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The Puritan Society: Toward Pluralism

book cover imageThe Last American Puritan: The Life of Increase Mather
by Michael G. Hall.
Wesleyan University Press, 1988.
xv + 438 pp. $35.

Daniel R. Campbell

Michael G. Hall’s biography of Increase Mather goes far toward rehabilitating the Mather family of colonial Massachusetts. The Mathers have been more frequently condemned by historians than praised in their roles as the voices of orthodoxy for a century in New England. Hall’s narrative and analysis submerge judgment and focus instead on the richness and diversity apparent in that orthodoxy.

The biography begins in 1639 with the birth of Increase Mather and ends with his death in 1723. It is, therefore, a marvelous primer of Massachusetts spiritual and temporal history. Hall classifies the various stages of Mather’s life—his periods of spiritual development, spiritual leadership, scientific curiosity, and political leadership—and he comments on each.

Early in the book Hall discusses Richard Mather, Increase’s father, a dissenting minister from the western midlands of England. He and his wife, Katherine, moved to Massachusetts in 1635 as part of the Puritan migration. The Mathers settled in Dorchester, where Richard became pastor of the local congregation. Hall perhaps exaggerates when he places Mather at the pinnacle of religious influence in the early colony. Richard Mather was less rich, less famous, and less well-educated upon his arrival in Massachusetts than other clergymen.

Studying Increase Mather, we see the life of a man of singular influence. Increase was educated at Trinity College in Dublin. In 1661 he returned to Massachusetts and became the assistant pastor of the North Church. Within a year, at the age of twenty-three, Mather was publicly embroiled in the half-way convenant controversy which divided so many churches in Massachusetts during and after 1662. Mather served as a guiding light in local synods and became the most published American of his generation. He also exerted great influence over Harvard College. In 1683 he developed an interest in science and helped organize a philosophical society in Boston. Most important, he helped restructure government in the colonies as a Massachusetts agent in London from 1688–1691, when he played a major role in negotiating the form of Massachusetts’ new charter. Hall notes the epic significance of the negotiations when he remarks that, as a result of decisions reached then, “The Puritan commonwealth dreamed of and put in place by John Winthrop was no more; the constitutional framework for the pluralistic, secular society that would be inherited by John Adams was now in place.”

Increase Mather was orthodox. He stood to the right of his father during the half-way covenant dispute when he supported tradition and objected to the baptism of the children of parents who had themselves been baptized but had never become church members. During the 1670s, Mather was a master of the jeremiad, a sermon type which blamed woes on local sinfulness and called for repentance as a solution. In 1676, during King Philip’s War, Mather ran afoul of popular opinion when he blamed the crisis on Puritan laxity rather than Indian savagery. God was punishing New England through the Indians for its sins, he said. By the end of the decade, according to Hall, “Mather had established himself as the conservative champion of the New England church as it had been put in place by his father’s generation.”

During the 1680s Increase Mather became, according to Hall, a moderate. In the controversy over royal government and the creation of the Dominion of New England, Mather saw the danger inherent in the intransigence of stalwarts. He recognized the necessity of making accommodations with royal authority. Mather remained a moderate when he secretly left for England as an agent of the old order. Mather tried but failed to resurrect Massachusetts’ ancient charter rights, swept away by royal government. He stopped writing in Puritan plain style and began writing like a Whig lawyer. He joined Quakers and Catholics in their support of the King’s Declaration of Liberty of Conscience. He accepted major concessions demanded by the king’s councilors and still praised the new charter as New England’s Magna Charta. When he returned to Massachusetts and discovered the colony possessed by witchcraft hysteria, he spoke out vigorously against the trials.

According to Hall, certain moderating influences came to bear on Mather. Throughout the early 1680s Mather became increasingly interested in English writers, especially scientists. He wrote and published several works on astronomy and comets. At the same time there was a spirit of optimism in the colony due to increasing prosperity. The most important moderating cause, however, was the fall of charter government. Under the old charter, residents of Massachusetts had convinced themselves that theirs was an errand in the wilderness, that God had claimed New England as His own to be governed by His laws in preparation for the spiritual regeneration of the world. Such regio-centric faith was no longer possible. New England no longer seemed to play a key role in world events. Acceptance of this, according to Hall, transformed the vision of even the Puritan clergy “from a providential world view to a modern, secular outlook.”

Hall is clearly more enamored of the moderate than the conservative Mather. Mather comes alive when he is converted to moderation during his forties. He becomes a man of charm and grace rather than a pedantic prophet in the Massachusetts wilderness. Mather is seduced by London. There he finds intellectual fellowship and regeneration, increasingly identifying England as home. He yearns during the last decade of his life to return and spend his final years there.

In his analysis Hall turns puritanologist Perry Miller on his head. Miller created the paradigm of Puritan declension in New England, tracking a long-term falling away from the high standards of the Puritan fathers and mothers, a loss of vigor and faith that was fundamental by the end of the seventeenth century. Hall, on the other hand, views the movement toward a pluralistic, secular society as favorable, as regeneration rather than degeneration.

The title of the study is misleading. Increase Mather is not the last Puritan. If anything, the last Puritans were reactionaries such as William Stoughton and Elisha Cooke, who continued to champion the old order in the face of so much change. Mather was an agent of that change, albeit at times an unwitting one.

Still, it is refreshing to see the reputation of one of America’s early premier families resurrected. Even the peripatetic Cotton, Increase Mather’s son, receives sympathetic treatment. Cotton differs with his father as easily as Increase did with Richard, suggesting, quite appropriately, that opinion among the orthodox was itself often diverse. It also was enriched by an awe of science and reason. Orthodox opinion may not have been nearly as diverse as the pluralism which would follow, but it was not nearly so narrow, limited, or restrictive as a previous generation of American scholars supposed.  

Dan Campbell was at the time of writing visiting assistant professor of history at Grand Valley State University.

Posted: July 26, 2015 in Best of the Bookman.

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