Cotton Mather’s Influence over the Salem Witch Trials: Analytical Essay

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The Salem Witch Trials represented a corporeal emulation of base human nature. New Historicism views the trials as both a product and result of the social, political, and religious climates seen in the seventeenth-century New World. A culmination of these myriad factors that wrought Puritanical New England brought about a level of hysteria that climaxed in bloodshed; this is a tale known all too well, especially for early Americans. Indisputably, Cotton Mather’s influence over the Salem Witch Trials was felt by the entire community. His personal life and familial legacy had trained him for a life of public judgment, and his religious education primed him for an obsessive quest for communal purification. Because Mather’s integral involvement in chronicling the Salem Witch Trials is so infamously known and studied by modern scholars, it is difficult to imagine the proceedings occurring if he had not chosen them as one of his most notorious fixations. Can one person change the course of history? In this paper, I will argue that without Cotton Mather’s influence the Salem Witch Trials would not have reached the levels that they did; nor possibly occurred at all.

Puritanical New England, 1692, was undergoing a time of immense creation, assimilation, and change. What was founded under beliefs of rebirth and renewal in religious freedom and fervor of faith soon became a breeding ground for conflict, conspiracy, and death. Politically, socially, and religiously, it was not safe for dissenters of any kind. Politically speaking, the men and women of Massachusetts had recently left a monarchy they had known their entire lives. They were still under the crown’s authority, but each colony was essentially left unto its own devices as to how it would most effectively govern itself inter- and intra-communally. Socially speaking, the air of independence that the colonists felt could be considered dangerous; it would certainly turn that way in time. Like a child free from its parent for the first time, that sense of sovereignty would lead to rashness and impulsivity: that feeling of fleeting impunity before the shoe drops and reality sets in. Religiously speaking, the New World being founded upon the basis of freedom from tyrannical, impure England, it would soon become apparent that corruption does not discriminate based upon geography.

Religious upheaval versus conventionality and stagnation plagued the colonies. For some, it was not enough to simply worship and live just lives; they had to impart these fervors on those around them, and, in the case of the Salem Trials, at great cost to all parties involved. The Salem Witch Trials preyed on a vulnerable time in our nation’s history. Newly emigrated from Europe, those living in colonies were not yet accustomed or fully aware of what their new identity would entail. This would lead to an openness to harsh, if not at times tyrannical, rule.

A large component of the uncertainty that swept through seventeenth century New England was the crippling fear of God. “Fear and paranoia permeate the atmosphere…It’s the inescapable sense that we have angered God by our way of life and have brought his punishment down upon our heads” (Freed). Pair this fear with unstable leadership, and Salem, Massachusetts was due for trouble. Leadership fell to the son of famous lineage: Cotton Mather. Today, he is regarded by some scholars and academics as “an untested and ungifted scion who inherited his office and imagines himself chosen to lead the battle of the Lord against the encroaching darkness;” in his own day, his reviews were mixed among the community (Freed).

Cotton Mather’s influence over the Salem Witch Trials had lasting effects on his contemporary community, future generations, and in respect to American history at large. His personal life and familial legacy had trained him for a life of public judgment, and his religious education primed him for an obsessive quest for communal purification. “Mather was the grandson of Richard Mather and John Cotton, leading first-generation ministers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the son of another prominent minister, Increase Mather…Young Cotton Mather shouldered the burden of this inheritance, viewing it as a precious legacy…” (Levine, Robert S., and Julia Reidhead 321). Educated at Harvard at the young age of twelve after a thorough tutoring from his father, Cotton Mather often felt trapped in his father’s shadow. His desire to break from this led him down arguably extremist and controversial roads.

