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The Mathers

The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals, 1596–1728

Robert Middlekauff
Copyright Date: 1999
Edition: 1
Pages: 458
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  • Book Info
    The Mathers
    Book Description:

    In this classic work of American religious history, Robert Middlekauff traces the evolution of Puritan thought and theology in America from its origins in New England through the early eighteenth century. He focuses on three generations of intellectual ministers—Richard, Increase, and Cotton Mather—in order to challenge the traditional telling of the secularization of Puritanism, a story of faith transformed by reason, science, and business. Delving into the Mathers' private papers and unpublished writings as well as their sermons and published works, Middlekauff describes a Puritan theory of religious experience that is more creative, complex, and uncompromising than traditional accounts have allowed. At the same time, he portrays changing ideas and patterns of behavior that reveal much about the first hundred years of American life.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92311-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-xviii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. xix-xx)

    • 1 The Founder
      (pp. 3-19)

      The question “who am I?” is often in the mouths of men in the twentieth century. Uncertain of their values, men today feel rootless and lament their inability to locate themselves by fixed points in the world. A part of their plight, they recognize, lies within themselves: they distrust themselves, their ideas, their motives, and their impulses. But the world is suspect too: it offers no stability, only change, unthinking and, what is worse, unfeeling change. Ransack it for meaning as they will, they discover that the world will not answer the question of their identity. And so they continue...

    • 2 The Antichrist
      (pp. 20-34)

      Richard Mather arrived in Boston singing the praises of the Lord. The Lord had helped him and his companions escape their persecution in England. The Lord had conducted them safely over the sea without the loss of a man and without the suffering that usually dogged ocean voyages. The Lord had delivered them from a fearsome storm that boiled the sea and snapped anchor cables as if they were string. And so Richard Mather sang, “Praise the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, praise his holy name!”¹

      Mather had not left England so full of confidence....

    • 3 The Church
      (pp. 35-57)

      Richard Mather’s expectation that the Lord would again soon strike the Antichrist evoked a jubilation that was touched with sadness and foreboding. England, shrouded in Antichristian darkness, seemed headed for afflictions—blows landed on the Antichrist, he feared, would leave her reeling. In the New World Mather’s feeling for England was one of nostalgia, though not of sentimentality. Not only had he grown and matured there, he had left behind friends he would never forget. Fifteen years after his departure he was still gently instructing his old church in Lancashire.¹ Two of his sons, Nathanael and Samuel, returned to spend...

    • 4 The Word
      (pp. 58-76)

      The struggle between the forces of light and darkness, between the Church and the Antichrist, gave meaning to history. But this conflict not only explained the past, it also cast its lines into the future. Of course not even the prophets could make out the pattern of the future distinctly, but they could predict that its end would arrive in the triumph of Christ. Although there were other certain reference points in human history—the beginning in Eden, the fall into the hands of the Devil, the birth of Christ—none offered more reassurance than the knowledge that at the...


    • 5 An Unripened Puritan
      (pp. 79-95)

      A prophet, Benjamin Colman carefully explained in a sermon mourning the death of Increase Mather in 1723, was one of those great figures in the Scriptures who performed such miracles as revelation of “things secret and future.” The word still appeared useful to Colman, who suggested that in a “lax and improper Sense” it might be applied to the preaching ministry. Colman teetered on the edge of saying that it was in this “improper” sense that he would call Increase Mather a prophet, but finally drew back before the plunge. There was no need to extend the definition explicitly to...

    • 6 The Invention of New England
      (pp. 96-112)

      Richard Mather’s generation settled the new land. They organized the Massachusetts Bay Company in England, raised money for ships and supplies, recruited the men and women for the venture, and transported the lot, including the Company’s Charter, across the Atlantic. They suffered from heat and cold and disease and hunger while they peopled the landscape and built towns and laid out farms. As when they gathered their churches and listened to the word, they did all these things in the service of the Lord. They told themselves all their lives and they told anyone else who would listen that they...

    • 7 The Church of the Pure
      (pp. 113-138)

      What preserved hope for Increase Mather and his colleagues in the pulpit in these years, what kept them assiduously preaching to saints and sinners alike, was a confidence that the normal institutional order could be depended upon to work the Lord’s will on the land. More particularly Increase relied upon the State; his bitterest jeremiads are efforts to compel the State to act or expressions of despair at its lethargy.

      The first jeremiads were election sermons, preached at the invitation of the General Court, and addressed to the people’s rulers. But though, in a formal sense, the ministers delivering these...

    • 8 The Invisible World
      (pp. 139-161)

      While the controversy with Stoddard was brewing, but before it reached a boil, Increase Mather was thinking about another matter that affected his ideas about the Church in New England: nature and an arena beyond nature, the invisible world. In fact Mather always pursued his scientific studies in the frame of mind that inspired not only his ecclesiology but all his scholarship. His preoccupations, which were those of his generation of New English divines, remained centered on God’s designs—especially as they involved New England. It is true that in Mather’s lifetime such concerns lost much of their urgency for...

    • 9 The Word in Boston
      (pp. 162-178)

      From his pulpit in the North Church, Increase Mather looked out upon a congregation of solid citizens. Some of Boston’s best sat before him every Sabbath, merchants who regularly sent ships to London and the Levant, rich men with their handsome wives, officials of the town and the colony who professed that they wished only to serve God and their people. There were others too, less exalted men, not so well endowed with money and position, who worked with their hands in markets and workshops. A sprinkling of the poor also attended, and here and there a black face appeared.¹...

