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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Home Life of Cotton Mather

By Samuel Mather (1706–1785)

[Born in Boston, Mass., 1706. Died there, 1785. The Life of the Very Reverend and Learned Cotton Mather. 1729.]

I MUST here mention it for the glory of God as well as the honor of his servant, that, although he met with so many bereavements in his family (as well as sorrows on other accounts), yet he never “fainted in the day of adversity.” He thought his sorrows should rather animate than hinder his numerous “essays to do good;” and therefore, when the desires of his eyes were taken away, and when he was deprived of his children, none of these things moved him so far as to hinder him from his duty. No! He ever preached after their deaths, every one of their deaths, and printed the sermons, that so others might be the better for his griefs….

I will conclude section 4 with reciting some special rules which he observed in the education of his children.

He poured out continual prayers to the God of all grace for them, that he would be a father to them, bestow his Son and grace upon them, guide them by his counsel, and bring them to glory. And in this action he mentioned them distinctly, every one by name, to the Lord.

He began betimes to entertain them with delightful stories, especially Scriptural ones; and he would ever conclude with some lesson of piety, bidding them to learn that lesson from the story.

And thus every day at the table he used himself to tell some entertaining tale before he rose; and endeavor to make it useful to the olive-plants about the table.

When his children accidentally at any time came in his way, it was his custom to let fall some sentence or other, that might be monitory or profitable to them. This matter occasioned labor, study and contrivance.

He betimes tried to engage his children in exercises of piety; and especially secret prayer. For while he gave them very plain and brief directions, and would suggest unto them the petitions which he would have them make before the Lord, and which he would therefore explain to their apprehension and capacity. And he would often call upon them: “Child, don’t you forget every day to go alone and pray as I have directed you.”

He betimes endeavored to form in his children a temper of benignity. He would put them upon doing services and kindnesses for one another and for other children. He would applaud them when he saw them delight in it. He would upbraid all aversion to it. He would caution them exquisitely against all revenges of injuries, and would instruct them to return good offices for evil ones. He would show them how they would by this goodness become like the good God and the blessed Jesus. He would let them discern he was not satisfied, except when they had a sweetness of temper shining in them.

As soon as possible he would make the children learn to write; and, when they had the use of the pen, he would employ them in writing out the most instructive and profitable things he could invent for them. In this way he proposed to fill their minds with excellent things, which he hoped would make a deep impression upon their minds.

He incessantly endeavored that his children might betimes be acted by principles of reason and honor.

He would first beget in them an high opinion of their Father’s love to them, and of his being best able to judge what shall be good for them.

Then he would make them sensible it was folly for them to pretend to any wit or will of their own. They must resign all to him, who would be sure to do what is best; his Word must be their Law.

He would cause them to understand that it is an hurtful and shameful thing to do amiss. He would aggravate this on all occasions, and let them see how amiable they will render themselves by well-doing.

The first chastisement which he would inflict for any ordinary fault, was to let the child see and hear him in an astonishment, and hardly able to believe that the child could do so base a thing; but believing that they would never do it again.

He would never come to give the child a blow, except in case of obstinacy or something that is very criminal.

To be chased for a while out of his presence, he would make to be looked upon as the sorest punishment in his family.

He would with all possible insinuations come upon them to gain this point, that “to learn all great things was the noblest thing in the world.” He was not fond of proposing play to them as a reward of any diligent application to learn what is good; lest they should think diversion to be a better and nobler thing than diligence. He would have them to propound and expect at this rate: “I have done well; and now I will go to my father, who will teach me something curious for it.” He would have his children account it a privilege to be taught; and would sometimes manage the matter so, that refusing to teach them something should be looked upon as a punishment. The strain of his threatenings therefore was: “You shall not be allowed to read, or to write, or to learn such a thing, if you do not as I have bidden you.”

The slavish way of education, carried on with raving and kicking and scourging (in schools as well as families) he looked upon as a dreadful judgment of God on the world; he thought the practice abominable and expressed a mortal aversion to it.

Though he found a vast, a wonderful advantage in having his children strongly biassed by the principles of reason and honor (which he observed that children will feel and understand sooner than is commonly thought for), yet he would not neglect any means and endeavors to have higher principles infused into them.

