Cotton Mather

``Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might (Ecc. 9:10a)

1. Cotton Mather's Early Years

Cotton Mather was born in Boston, MA on February 12, 1663. He was the eldest child of Reverend Increase Mather and Maria (Cotton) Mather. Cotton Mather had a big reputation to live up to. His father was the most prominent puritan clergyman in New England, the president of Harvard College, and New England's ambassador to the King of England. Six of his uncles were ministers. Cotton two grandfathers, John Cotton and Richard Mather, were powerful ministers in the first generation of American puritans. They had given their wealth and the comforts of England for their faith and their desire for religious freedom. His grandfathers were viewed by many as ``renowned preachers, martyrs who had put their faith above the security and comfort of living in England, and guiding lights in the trouble times of the establishment of the colony's churches.'' Cotton Mather was raised by very loving and devout parents. His father, Increase Mather, emphasized God's mercy in his teaching and his own life as a parent. He prayed with each of his children for their salvation and for their deliverance from sicknesses and ailments. In times of danger, he would bring the whole family together to pray for God's deliverance. His Mother, Maria, was in Cotton's own words, ``pious, loving, and tender.'' She kept days of fasting for the spiritual welfare of her children and read the entire Bible to them twice a year. Cotton also had eight younger brothers and sisters whom he loved and cared for. Cotton Mather felt his calling from God at an early age. Before he could read or write, Cotton attended church services, which typically included an hour long prayer by the pastor followed by a one to two hour sermon. Once he was able to write, he would summarize each sermon telling of what he had learned. Between the ages of seven and eight, he began writing prayers for his classmates to assist them in their own spiritual growth. He would also rebuke them for their ``wicked words and ways'', and as result was abused both verbally and physically. To gain insight into God's word, he read 15 chapters of the Bible each day; five in the morning, five in the afternoon, and five at night. By the time he was 14 years old, he spent whole days in prayer and fasting in order to come closer to God and learn God's will for his life. When he was sixteen he began sharing his faith with his brothers and sisters, as well as the family servants. Shortly afterwards he preached his first sermon to a gathering of young men and women. Although he lived a life of devoted service to God, he often viewed himself as ``a vile sinner'' in desperate need of the grace of his heavenly father. Similar to the apostle Paul, God also blessed him with a learning mind. By the time he reached his teens he was proficient in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He studied the classics and was well versed in English, Science, and Mathematics. At the age of 11, he entered Harvard College, the youngest student in the history of the college. His classmates ranged 15 to 21 years old. Harvard College was founded in 1638 with the mission of training the promising youth of the Colony as ministers of the Word of God. Its motto was, ``For Christ and for the Church.'' However, when Cotton Mather entered Harvard it was struggling to maintain its spiritual calling from God. In spite of Cotton's intellectual abilities, his early years at Harvard were difficult. Yet they trained him to have faith in God. He was persecuted by his classmates, because he was so young and because his father was a good friend of the president of Harvard, who most of the students despised. During his years at Harvard he was abused both physically and emotionally. While at Harvard, Cotton Mather developed a speech problem and began to stutter. The other students mocked him because of this and continue to harass him. But Cotton Mather bravely withstood the scorn and hazing of his classmates, remembering Joseph`s persecution at the hands of his brothers and viewing it as God training for his life of faith. At Harvard, he studied theology and medicine. He reasoned that if he was unable to serve God as a minister due to his stuttering problem, he could be used by God to minister to the sick. At the age of 15, he received his Bachelors of Arts degree from Harvard College. During the ceremony the president of the college predicted that he would combine the remarkable abilities of both his grandfathers. A prediction that, by God's grace, Cotton later fulfilled.

