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Thursday, February 28, 2019

February 28, 2019: The Salem Witch Trials: The Mathers

[On March 1st, 1692, authorities in Salem, MA questioned Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and the slave known as Tituba over allegations of witchcraft, the first event in what would become the Salem Witch Trials. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Salem Witch Trials contexts and legacies.]
On the three generations that embody the first Anglo American century.
For much of 1633, and again in 1634, London clergyman Richard Mather was suspended for failing to conform to the Anglican Church’s strict regulations for preachers. Wearying of that climate of orthodoxy, and encouraged by colleagues already in the New World (including John Cotton), Mather and his young family took ship for Massachusetts in June 1635. Once there, Mather became an impassioned advocate for New World Puritanism in its debates with the European branch, as in his tract Church Government and Church Covenant Discussed. Four of his six sons followed Mather into the ministry, establishing his name as one of the colony’s most powerful clerical—which is to say also political and social—forces and legacies.
The youngest of those sons, Increase Mather, certainly illustrated the potency of that expanding family legacy, not only in his own ecclesiastical efforts, but also and more tellingly in his multiple other roles: as a president of Harvard College, a recipient of the new world’s first honorary doctorate, an advocate for reinstating the Massachusetts Charter in opposition to the Dominion of New England, a son-in-law of John Cotton, and a contemporary historian of King Philip’s War, among others. If that war indicated one way in which Richard’s idealized Massachusetts was crumbling by the end of the 17th century, Increase was also and more centrally connected to a second such fissure: the Salem Witch Trials. By that time one of the region’s most prominent and powerful figures, Increase had the ability to stop the trials if any individual did; but despite doubts, about which he did write publicly, he mostly sided with his fellow powerful ministers and judges.
I’ve written elsewhere about the two sides of Increase’s son Cotton Mather: his own failure to publicly oppose the Witch Trials and indeed his book that seemed to support the need for them, despite even stronger private reservations than Increase’s; and yet his impressive and influential advocacy for smallpox inoculation. It’s fair to say, then, that this third-generation Mather minister, named after both of his influential grandfathers, exemplified both the worst and best of the family’s legacies: the kinds of hierarchical power structures that could close ranks around the Witch Trial judges; and yet the kinds of innovative and bold efforts that led the Puritans to Massachusetts in the first place, and helped create the new world and nation of which they were such a significant part.
Last Witch Trials context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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