1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Mather, Increase

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MATHER, INCREASE (1639-1723), American Congregational minister, was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, on the 21st of June 1639, the youngest son of Richard Mather.[1] He entered Harvard in 1651, and graduated in 1656. In 1657, on his eighteenth birthday, he preached his first sermon; in the same year he went to visit his eldest brother in Dublin, and studied there at Trinity College, where he graduated M.A. in 1658. He was chaplain to the English garrison at Guernsey in April-December 1659 and again in 1661; and in the latter year, refusing valuable livings in England offered on condition of conformity, he returned to America. In the winter of 1661-1662 he began to preach to the Second (or North) Church of Boston, and was ordained there on the 27th of May 1664. As a delegate from Dorchester, his father's church, to the Synod of 1662, he opposed the Half-Way Covenant adopted by the Synod and defended by Richard Mather and by Jonathan Mitchell (1624-1668) of Cambridge; but soon afterwards he “surrendered a glad captive” to “the truth so victoriously cleared by Mr Mitchell,” and like his father and his son became one of the chief exponents of the Half-Way Covenant. He was bitterly opposed, however, to the liberal practices that followed the Half-Way Covenant and (after 1677) in particular to “Stoddardeanism,” the doctrine of Solomon Stoddard (1643-1729) that all “such Persons as have a good Conversation and a Competent Knowledge may come to the Lord's Supper,” only those of openly immoral life being excluded. In May 1679 Mather was a petitioner to the General Court for the call of a Synod to consider the reformation in New England of “the Evils that have Provoked the Lord to bring his Judgments,”[2] and when the “Reforming Synod” met in September it appointed him one of a committee to draft a creed; this committee reported in May 1680, at the Synod's second session, of which Mather was moderator, the Savoy Declaration (slightly modified notably in ch. xxiv., “Of the Civil Magistrate”), which was approved but was not made mandatory on the churches by the General Court, and in 1708 was reaffirmed at Saybrook, Connecticut. With the Cambridge Platform of 1646, drafted by his father, the Confession of 1680, for which Increase Mather was largely responsible, was printed as a book of doctrine and government for the churches of Massachusetts.

After the threat of a Quo Warranto writ in 1683 for the surrender of the Massachusetts charter, Mather used all his tremendous influence to persuade the colonists not to give up the charter; and the Boston freemen unanimously voted against submission. The royal agents immediately afterwards sent to London a treasonable letter, falsely attributed to Mather; but its spuriousness seems to have been suspected in England and Mather was not “fetch'd over and made a Sacrifice.” He became a leader in the opposition to Sir Edmund Andros, to his secretary Edward Randolph, and to Governor Joseph Dudley. He was chosen by the General Court to represent the colony's interests in England, eluded officers sent to arrest him,[3] and in disguise boarded a ship on which he reached Weymouth on the 6th of May 1688. In London he acted with Sir Henry Ashurst, the resident agent, and had two or three fruitless audiences with James II. His first audience with William III. was on the 9th of January 1689; he was active in influencing the Commons to vote (1689) that the New England charters should be restored; and he published A Narrative of the Miseries of New-England, By Reason of an Arbitrary Government Erected there Under Sir Edmund Andros (1688), A Brief Relation for the Confirmation of Charter Privileges (1691), and other pamphlets. In 1690 he was joined by Elisha Cooke (1638-1715) and Thomas Oakes (1644-1719), additional agents, who were uncompromisingly for the renewal of the old charter. Mather, however, was instrumental in securing a new charter (signed on Oct. 7, 1691), and prevented the annexation of the Plymouth Colony to New York. The nomination of officers left to the Crown was reserved to the agents. Mather had expressed strong dissatisfaction with the clause giving the governor the right of veto, and regretted the less theocratic tone of the charter which made all freemen (and not merely church members) electors. With Sir William Phips, the new governor, a member of Mather's church, he arrived in Boston on the 14th of May 1692. The value of his services to the colony at this time is not easily over-estimated. In England he won the friendship of divines like Baxter, Tillotson and Burnet, and effectively promoted the union in 1691 of English Presbyterians and Congregationalists. He was at heavy expense throughout his stay, and even greater than his financial loss was his loss of authority and control in the church and in Harvard College because of his absence.

Mather had been acting president of Harvard College in 1681-1682, and in June 1685 he again became acting president (or rector), but still preached every Sunday in Boston and would not comply with an order of the General Court that he should reside in Cambridge. In 1701 after a short residence there he returned to Boston and wrote to the General Court to “think of another President for the Colledge.” The opposition to him had been increasing in strength, his resignation was accepted, and Samuel Willard took charge of the college as vice-president, although he also refused to reside in Cambridge. That Mather's administration of the college was excellent is admitted even by his harsh critic, Josiah Quincy, in his History of Harvard University.[4] The Liberal party, which now came into control in the college repeatedly disappointed the hopes of Cotton Mather (q.v.) that he might be chosen president, and by its ecclesiastical laxness and its broader views of Church polity forced the Mathers to turn from Harvard to Yale as a truer school of the prophets.