2. Preach the Gospel

After returning home to Boston as the youngest Harvard graduate, Cotton took time to discern God's calling for his life. In particular, he contemplated his own salvation. After several months of prayer and seeking the Lord's direction and assurance of his own salvation, he experienced the love and power of the Holy Spirit. One day while he was studying medicine, he had a terrible depression come upon him. As he had often done in the past, he cried out to the Lord in prayer and ``cast his burdens on the care of the Lord Jesus Christ.'' As he describes in his diary, he felt an unaccountable cloud and load go off his spirit and he felt that he was immediately transformed by the experience. He said of the experience ``I was changed by a new light, and life, and ease arriving to me, as the sunrise does change the world, from the condition of midnight. Although his conversion was a very profound experience in his life, he realized that his spiritual life would move between times of great assurance and discouraging self-accusations. Cotton Mather also knew that because of his sinful nature, he would still sin and fall short of the glory of God. His conversion also had taught him the importance of repenting and seeking God's forgiveness based on Proverbs 28:13 ``He who conceals his sin does not prosper, but whoever confesses his sin and renounces them finds mercy.'' He continually repented of his own sins of pride and ambition. On one occasion he said, ``If the Lord shall disown me after all, I shall be the direst example of a deluded and exalted hypocrite that ever was.'' After God helped him overcome his pride, he humbly prayed in thanksgiving, ``Oh Lord, not onto me, not onto me, but onto thy name is all, all, all the glory due. After college, Cotton was unsure where God would lead him next. Although he had a deep calling to preach the Word of God, he was afraid that his stuttering problem would make this impossible. For a long time he agonized over how he could fulfill his calling to God in spite of his stuttering. However, he was encouraged by the life of Moses, who was chosen by God despite a speech defect. When he prayed and meditated on God's word, he received God's promise from Isaiah, ``The heart of the rash shall understand knowledge and the tongue of the stammerrers shall be ready to speak plainly.'' He also received training from his former tutor Elijah Corlet who helped him to speak slowly and with purpose. By faith and prayer, he trusted in the Creator God, and was able to deliver powerful messages to the Puritan churches in Boston and in Dorchester at the age of 16. He also continued his theological studies and ministry training at Harvard. In 1681, at the age of 18, he received his Master's degree from the hands of his father, who at the time was president of Harvard. Shortly afterwards, he preached at the First Church in Boston, where is grandfather John Cotton had preached previously. Many of the people that heard him later said they were so moved by his message that they were hardly able to resist crying out during his sermon. After receiving his Master's degree, he humbly worked as his father's assistant at the the Old North Church in Boston. He loved and respected his father greatly and considered it an honor to work with him. Together the father and son team diligently served the continually growing parish. Before he was twenty, he was unanimously called upon to serve as pastor of the Old North church. However, he waited for God's calling before accepting the position. Two years later the members of the church once again asked Cotton to be their pastor, with his father serving as their teacher. This time he accepted, and at the age of 22 he became the youngest pastor in New England. His ordination sermon was based on John 21, where Jesus gives Peter the command to feed his sheep. Out of love, Cotton Mather diligently labored as a shepherd for God's flock. Each year, he preached more than a hundred carefully written sermons. He organized a number of societies for young men that focused on prayer, bible study, and the spiritual revival of New England. He believed in putting his faith into action. Each day he would faithful visit and pray for the sick, bereaved, and aging of his church. As pastor, he encouraged his congregation and other congregations in the area to closely examine themselves, to ensure that they were following the teachings of Christ. He worked to put an end to the inhuman slave trade and to ensure that slaves in the area had the opportunity to hear the gospel and accept Jesus as their savior. Cotton helped to establish the first society of black Christians in New England. He also worked to establish evangilization programs, which included caring for the poor and ministering to the criminals in the area. In spite of his busy schedule, he found time to diligently study God's word and share God's word with others. He would often invite students from Harvard to visit him one to one in order to share with them the beautiful gospel story.

