William Bradford Institute
for Study of the
Early Settlement of America

Increase Mather

Michael G. Hall
American National Biography
American Council of Learned Societies
Februar,. 2000.

Mather, Increase (21 June 1639-23 Aug. 1723), Puritan minister, was born in
Dorchester, Massachusetts, the son of Richard Mather, Dorchester's minister, and
Katherine Holt, both of Lancashire, England. Increase was the youngest of five
sons, four of whom also became ministers. His father was among the most
prominent religious leaders of early Massachusetts, and Increase was raised in a
family of considerable social eminence. From the age of twelve he lived in
Boston in the home of John Norton, another prominent minister and scholar, and
in 1656 he received a B.A. from Harvard College. Mather went to England the next
year. He followed two older brothers, Samuel and Nathaniel, who had established
themselves in Puritan churches of the Interregnum and stayed in England and
Ireland to play important parts in the later development of English dissent.
Increase earned an M.A. at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1658 and then held
several church appointments until after the Restoration. He returned to
Massachusetts in 1661.

On 6 March 1662 Mather married Maria Cotton, daughter of New England's
best-known clergyman, John Cotton. Their first child, a son, was born 12
February 1663 and was named Cotton Mather after his grandfather. Two more sons
and seven daughters lived to maturity. In the summer of 1662 Mather attended the
synod that produced the Half-Way Covenant. As early as the 1650s Puritans
observed a decrease in new admissions to their churches. The Half-Way Covenant
allowed baptism for the infant grandchildren of members of the Congregational
churches, even if neither of the children's immediate parents had experienced
new birth or been admitted to a church. Mather opposed the Half-Way Covenant,
even though his father had taken a leading role in promoting it. By adopting
this position Increase Mather publicly opposed his father and allied himself
with the lay members of the churches, who generally disliked their ministers'
innovation, and with the lay members' deputies in the General Court. These
became political alliances that Mather held for the rest of his life.

In 1664, while the division over the Half-Way Covenant was festering and after
great hesitation, Mather allowed himself to be ordained a teacher at the North
Church or Second Church in Boston. He was to remain there for almost sixty
years. He at once became involved in a struggle over his authority vis--vis a
founding lay member, John Farnum, who soon joined a Baptist meeting. Mather
stood at the forefront of the effort to keep Baptists out of Massachusetts and
maintain a narrow religious uniformity in New England. By the end of the decade
the Half-Way Covenant had caused a schism in the First Church of Boston, an
uproar in the House of Deputies, and the creation of Boston's more liberal Third
Church, and, incidentally, had led to the death of Richard Mather. All of these
circumstances, together with the early death of his brother Eleazar, then
minister at Northampton, caused Increase Mather to suffer a life-threatening
depression from which he emerged in 1672 a changed person.

Mather recorded his spiritual struggles during two years of emotional illness in
an autobiography intended for his children and not published until 1962. In it
he revealed how he had gained confidence about his own salvation ("I have
prevayled! I have prevayled!") and a conviction of New England's place in world
history that had heretofore been lacking in him and generally in his generation.
Starting in 1670 Mather joined that small number of ministers who began to
redefine the New England errand. His first major contribution to this vision was
a biography of his father, The Life and Death of That Reverend Man of God, Mr.
Richard Mather (1670), written in part to assuage his feelings of guilt at
having opposed his father over the Half-Way Covenant.

In this innovative work Increase created an image he was to use frequently in
describing New England's beginnings. The reasons for Richard Mather's coming to
New England "are of weight . . . ," he wrote, "because Posterity may thereby see
what were the swaying Motives which prevailed with the First-Fathers of N. E. to
venture upon that unparallel'd Undertaking, even to Transport themselves, their
Wives and Little ones, over the rude Waves of the vast Ocean, into a Land which
was not sown." Increase equated his father's motives for sailing to America with
those of all the founders. These motives now became the very raison d'tre of
Massachusetts. In the next few years he elaborated on New England's errand
through sermons that insisted on the colony's special relationship to God: "This
is Immanuel's Land . . . ," and "Christ as Mediator is the Father of the new

The Increase Mather who emerged thus in 1670-1672 became over the next twenty
years the leading voice of American Puritanism. During that period he published
forty-six books, some of them single sermons, others collections of eight or
ten, and still others books of doctrine, theology, natural science, and history.
At the outbreak of King Philip's War in September 1675, he articulated a
providential interpretation of the war, explaining it as a punishment from God
for the colony's sin. He proposed a strict moral code enacted into a new law
titled "Provoking Evils" that condemned tavern going, the unlicensed sale of
alcohol, frivolous travel on Sundays, and "the evil pride in Apparell." He wrote
a history of the war, but it was less successful than a more secular history by
a competitor, William Hubbard. Mather unsuccessfully challenged the governing
magistrates to enforce the stricter sumptuary laws. After the war he used a fire
in Boston in 1677 and a smallpox epidemic in 1678 to reinforce his providential
interpretation of events.

