Cotton Mather was born in Boston,Massachusetts, the eldest son of Reverend IIncrease Mather (see no. 49). Cotton entered Harvard College at the age of 12; he was the youngest student ever to enroll. He graduated in 1 678 and went through a brief but painful period in which he doubted his true mission in life. His severe stammer seemed to rule out the ministry, but Mather overcame his speech impediment and in 1685 he joined his father as co-pastor of the Second Church of Boston.
Increase Mather went to England in 1688. When the colony’s situation deteriorated under the policies of Sir Edmund Andros, Cotton became a ringleader of the resistance against Andros. He wrote “The Declaration of the Gentlemen, Merchants, and Inhabitants of Boston,” which became the manifesto of the revolt. In 1690, Mather baptized Sir William Phips. By bringing Phips into the fold of the faithful Puritans, Mather created an alliance that would influence much of the middle part of Mather’s career.
In 1692, Increase Mather returned to Boston with a new charter for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Phips became the first royal governor, and the victory of the Mathers and their champion seemed complete.
Ugly tales of witchcraft in Salem soon reached Boston, and the Salem trials were held in the summer and fall of 1692. Cotton Mather took a moderate stand toward the situation. He announced his belief that fasting and prayer were better remedies than punitive legal actions. However, when 19 “witches” were hanged, Mather wrote pamphlets defending the actions of the judges.
After Phips was recalled to London in 1694, Mather found fewer political supporters in Boston. As his political influence waned, Mather turned once more to religion, but his was the religion of an educated and sophisti- cated man. Deeply interested in science, he wrote The Christian Philosopher (1721), a book about science and religious faith.
He was also elected to the Royal Society of London, an honor shared by only a handful of other colonial Americans. When Boston was struck by smallpox in 1721, Mather remembered that his African-American slave Onesimus, had told him about inoculations. Mather then interested a local doctor in the method, and he used it to save the lives of hundreds of people.
Mather endured personal tragedy in his life. He was married three times; two wives died before him, and his third became mentally ill. Only two of his 1 5 children survived him. Still, Mather remained a faithful Puritan to the end of his life, one who lamented what he saw as the loss of faith by many people of his generation.