3. Cotton Mathers Family Life

Shortly after his ordination, Cotton Mather, found his thoughts turning to the ``joys and pleasures of marriage.'' He recorded in his diary his prayer to, ``seek for the guidance and blessing of God in what concerns the change of my condition in the world from single to married.'' God answered his prayers and he soon fell in love with and married Abigail Phillips, whom he referred to as the ``Desire of His Eyes'' and ``Lovely Consort.'' Perhaps Shepherd Tim Kusar will soon refer to Shepherdess Elizabeth Park as the ``Desire of His Eyes and Lovely Consort.'' Each night him and Abigail would retire to bed with the prayer, ``In peace with God and far from fear, I'll now lie down to rest; My God, in thy kind love and care, safe and forever blest. However, in spite of his deep love for Abigail, John Cotton's family life was plagued with trials and sorrow. His first child, Abigail, was a beautiful girl whom he wrote about as, ``Perhaps one of the loveliest infants that has ever been seen in the world.'' However, after only ten days she fell sick and died. Of his first nine children, only four lived past the age of five. In his own words, five times he had, ``Given to his Maker the dearest thing on earth.'' Throughout these tragedies, Cotton Mather had faith in God and in God's providence. Three days before his daughter Mary died at the age of four, Cotton Mather wrote in his diary, ``I was unaccountably assured that not only this child shall be happy forever, but that I should never have any child, except what should be an everlasting temple to the Spirit of God; yea, that I and mine should be together in the Kingdom of God, world without end.'' Mary's epitaph read ``Gone but not lost.'' Although Cotton Mather felt shock and grief at the loss of his beloved children, he did not allow his suffering to lead him to self-pity or hatred toward God. Instead he learned to turned to God humbly in prayer. Each time he faced hardships he became more filled with mercy and compassion towards others. He spent much of his time visiting, comforting, and praying for the members of his parish who were sick or dying. He also made regular calls on his aged and ailing parishioners. Cotton Mather had a great love for all his children. He gave his daughters nicknames like ``my pretty little Nanny'', ``my lovely daughter Nibby'', and ``my dear Katy.'' Out of love he shared with them his understanding of the Bible and held individual prayer conferences with each of them. When they misbehaved, he would discipline them by refusing to teach them something else that the other children were learning. He viewed this as a very severe punishment, because naturally all children have a very strong desire to learn. One of his greatest tragedies occurred after 16 years of marriage, when wife Abigail became very ill. Her period of illness lasted nearly a year. During this time, Cotton spent hours praying for her recovery and the recovery of his two children Abigail and Increase, who were sick with small pox. At first, Cotton believed that God would restore his wife and his children to him. However, through prayer and meditation, he accepted the fact that God was calling them to a better place. Of this event he wrote, ``At last the black day arrives. I have never yet seen such a black day in all my pilgrimage. The desire of my eyes is this day to be taken from me. I cannot remember the discourses that passed between us, only that her devout soul was full of satisfaction about her going to a state of blessedness with the Lord Jesus Christ. When I saw to what point of resignation I was now called of the Lord, I resolved, with His help therein to glorify Him. So two hours before my lovely consort expired, I kneeled by her bedside, and took into my two hands a dear hand, the dearest in the world. With her thus in my hands, I solemnly and sincerely gave her up to the Lord.'' His ``Lovely Consort'' had gone home to be with Jesus. Shortly after this, Cotton Mather was pursued by several foxy young ladies, who were looking for a eligible widower. However, rather than giving into this temptation, Cotton married a widow, named Elizabeth Hubbard, who had one child of her own. Unlike the love of his youth, he referred to Elizabeth as his ``dear Friend'' and ``dear Consort''. Through his marriage to Elizabeth, he had six more children. However, only two of them survived past babyhood. In 1713, twin children, Eleazar and Martha were born during a measle epidemic. The mother and most of her children and stepchildren became ill and within two weeks Cotton Mathers second wife and three of his children passed away. His third and final marriage, to Lydia George, was also filled with trials. She proved to be very instable in marital relations. She drove one of Mather's children from the home and for periods of time would leave Cotton, only to later return. However, through it all Cotton Mather's faith and love for Jesus shone brightly.

4. The Armor of God

In his late twenties, Cotton Mather found himself engaged in spiritual warfare. In the summer of 1688, four children of John Goodwin, a mason from the South Church of Boston, were afflicted with strange fits more extreme than epileptic seizures. The eldest Goodwin daughter Martha had offended the the family's laundry woman. The laundry woman's mother, Goodwife Glover, cursed Martha and shortly thereafter Martha and three of the other Goodwin children were tormented by severe symptoms. ``Sometimes they would be deaf, sometimes dumb, and sometimes blind, and often all three at once. They would have there mouths open so wide that their jaws went out of joint.'' After a long trial, Goodwife Glover was convicted of witchcraft and later she confessed. Before she was executed, however, she told Mather that her death would not end the children's suffering because there were there were others who were also guilty of tormenting the child. After Goodwife Glovers's execution, the children did not get better, and Cotton Mather took Martha, the eldest daughter, into his house to care for her. While at the Mather`s house, Cotton continued to pray for her. The girl, however, continued to have extreme fits of rage and often flew about the house.'' A week after the execution, Cotton Mather and five other men of God joined together to pray over the suffering children. That day of prayer, Jesus defeated Satan's power, and a little while after the prayers the children were all perfectly at ease. Martha continue to stay with the Mathers for another six months and from time to time would have new fits of rage. However, she grew steadily better and by the following summer she was ready to leave the Mather household. Through faith and prayer, Satan's power had been defeated. Four years later Satan struck again. This time in Salem. In February, 1692 several young girl's, including the Salem Village ministers daughter, had come down with fits that closely resembled those of the Goodwin children. Several of the girls accused Sarah Good and the ministers slave girl, Tituba. At her examination before the magistrate, Tituba confessed to witchcraft. She also stated in court that Sarah Good and Sarah Osbourne had forced her to serve the devil and hurt the girls. Later two more women also confessed to witchcraft saying they had attended a meeting in the ministers pasture with several other accused witches. They said that the Revered George Burroughs, a minister who had formerly preached in the Salem Village church, had administered the Devil's sacrament and urged his followers to bewitch all in the village. By the end of the summer, 19 people had been executed for witchcraft. Although some modern historians blame Cotton Mather for participating in the Salem witch hunt. His writings to the court clearly show that he strongly urged the court to avoid evidence that might convict the innocent. Mather argued that people accused of witchcraft should not be convicted just on other peoples testimony or their own confession. Instead he argued that further investigation and prayer was needed. Also during this time, Cotton and his wife Abigail took Mercy Short, a seventeen year old girl who was being plagued by witchcraft, into their home. Mercy Short had suffered from extreme fits after provoking a curse from Sarah Good by throwing wood shavings at here. Mather held a two day fast in which he prayed for Mercy Short and that she be delivered from the power of Satan. Shortly after this fast, she commanded the specters that had been tormenting her, ``in the name of the Blessed Lord Jesus Christ, be gone and let me be no more troubled with you.'' Once again, Satan was defeated!