He would therefore betimes awe them with the sense of the eye of God upon them in the ways which they take. He would show them how they must love our Lord Jesus Christ, and how they must demonstrate it by doing what their parents require of them. He would often tell them of the good angels, who love them, help them, guard them from evil, and do many good offices for them; who likewise take a very diligent notice of them, and ought not in any measure to be disobliged.

He would not say much to them of the evil angels; because he would not have them entertain any frightful fancies about the apparitions of devils. But yet he would briefly let them know that there are devils, who tempt them to wickedness, who are glad when they do wickedly, and who may get leave of God to kill them for it. Heaven and hell he set before them clearly and faithfully, as the consequences of their good or bad behavior here.

When the children were capable of it, he would take them alone one by one; and, after many affectionate, loving, strong charges unto them to fear God, to serve Christ and shun sin, he would pray with them in his study, and make them the witnesses of the agonies and strong cries with which he, on their behalf, addressed the Throne of Grace.

He found much benefit by a particular method, as of catechising the children, so of carrying on the repetition of the public sermons unto them. The answers of the catechism he would explain with abundance of brief questions which make them to take in the whole meaning; and he found by this way that they did so. And when the sermons were to be repeated, he chose to put every truth into a question, to be answered with “Yes,” or “No.” In this way he would awaken the attention as well as enlighten the understanding of his children. And in this way he would take the opportunity to ask: “Do you desire such or such a grace of God?” and the like. And in this way he had opportunity to demand, and perhaps to obtain, their early and frequent (and why not sincere?) consent unto the glorious Articles of the New Covenant….

It is a saying of Gerson’s, Qui bene vivit semper orat, He that lives well, prays without ceasing. Mr. Mather was one of those “good livers.” He prayed always, at least six times a day every day….

His conversation he endeavored to render extremely entertaining, and it was so; for he produced such a variety of useful discourse as made him welcome wherever there was any relish for learning, politeness, and ingenuity. He had the Je ne scay quoi of conversation in perfection. As for his friends when in company with him, when his speech dropped upon them, after his words they spake not again; they waited for him, as for the rain, and they opened their mouth wide as for the latter rain. If he laughed on them, they believed it not. And as for his enemies,—even they confessed his excellent and profitably pleasing conversation, and in society with him they were filled with silent wonder. Happy the conversation and happy the sharers in it!

I shall here give you the rules he observed in conversing. They may be ranked under three heads:

First, he would not affect loquacity in his discourses, but, on the contrary, much deliberation. The gravity and discretion accompanying such a caution, he beheld as of greater consequence to one in all companies than the reputation of wit, which by a greater volubility of tongue might easily be acquired; and, besides, he remembered “in many words there wants not sin.”

Secondly, he would studiously decline to utter anything that he foresaw might be useless; and much more, everything that might be hurtful and sinful to be uttered. It was his ambition everywhere to speak usefully, and say only those things that one or other might be the wiser or better for.

Thirdly, he would, with all the nice contrivance imaginable, improve opportunities to say something or other that might particularly set off some glories of his Lord. He would everywhere contrive, if it were possible, to let fall some sentence or other, by which high thoughts of Christ might be raised in those that heard him.

Thinking his charitable disbursements may most suitably be reserved for the next chapter, I shall only here give you his private sentiments of charitableness in his own words:

“I am not unable with a little study to write in seven languages. I feast myself with the sweets of all the sciences which the more polite part of mankind ordinarily pretend unto. I am entertained with all kinds of histories, ancient and modern. I am no stranger to the curiosities, which by all sorts of learning are brought unto the curious. These intellectual pleasures are far beyond any sensual ones. Nevertheless, all this affords me not so much delight as it does to relieve the distresses of any one poor, mean, miserable neighbor; and much more to do any extensive service for the redress of those epidemical miseries under which mankind in general is languishing, and to advance the kingdom of God in the world.” His private conduct was consonant with his sentiments.

