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Trent and Wells, eds. Colonial Prose and Poetry. 1901.

Vol. II. The Beginnings of Americanism: 1650–1710

Increase Mather

OF the noted families of New England clergymen, that of the Mathers is probably the most distinguished. The founder of the family, Richard Mather, was born in Lancashire, England, in 1596, and died in Dorchester, Massachusetts, April 22, 1669. He was a strong man and a typical clergyman, who brought up six sons, four of whom were ministers. We have already learned something of his labors in connection with the Bay Psalm Book. Of his sons, the youngest, Increase, who was born June 21, 1639, at Dorchester, and died August 23, 1723, at Boston, was the most famous. A passage to be given shortly from the biography of him written by his still more famous son, Cotton, will explain how he came by his curious name, and will present some of his most marked characteristics. He graduated at Harvard in 1656, and then at the request of his older brothers, Samuel and Nathaniel, who were preachers in Ireland and England respectively, he crossed the Atlantic, took his second degree at Trinity College, Dublin, and received a ministerial charge in Devonshire. A little later he was made chaplain of a garrison in Guernsey, but after the Restoration returned to Massachusetts, and, in 1664, became pastor of the new North Church in Boston, a position which he held until his death. Here he soon established his reputation, not merely as a great preacher, but as a great man.

Only a few important facts from his crowded biography can be given here. He opposed every liberal movement among the New England clergy, but toward the close of his life was doomed to see many innovations prevail. He took part in the famous persecution of the witches, but was on the whole conservative, more so than his son Cotton. In 1681 he was elected President of Harvard in succession to Urian Oakes, but his church not being willing to give him up, he resigned the office. Four years latter, another vacancy occurring, an arrangement was made by which he could still reside in Boston, and he became President, holding the office until 1701, when his less orthodox opponents managed by shrewd legislation to secure his retirement. His most important services, however, were not as clergyman, voluminous author, and college president, but as agent for Massachusetts to King William III. for the restoration of the Charter. This restoration could not be accomplished, but he secured a new Charter which lasted to the Revolution, and he won the confidence of the King and of his fellow-citizens. In his last years, as we have noted, he found his conservative influence waning, but as our extract from his son’s book will show, he died as full of honors as of years.

Throughout his life Increase Mather kept the printing-press busy; the titles of his works are said to amount to no less than one hundred and thirty-six. Of course most of these productions were sermons, but not a few of them were important books written in English of considerable vigor and displaying vast learning. Among the most noteworthy are A History of the War with the Indians (1676), A Relation of Troubles of New England from the Indians (1677), An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences (1684), and Cases of Conscience (1693). The two latter works may be obtained in the “Library of Old Authors”; new editions of the two former were brought out by Samuel G. Drake in 1862 and 1864. A good account of Increase Mather’s life is given in Professor Barrett Wendell’s biography of Cotton Mather.

Concerning the Writing of History.
[From the Preface to “A Brief History of the War with the Indians in New England.” 1676.]

… AND I hope that in one thing (though it may be in little else) I have performed the part of an historian, viz. in endeavoring to relate things truly and impartially, and doing the best I could that I might not lead the reader into a mistake. History is indeed in itself a profitable study. Learned men know that Polybius, and the great Philosopher call it, [Greek]. And there is Holy Scripture to encourage a work of this nature; For what was the Book of the Wars of the Lord? Num. 21. 14. And that book of Jasher, which we read of in Joshua and in Samuel? Yea, the book of the Chronicles, mentioned in the book of Kings (for we find not some of those things referred unto in the canonical book of Chronicles.) What were these books but the faithful records of the providential dispensations of God in the days of old? Yea, and it is proper for the ministers of God, to engage themselves in services of this nature; Witness the History or Commentary [Hebrew] of the Prophet Iddo, 2 Chro. 13. 22. Whether my defective manner of management in this history renders it unprofitable, I know not. Considering the other employments that are always upon me, together with my personal inabilities, I have cause to suspect it may be so in a great measure. If any one shall hereby be incited to do better, I hope I shall rather thank than envy him, [Greek]. And I earnestly wish that some effectual course may be taken (before it be too late) that a just History of New England be written and published to the world. That is a thing that hath often been spoken of, but was never done to this day, and yet the longer it is deferred, the more difficulty will there be in effecting of it.

The Hand of God.
[From “An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences.” 1684.]

IT hath been by many observed, that men addicted to horrid cursings and execrations have pulled down the imprecated vengeance of Heaven upon themselves. Sundry very awful examples of this kind have lately happened: I shall here mention one or two.