Cotton Mather preached during a complicated religious environment. He was aware of this, and seemed to use it to fuel his sermons, as well as lay foundational bias for his readers during the trials. Mather’s desire to leave his father and grandfather’s shadows led him down a hard path. His insistence that he was acting on God’s will, in his mind, furthered his claims to pursue more controversial avenues during the Salem Witch Trials. Mather clearly had multiple motives, not the least of which was providing his parishioners with ample evidence that God, and Satan, were waiting at every turn for a chance at claiming a new soul for himself.

As Salem’s minister, his involvement in the trials could arguably stem from his desire to re-route his parishioners back into the fold. “The issues that seemed most pressing to his parishioners were political and social rather than theological. Mather defended the old order of church authority against the encroachment of an increasingly secular world” (Levine, Robert S., and Julia Reidhead 322). What better way to form tractable, faithful members of the community than in principles of fear and damnation? The church in many instances has implemented similar scare tactics in the hopes of instilling the fear of God into the hearts and souls of its congregations. So, too, “[Cotton Mather sought] to replace or augment the ever-fragile political power of the clergy with moral chastisement and persuasion” (Levine, Robert S., and Julia Reidhead 322). This strategy, when paired with crowd mentality, creates a fatal cycle. As the moral guidance for Salem, Mather’s duty to the people should have begun—and ended—in the confines of the church walls in the effort to preserve church versus state; notably, an issue that had not yet taken firm shape in the colonies.

A reason the trials became such a large cause of bloodshed and debate, even today, arose from the conspiracies, propaganda, and ‘media’ coverage that it received. Namely, Mather’s coverage of the trials gave those accusers and accused an outlet for memorialization. His personal testimonies translated to divine doctrine.

It is suggested that Mather’s writings may have in fact sparked the first cries of witchcraft among the young women of Salem. It comes as no great surprise; to read these words, not to mention to hear them in church on Sunday, must have been indescribable. The fear of God was, and remains to this day, a powerful motivator. To Mather, possession, if not detected and divinely brought out, was surely hazardous to people individually and communally, spiritually and physically. He made it quite clear that he was not afraid of scaring his readers and listeners into submission to the will of God.

Now, with proper historical foundation laid, the next few paragraphs will briefly summarize the trials before going further down an interpretive path in regard to its foundation in conspiracy, propaganda, and crowd mentality.

While many factors contributed to what we today consider horrific, crazed events, Cotton Mather’s involvement directly changed the course of history in regard to the Salem Witch Trials. He was not a judge, nor the town’s political leader; he was, however, their minister and reporter. In charge of both preaching the word of God on Sundays, as well as chronicling the town’s events for historical records, Mather’s two primary roles in the community were disastrous when paired.

Mather created a monster using the power of persuasion and manipulation of the earliest mass media forums: speech and literature. “[Recent scholars] accused Mather of ‘getting up’ the Salem tragedy by publicizing a case of witchcraft that occurred in Boston in 1688” (Werking 281). Mather mixed church and state by acting as both pastor and reporter. It was evident that his conflicting interests not only affected the trials in real-time, but also continued to affect the community after they had ended. “[Mather] attempt[ed] to revive the matter after the Salem trials had ended by zealously and credulously attempting to cure persons allegedly victimized by witches” (Werking 281). A town reporter, who also acted as their sole minister and guider of all things faith related, sent the wrong message to the colonists. In their minds, if the person chronicling our history was to remain engaged, the stories he was writing had to inherently have basis in God, Satan, and issues of morality. Hyperbolizing these contrasts would engage Mather; thus, immortalizing the town through infamy forever.

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Notably, crowd mentality also played a distinct role in the psychological makeup and understanding of the convoluted environment present during the Salem Witch Trials. The men and women—both those who were convicted and those that did the convicting—fell victim to rampant crowd mentality. This is a tale we know too well, as it has come up time and again in history. When the desire to remain alive outweighs your loyalty to friends, family, and neighbors, it becomes all too easy a decision to point the finger at anybody besides yourself. However, here is a strong point to note: those pointed fingers were coerced because of the historical environment.

