Increase Mather

From New World Encyclopedia

Increase Mather
Increase Mather.jpg
Increase Mather in 1688, when he was in London. Portrait by John van der Spriett
BornJune 21 1639(1639-06-21)
Dorchester, Massachusetts
DiedAugust 23 1723 (aged 84)
Boston, Massachusetts
Spouse(s)Maria Cotton and Ann Cotton

The Reverend Increase Mather (June 21, 1639 – August 23, 1723) was a major figure in the early history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Province of Massachusetts Bay (now the federal state of Massachusetts). He was a Puritan minister who was involved with the government of the colony, the administration of Harvard College, and most notoriously, the Salem Witch Trials, when he advised moderation, although he did participate. He was the father of the influential Cotton Mather.

Early life

Mather was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts on June 21, 1639, to Rev. Richard Mather and Kathrine Holt Mather following their participation in the Great Migration from England due to nonconformity with the Church of England. He was the youngest of six brothers: Samuel, Nathaniel, Eleazar, Joseph, Timothy. His parents were highly religious, and three of his brothers, Samuel, Nathaniel, and Eleazar, also became ministers. The stated reason for his first name was "…the never-to-be-forgotten increase, of every sort, wherewith God favored the country about the time of his nativity."

In 1651, Mather was admitted to Harvard, where he roomed with and studied under John Norton. When he graduated (1656) with a B.A., he began to train for the ministry and gave his first sermon on his eighteenth birthday. He quickly left Massachusetts and went to Ireland, where he studied at Trinity College in Dublin for an M.A.. He graduated with it in 1659, and spent the next three years as a chaplain attached to a garrison in the Channel Islands.

Harvard was to later award him the first honorary degree in the New World, a Doctorate of Sacred Theology, in 1692.

In 1661, with the advent of the English Restoration and resurgence of Anglicanism, Increase returned to Massachusetts, where he married Maria Cotton. She was his stepsister by virtue of his father's marriage to Sarah Hankredge, the widow of John Cotton and mother of Maria. She gave birth to Cotton Mather in February.

Mather published, in 1676,[1] a contemporary account of King Philip's War.

He was ordained as minister of the Old North Church (the original Old North meetinghouse), whose congregation included many of the upper class and governing class, on May 27, 1664. He held this post until he died. By virtue of his position, he quickly became one of the most influential people in the colony, both religiously and politically.

In June 11, 1685, he became the Acting President of Harvard University (then Harvard College) and steadily advanced: A little over a year later, on July 23, 1686, he was appointed the Rector. On June 27, 1692, he became the President of Harvard, a position which he held until September 6, 1701.

He was rarely present on campus or in the town, especially during his term of Rector, as he was out of the Colony for all but two years of his term in that office. Despite his absences, he did make some changes: Reimplementation of Greek and Hebrew instruction, replacement of classical Roman authors with Biblical and Christian authors in ethics classes, enactment of requirements that students attend classes regularly, live and eat on campus, and that seniors not haze other students.

Involvement in politics

While politics and Puritan religion were closely related during Increase's life time, his first direct involvement with politics occurred as a result of James II of England's manipulation of the New England governments. In 1686, James revoked the Charter of Massachusetts in the process of creating the unresponsible Dominion of New England.

The Dominion was headed by Edmund Andros, who not only disliked puritanism and was haughty,[2] but ruled as a near absolute dictator: Town meetings were outlawed, leaving the Dominion without consent of the government was outlawed, marriage was removed from the clergy and the Old South Church was temporarily appropriated for Anglican services.[3] Also disliked by the Puritan status quo was the 1687 Declaration of Indulgence, prohibiting discrimination against Catholics. When Mather successfully roused opposition to the charter revocation, he was nearly framed for treason. He then traveled to London (eluding spies out to catch him) to petition the King.

While engaged in petitioning, he published pieces to build popular support for his positions, such as A Narrative of the Miseries of New-England, By Reason of an Arbitrary Government Erected there Under Sir Edmund Andros (1688) and A Brief Relation for the Confirmation of Charter Privileges (1691).

While there, he attempted to get the old charter restored and a royal charter for Harvard; however, he abandoned that course and changed his petitions to a new charter not lacking any of the rights previously granted. Following the Glorious Revolution and subsequent overthrow of Andros, a new charter was granted to the colony. The 1692 charter was a major departure from its predecessor, granting sweeping home rule, establishing an elective legislature, enfranchising all freeholders (previously only men admitted to a congregation could vote), and uniting the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Plymouth Colony. Following Andros' deposition and arrest, he had William Phips appointed as Royal Governor and they returned to Massachusetts, arriving on May 14, 1692.

Following his return, the administration of Harvard grew increasingly insistent that he reside nearer to the institution. Not wanting to leave his Second Church, he didn't, eventually resigning the Presidency.

Involvement in the Salem witch trials

As an influential member of the community, Increase was involved in the notorious witch hysteria of Salem, Massachusetts. As the court of oyer and terminer was beginning to hear cases of suspected witchcraft, Increase published The Return of Several Ministers Consulted, which urged moderation in the use and credence of "spectral evidence."[4] In June and July 1692, as the trials and executions began to increase, Increase made a number of sermons interpreted as a plea to cool the heated atmosphere. In September, he published Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men, Witchcrafts, infallible Proofs of Guilt in Such as are Accused with that Crime (more commonly known as just Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits), which defended the judges and trials, but strongly denounced the spectral evidence used by them. It contained his famous version of Blackstone's formulation, that "It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than that one Innocent Person should be Condemned." Afterwards, his reputation was not improved by his involvement and association with the trials, nor by his subsequent refusal to denounce them. His refusal to repudiate was likely because of his longtime friendship with the judges involved. He was also defamed by Robert Calef in his harshly critical, More Wonders of the Invisible World.[5]

Later life and death

Following Maria Cotton's death in August 1714, he married Ann Cotton. On September 27, 1722, he fainted and was bedridden thereafter. The following year, in August of 1723, he suffered bladder failure and died three weeks later on August 23, 1723 in Boston.


