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Puritan leader who doubted the effectiveness and fairness of the Salem Witch Trials
Increase Mather was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, on June 21, 1639. He was the youngest son of Richard Mather, co-founder of the Congregational Church in America.
Mather was admitted to Harvard College in 1651, and received his Bachelor's from that institution in 1656. Raised in a strict Puritan household, he early developed an interest in following in his father's footsteps as a pastor, and began his seminary studies almost immediately upon his college graduation. Soon after giving his first sermon, on his eighteenth birthday, he traveled to Ireland, and entered Trinity College in Dublin. He received his Master's in 1658, and then spent three years as a chaplain attached to a garrison in the Channel Islands. He returned to Massachusetts in 1661, and was ordained a minister of the Second Church of Boston in 1664.
As a leader in the Puritan church, Mather fought against all attempts to liberalize membership requirements and church practices. In 1684 he published An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providence, in which he presented a lengthy defense of the existence of apparitions, witches, diabolical possessions, and "other remarkable judgements upon noted sinners." While reasserting the Puritan views of witchcraft, the essay also asserted Mather's belief that the sins of the population had brought the Indian wars, unusual thunderstorms, and other natural disasters upon New England, and urged the people of Massachusetts to change their sinful ways.
Although Mather doubted the effectiveness and fairness of the Salem Witch Trials, he never publicly denounced the trials, nor the people who conducted them. He did, however, publicly question the methods by which the "witch hunters" conducted their investigations. He frequently visited accused witches in prison, and almost as frequently heard those same accused recant their confessions. In 1692 he presented his Case of Conscience, in which he questioned the credibility of the possessed persons, confessed witches and spectral evidence related to their guilt or innocence. He subsequently published Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men, Witchcrafts, infallible Proofs of Guilt in such as are accused with that Crime, in which he defended the judges and trials but denounced the use of spectral evidence, saying that "It were better that ten suspected witches should escape, than that one innocent person should be condemned."
Mather's position as a pastor would ordinarily have prevented his being a political figure, but Mather was no ordinary pastor. Quite opinionated and very vocal, he was at the front of the opposition when King James II revoked the Charter of Massachusetts in order to create the Dominion of New England, in 1686. The principal objection to the king's decree was the appointment of Edmund Andros as the Dominion's leader, as Andros was an ardent opponent of Puritanism and ruled as a virtual dictator. In 1687, Mather headed a commission sent to England to negotiate for a new colony charter. The commission was unsuccessful in its endeavor, and the following year Mather published A Narrative of the Miseries of New-England, By Reason of an Arbitrary Government Erected there Under Sir Edmund Andros, in which he detailed the many ways in which Andros had misused his authority and had made the lives of the Puritans almost unbearable. In 1692 a new charter was granted which gave the colony home rule, established an elective legislature, enfranchised all freeholders, and united Massachusetts Bay Colony and Plymouth Colony.
Mather became acting president of Harvard College in 1685, was appointed in 1686, and named president in 1692. Although he spent little time on the Harvard campus and was in fact out of Massachusetts all together for all but two years of his time at Harvard, he managed to make some significant changes there, including reimplementation of Greek and Hebrew instruction, replacement of classical Roman authors with Biblical and Christian authors in ethics classes, and enactment of requirements that students attend classes regularly, live and eat on campus, and that seniors not haze younger students. His lack of presence on campus, combined with his opposition to the liberal movement within the Puritan church led to his being removed as president of Harvard in 1701.
Later Life, Death, and Other Information
Mather spent the remaining years of his life writing pamphlets attacking people he thought threatened established church practices. He died in Boston on August 23, 1723, and was buried on Copp's Hill.
Increase Mather was the father of Cotton Mather, who became a leader in the Puritan Church in his own right.
This page was last updated on January 12, 2017.