Increase Mather was a highly visible figure in colonial Boston. The son of influential Puritan minister Richard Mather and the father of Cotton Mather, Increase Mather had a considerable influence on New England culture as a Congregational minister, author, and ambassador. Mather’s view of himself as the heir of the founders of New England is evident in his legacy of pursuing orthodoxy. Yet his was an orthodoxy tempered by a pragmatism developed in response to the changing times in which he lived.
By the turn of the eighteenth century, Boston’s church leadership was largely in the hands of Increase Mather and his son Cotton. Increase Mather had assumed the pastorate of Dorchester Church from his father Richard. In 1664, he began a fifty-year tenure as the pastor of Boston’s Second, or Old North, Church. The following year, he was named president of Harvard College, a position he would hold until 1701, when he was ousted in conjunction with the rise of a new merchant class within New England church life.
A true Congregationalist, Increase Mather opposed the formation of ministerial alliances and associations, believing that such groups would serve only to reduce the traditional independence of each individual church. Likewise, as an orthodox Puritan, Mather was a longtime opponent of Solomon Stoddard and others who favored a policy of open communion, arguing that the practice eroded the foundation of the church. Still, for all his orthodoxy, Mather was something of a pragmatist. For example, although he originally opposed the Halfway Covenant allowing for the baptism into the faith of the children of parents who had not undergone the full conversion experience in adulthood he eventually reversed his opinion, publishing his ideas in The First Principles of New England in 1675.
Like many of his contemporaries, Increase Mather published a number of tracts, pamphlets, and other pieces. His religious texts included sermons, devotional pieces, ecclesiastical treatises, and various works discussing and defending church polity. He also published several records of New England history, including accounts of the Native American wars. Among his most influential writings were those that reflected the combined political and religious aspects of New England culture. Probably Mather’s most important published work addressed the intersection of politics and religion in the Salem witch trials of 1692.
Like most New Englanders and virtually all of his colleagues in the clergy of his day, Increase Mather was a firm believer in the dangers of witchcraft. As a leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, he was heavily involved in the trials resulting from the widespread hysteria attending reported supernatural activity in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, Mather and his son Cotton became increasingly troubled as the prosecution, punishment, and public opinion grew more violent. As a consequence of his belief that the court was acting improperly, Increase Mather worked both publicly and behind the scenes to bring the trials to an end. His Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits (1692) was a record of his observations on the American experience with witchcraft.
Mather’s reputation for moderation, as well as his leadership within colonial life, led to his involvement in a more overtly political capacity. In 1684, the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was revoked by the Crown. Increase Mather was appointed as an ambassador to the royal court and sent to London in 1688 to negotiate a new charter with the Catholic king James II. As part of the negotiations that continued into the reign of William III, the appointment of a royal governor was decreed, and William Phips, the candidate favored by Mather, was appointed to the post. By 1691, a new charter was granted to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, although it differed materially from the original charter. In addition to its provision for a royal governor, the new charter based the franchise on property ownership rather than church membership.
Despite his pragmatism and his recognition that times were changing, Increase Mather retained a deep sense of loyalty to the basic Puritan orthodoxy of his forefathers. He was particularly distressed with the changes he saw taking place at Harvard College as that institution’s ecclesiastical mission shifted, in part, in response to the rising merchant culture. As a result, he and others founded Yale College in 1701 in the hope that this new institution would become the home of orthodoxy that Harvard once had been. Barbara Schwarz Wachal See also: Massachusetts Bay Colony; Mather, Cotton; Ministers and the Ministry; Puritanism; Sermons. Bibliography Hall, Michael G. The Last American Puritan: The Life of Increase Mather, 1639 1723. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1988. Lowance, Mason I. Increase Mather. New York: Twayne, 1974. Murdock, Kenneth Ballard. Increase Mather, the Foremost American Puritan. New York: Russell & Russell, 1966 [c. 1925].