The lack of trust was perpetuated wherever colonists looked. It did not help that their own minister, the place the people were meant to turn to in times of hardship and guidance, was the town’s very own scribe, the one calling for further trials and communal purification. For the people, seeing this created a mixture of emotions. If the town pastor is calling for the witch trials, scribing them for historical records, is this my way to God’s good graces? Is condemning my neighbor my ticket to eternal salvation?

Further complications arise in a more psychologically-framed, less theological, scenario: the desire to be important. Cotton Mather gave these people a voice, a forum in which they could be immortalized. It begs conversation around the question: does anybody do something if no one is watching? Most would argue, albeit idealistically, that yes, people will continue to do good, behave according to their character, and live relatively moderate lives no matter if they are watched or not. But, as human beings, we are fallible. The audience, the notoriety, the fame; all these things call to us and, as a response, the potential exists to do some very questionable things in order to maintain them.

Mather, as town chronicler and pastor, was forever linking these events in history in accordance with God’s will. With his pen, he was immortalizing Salem and preserving its people, their claims, their lies, forever. By giving these people an outlet—a media source in which to live in infamy forever—Mather created monsters of men and women. With the glory of eternity, Mather’s unspoken promise to memorialize these events in his writing acted as a primary cause for their continuance.

It remains to declare alleged counterarguments, disband them using further research, and conclude with a position in favor of my thesis. The counterarguments that I will present deal primarily with the assertion that as Cotton Mather’s direct involvement in the trials was obsolete, he could not have possibly held too much significance over the decisions, leanings, and convictions of the Salem trials.

First and foremost, the trials did not come about as a result of a closed system. Many historical indicators were in existence long before Mather’s birth and ascension to a position of power and religious authority. “Belief in the supernatural—and specifically in the devil’s practice of giving certain humans (witches) the power to harm others in return for their loyalty—had emerged in Europe as early as the 14th century, and was widespread in colonial New England” (History.com Editors).

Harsh realities faced the colonists that did not lend themselves well to kinship, trust, or loyalty. Amid “the after-effects of a British war with France in the American colonies in 1689, a recent smallpox epidemic, fears of attacks from neighboring Native American tribes and a longstanding rivalry with the more affluent community of Salem Town,” the trials would, in large part, be instigated by colonists’ suspicions, distrust, and resentment toward others and their innate fear of outsiders (History.com Editors).

It is worthy here to note that Mathers himself did variate on the issue of the trials, but this was not necessarily due to the common good of humanity; rather, it seemed to stem from his desire to be right when research hinted otherwise. Primarily, here, I speak of his work with spectral evidence. Based on dreams and visions, spectral evidence is controversial at best. Often used in testimony during the trials, Mather was noted hesitant on its reliability in a court of law. This did not, however, fully stop him from chronicling the trials, continuing to impart the will of God and fear of the devil in the hearts of the community, and propagate the trials through fear of damnation.

Cotton Mather was not a judge of the trials, nor did he attend many of them. His work was principally that of spiritual leader, historical chronicler, and confidant for those fallen astray. Judges John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin presided over the trials, and were the two men directly responsible for the execution of twenty men and women—out of roughly two hundred convicted and tried—from 1692 to 1693 (Blumberg). From this perspective, Mather cannot be held responsible for either the death of any man or woman, nor for the trial’s court decisions. He can, however, be held accountable for fostering crowd mentality and propagating an environment of distrust, conspiracy, and call to action under threat of painful death and damnation under the wrath of God. Mather’s position as both pastor and reporter sent subliminal messages to his constituents that the church supported the Salem Witch Trials.