    • 10 Chiliasm
      (pp. 179-188)

      Increase Mather attained the greatest intensity in his evangelical mood in his chiliasm, a belief that predictions of Christ’s Second Coming described a literal return in time and space. Late in his life he reminded his church that he had long been a chiliast and that the first generation had contained men of similar views. This statement was accurate but it ignored the changes in his interest in the chiliad, in particular the developing fervor of his belief. His early speculations have an air of detachment; they seem deliberately to avoid raising hopes that the Kingdom of Christ would rise...


    • 11 The Virtuous Epicure
      (pp. 191-208)

      Cotton Mather once asserted that “There is a vertuous Epicurism in Usefulness. No Epicure can swim in such Delights, as the Man that is Useful wherever he comes.” To be useful, he explained, meant to labor, to strive and if necessary to struggle, but always to act. Even in repose a man should do something, at least he should pray strenuously in thanks for the opportunity to rest under the Lord’s supervision. For those who enjoyed the assurance that they were among the chosen of God and for those who lacked it, Mather had the same advice: “Be up and...

    • 12 Christian Union and the Meaning of New England
      (pp. 209-230)

      By the time Cotton Mather came to maturity the jeremiad was a well established convention. As a youth he was nourished by its sadness, its feverish appeals to the people of the Bay to honor the objectives of the founders, its claims that New England had been undertaken in the service of God. He accepted as fact that the land and the people had a special character; and if he never tired of castigating the people for their failures, he never flagged in his defense of them as the soberest and the best in an imperfect world. This divided attitude...

    • 13 The Psychology of Abasement
      (pp. 231-246)

      Although Cotton Mather knew that Christ would return with His Kingdom at a time of His own choosing, he also believed that men must prepare. They must hold Christ’s Church in readiness, maintaining its purity and supporting its ordinances; and surely ministers must never cease their attempts to convert the elect. None of these acts, in fact nothing that men could do, Mather had to admit, would affect the timing of Christ's reappearance in history. And yet he could hope that the efforts of good men might move the Lord. Logic, Scripture, theology all testified against his hopes but did...

    • 14 Christ and the Covenant
      (pp. 247-261)

      Through the psychology of abasement, Cotton Mather reaffirmed two of the regnant doctrines of Puritanism—the omnipotence of God and the helplessness of man. Translated into psychology, the theology described an arrangement in which a man’s only hope of salvation lay in his ability to divest himself of his sinful will. Only then, when he could say that he had given himself up for lost and was willing to receive Christ, was there any hope for him. He could do nothing efficaciously without the assistance of God of course—not wish, not desire, not hope, not even pray. All he...

    • 15 The Failure of Reformation
      (pp. 262-278)

      Three or four years into the eighteenth century, Cotton Mather realized that his hopes for the conversion of men and their cooperation in a Christian Union were going to be delayed. The collapse of the United Brethren in England was clear, though he and others continued to use that term to describe dissenting Protestants in England and America. In New England true conversions were rare, as men seemed bent on entering the covenant on their own merits. Others pled their worthlessness as reason for remaining in an unregenerate state. None of these conditions was new, and ministers responded with the...

    • 16 The Experimental Philosophy
      (pp. 279-304)

      By confining Church membership to those believers giving evidence of their conversions, the founders of New England had strongly endorsed experimental religion. After them, their sons had striven valiantly to maintain their fathers’ faith, yielding only to half-way membership when the people proved incapable of undergoing any but the most perfunctory religious experience. And the grandsons, addressing churches empty of believers but full of hypocrites, felt themselves standing on the edge of the abyss as their generation spurned gracious experience in favor of carnal experience.

      No Puritan of Cotton Mather’s day studied carnality more devotedly than he, and none warned...

    • 17 The Experimental Religion
      (pp. 305-319)

      Cotton Mather’s first statements about the New Piety owed little to European Pietism. The term “piety” had appeared in Christian writings for centuries with both more general and more specific meanings than he gave it. Mather arrived at his peculiar emphasis after brooding for years on the nature of religious experience. New England’s Church polity, by requiring that members be tested for saving faith, forced him to think long on this subject and he had complied willingly at first and then with a growing desperation as men declined to join the churches. By the year 1710, he had learned of...

    • 18 The Prophecy of Joel
      (pp. 320-349)

      The most frequent dream in Cotton Mather’s life was of death. Visions of his own death haunted him from an early age, and descriptions of the deaths of sinners—their corruptions at last stopped, their polluted influence ended, their filthy voices silenced—gave him satisfaction all his life. He recommended that sinners think about their own deaths as a tactic to reduce their pride. No man, he insisted, could resist the Lord if he believed that this day, this moment would be his last upon earth. Mather recognized how difficult it was to accept the fact that one’s death was...

    • 19 “On the Borders of Paradise”
      (pp. 350-368)

      While he awaited the end of the world, Mather kept up the active life. The years that followed the disappointment of 1716 until his death in 1728 saw him continue his attempts to do good. But sometimes when one of his proposals miscarried or drew opposition he felt discouraged. Early in 1722, still suffering from the savage abuse he had received for his part in attempting to stay the recent smallpox epidemic, he threatened in a speech before a meeting of Boston ministers to withhold all his proposals. In the past, he said, he had done his best for his...

  6. Notes
    (pp. 369-426)
    (pp. 426-428)
  8. Index
    (pp. 429-440)