The hand of God was very remarkable in that which came to pass in the Narragansett country in New England, not many weeks since; for I have good information, that on August 28, 1683, a man there (viz. Samuel Wilson) having caused his dog to mischief his neighbor’s cattle was blamed for his so doing. He denied the fact with imprecations, wishing that he might never stir from that place if he had so done. His neighbor being troubled at his denying the truth, reproved him, and told him he did very ill to deny what his conscience knew to be truth. The atheist thereupon used the name of God in his imprecations, saying, “He wished to God he might never stir out of that place, if he had done that which he was charged with.” The words were scarce out of his mouth before he sunk down dead, and never stirred more; a son-in-law of his standing by and catching him as he fell to the ground.

A thing not unlike this happened (though not in New England yet) in America, about a year ago; for in September, 1682, a man at the Isle of Providence, belonging to a vessel, whereof one Wollery was master, being charged with some deceit in a matter that had been committed to him, in order to his own vindication, horridly wished “that the devil might put out his eyes if he had done as was suspected concerning him.” That very night a rheum fell into his eyes, so that within a few days he became stark blind. His company being astonished at the Divine hand which thus conspicuously and signally appeared, put him ashore at Providence, and left him there. A physician being desired to undertake his cure, hearing how he came to lose his sight, refused to meddle with him. This account I lately received from credible persons, who knew and have often seen the man whom the devil (according to his own wicked wish) made blind, through the dreadful and righteous judgment of God.

Preparation for Judgment.
[From “The Greatest Sinners exhorted and encouraged to come to Christ, and that now without delaying.” 1686.]

CONSIDER. 3. That as death leaveth a man, so judgment will find him. All the time which men have to prepare for judgment is only whilst they are in this world. There is no work in the grave whither thou goest. For there is a particular judgment passeth upon every soul at death. Heb. 9, 27. It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment. When once a man’s soul is out of his body, it appears before the judge of all, and is sentenced either to life or death forever; which particular judgment will be published at the Last Day. If death find a man unprepared, so will judgment. Therefore it highly concerns every man to prepare now. Miserable sinner, thou knowest not how soon death may come upon thee like an armed man, and drag thy soul before the judgment seat of GOD! It may be this night it will be so. Death sometimes giveth no warning before it comes. Remember that Scripture, Amos 4. 11. I have overthrown some of you, as God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. And how was that? Verily by thunder and lightning from Heaven. And has it not been so amongst us also? There have been (to my observation) about twenty persons in this land, who have at several times and places been killed with lightning, some such very lately. Therefore if God fell upon them and struck them dead in a moment, how dost thou know but that it may be so with thee? If thou continuest unprepared for death and judgment, thou knowest not but that the next thunderstorm that cometh may prove to thy soul, as snares and fire, and brimstone, and an horrible tempest.

Consider. 4. As judgment shall find a man so it will be with him to all eternity. Eternity will fasten its iron teeth upon thy soul then. Hence the Scripture speaketh of Eternal Judgment, Heb. 6. 2. because men shall then be judged to an eternal estate either of weal or of woe. The wicked shall then go away into everlasting punishment, and the righteous into life eternal. If judgment find a man in a good estate he shall be for ever with the Lord, he shall be where there is fulness of joy, and pleasures for evermore. But if judgment find him in his sins, he shall be cast into a dungeon out of which he shall never come, even into blackness of darkness for ever. O think of this one word, If judgment find thee in thy sins; after thou hast been in misery as many millions of ages as there have been days and minutes since the world began, thou art no nearer to an end of thy misery than thou wast the first hour that the Son of God passed on thee a sentence of eternal death.

Strange Certainties from Scripture and History.
[From “Cases of Conscience concerning Evil Spirits.” 1693.]

