As we prepare for the upcoming conference in October, Mather Redux, we are spending some time reviewing our collections of materials by and about Cotton Mather. One recent discovery in Cotton Mather and His Writings on Witchcraft by Thomas J. Holmes is a discussion of Mather's personal popularity and that of his works. "It is probably no exaggeration to say that Cotton Mather as an entertainer was the seventeenth-century New England prototype of the present day matinée idol." (Matinée idol is a term used mainly to describe film or theatre stars who are adored to the point of adulation by their fans. The term almost exclusively refers to male actors.) Further evidence of his popularity arises from a statement from Increase Mather that "ordinarily fifteen hundred persons attend services in their church."
So who and what attachment does Mather have to witchcraft? Holmes comparisons note that Mather's works on the subject of witchcraft total 16 of his 491 works. Mather was busy (visiting, preaching, writing, conducting meetings, engaging in fasts, and reading numerous books) during the witchcraft frenzy and never attended any of the trials. It is in the nineteenth century that the idea for holding Cotton Mather chiefly responsible for the Salem calamity of 1692 developed from the writings of C. W. Upham and others. Holmes write that "...Mather's works show that he was much less interested in witchcraft than is sometimes supposed..." And his conclusion is, "Then Mather will bear, in the work not only of some but of future reputable writers of Massachusetts history no more than his just small fractional share of indirect responsibility with the men of his time for the shortcomings of his community under the darkness of the age in which they lived."
Thomas J. Holmes was a well-known and respected bibliographer of the Mather family. He was also the librarian of the private collection of William G. Mather in Cleveland, Ohio. He authored, Cotton Mather: a Bibliography of His works, Increase Mather: A Bibliography of His Works, The Minor Mathers: a List of Their Works, and The Mather Literature.
For more information on Mather Redux: New Perspectives on Cotton Mather, please see our Program & Workshop Schedule page.
engraving "Captain Alden Denounced" (1878) by Alfred Fredericks from A Popular History of the United States, Vol. 2 by William Cullen Bryant, via Wikimedia Commons