In 1679 Mather succeeded in getting the General Court to call the Reforming
Synod, the last of the four synods that marked the course of Massachusetts's
Puritan period. This occasioned an early disagreement between Mather and Solomon
Stoddard. Stoddard was ready to welcome people to the Lord's Supper without
their having had a definite experience of regeneration. Mather opposed any
change in the traditional requirement of a public testimony to an experience of
new birth. Samuel Willard (1640-1707), minister at the Third Church, Boston,
sided with Stoddard, presaging a new flexibility about the conversion experience
that had been central to the Puritan understanding of election. The report of
the synod, written by Mather, is better known for his passionate denunciation of
the growing moral indifference in the colony.

During the early 1680s Increase Mather was at the peak of his influence in a
colony still miraculously independent of all outside authority. In 1680 he
encouraged the widespread adoption of collective covenant renewals by
congregations and led his North Church in a renewal of its commitment to its own
principles. He supported Willard's continued attack on Baptists, and in 1681 and
1682 he used the appearance of comets to preach and write about the natural
world: Heavens Alarm to the World (1681), Kometographia (1683), Doctrine of
Divine Providence, and An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences
(both 1684). In the course of these studies Mather read widely in contemporary
astronomy. As a consequence of this interest in science Mather and Samuel
Willard organized the Boston Philosophical Society (1683), modeled on the Royal
Society of London, but it was short-lived. Mather became increasingly active in
the affairs of Harvard College. He was appointed a nonteaching fellow and member
of the corporation in 1675, refused the presidency in 1681, and finally accepted
it pro tempore in 1685 on condition that he continue to live in Boston and serve
as teacher of his North Church. As president, Mather revised the college
curriculum by restoring Greek and Hebrew studies and emphasizing the Bible and
Christian writing instead of Roman authors as the sources of ethics. He rewrote
the college laws after years of slack leadership to require residence in the
dormitories, presence at meals, and regular attendance at all lectures and
recitations. He strictly forbade hazing of young students by the seniors.
One of Mather's most important influences on seventeenth-century Boston was his
encouragement of the press. He was instrumental in establishing John Foster
(1648-1681) as the first printer in Boston (1675) and then provided him with a
steady flow of books to print. Heretofore all New England printing had been done
at nearby Cambridge. Foster, a philomath, printed an annual almanac in
competition with the Cambridge press, introduced Mather to astronomy, and began
to print maps and illustrate books with woodblocks of his own creation. Mather,
for his part, expanded his own flow of book manuscripts, and by distributing
gift copies to colleagues across New England and in old England too, Mather
spread his version of New England's providential history far and wide. Boston
became the literary metropolis of Anglo-America, a position it would keep well
into the nineteenth century.

In the ten years following King Philip's War, when Mather was achieving
intellectual and religious leadership, developments in England began to threaten
the Puritan colony's independence. The royal charter of 1629 had given the
Massachusetts Bay Company authority to govern its own affairs, as long as it did
not contravene English law. That same year some Puritan stockholders of the
company changed their purpose from a commercial enterprise to a civil society in
which they planned to live. They took the royal charter with them to New
England, and using its grant of self-government the Puritans were able to govern
New England for years without interference from home. After Edward Randolph
reported in 1676 how independent they had become, the Crown sought ways to bring
the Puritans back under its authority. It decided to revise the charter, and in
1683 it asked Massachusetts to return the original charter voluntarily. In 1683
Mather edited and helped publish a number of written arguments against voluntary
submission, and early in 1684, twenty years after starting his regular preaching
career, he gave his first political speech. He spoke in town meetings to the
freemen of Boston and urged resistance to London's request. Politics now became
a central concern of Mather's public life.

