Increase Mather was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts. His father was the noted minister, Richard Mather. Increase graduated from Harvard College in 1656 and crossed the Atlantic to study at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. He received his master’s degree there in 1658.
Mather was in England in 1660, when the Restoration of Charles II (Stuart) to the throne took place. Because of Mather’s Puritan roots and his negative feelings toward the new King, he returned quickly to the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Mather became the “teacher” or minister of Boston’s Second Church in 1664, and remained in this post for the rest of his long life. He became a fellow of Harvard College in 1675, and in 1685 he became president of the college.
The furor over the Massachusetts Bay charter drew Mather into politics around 1685. King Charles II revoked the charter in 1684, and his brother King James II created the new Dominion of New England in 1686. Mather went to England in 1688 with Sir William Phips—whom he had adopted as his protege—to protest the actions of both kings.
Mather and Phips asked that the old charter be restored. When they made no headway with King James II, Phips returned to Boston. Mather, however, remained in London. He was overjoyed when the Glorious Revolution overthrew James II in favor of his daughter and son-in-law, who became Queen Mary and King William.
Phips returned to London in 1691, and he and Mather persuaded King William to grant a new charter to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Mather nominated Phips as its first governor, and the two sailed for Boston, arriving early in 1692. To their surprise, the new charter was unpopular in Boston. To make matters worse, Mather found that the colony was embroiled in the Salem Witch Trials, in which his son Cotton Mather (see no. 66) was involved.
Increase Mather wrote Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits in 1693; his careful presentation did much to lessen the hysteria created by the witch trials. This was, however, Mather’s last significant triumph. For the rest of his life, he found himself and the Puritan cause on the defensive.
Phips was recalled to England in 1694, and Mather felt as if his efforts for the new charter had been in vain. He lost the presidency of Harvard College in 1701 . Everywhere he looked, Mather saw the advance of the new, more liberal Congregational churches as an insult to the piety of the old Puritan faith.
Mather died in 1723. His long career in the ministry and public affairs was matched by few members of his generation.