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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 Last Days of Increase Mather

By Cotton Mather (1663–1728)

[Memoirs of Remarkables in the Life and the Death of the Ever-Memorable Dr. Increase Mather. 1724.]

AND now the time draws nigh, in which Dr. Mather is to die.

He grows old, yet what a green olive-tree in the proseucha of his God!—nec tarda senectus debilitat vires animi, mutatve vigorem.

Old age came on. But what an one! How bright! How wise! How strong! And in what an uncommon measure serviceable! He had been an old man while he was yet a young man; I can quote a Rabby for it: Sapiens appellatur senex, etiamsi diebus sit exiguus. And now he was an old man his public performances had a vigor in them, which ’tis a rare thing to see a young man have any thing equal to.

How did the good people far and near discover even a growth of their appetite for the enjoyment of as much as might be obtained from him! The churches would not permit an ordination to be carried on without him as long as he was able to travel in a coach unto them.

Though in the prefaces of the useful books which he now published he repeated an ungrantable request unto his friends, “no longer to pray for his life,” they only prayed the more for it. When he had finished forty-nine years of his public ministry he preached a sermon full of rare and rich thoughts upon “A Jubilee;” and he requested for a dismission from any further public labors. His flock prized them too much to hear of that; but anon, when they saw the proper time for it, that they might render his old age as easy as might be to him, they wisely and kindly voted it, “That the labors of the pulpit should be expected from him only when he should find himself able and inclined for them.” It would be no strange thing if while he wanted yet some years to reach fourscore there should be found some little thing that might carry something of senile weakness in it. But he held it unto fourscore in a wonderful exercise of his intellectual powers, and with public ministrations to very great congregations, which his ministry continued still to give the greatest satisfaction to. A treatise which he published about this time, concerning “An Hoary Head found in the Way of Righteousness,” notably described what he was himself, and as notably declared, what he was yet able to do. He continued preaching to vast assemblies; and such well composed sermons that the notes taken by some ready writers after him, when communicated unto the public by the way of the press, found their acceptance in the churches. Among which ready writers we owe our particular thanks to a virtuous gentlewoman, whose exquisite pen helped several of his treatises into the world; in some sort as the excellent Lady Rich did the most valuable and admirable books of Mr. Strong on “The Covenant.” Yea, and even after fourscore the old prophetic strain had not forsaken him.

In September, 1720, he preached an awful sermon (from Amos iii. 7,) on this doctrine: “When God has an holy purpose to visit his people with great judgments, He uses to give them notice and warning of it beforehand.” In the conclusion he expressly fortold; first, “That an heavy judgment was impending over Boston, that would speedily be executed.” And then, “That the churches of the country were near to some shocking dispensations.” He added: “My brethren, I take no pleasure in testifying unto you of evil days. But when the Word of the Lord is like a fire in a man’s bones, there must be something said that may awaken you out of your security.” Now within a few months after this the small-pox was brought into Boston, and within as few months more the besom of destruction swept away near a thousand people. And how strangely was way made for the Destroying Angel to do his execution!

But let me not anticipate. I am saying that until fourscore the Doctor held it unto admiration! And on the day of his attaining to fourscore he preached a sermon full of light and life on those words, Ezek. xvi. 5, “The day when thou wast born.” They that wrote after him have printed it. The mens et ratio et consilium which are by Cicero mentioned as the prerogatives of “Old Age,” were found in him to an uncommon degree. On very many accounts he might have said, as old Georgias did, Nihil habeo propter quod senectutem meam accusem; yea, as a better man, old Drusius did, Senectus mihi melior quam ipsa juvenius. But that which most of all gave him a comfortable old age, was what Calvin, who did not live to old age, well pitches on as the chiefest comfort of old age: Tenendum est, præcipuam partem bonæ senectutis, in bona conscientia animoque; sereno ac tranquillo consistere. A good heart, filled with the love and peace of God and the soul of an Abraham.

In consideration of this [Greek], it was not amiss for a grandson, upon the birthday on which he entered fourscore, thus to compliment him.

  • To my most honoured Grandfather, on the day of his entering the eightieth year of his age.
  • To my Grandfather in all good so great,
  • His nephew does his age congratulate.
  • ’Tis not enough, Syr, that you live to see
  • Such years; we hope you’ll our true Nestor be.
  • We wish the years in which you live and preach,
  • To those of a Methuselah may reach.
  • ’Tis true, in common reckoning we suppose
  • You want eight hundred eighty-six of those,
  • But measuring life by works and not by years,
  • Your age nine hundred sixty nine appears.
  • Methuselah had a bright father too;
  • A “walker with his God;” Syr, such as you.
  • If you and we must have a parting day,
  • Death, strike not!—Let him go in Enoch’s way.
  • And Syr, if prophets mayn’t forever live,
  • May you in Grandsons left by you survive.
  • But it is now time for me to tell that after fourscore the report of Moses did no longer want confirmation with him. He began to be more sensible of those decays which not only caused him to recite the verse of the Roman satirist:

  • O quam continuis, et quantis plena senectus longa malis!——.
  • but also caused him several times to say to me: “Be sure, you don’t pray that you may live beyond fourscore!” Yet now he preached nobly on “An Old Disciple;” as well as many other subjects.

    And now, he that had wished for “sufferings for the Lord,” must be content with sufferings from the Lord. Even these borne with the faith and patience of the saints have a sort of martyrdom in them, and will add unto the “far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.”

    On September 25th, he did with an excellent and pathetic prayer, in a mighty auditory, conclude a “day of prayer” kept by his church, to obtain a good success of the Gospel and the growth of real and vital piety, with plentiful effusions of the good Spirit, especially upon the “Rising Generation.” Within two days after this he fell into an apoplectic sort of deliquium (very much occasioned, as it was thought, by too extreme a concern of his mind on some late occurrences at New Haven), out of which he recovered in a few minutes; but it so enfeebled him, that he never went abroad any more.

    However, his “wisdom yet remained with him.”