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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 Witchcraft Excitement and the Mathers

By Josiah Quincy (1772–1864)

[The History of Harvard University. 1840.]

THE PARTICULARS of that excitement scarcely fall within the sphere of this history. Some reference to it, however, is required by the fact that, as the belief in the agency of the invisible world began to lessen, and some of those who were the chief actors in the tragedy to feel the weight of public indignation pressing upon them, they, being members of the Corporation, brought this body into the field for the purpose of giving countenance to that belief, and of sustaining this decaying faith. In March, 1694, a paper, purporting to be proposals made by the President and Fellows of Harvard College, prepared by both the Mathers, and signed by the whole board, was circulated throughout New England: inviting all men, and particularly the clergy, to observe and record “the illustrious discoveries of Divine Providence in the government of the world,” and among others, “apparitions, possessions, enchantments, and all extraordinary things, wherein the existence and agency of the invisible world are more sensibly demonstrated.”

That both the Mathers had an efficient agency in producing and prolonging that excitement, there can be, at this day, no possible question. The conduct of Increase Mather in relation to it was marked with caution and political skill; but that of his son, Cotton Mather, was headlong, zealous, and fearless, both as to character and consequences. In its commencement and progress, his activity is everywhere conspicuous. The part he acted in that tragedy has left on his memory a stain, which time has deepened rather than removed. Belief in invisible agencies was adapted to a mind naturally active, imaginative, and ambitious. He had been early taught the power of the imagination in matters of religion, and by the precept and example of his father had been instructed in the language of excitement and alarm. No sooner was the field left open to him, by the absence in Europe of his father and colleague, than he entered upon it with an ardor natural to his youth, and congenial with his temperament. Regarded as the hope of the clergy, he aspired to be their champion, and for a short time became their idol. At the age of twenty-seven, he was raised to a seat, by the side of his father, in the Corporation of the College. A short time afterward, the General Court constituted him their preacher on Election day. He was courted and consulted by the Governor and Lieutenant-Governor, Phips and Stoughton; both of whom were conscious that they were largely indebted to his influence for their respective appointments.

Excited and emboldened by the elevated station he had obtained, in relation both to the Colony and the College, Cotton Mather seized, with a sagacity characteristic of zeal and ambition, on that popular belief in invisible agencies, which the general tenor of the preaching of that day had encouraged and made almost universal in New England. His discourses from the pulpit were passionate and exciting; and awakened perpetually into action this popular delusion. He employed himself sedulously in seeking out every case, which encouraged faith in supernatural agencies. Thus standing before his contemporaries in the light, he incurred the responsibility of being its chief cause and promoter. In the progress of the superstitious fear, when it amounted to frenzy, and could only be satisfied with blood, he neither blanched nor halted; but attended the courts, watched the progress of invisible agency in the prisons, and joined the multitude in witnessing the executions. After “two hundred persons had been accused, one hundred and fifty imprisoned, nineteen hanged, one pressed to death, and twenty-eight condemned, one-third of whom were members of the churches, and more than half of good general conversation,” he wrote a formal treatise, entitled “Wonders of the Invisible World,” approving the proceedings of the courts, and exciting the multitude to a continuance in the belief, and the courts to a perseverance in their vindictiveness.

After the excitement had passed away, and shame had succeeded to passion, those who had guided or submitted to its course gave it the name of “popular delusion,” or of “a visitation of Providence.” But the delusion of the multitude is never general or violent, unless those who are their natural or assumed leaders countenance or encourage it. Nor ought human agents to be permitted to evade just responsibility, under pretence of supernatural suggestions and impulses. The guilt of the excesses and horrors, consequent on that excitement, rests, and ought to rest, heavily upon the leading divines and politicians of the Colony at that period; who had either the hardihood to uphold, or the cowardice not to withstand, the madness of the populace, of which they had been in no small degree the authors. Cotton Mather, however, with the singular infelicity of judgment which constituted an element of his character, while his contemporaries and coadjutors were drawing off from the delusion, and some of them, under the influence of shame and remorse, were confessing their sins and asking pardon of Heaven and their fellow-citizens, exhibited no uneasiness, no self-upbraidings. On the contrary, he continued to avow his belief, and thus connected his name and fame inseparably with that excitement, as its chief cause, agent, believer, and justifier.