Cotton Mather: The New England Puritan clergyman and writer

Mezzotint portrait of New England Puritan clergyman and writer Cotton Mather

Cotton Mather (1663-1728) was a New England Puritan clergyman, theologian, and writer who played a significant role in the religious and cultural life of colonial America. He was born in Boston, Massachusetts, into a prominent family of Puritan ministers and scholars.

Mather was a prolific writer who authored over 420 books and pamphlets, covering a wide range of topics, including history, theology, medicine, science, and witchcraft. He believed that his writing was a way to spread the word of God and to defend the Puritan faith against what he saw as the dangers of religious pluralism and secularism.

The Puritan clergyman is best known for his involvement in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, where he served as a vocal supporter of the prosecution and wrote several books defending the use of spectral evidence in the trials. While Mather believed in the reality of witchcraft, he also cautioned against the use of torture and other extreme measures in the trials.

Cotton Mather and Onesimus’ inoculation methods

In addition to his religious and political activities, he was also a proponent of scientific inquiry and was an early advocate for smallpox inoculation. He encouraged his fellow colonists to adopt this practice, which he had learned about from a slave named Onesimus, and was instrumental in promoting its widespread adoption in the colonies.


In general, history remembers Cotton Mather was a complex and controversial figure who played a significant role in the religious, intellectual, and cultural life of colonial America. While he was admired by many for his piety, erudition, and activism, he was also criticized by others for his dogmatism, intolerance, and role in the Salem Witch Trials.