Throughout his life Mather was a staunch Puritan, opposing anything openly contradictory to, mutually exclusive with, or potentially "distracting" from his religious beliefs. He supported suppression of intoxication, unnecessary effort on Sundays and ostentatious clothing. He was initially opposed to the Half-Way Covenant but later supported it. He firmly believed in the direct appearance of God's disfavor in everyday life, such as in the weather, political situations, attacks by "Indians," fires and floods, etc.

He was strenuous in attempting to keep people to his idea of morality, making strong use of jeremiads to try and prevent indifference and especially to try and get government officials to enforce public morality.

During his tenure at Harvard he regularly stamped out any relaxation of Puritan strictness, such as latitudinarianism, which had flourished during his overseas absence.

Following his acceptance of the Covenant, Solomon Stoddard and others attempted to further liberalize Puritanism by baptism of children who had nonmember parents and admittance of all but the openly immoral to services. To try and stop this, he had a synod called in an attempt to outlaw similar measures. A declaration was adopted, but never made binding. Following this, reform-minded members were sent to the body and it took on a less conservative tone, bitterly disappointing Mather.


Among his more than 125 published works, the following are most notable:

  • The Mystery of Israel’s Salvation (1669)
  • The Life and Death of That Reverend Man of God, Mr. Richard Mather (1670)
  • Wo to Drunkards: Two sermons Testifying against the Sin of Drunkenness (1673)
  • The Day of Trouble Is Near (1674)
  • A Discourse concerning the Subject of Baptisme (1675)
  • The Wicked Mans Portion (1675)
  • A Brief History of the Warr With the Indians in New-England (1676)
  • An Earnest Exhortation To the Inhabitants of New-England (1676)
  • A Relation of the Troubles which Have Hapned in New-England by Reason of the Indians There from the Year 1614 to the Year 1675 (1677)
  • A Discourse concerning the Danger of Apostasy (1679)
  • The Divine Right of Infant-Baptisme Asserted and Proved from Scripture and Antiquity (1680)
  • A Confession of Faith Owned and Consented unto by the Elders and Messengers of the Churches Assembled at Boston (1680)
  • Heavens Alarm to the World (1681)
  • Diatriba de signo Filii Hominis, et de secundo Messiæadventu; ubi de modo futuræ judæorum conversionis; nec non de signis novissimi diei, disseritur (1682)
  • Kometographia, or, A Discourse concerning Comets (1683)
  • An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences (1684)
  • An Arrow against Profane and Promiscuous Dancing Drawn out of the Quiver of Scriptures (1684)
  • The Mystery of Christ Opened and Applyed in Several Sermons concerning the Person, Office, and Glory of Jesus Christ (1686)
  • De successu evangelij apud Indos in Novâ-Angliâ epistola (1688)
  • A Narrative of the Miseries of New-England, by Reason of an Arbitrary Government Erected There under Sir Edmond Andross (1688)
  • Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men (1693)
  • A Further Account of the Tryals of the New-England Witches (1693)
  • Angelographia, or, A Discourse concerning the Nature and Power of the Holy Angels (1696)
  • The Order of the Gospel, Professed and Practised by the Churches of Christ in New-England (1700)
  • The Blessed Hope, and the Glorious Appearing of the Great God our Saviour, Jesus Christ (1701)
  • Ichabod: or, The Glory Departing (1702)
  • Soul-saving Gospel Truths (1703)
  • A Discourse concerning Earthquakes (1706)
  • A Dissertation concerning the Future Conversion of the Jewish Nation (1709)
  • Meditations on the Glory of the Heavenly World (1711)
  • A Disquisition concerning Ecclesiastical Councils (1716)


  1. Digital Commons, A Brief History of the War with the Indians in New-England. Retrieved December 15, 2007.
  2. Harvard University, Mather, Increase, 1639-1723. Retrieved December 12, 2007.
  3. State of Massachusetts, Interactive State House. Retrieved December 12, 2007.
  4. University of Virginia, Salem Witch Trials: Increase Mather. Retrieved December 12, 2007.
  5. University of Virginia, More Wonders of the Invisible World. Retrieved December 12, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Hall, Michael G. The Last American Puritan: The Life of Increase Mather. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1988. ISBN 9780819551283
  • Holmes, Thomas James. Increase Mather: A Bibliography of his Works. Cleveland, OH. 1931.
  • Lowance, Mason I. Increase Mather. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1974. ISBN 9780805704778
  • Middlekauf, Robert. The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals, 1596-1728. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. ISBN 9780195013054
  • Murdock, Kenneth B. Increase Mather: The Foremost American Puritan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1925.

Academic offices
Preceded by:
John Rogers
President of Harvard College
1685–1686, acting
1686–1692, Rector
Succeeded by:
Samuel Willard, acting
Religious titles
Preceded by:
John Mayo
Old North Church
Succeeded by:
Cotton Mather


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