Cotton Mather and the Salem Witch Trials

Cotton Mather was born on February 12, 1663, in Boston, USA, to Increase Mather. He was grandson to Richard Mather and John Cotton, thus his first name, Cotton.

He was to become a leading Congregational minister of Boston’s Old North church, the most celebrated New England writer of his day, and one of the founders of Yale University. Altogether he wrote about 450 books!

His scientific papers won him “a coveted election to the Royal Society of London in 1713” – indeed his studies in inoculation “may be said to mark the beginning of preventive medicine in the Western world” (Who’s Who in Christian History, page 461). He persuaded Zabdiel Boylston to inoculate against smallpox and supported the unpopular inoculation even when his life was threatened.

These days, however, he is remembered mainly for the role he played in the infamous Salem witch trials when teenage girls began accusing various folk in the community of being witches. As a result 20 people were hung and about 200 imprisoned. And Cotton Mather wrote in defence of these proceedings.

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The whole process began when four daughters of a Boston mason, John Goodwin, complained of sudden pains. Mather suspected that witchcraft may be the cause, particularly suspecting an Irish washerwoman named Mary Glover. His book “Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions” (1689) outlined his beliefs on the matter.

When a court was set up to investigate the situation, three of the five judges were from Mather’s congregation and were influenced by Mather to respect what was called ‘spectral’ evidence and the confessions of the witches.

The number of those who confessed increased, prompting Mather to conclude that a veritable army of devils had been sent against them. He preached on August 4, 1692, that the Last Judgement was imminent. On August 19 ex-minister George Burroughs was executed by hanging, on Gallows Hill. However, Burroughs successfully quoted the Lord’s Prayer, which was thought impossible by a witch. Mather insisted on the execution, because Burroughs had been found guilty at trial.

Mather’s involvement in these proceedings mired his reputation and takes focus from his many worthy achievements as a man of God impacting the culture of his day.

An interesting comment in his diary reveals something of the Puritan zeal in those days. He tells us how the Lord helped him preach for three hours at a young people’s meeting – despite the fact he only had one hour for preparation. “And a good day it was!” he adds (Prophets of the Soul, by J. Gray, page 25).

His religious leadership and political influence continued in the spirit of his forefathers, to advance learning and education and to make New England a cultural centre. He hoped to become president of Harvard, which did not happen, but was one of the moving spirits in the founding of Yale.

Cotton Mather died on 13 February – the day after his 65th birthday – in 1728.

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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: