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Cotton Mather

Cotton Mather

During the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and 1693, there were several key individuals that played instrumental roles in the fate of those accused of witchcraft. Order a custom written research paper on one of the prolific writers of the Witch Trial era. Paper Masters suggests either Cotton Mather or John Smith.

One of the most prominent of these Witch Trial era writers, Cotton Mather, set the stage for the events to take place with his numerous writings on the presence of witchcraft and demons throughout the region. Together with his father, Increase Mather, Cotton Mather was also instrumental in the creation of the tribunal court that would try the more than 200 people accused of practicing witchcraft.

The most impactful role that Cotton Mather had on the Salem Witch Trials, though, was his support for the use of spectral evidence. If a person was accused of witchcraft, the accuser could use spectral evidence to support their accusations; they could claim to be tormented by an invisible ghost or demonic entity representing the accused. Even if the accused professed their Christian beliefs or claimed innocence, this thoroughly unprovable spectral evidence was used to sway the opinion of the tribunal and seal the fate of the accused. While Mather did warn that the Devil was capable of manipulating spectral evidence to his advantage, making it seem as though he suggested caution with regards to its use, his emphasis on the importance of detecting witchcraft no matter the cost undermined any reservations he may have projected. Despite the later turn against using this type of evidence and the abrupt end to the trials themselves, Mather never withdrew his support for this type of evidence and never claimed any concerns with the results of his support of its use.

A work that can be contrasted with Mather's writings in a research paper is John Smith's A Description of New England. Smith's tone is that of a promoter. He expatiates on the natural glories of the New World and he does so in terms that are forthrightly economic. If one will journey to New England one will be in a land of such natural abundance that "If a man work but three days in ten, he may get more than he can spend, unless he be excessive." There are "such beasts to hunt, that besides the delicacy of their bodies for food, their skins are so rich, as may well recompense thy daily labor, with a captain's pay". Two things are noteworthy about this.

  1. First, there is an optimistic sense of a vast and limitless field of opportunity awaiting one, a contrasting of a land of new hopes and dreams with the worn out state of affairs that prevails in Europe. This sense of boundless faith in the potential of a new land will become a major theme in American literature that will be present until Whitman's time and afterwards.
  2. Second, while Smith's sense of aggressive adventurousness in the pursuit of economic gain was paralleled by many others in Elizabethan and Stuart England (e.g., Drake, Frobisher, Hawkins), it is not something at all confined to his particular historical environment. His tone is not unlike that of the people who were promoting the dot.coms two years ago. A land of milk and honey awaits if you will but seize the day. Sadly, in both cases, there is a huge gap between claims and reality. Nowhere in the American colonies was the three-day week the norm.

But the tone of Mather is not so familiar to us. In the first place, Mather is not optimistically forward looking, but rather, quite the opposite. He sees the society of his time as being in a state of moral and theological decay. Parrington has characterized Mather's tone as "an echo of dead voices, a shadow of forgotten realities". Mather is greatly concerned with the maintenance of doctrinal purity. He approves of the efforts Bradford had made to promote the organization of the church and of the attempts he had made to suppress the Anabaptists. Mather seems always to be fighting an essentially defensive spiritual battle on the behalf of the theological status quo. He speaks of the deformation engendered by the "apostasy of the succeeding times" with respect to "the churches of primitive times"; he would have been quite happy to apply the same phrase to the situation prevailing in his own time over against what had prevailed in Bradford's time. This tendency to prefer past to present is not a character trait wholly unfamiliar today-witness Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind which defends a seemingly dying system of education based on the classics-but the phrase "gloomy Puritan" is applicable more to a character type that flourished in early 17th century Boston, than flourishes in today's academia.

The two writers were, of course, of entirely different backgrounds. Smith was an adventurer; Mather was a scholar. Tyler has claimed that he was a type of renaissance man, a typical Elizabethan product, "the man of action who was also a man of letters" and there is no doubt that he could write with force and clarity on occasion; he is convincing in his exaggerations of the wealth and easy life awaiting he or she who will travel to America. But he is by no means a scholar on the order that Mather is and Hart describes his autobiographical poem, "The Sea-Mark", as being pathetic. He is only secondarily a man of letters.

Mather, as scholar and writer, was more the real thing and, as such, he was more within the norm for colonial writers. He was a learned leader of a community noted for its learning. When we deal with Smith we deal with a host of emotional and financial motives. When we deal with Mather we also deal with a mixture of motives, but they are all organized around a few key ideas, a few central dogmas. And they are all expressed in a self-consciously formal prose, albeit a prose in which there is a kind of ornate pedantry that makes it sound stuffy to the modern ear. This organized, formal, dogmatic quality is a Puritan trait. Miller and Johnson note that Puritanism was not only a religious creed, but also, "an organization of man's whole life, emotional and intellectual". Everything in Mather is subsumed by his Puritanism.

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Cotton Mather Research Papers

Research papers on Cotton Mather examine one of the key individuals that played an instrumental role in the fate of those accused of witchcraft. Compare and contrast the writings of John Smith with Cotton Mather for an excellent research project.

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