The Crown succeeded in vacating the charter in English courts and created a new
form of government for all northern colonies called the Dominion of New England.
In December 1686 Sir Edmund Andros arrived to be governor-general of this new
entity. It soon included all the English colonies from Maine to New Jersey.
Andros, who was a professional soldier, had already served as lieutenant
governor of New York, which at that time did not have any form of representative
government. The new Dominion of New England did not have elected legislatures
either, and more than fifty years of political tradition in Massachusetts was
ignored. Besides governing without an elected legislature, Andros was arrogant
in his relations with Puritan leaders, scornful of Puritan religion, and
indifferent to basic institutions like town meetings. When James II issued a
Declaration of Indulgence (1687) that suspended penal laws against dissenters,
Mather believed the king might restore the old charter. Mather sailed for
England with the blessings of his church to plead Massachusetts's case at court.

For the next four years, from May 1688 to March 1692, Increase Mather maneuvered
his way among the centers of power in London. In the spring and early summer of
1688 he exulted over three apparently successful audiences with James II but
then was dismayed when the Glorious Revolution occurred and James fled to
France. Quickly siding with the revolution, Mather soon (8 Jan. 1689) had an
interview with William of Orange. Mather's introduction to the new court came
from a staunch ally of the old Puritan cause, Lord Philip, fourth Baron Wharton.
Mather had equally important support in Parliament from Sir Henry Ashurst, son
of a wealthy London merchant alderman and now a member of the House of Commons.
Once he understood that the judicial ruling against the original charter would
not be reversed, Mather hoped to have the charter restored by an act of
Parliament. In June 1689 he learned of the rebellion that had taken place in
Boston on 18 April. Governor Andros and allies like Joseph Dudley and Edward
Randolph were imprisoned. Mather was successful in persuading William III that
this was not rebellion against him, but rather against the old government of
James II. The bill that might have restored the charter failed when Parliament
was dissolved, and when new elections went against the Whigs, Mather lost hope
of having the old charter restored. He now turned his energies toward obtaining
a new charter that would contain the privileges of the old one.

It was an uphill fight against Lord Treasurer Danby, who was president of the
Committee for Trade and Plantations, and its secretary, William Blathwayt, both
of whom were Tories, royalists, and strongly in favor of direct control of the
colonies from London. An added difficulty developed when Andros, Dudley,
Randolph, and others arrived from Boston in March 1690. The charges of
misgovernment laid against them by the interim government in Boston would be
heard by the Committee for Trade and Plantations. Thomas Oakes and Elisha Cooke
(1637-1715), who along with Mather and Sir Henry Ashurst had been named agents
for Massachusetts, also arrived from Boston. Those four together were to plead
Massachusetts's case. Cooke in particular disagreed with Mather over their legal
strategy, and the four agents were unable to make the colony's charges against
Andros, Dudley, and Randolph stick. Those men went free (May 1690) to resume
their careers in colonial government. Over the objections of Cooke, who insisted
on a return of the original charter, Mather, Ashurst, and Oakes petitioned the
king for a new colonial charter. A draft was prepared under Mather's supervision
by the fall of 1690 and was sent by William III to the Committee for Trade and
Plantations for review early in 1691.

Meanwhile, through all these political ups and downs, Increase Mather had made
wide acquaintance among the dissenting ministers around London. He preached in
innumerable dissenting churches and held many conversations with men like Dr.
William Bates, John Flavel, and the dean of Puritan divines, Richard Baxter.
Mather's brother Nathaniel was already living in London and active in a movement
to unite the Presbyterian and Congregational ministries. Increase actively
supported this union, which took form in a document titled "Heads of Agreement
Assented to by the United Ministers in and about London, Formerly Called
Presbyterian and Congregational." Although in England the union soon fell apart,
Increase Mather's part in it was important to his later reputation in New
England and influential in the growing tolerance among Massachusetts churches at
the opening of the next century.

In the spring of 1691 Mather saw his draft for a new charter for Massachusetts
thrown out in favor of one drawn up on instructions from Secretary Blathwayt. At
every stage Mather was assiduous in representing the interests of the colony.
Several details, like the inclusion of Plymouth, can be directly attributed to
him. The new charter provided for a governor appointed by the Crown and a house
of representatives elected by the people. The governor and the lower house
shared in choosing the upper house or council. Mather took great pride in this
unique but cumbersome arrangement, for he saw it as an ultimate protection of
the people's rights. The franchise for the lower house was given to freeholders,
not church members as had been the case under the old charter. A freehold
franchise had already been sought by the townsmen themselves in Massachusetts.
Mather was asked to nominate the first governor to serve under the new
charter--testimony to his reputation in London--and he nominated Sir William
Phips. Phips, who grew up in Boston, was knighted in 1687 for recovering sunken
Spanish treasure in the Caribbean. At the outbreak of war with France in 1690 he
led a fleet of armed merchantmen on a successful attack on Port Royal. Back in
Boston he was elected a magistrate in the interim government. In 1691 he was in
London, where he and Mather were close allies. Mather chose to nominate him
partly because William III was known to want a governor who could lead troops
against the French, but the choice soon backfired on Mather when Phips proved to
be a coarse and bullying officeholder.