Despite these counters, it is without doubt that Mather’s words held power over people and could have had the potential to spark feelings of extremist fervor. Because of his historied reputation in Salem as town minister, his writings—no matter how fanatic—did not succinctly alienate him. Even after the trials were over, mixed opinions on Mather remained—both favorable and not. “[H]owever the reaction from the witch frenzy first manifested itself, whatever were the immediate causes, the nature and extent of that reaction, which came all too slowly and too timidly—the development of which no one to this day has quite fully delineated—that reaction, did not involve Cotton Mather in any serious loss of public following, or in any serious diminution of his personal prestige” (Holmes 31-32). His writings immortalized the events, provided the trials with a stage, and gave the townspeople at outlet in which to make their mark on history. As their minister, Mather represented the community’s moral guidance and leadership. As their reporter, he acted as their gateway to God and His will through the spread of ‘divine’ conspiracy, propaganda, and promises of salvation.

Over the course of his adult life, Mather published more than four hundred literary works. Many of these works dealt with the Salem Witchcraft Trials, of “which exemplif[ied] central tensions between the Puritan worldview and an emerging, science-based modern order” (Levine, Robert S. and Julia Reidhead 321). Though his presence, both physical and through his writing, was noteworthy during the trials as he took meticulous notes and was established as the principle chronicler, “Mather was only indirectly involved in the prosecutions” (Levine, Robert S. and Julia Reidhead 321-322). One of Mather’s primary concerns during this time seemed fixated on discovering the truth, no matter the forum or potential cost. “He studied the phenomena associated with witchcraft in much the same manner as he sought to understand other physical, mental, and spiritual phenomena” (Levine, Robert S. and Julia Reidhead 322). Mather was interested in facts, and held little sympathy for what he considered earthly measures taken in the pursuit of heavenly agenda.

At the same time, Mather manipulated his words in such a way that his readers believe him/her selves to have come up with each testimony, rather than the information being directly force-fed to each and every constituent as heaven-sent order. “But I shall no longer detain my reader from his expected entertainment…For my own part, I was not present at any of them; nor ever had I any personal prejudice at the persons thus brought upon the stage…The Lord comfort them!” (Mather 324). Feigning sympathy, Mather continues to recount the events leading up to and concurrent with the trial, and death, of one trial victim as if it is understood the reader is begging to hear more. By supplanting how the reader ‘should’ feel, Mather removes any blame from himself and his propaganda, and allocates it to the true cause of events: the devil and his threatening possessions.

His religious zealotry, position of power, and respect among the community led to a lethal combination. Cotton Mather was a pastor, a reporter, a political activist, and an instigator and propagator of the Salem Witch Trials. His writings and sermons instilled the fear of God into his constituents’ hearts. His call for communal purification would end in bloodshed, as do many cases of religious extremism—past, present, and future.

Works Cited

  1. Blumberg, Jess. “A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials.” ASKSmithsonian, 23 Oct. 2007. Accessed 4 August 2019.
  2. Freed, Amy. 'Theater; what Possessed them? A Shameless Betrayal of Principles Surrounded the 17th Century Salem Witch Trials. here's Why I Felt Compelled to Deal with it as Farce.' Los Angeles Times, Apr 04, 2004. ProQuest. Accessed 21 June 2019.
  3. History.com Editors. “Salem Witch Trials.” HISTORY, A&E Television Networks, 6 June 2019. Accessed 4 August 2019.
  4. Holmes, Thomas J. “Cotton Mather and his Writings on Witchcraft.” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, vol. 18, 1924, pp. 31–59. JSTOR. Accessed 21 June 2019.
  5. Levine, Robert S., and Julia Reidhead, editors. “Cotton Mather, 1663-1728.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume A: Beginnings to 1820, 9th Edition. Edited by Robert S. Levine. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2017, pp. 321-322.
  6. Mather, Cotton. “The Wonders of the Invisible World.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume A: Beginnings to 1820, 9th Edition. Edited by Robert S. Levine and Julia Reidhead. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2017, pp. 322-325.
  7. Werking, Richard H. “‘Reformation Is Our Only Preservation’: Cotton Mather and Salem Witchcraft.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 2, 1972, pp. 281–290. JSTOR. Accessed 21 June 2019.
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