Somewhere around 1710 Cotton Mather decided to become a do-gooder. He invented that word, in fact, in the title of one of his most famous books, Bonifacius, or Efforts to Do Good.
Cotton knew he had a bad temper and a tender ego. Both got him into trouble, especially as he and his father Increase waded into the fray of Boston politics during the fragile 1680s and 1690s. And so as much to save himself as to benefit others he resolved to do at least one good act every day.
Systematic as always, Mather laid out a weekly plan: on Tuesdays, for example, he took out the list of his personal enemies ("as many of them as I can know of"), and decided that every time he found himself thinking angry or resentful thoughts he would "extinguish it, and contradict it," and form a "good Thought, that shall be directly contradictory unto it." Cotton also began to keep a daily record of his do-gooding in his diary. Thus every entry included a "G.D." or "good devised,” with a brief description: sometimes an intention to send an "instrument of piety," (one of his books or sermons) to a needy person, and many others to do a specific act of charity, giving money or buying clothing. Mather kept a "Catalog of the Poor," and made regular visits to prisoners and sent money and books.
Always touchy and often self-absorbed, Mather genuinely struggled in his resolve, but it did take root. By the end of his life, as he wrote to his son, he took more delight in reliving the "distresses of any one Poor, Mean, and Miserable Neighbor" than he did his wide knowledge of history and science, and his ability to write in seven languages.
Bonifacius, published in 1710, is Mather's call to other do-gooders, providing encouragement and of course numerous suggestions for others to promote human welfare. The wealthy should donate scholarships for orphans, he urged, and lawyers should devote their time pro bono; physicians should both heal the sick and read widely — we would say keep up with the literature — to increase their usefulness. And on went the list.
Inevitably perhaps, Mather's earnestness, always just shy of self-promotion, ended up satirized. In 1722, a young printer's apprentice made a permanent name for himself with a series of articles by a pseudonymous widow, Mrs. Silence Dogood. Mrs. Dogood described herself as a woman of "extensive Charity and a great Forgiver of Private Injuries," but also gifted with a "natural Inclination to observe and reprove the Faults of others." Everyone knew, of course, that the author was Benjamin Franklin and Mrs. Dogood was actually Cotton Mather, at his most tiresomely righteous — ultimately the personification of everything that was wrong with Puritan moralism.
The articles made Franklin famous, but that was not the end of his debt to Cotton Mather. Bonifacius produced in him, Franklin later said, "such a turn of thinking, as to have an influence on my conduct through life." Benjamin Franklin, the founder of hospitals, fire departments, libraries, and an American bent toward philanthropy, wrote that because of Mather, "I have always set a greater value on the character of a doer of good, than of any other kind of reputation." If I have been in any way a "useful citizen," he said, "the Public owes the advantage of it to that book." Cotton Mather would have been proud — and then, mostly likely, a bit remorseful for that feeling, as he jotted down the good deed in his diary.