The Liberal leaders, John Leverett (1662-1724), William Brattle (1662-1713) — who graduated with Leverett in 1680, and with him as tutor controlled the college during Increase Mather's absence in England — William Brattle's eldest brother, Thomas Brattle (1658-1713), and Ebenezer Pemberton (1671-1717), pastor of the Old South Church, desired an “enrichment of the service,” and greater liberality in the matter of baptism. In 1697 the Second Boston Church, in which Cotton Mather had been his father's colleague since 1685, upbraided the Charlestown Church “for betraying the liberties of the churches in their late putting into the hands of the whole inhabitants the choice of a minister.” In 1699 Increase Mather published The Order of the Gospel, which severely (although indirectly,) criticized the methods of the “Liberals” in establishing the Brattle Street Church and especially the ordination of their minister Benjamin Colman by a Presbyterian body in London; the Liberals replied with The Gospel Order Revived, which was printed in New York to lend colour to the (partly true) charge of its authors that the printers of Massachusetts would print nothing hostile to Increase Mather.[5] The autocracy of the Mathers in church, college, colony and press, had slipped from them. The later years of Mather's life were spent almost entirely in the work of the ministry, now beginning to be a less varied career than when he entered on it. He died on the 23rd of August 1723. He married in 1662 Maria, daughter of Sarah and John Cotton. His first wife died in 1714; and in 1715 he married Ann Lake, widow of John Cotton, of Hampton, N.H., a grandson of John Cotton of Boston.

Increase Mather was a great preacher with a simple style and a splendid voice, which had a “Tonitruous Cogency,” to quote his son's phrase. His style was much simpler and more vernacular than his son's. He was an assiduous student, commonly spending sixteen hours a day among his books; but his learning (to quote Justin Winsor's contrast between Increase and Cotton Mather) “usually left his natural ability and his education free from entanglements.” He was not so much self-seeking and personally ambitious as eager to advance the cause of the church in which he so implicitly believed. That it is a mistake to consider him a narrow churchman is shown by his assisting in 1718 at the ordination of Elisha Callender in the First Baptist Church of Boston. Like the most learned men of his time he was superstitious and a firm believer in “praesagious impressions”; his Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences: Wherein an Account is Given of many Remarkable and very Memorable Events which have Hapned in this Last Age, Especially in New England (1684) shows that he believed only less thoroughly than his son in witchcraft, though in his Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits (1693) he considered some current proofs of witchcraft inadequate. The revulsion of feeling after the witchcraft delusion undermined his authority greatly, and Robert's Calef's More Wonders of the Spiritual World (1700) was a personal blow to him as well as to his son. With Jonathan Edwards, than whom he was much more of a man of affairs, and with Benjamin Franklin, whose mission in England somewhat resembled Mather's, he may be ranked among the greatest Americans of the period before the War of Independence.

The first authority for the life of Increase Mather is the work of his son Cotton Mather, Parentator: Memoirs of Remarkables in the Life and Death of the Ever Memorable Dr Increase Mather (Boston, 1724); there are also a memoir and constant references in Cotton Mather's Magnalia (London, 1702) especially vol. iv.; there is an excellent sketch in the first volume of J. L. Sibley's Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University (Cambridge, 1873), with an exhaustive list of Mather's works (about 150 titles); there is much valuable matter in Williston Walker's Ten New England Leaders (New York, 1901) and in his Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism (New York, 1893); for literary criticism of the Mathers see ch. xii. of M. C. Tyler's History of American Literature, 1607-1676 (New York, 1878), and Barrett Wendell's Cotton Mather (New York, 1891). Mather's worth has been under-estimated by Josiah Quincy, Justin Winsor and other historians out of sympathy with his ecclesiastical spirit, who represent him as only an ambitious narrow-minded schemer. (R. We.)


  1. He was so christened “because of the never-to-be-forgotten increase, of every sort, wherewith God favoured the country about the time of his nativity.” He often latinized his name, spelling it Crescentius Matherus.
  2. That is, King Philip's War, the Boston fires of 1676, when Mather's church and home were burned, and 1679, the threatened introduction of Episcopacy, and the general spiritual decay of the country.
  3. He had previously been arrested and acquitted on a charge of having attributed the forged letter to Randolph.
  4. Mather led the resistance to the royal demand instigated by Edward Randolph in 1683, for the annulment of the college charter, and after its vacation in 1684 strove for the grant of a new charter; King James promised him a confirmation of the former charter; the new provincial charter granted by William and Mary confirmed all gifts and grants to colleges; in 1692 Mather drafted an act incorporating the college, which was signed by Phips but was disallowed in England; and in 1696, 1697, 1699, and 1700, Mather repeated his efforts for a college charter.
  5. Mather was made a licenser of the Press in 1674 when the General Court abolished the monopoly of the Cambridge Press.