that formed the basis of many convictions. Wonders also gives an account of a variety of old wives’ tales, superstitions, and other mystical happenings in the colonies. Such stories were widely circulated and fed into most colonists’ fears of evil lurking within the New England forests and wilderness.
The massive Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) combines history and biography to tell the stories of eminent colonial personages. While it sometimes slips into extremes of praise, this useful work does provide factual information about many of the leading men and founders of colonial America. Its running theme is one that would come to be repeated often through American history: Even men from humble beginnings could undertake the Lord’s work and, by careful dedication to godly works, rise to prominence in the New World. Barbara Schwarz Wachal See also: Massachusetts Bay Colony; Mather, Increase; Ministers and the Ministry; Puritanism; Sermons. Bibliography Mather, Cotton. Magnalia Christi Americana: or, The Ecclesiastical History of New-England from Its First Planting in the Year 1620 unto the Year of our Lord, 1698. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1972. Middlekauf, Kenneth. The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals, 1596 1728. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. Silverman, Kenneth. The Life and Times of Cotton Mather. New York: Harper and Row, 1984.
Cotton Mather Literary Works Photo Gallery