In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cotton Mather

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

American Literature Cotton Mather
Reiner Smolinski
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0039


Few colonial Americans continue to divide public opinion as sharply as does Cotton Mather (b. 1663–d. 1728), whose sullied reputation has never fully recovered from the Salem witchcraft tragedy. While the Menkens of this world persist in invoking his name as the epitome of everything that is wrong with America, recent scholars have been more nuanced in their contextual reconstruction of Mather’s life and times. The eldest child of the New England clergyman Increase Mather and grandson of the Bay Colony’s Puritan founders Richard Mather and John Cotton, Cotton Mather was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and became the most prominent scion of a family dynasty of clergymen that spanned four generations (1596–1785). Entering Harvard College at age eleven (BA, 1678; MA, 1681), he studied for the ministry and the medical profession. He was ordained in 1685 and ministered to his father’s (Old) North Church (Congregational) for more than forty-two years. Well known both at home and in Europe, he corresponded with colleagues as far away as India, received an honorary DD degree from Glasgow University, Scotland (1710), and was elected a member of the Royal Society of London (1713) for his scientific contributions to this illustrious society. Among the most significant chapters in his life are his role in the Glorious Revolution in New England (April 1689); his involvement in the Salem witchcraft debacle (1691–1693); his Pietist ecumenism; his millennialism; his promotion of reform societies (1700–1728); his advocacy of smallpox inoculation (1721–1723); and his numerous writings on history, biography, natural science, medicine, theology, and biblical criticism. In all, Cotton Mather published more than 450 titles on virtually every subject of significance at the time. He owned the largest private library in the English colonies of North America and left behind in manuscript form several major works that only recently have begun to appear in print. Most important, he was at the forefront of the scientific and hermeneutic debate (early Enlightenment) and tried to reconcile the old with the new cosmologies in the first American Bible commentary, his Biblia Americana. In light of his numerous publications, only a selection of some of his most important and thematically linked publications can be treated in this bibliography.

General Overviews

Given his vast publication record, Mather and his works received extensive treatment in the latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. First and foremost, Miller 1983 (first published in 1953) set the benchmark for all subsequent discussions of Mather’s life and times and did much to redress the anti-Puritan bias of Parrington and his peers. Following in Miller’s steps are Brumm 1970 (first published in 1963), Bercovitch 1993 (first published in 1972), and Bercovitch 2011 (first published in 1975), which gave fresh impetus to the study of Mather as an American Pietist, historian, and biographer of the American Self—influential studies that in their turn inspired Lovelace 2007 (first published in 1979), Lowance 1980, Breitwieser 1984, and a host of other works by scholars. Finally, Mather’s contributions to medicine in colonial America are capably discussed in Beall and Shryock 1979 (first published in 1954).

  • Beall Otho T., Jr., and Richard Harrison Shryock. Cotton Mather: First Significant Figure in American Medicine. Publications of the Institute of the History of Medicine, First Series, Monograph 5. New York: Arno, 1979.

    Arguing that “the existence of systematic medical thought prior to 1725 has been overlooked” (p. vii) in American history, Beall rectifies this neglect by evaluating the significance of Mather’s medical handbook The Angel of Bethesda, his treatment of measles, and his advocacy of smallpox inoculation during the 1721 epidemic. Included is a selection of several important chapters of Mather’s handbook, not published in its entirety until 1972.

  • Bercovitch, Sacvan. “Cotton Mather and the Vision of America.” In The Rites of Assent: Transformations in the Symbolic Construction of America. By Sacvan Bercovitch, 90–146. New York: Routledge, 1993.

    An insightful survey of some of Mather’s most important works—Diary, Bonifacius, The Christian Philosopher, and Magnalia Christi Americana—Bercovitch combines a psychoanalytical reading of Mather’s self with a careful study of his typology and rhetorical style. First published in 1972 and slightly revised for the 1993 edition, it is an excellent short introduction to Mather as a Puritan intellectual.

  • Bercovitch, Sacvan. The Puritan Origins of the American Self. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.

    Arguably Bercovitch’s most influential work, this study (first published in 1975) explores the impact of Puritan myth-making rhetoric on America’s obsession with its national identity and its demand for exemplary leaders. In reprinting Mather’s biography of John Winthrop, Bercovitch traces the continuity of Mather’s typological strategies from the colonial period to the Transcendentalists. The new preface of the 2011 edition offers some revisions.

  • Breitwieser, Mitchell Robert. Cotton Mather and Benjamin Franklin: The Price of Representative Personality. Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture Series. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

    Breitwieser outlines central differences between Mather’s and Franklin’s self. The two personalities could not be farther apart. If Mather’s Diary and Paterna reveal his perpetual warfare against a self that resists didactic conformity to the Reformed ideal, Franklin is no less concerned with self-fashioning, yet for Franklin appearances matter far more than actual transformation lest he become subject to ridicule.

  • Brumm, Ursula. American Thought and Religious Typology. Translated by John Hoaglund. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1970.

    Brumm inspired a whole generation of literary historians to explore the use of religious figures and types in American literature from the first generation of New England Puritans via Samuel and Cotton Mather to Hawthorne and Melville in the 19th century.

  • Lovelace, Richard F. The American Pietism of Cotton Mather: Origins of American Evangelicalism. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2007.

    Mather’s theology of Christian experience has attracted increasing attention since the 1980s, especially since he is now considered to be the grandfather of all Evangelical revivals in America. Although he was strongly influenced by such German Pietists as Arndt, Spener, and Francke, Mather developed his own American brand of Pietism, Lovelace argues, by combining Puritanism and Pietism into a distinctly American form of Evangelicalism.

  • Lowance, Mason Ira, Jr. The Language of Canaan: Metaphor and Symbol in New England from the Puritans to the Transcendentalist. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.

    Mather’s use of figurative language is the subject of the book’s central chapters. In tracing Puritan figural imagination and the adaptation of prophetic symbolism in Mather’s writings, Lowance follows Brumm and Bercovitch and draws a direct line of influence from the second generation of Puritan settlers to Mather, Edwards, and beyond to the Transcendentalists. One of the best studies of Mather’s typology.

  • Miller, Perry. The New England Mind: From Colony to Province. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.

    Complementing Miller’s first volume on the New England mind (1939), this magisterial analysis set a precedent for all subsequent studies of Mather as a Puritan intellectual and his contributions to the New England way. Miller’s second volume (first published in 1953) offers some of the earliest interpretations of Mather’s refashioning of the jeremiad, millennialism, social ethics, religious liberty, and his advocacy of smallpox inoculation.

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