AR[GUMENT] 4. It is certain both from Scripture and history, that magicians by their enchantments and hellish conjurations may cause a false representation of persons and things. An enchanted eye shall see such things as others cannot discern; it is a thing too well known to be denied, that some by rubbing their eyes with a bewitched water have immediately thereupon seen that which others could not discern; and there are persons in the world, who have a strange spectral sight. Mr. Glanvil speaks of a Dutchman that could see ghosts which others could perceive nothing of. There are in Spain a sort of men whom they call Zahurs, these can see into the bowels of the earth; they are able to discover minerals and hidden treasures; nevertheless, they have their extraordinary sight only on Tuesdays and Fridays, and not on the other days of the week. Delrio saith, that when he was at Madrid, Anno Dom. 1575, he saw some of these strange sighted creatures. Mr. George Sinclare, in his book entituled “Satan’s Invisible World Discovered,” has these words, “I am undoubtedly informed, that men and women in the High-lands can discern fatality approaching others, by seeing them in the water or with winding sheets about them. And that others can lecture in a sheep’s shoulder-bone a death within the parish seven or eight days before it come. It is not improbable but that such a preternatural knowledge comes first by a compact with the devil, and is derived downward by succession to their posterity. Many such I suppose are innocent, and have this sight against their will and inclination.” Thus Mr. Sinclare. I concur with his supposal, that such knowledge is originally from Satan, and perhaps the effect of some old enchantment. There are some at this day in the world, that if they come into a house where one of the family will die within a fortnight, the smell of a dead corpse offends them to such a degree, as that they cannot stay in that house. It is reported that near unto the Abbey of Maurice in Burgundy there is a fish-pond in which are fishes put according to the number of the monks of that place; if any one of them happened to be sick, there is a fish seen to float and swim above water half dead, and if the monk shall die, the fish a few days before dieth. In some parts in Wales death-lights or corpse candles (as they call them) are seen in the night time going from the house where some body will shortly die, and passing in to the churchyard. Of this, my honored and never to be forgotten friend, Mr. Richard Baxter, has given an account in his book about witchcrafts lately published: what to make of such things, except they be the effect of some old enchantment, I know not; nor what natural reason to assign for that which I find amongst the Observations of the Imperial Academy for the year 1687, viz. that in an orchard where are choice Damascen plums, the master of the family being sick of a quartan ague, whilst he continued very ill, four of his plum-trees instead of Damascens brought forth a vile sort of yellow plums: but recovering health, the next year the tree did (as formerly) bear Damascens again; but when after that he fell into a fatal dropsy, on those trees were seen not Damascens, but another sort of fruit. The same author gives instances of which he had the certain knowledge, concerning apple-trees and pear-trees, that the fruit of them would on a sudden wither as if they had been baked in an oven, when the owners of them were mortally sick. It is no less strange that in the illustrious Electoral House of Brandenburg before the death of some one of the family feminine spectres appeared. And often in the houses of great men, voices and visions from the invisible world have been the harbingers of death. When any heir in the worshipful family of the Breertons in Cheshire is near his death, there are seen in a pool adjoining, bodies of trees swimming for certain days together, on which learned Camden has this note, “These and such like things are done either by the holy tutelar angels of men, or else by the devils, who by God’s permission mightily show their power in this inferior world.” As for Mr. Sinclare’s notion that some persons may have a second sight (as ’tis termed), and yet be themselves innocent, I am satisfied that he judgeth right; for this is common amongst the Laplanders, who are horribly addicted to magical incantations. They bequeath their dæmons to their children as a legacy, by whom they are often assisted (like bewitched persons as they are) to see and do things beyond the power of nature. An historian who deserves credit relates, that a certain Laplander gave him a true and particular account of what had happened to him in his journey to Lapland; and further complained to him with tears, that things at great distance were represented to him, and how much he desired to be delivered from that diabolical sight, but could not; this doubtless was caused by some enchantment. But to proceed to what I intend; the eyes of persons, by reason of enchanting charms, may not only see what others do not, but be under such power of fascination, as that things which are not shall appear to them as real. The apostle speaks of bewitched eyes, Gal. iii. 1, and we know from Scripture, that the imaginations of men have by enchantments been imposed upon; and histories abound with very strange instances of this nature. The old witch Circe by an enchanted cup caused Ulysses his companions to imagine themselves to be turned into swine; and how many witches have been themselves so bewitched by the devil, as really to believe that they were transformed into wolves, or dogs, or cats. It is reported of Simon Magus, that by his sorceries he would so impose on the imaginations of people, as that they thought he had really changed himself into another sort of creature. Apollonius of Tyana could outdo Simon with his magic. The great Bohemian conjurer Zyto by his enchantments caused certain persons whom he had a mind to try his art upon, to imagine that their hands were turned into the feet of an ox, or into the hoofs of a horse, so that they could not reach to the dishes before them to take any thing thence; he sold wisps of straw to a butcher who bought them for swine; that many such prestigious pranks were played by the unhappy Faustus, is attested by Camerarius, Wyerus, Voetius, Lavater, and Lonicer.

