Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Cotton Mather

Cotton Mather (February 12, 1663 – February 13, 1728). A.B. 1678 (Harvard College), A.M. 1681; honorary doctorate 1710 (University of Glasgow), was a socially and politically influential Puritan minister, prolific author, and pamphleteer. Cotton Mather was the son of influential minister Increase Mather. He is often remembered for his connection to the Salem witch trials.

Mather was named after his grandfather, John Cotton. He attended Boston Latin School, and graduated from Harvard in 1678, at only 15 years of age. After completing his post-graduate work, he joined his father as assistant Pastor of Boston's original North Church (not to be confused with the Anglican/Episcopal Old North Church). It was not until his father's death, in 1723, that Mather assumed full responsibilities as Pastor at the Church.

Author of more than 450 books and pamphlets, Cotton Mather's ubiquitous literary works made him one of the most influential religious leaders in America. Mather set the nation's "moral tone," and sounded the call for second and third generation Puritans, whose parents had left England for the New England colonies of North America to return to the theological roots of Puritanism.

The most important of these, Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), is composed of 7 distinct books, many of which depict biographical and historical narratives which later American writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Elizabeth Drew Stoddard, and Harriet Beecher Stowe would look to in describing the cultural significance of New England for later generations following the American Revolution. Mather's text thus was one of the more important documents in American history because it reflects a particular tradition of seeing and understanding the significance of place. Mather, as a Puritan thinker and social conservative, drew on the figurative language of the Bible to speak to present-day audiences. In particular, Mather's review of the American experiment sought to explain signs of his time and the types of individuals drawn to the colonies as predicting the success of the venture. From his religious training, Mather viewed the importance of texts for elaborating meaning and for bridging different moments of history (for instance, linking the biblical stories of Noah and Abraham with the arrival of eminent leaders such as John Eliot, John Winthrop, and his own father Increase Mather).

A smallpox epidemic struck Boston in May 1721 and continued through the year.

The practice of smallpox inoculation (as opposed to the later practice of vaccination) had been known since 1706. A slave, Onesimus, had explained to Mather how he had been inoculated as a child in Africa. The practice was an ancient one, and Mather was fascinated by the idea. He encouraged physicians to try it, without success. Then, at Mather's urging, one doctor, Zabdiel Boylston, tried the procedure on his only son and two slaves–one grown and one a boy. All recovered in about a week.

In a bitter controversy, the New England Courant published writers who opposed inoculation. The stated reason for this editorial stance was that the Boston populace feared that inoculation spread, rather than prevented, the disease; however, some historians, notably H. W. Brands, have argued that this position was a result of editor-in-chief James Franklin's (Benjamin Franklin's brother) contrarian positions. Boylston and Mather encountered such bitter hostility, that the selectmen of the city forbade him to repeat the experiment.

The opposition insisted that inoculation was poisoning, and they urged the authorities to try Boylston for murder. So bitter was this opposition that Boylston's life was in danger; it was considered unsafe for him to be out of his house in the evening; a lighted grenade was even thrown into the house of Mather, who had favored the new practice and had sheltered another clergyman who had submitted himself to it.

After overcoming considerable difficulty and achieving notable success, Boylston traveled to London in 1724, published his results, and was elected to the Royal Society in 1726.

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