Mather sailed for Massachusetts in March 1692 after an absence of four years.
When he arrived in Boston in May, the Salem witch hunt was in full cry. He was
slow to intervene, but later that summer at the request of other ministers he
wrote a criticism of the use of spectral evidence, Cases of Conscience
Concerning Evil Spirits (1692), which was important in bringing the trials to a
stop. His son Cotton simultaneously wrote a book supporting the trials, Wonders
of the Invisible World (1692), which Mather approved of in an introduction, thus
straddling one of the most troublesome moral issues in New England Puritan
history. Increase Mather's ambivalence about the witchcraft trials did nothing
to harm his career during his lifetime but greatly damaged his later reputation.

The ten years following his return to Boston were tumultuous ones. Many people,
led by Elisha Cooke, resented the new charter and blamed Mather for selling out
the old Puritan colony. Governor Phips behaved outrageously, and Mather felt
obliged to defend him until he was recalled to England. Mather's presidency of
Harvard College became the focus of political controversy. Before the old
charter was lost the college had been under the supervision of the legislature.
Now Mather tried to get a royal charter for the college, like Oxford and
Cambridge. His motive was partly prestige but also to protect the college and
his own actions as president from local interference. Mather's political
enemies, Elisha Cooke chief among them, opposed taking ultimate authority for
the college out of the colony, and they tried repeatedly to force Mather out of
the presidency by demanding that he reside at the college in Cambridge, which
would have meant giving up his church.

While campaigning for a royal charter, Mather also moved to rid Harvard of the
latitudinarianism that had developed in his absence. Latitudinarianism was a
mood of broad-minded tolerance that in England after the Civil War displaced
much of the earlier rigid, puritanical morality. When Mather was in England the
two tutors he had left in charge, John Leverett (1662-1724) and William Brattle
(1662-1717), had openly turned to latitudinarian books and principles. Mather
forced them out in 1698, and they and their friends then founded the Brattle
Street Church in Boston as a clear alternative to the traditional Congregational
churches. They invited Benjamin Colman to be its minister. Colman had grown up
in Mather's North Church, but after attending Harvard he had gone to England and
imbibed the full latitudinarian style. On the advice of his Boston friends, who
anticipated the opposition, Colman had himself ordained in a Presbyterian church
in England. Increase Mather furiously attacked the new church in Order of the
Gospel (1700) but could not prevent this breach in traditional
Congregationalism. At the turn of the century Mather clearly represented the
conservative end of a new religious spectrum. Mather's defense of the new
colonial charter, on the other hand, placed him at the forward-looking end of
the political spectrum. Although Mather remained proud of his role in drafting
the charter, under which Massachusetts was governed until independence, his most
determined political enemy, Elisha Cooke, at last succeeded in forcing him to
resign the presidency of Harvard College in 1701.

The next six years brought an end to Mather's direct participation in
Massachusetts politics and his final separation from the college. This chain of
events began when Joseph Dudley was appointed governor-general in 1702. Dudley
was a wealthy son of one of the colony's founders and a Tory who had cooperated
with Andros during the Dominion of New England. After 1690 Dudley held several
positions in colonial government outside Massachusetts and won the respect and
confidence of influential patrons in England, including Secretary Blathwayt. At
first Mather hoped to get on well with a man who had been raised in his own
church, but it soon became clear that Dudley was too much an Anglican in
religion and a Tory in politics for Mather to be an ally. In 1706 a scandal
broke over Dudley's trading with the enemy in the French war (Queen Anne's War,
1702-1713). Cotton Mather took a leading part in an effort to have Dudley
recalled, but the governor survived the attempt, partly by ingratiating himself
with the Massachusetts House of Representatives by restoring the original 1650
charter to Harvard College. For a moment it looked as if Increase might once
more be chosen president, but instead the overwhelming vote went to John
Leverett. With that Increase Mather withdrew both from active politics and from
the college.