5. Fan into Flames the Gift of God

One of Cotton Mather's most precious gifts was his ability to share his spiritual insights through writing. When he was twenty three years old, Cotton Mather had a vision in which an angel, whose face shown like the noonday sun visited him, and told him that he would find full expression for what in him was best. The angel also told him that he would do great works for the Church of Jesus by writing books that would be read not only in America, but also in Europe. After receiving this revelation, Cotton asked for God's guidance praying. ``Lord Jesus! What is the meaning of this marvel? From the wiles of the Devil, I beseech thee, deliver and defend thy most unworthy servant. '' The angels words were fulfilled through Cotton. In the course of his life he wrote and published over 450 documents. These included short manuals on prayer and family worship, sermons, biographies of men and women of God, bible commentaries, and poems and verses. He viewed these writings as ``a service to God and man.'' His book ``Mangalia Christi Americana'', which tells how the early Pilgrims struggled to establish God's kingdom in the New World, is the only book in the White House Library on the thinking and writing of colonial New England. In his book ``The Christian Philosopher'' Cotton shows how man's growing knowledge of science supports faith in God, rather than weakening it. Cotton also kept a diary from the time he was 19 years old until the last few days of his life. His first entry in his diary was signed, ``Cotton Mather, feeble and worthless, yet Lord by thy grace, desirous to approve himself a sincere and faithful servant of Jesus Christ. Cotton used his gift of writing for the glory of God. Cotton Mather also had a gift in the sciences. In 1713, he was accepted as a member of the English Royal Society, through which he helped inform people in England of the latest developments in the New World. He was the first to report on the hybridization of plants, advanced the study of botany, and encouraged the use of inoculating against smallpox. Through his study of nature, he gained a deeper appreciation of God as the Creator. When he was 37, he was honored by the University of Glasgow which granted him an honorary Doctor of Divinity for his life of service to others. He was also asked to serve as the president of Yale. However, seeing that God had other plans for his life, he declined the offer. On his fifty-sixth birthday, Cotton preached on Ecclesiastes 9:10a, ``Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might''. This could very well have been Cotton Mathers life key verse. God had blessed him with many talents and abilities and he had graciously used those talents for the glory of God - whether it was in preaching, writing, serving as a family man, fighting Satan, studying the bible, or caring for the poor. Throughout his life, Cotton Mather fearlessly proclaimed God's Word and hungered after God's righteousness and holiness. He had a shepherd's heart for God's people. At a time when many were waning in their Christian faith, Cotton Mather boldly proclaimed the gospel of Jesus. Just before he died, his son Samuel asked him, what word or sentence he would have him think on constantly. In reply, Cotton answered Fructuosus, which in Latin means fruitful. Jesus said to his disciples in John 15:8, ``This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.'' Cotton Mather had indeed lived a fruitful life for the glory of God. Whatever he did, he did with all his might. In this day and age, most people want to live an easy going life style for their own glory. May God raise up many men and women like Cotton Mather in this generation, who are willing to give their talents and their lives for the sake of Jesus. One word: With all your might, for the glory of God.


P. Marshall and D. Manuel, ``The Light and the Glory,'' Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 1979. D. Levin, ``Cotton Mather: The Young Life of the Lord's Remembrance,'' Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1978. B. M. . Levy, ``Cotton Mather,'' Twayne Publishers, Boston, MA, 19798. B. Wendell, ``Cotton Mather: The Puritan Priest,'' Dodd, Mead, and Company, New York, NY, 1891.