Increase Mather in 1688, when he was in London. Portrait by John van der Spriett.
June 21, 1639|
Dorchester, Massachusetts Bay Colony, British America
August 23, 1723 (aged 84)|
Boston, Province of Massachusetts Bay, British America
|Alma mater||Harvard College|
|Occupation||Minister and author|
Increase Mather (June 21, 1639 O.S. - August 23, 1723 O.S.) was a major figure in the early history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Province of Massachusetts Bay (now the Commonwealth 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. He was the son of Richard Mather, and the father of Cotton Mather, both influential Puritan ministers.
Mather was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts Bay Colony, on June 21, 1639 to the Rev. Richard Mather and Kathrine Holt Mather, following their participation in the Great Migration from England due to their nonconformity to the Church of England.
In 1651 Mather was admitted to Harvard College, where he roomed with and studied under Robert Massey. When he graduated in 1656, aged 17, with a B.A., he began to train for the ministry, and gave his first sermon on his 18th birthday. He quickly left Massachusetts and went to Ireland, where he studied at Trinity College, Dublin for an M.A. During his time at Trinity College he was licensed as a Commonwealth Minister by Oliver Cromwell to the joint charge of St Tida's Church (Ballyscullion), and St Swithan's Church (Magherafelt). He graduated in 1658, and worked as a chaplain attached to a garrison in the Channel Islands from 1659 to 1661 with a short stint at a church in Gloucester in 1660.
After Cromwell's death in 1658, Mather felt less secure in his post in the Channel Islands due to Charles II's return to the throne. He resigned the position in 1660 and sailed for Boston in 1661. Harvard later awarded Mather the first honorary degree in the New World, becoming a Doctor 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 step-sister by virtue of his father's marriage to Sarah Hankredge, widow of John Cotton and mother of Maria. She gave birth to Cotton Mather in 1663. In 1676, he published A Brief History of the War with the Indians in New-England, a contemporary account of King Philip's War.
On June 11, 1685, he became the Acting President of 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: re-implementation 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.
While politics and Puritan religion were closely related during Increase's lifetime, 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 Dominion of New England.
The Dominion was headed by Edmund Andros, who not only disliked puritanism and was haughty, but ruled as a near absolute dictator: Town meetings were outlawed, leaving the Dominion without consent of the governed, marriage was removed from the clergy, and the Old South Church was temporarily appropriated for Anglican services.
The 1687 Declaration of Indulgence, prohibiting discrimination against Catholics, saw staunch opposition from the Puritan establishment. When Mather successfully roused opposition to revocation of the charter, he was nearly framed for treason. He 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).
He attempted to restore the old charter and obtain 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 did not do so, and eventually resigned the Presidency.
As an influential member of the community, having handpicked Governor Phips and his deputy Stoughton, Mather 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's son Cotton wrote a letter known as "The Return of Several Ministers Consulted", which urged caution but failed to denounce the use of "spectral evidence". In June and July 1692 as the trials and executions grew, Increase Mather made a number of sermons interpreted as a plea to cool the heated atmosphere.
In September 1692 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 said, "It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than that one Innocent Person should be Condemned." (A slightly altered version of this phrase would later become known as Blackstone's formulation.) Notwithstanding this, his reputation was not improved afterwards or for posterity due to his association with the trials as well as his subsequent refusal, for whatever reasons, to denounce them. He was also briefly mentioned in a thorough treatment of his son Cotton by Robert Calef in his comprehensive book of the Salem Trials and their aftermath, More Wonders of the Invisible World (referred to as More Wonders of the Spiritual World by the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition). Increase Mather was said to have burned Calef's book in Harvard Yard.
In 1715, following the death of his wife Maria the previous year, he married Ann Cotton, widow of his nephew John.
On September 27, 1722, he fainted and was thereafter bedridden. In August 1723 he suffered bladder failure and died three weeks later on August 23, 1723, in Boston, aged 84. He was buried on Copp's Hill.
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, e.g. the weather, political situations, attacks by Native Americans, fires and floods, etc.
He was strenuous in attempting to keep people to his idea of morality, making strong use of jeremiads to try to prevent indifference and especially to try to 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, Mather had a synod called to outlaw similar measures. A declaration was adopted, but never made binding.
The stated reason for his first name was "...the never-to-be-forgotten increase, of every sort, wherewith God favoured the country about the time of his nativity." The name "Increase" is a literal translation of the Hebrew "Yosëf" (Joseph).
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