Mather was more successful in his leadership of the New England churches. In
1705 Benjamin Colman, now securely ensconced in the Brattle Street Church, tried
to persuade the Cambridge Association, a regional association of ministers
organized in part by Cotton Mather, to adopt rules that would have given the
colony's ministers a veto over whom individual congregations could ordain.
Increase Mather saw in this a blow to the autonomy of every congregation, an
autonomy that had been at the heart of the Congregational church since its
inception. He blocked Colman's proposal then and for the next ten years, keeping
Massachusetts from taking the direction Connecticut took in the Saybrook
Platform of 1708. When Solomon Stoddard argued for a Presbyterian form of
national church as early as 1700, Mather and his son Cotton were quick to
publish their objections. Stoddard was an experimenter, and Increase Mather was
not. For all their differences the two men remained strong admirers of each
other. In Boston Mather exerted strong and on the whole successful force for the
traditional Congregational church described in the Cambridge Platform until the
end of his life. In 1717 he did finally relax his opposition to a Baptist
congregation that in any event had existed in Boston for decades.

In 1714 Maria Mather died. The next year Increase, now seventy-six, married Ann
Lake Cotton. She was the widow of Maria Mather's nephew, her brother Seaborn's
son, who had been named John Cotton after his grandfather.

Mather continued to turn out books on a variety of religious subjects. He
published forty volumes, mostly sermons and collections of sermons, in the first
two decades of the eighteenth century alone. He wrote his last controversial
piece in 1721, when he published a short argument in support of his son Cotton's
use of inoculation during a smallpox epidemic. Increase died in Boston two years
later. An immense funeral procession including virtually every important public
figure in Boston made its way to the burial grounds on Copp's Hill, where the
Mather grave remains.

Increase Mather's life had its greatest influence on that half century in New
England that followed the deaths of the founders, a time when the first
generation to be born in America reached maturity. In that social environment
Mather was a powerful force for continuity. From his opposition to the Half-Way
Covenant in 1662 to his opposition to Benjamin Colman in 1717 Mather was
consistent in his defense of the doctrine and church polity spelled out by his
father's generation. In this entire period he never wavered from supporting the
lay worshippers of those congregations against assumptions of better-educated
classes that they knew better. That position often set him at odds with the
ruling magistrates. When compromise with the government of England became
inevitable, he devoted himself to salvaging what he could of Massachusetts's old
freedoms. His enormous outpouring of books stimulated and fed Boston's early
publishing industry to a commanding lead in Anglo-America. Beyond his influence
on New England's institutions, his spiritual and intellectual leadership gave
unmistakable shape to the faith and ideas of his time.


Most of Increase Mather's papers are held by the American Antiquarian Society,
Worcester, Mass., which also holds a large part of Mather's library. Other
important manuscript repositories are the Massachusetts Historical Society
(which also holds the records of the North Church), the Boston Public Library,
and the Harvard College Archives. Of the unpublished manuscript materials the
most important are the diaries from 1664 to Mather's death, at the American
Antiquarian Society. Many sermon books are also there. Published primary
material (in addition to Mather's own books) is extensive. Cotton Mather's
biography of his father, Parentator (1724), can be supplemented by The
Autobiography of Increase Mather, ed. Michael G. Hall (1962). Mather's biography
of his father, Richard, and Cotton's biography of Increase have been published
together, Two Mather Biographies: "Life and Death" and "Parentator", ed. William
J. Scheick (1989). A large selection of Mather letters is available in the
Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 4th ser., vol. 8 (1866).
The Mather family Bible record of Increase's children is published in an
important secondary work, Chandler Robbins, History of the Second Church, or Old
North, in Boston (1852).

The number of books Mather wrote during his lifetime is enormous. The
indispensable guide to them is Thomas J. Holmes, Increase Mather: A Bibliography
of His Works (1930). This work describes 175 complete works and many more
introductions and prefaces. All these early publications are available in
microform in Early American Imprints, First Series (Evans) 1639-1800.
The full-length biography by Michael G. Hall, The Last American Puritan: The
Life of Increase Mather (1988), supersedes Kenneth B. Murdock, Increase Mather:
The Foremost American Puritan (1925). Robert Middlekauf examines the thought of
Richard, Increase, and Cotton Mather in The Mathers: Three Generations of
Puritan Intellectuals, 1596-1728 (1971). Mather's place in American literature
is described in Mason I. Lowance, Jr., Increase Mather (1974).


Promoting a Greater Understanding of the Pilgrims and Puritans