There is newly published a book (mentioned in the Acta Eruditorum) wherein the author (Wiechard Valvassor) relates, that a Venetian Jew instructed him (only he would not attend his instructions) how to make a magical glass which should represent any person or thing according as he should desire. If a magician by an enchanted glass can do this, he may as well by the help of a dæmon cause false idæas of persons and things to be impressed on the imaginations of bewitched persons; the blood and spirits of a man, that is bitten with a mad-dog, are so envenomed, as that strange impressions are thereby made on his imagination. Let him be brought into a room where there is a looking-glass, and he will (if put upon it) not only say but swear that he sees a dog, though in truth there is no dog it may be within 20 miles of him; and is it not then possible for the dogs of hell to poison the imagination of miserable creatures, so as that they shall believe and swear that such persons hurt them as never did so? I have heard of an enchanted pin, that has caused the condemnation and death of many scores of innocent persons. There was a notorious witchfinder in Scotland, that undertook by a pin, to make an infallible discovery of suspected persons, whether they were witches or not, if when the pin was run an inch or two into the body of the accused party, no blood appeared, nor any sense of pain, then he declared them to be witches; by means hereof my author tells me no less than 300 persons were condemned for witches in that kingdom. This bloody juggler, after he had done enough in Scotland, came to the town of Berwick upon Tweed; an honest man now living in New-England assureth me, that he saw the man thrust a great brass pin two inches into the body of one, that some would in that way try whether there was witchcraft in the case or no: the accused party was not in the least sensible of what was done, and therefore in danger of receiving the punishment justly due for witchcraft; only it so happened, that Colonel Fenwick (that worthy gentleman, who many years since lived in New-England) was then the military governor in that town; he sent for the mayor and magistrates advising them to be careful and cautious in their proceedings; for he told them, it might be an enchanted pin, which the witchfinder made use of: Whereupon the magistrates of the place ordered that he should make his experiment with some other pin as they should appoint: But that he would by no means be induced unto, which was a sufficient discovery of the knavery and witchery of the witchfinder.

False Confessions of Witches.
[From the Same.]

I COULD mention dismal instances of innocent blood which has been shed by means of the lies of some confessing witches; there is a very sad story mentioned in the preface to the relation of the witchcrafts in Sweedland, how that in the year 1676, at Stockholm, a young woman accused her own mother (who had indeed been a very bad woman, but not guilty of witchcraft), and swore that she had carried her to the nocturnal meetings of witches, upon which the mother was burnt to death. Soon after the daughter came crying and howling before the judges in open court, declaring that to be revenged on her mother for an offence received, she had falsely accused her with a crime which she was not guilty of; for which she also was justly executed. A most wicked man in France freely confessed himself to be a magician, and accused many others, whose lives were thereupon taken from them; and a whole province had like to have been ruined thereby, but the impostor was discovered. The confessing pretended wizard was burnt at Paris in the year 1668. I shall only take notice further of an awful example mentioned by A. B. Spotswood in his History of Scotland, p. 449. His words are these: “This summer (viz. Anno 1597), there was a great business for the trial of witches, amongst others, one Margaret Atkin being apprehended on suspicion, and threatened with torture, did confess herself guilty; being examined touching her associates in that trade, she named a few, and perceiving her delations find credit, made offer to detect all of that sort, and to purge the country of them; so she might have her life granted. For the reason of her knowledge, she said, ‘That they had a secret mark all of that sort in their eyes, whereby she could surely tell, how soon she looked upon any, whether they were witches or not’; and in this she was so readily believed, that for the space of 3 or 4 months she was carried from town to town to make discoveries in that kind; many were brought in question by her delations, especially at Glasgow, where divers innocent women, through the credulity of the minister Mr. John Cowper, were condemned and put to death; in the end she was found to be a mere deceiver, and sent back to Fife, where she was first apprehended. At her trial she affirmed all to be false that she had confessed of herself or others, and persisted in this to her death, which made many forethink their too great forwardness that way, and moved the king to recall his commission given out against such persons, discharging all proceedings against them, except in case of a voluntary confession, till a solid order should be taken by the estates touching the form that should be kept in their trial.” Thus that famous historian.

2. If two credible persons shall affirm upon oath that they have seen the party accused speaking such words, or doing things which none but such as have familiarity with the devil ever did or can do, that’s a sufficient ground for conviction.

Some are ready to say, that wizards are not so unwise as to do such things in the sight or hearing of others, but it is certain that they have very often been known to do so. How often have they been seen by others using enchantments? Conjuring to raise storms? And have been heard calling upon their familiar spirits? And have been known to use spells and charms? And to shew in a glass or in a shew-stone persons absent? And to reveal secrets which could not be discovered but by the devil? And have not men been seen to do things which are above human strength, that no man living could do without diabolical assistances? Claudia was seen by witnesses enough to draw a ship which no human strength could move. Tuccia a vestal virgin was seen to carry water in a sieve. The devil never assists men to do supernatural things undesired. When therefore such like things shall be testified against the accused party, not by spectres which are devils in the shape of persons either living or dead, but by real men or women who may be credited, it is proof enough that such an one has that conversation and correspondence with the devil, as that he or she, whoever they be, ought to be exterminated from amongst men. This notwithstanding I will add: It were better that ten suspected witches should escape, than that one innocent person should be condemned.

… That is an old saying, and true, Prestat reum nocentem absolvi, quam ex prohibitis Indiciis & illegitima probatione condemnari. It is better that a guilty person should be absolved, than that he should without sufficient ground of conviction be condemned. I had rather judge a witch to be an honest woman, than judge an honest woman as a witch. The word of God directs men not to proceed to the execution of the most capital offenders, until such time as, upon searching diligently, the matter is found to be a truth, and the thing certain, Deut. 13, 14, 15.