It was his watchful desire and study, never to maintain a personal quarrel with any man breathing; but rather deny himself of his humor, his esteem, or anything in the world. His reason was, because no man can manage a personal quarrel without losing abundance of precious time, which may be laid out infinitely better in the service of Christ and his Church; besides a deal of inevitable sin, which will insinuate itself into every personal quarrel by which one’s internal peace is broken. And further, since we have but a short time to live in the world, he thought it foolish to throw away any of it in squabbles.

Considering that for men, even good men, to speak evil one of another, is a very evil thing, he thought it would be a considerable service to seek the suppression of that vice or any vergencies to it in himself. Wherefore, after nights to his Jesus for strength to will and perform, he made these resolutions.

That he would never speak falsely of any man; and that if he spake evil of any man, it should be under these limitations and regulations:

First, that he would keep a charity for the person of whom he spoke, wishing most heartily that all good might be spoken of him; and he would from charity speak to those when with them; always thinking, “Whether what he said might be for the benefit of the hearers?”

Secondly, if he spoke what was evil of any person, he would carefully watch over his heart, that he did not utter it with delight. He would manage it with brevity and aversion, as a very ungrateful subject.

Thirdly, when he must or was obliged to speak what is evil of any man, if he knew of any good that could be spoken of him, he would be sure to balance the evil with the mention of the good.

Fourthly, before he would speak evil of a man, he would consider whether he should not first speak to him; and, be it how it will, he would ordinarily speak nothing, but what he should cheerfully and contentedly say in the hearing of the man of whom he is talking.

And, fifthly, he would aggravate nothing; and when he spoke of an evil would not make it worse than it was.

These rules he conscientiously observed. Would to God, others were so careful as to take a due notice of them!

Because he did not love to be disturbed with tedious and impertinent visitors, and because his friends (amici temporis fures) might sometimes unseasonably interrupt him, he wrote over his study door in capitals, BE SHORT. And yet, let him be ever so busy when a friend came to see him, he threw all by, he was perfectly easy, with pleasure communicated the observations he had lately met with, and was so very obliging that, although his friends knew his hurry and great business, they knew not how to leave him.

He would rarely see a torn leaf of a Bible in the street, but would take it up with some particular mark of respect; not knowing but he might find some special admonition. This he found a very profitable practice.

When he rode abroad, he would most commonly take some young gentleman with him, with whom he used to pray in private at their lodging in inns and gentlemen’s houses, and unto whom he would endeavor in all possible ways to recommend religion with the sweet and easy, but strong charms of it.

When he went into any considerable towns, he would for the most part beg play-days for the boys; and, as a condition for their being excused from school, he would enjoin some religious task upon them.

If he heard that any person had done him wrong in word or deed, he would seldom let him know that he had any knowledge of it. The best way he thought was to forgive the wrong and bury it in silence. For, besides the consideration due to the internal advantage reaped by such Christianity, there is this to be considered: Such is the malignity in the most of men, that they will hate you only because they know they have wronged you. They will, as far as they can, justify the wrong they have done you; and because they imagine you owe them a like wrong, they will bear a confirmed spite to you. But he found the best way was patience and silence: the consequence of which has been, those who wronged him became his best friends afterwards….

In the observation of one whole year of his Diary, I take notice of it:

That he had preached about seventy-two public sermons and many private ones; perhaps near half as many.

That not one day passed without some contrivance to do good invented and registered; besides, I suppose, many never entered his memorials.

That no one day had passed without being able to say at night, that some of his revenues, though small, had been dealt out to pious uses.

That he had prepared and published about fourteen books.

That he had kept sixty fasts and twenty-two vigils.

A vast variety of other things I find recorded, which I shall omit; I bring this only as a specimen of his Diary, how it was replenished and what pains he took not to spend his life in vain.

But, notwithstanding he took such care of spending his time, yet I often in his books find him complaining of his “deficiencies,” etc. His first years he calls “time so misspent as to render it unworthy to be called a life.” After he was grown in years, he chose rather to say, such a “year of his age” than his “life.” On one of his books I read, such a “year of a forfeited life;” on another year, of “my sinning against my precious Redeemer;” on another, “Alas, of my unfruitfulness!” On a fourth, “A year sweel’d away in sin and sloth.” So that it might be said of him, as was said of one that was very “exact in his walk,” that his life was perpetua censura, a continual censure of himself.