Written By Mathew Madden
Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature
Increase Mather was born on June 21, 1639 to Richard and Katherine Mather. He and four of his five brothers would follow Richard's call to guide the morality and spirituality of their fellow man, even as the family ventured with other Puritans to New England in the seventeenth century. There the Mathers settled, as Richard took up his ministry in Dorchester just south of Boston.
Increase graduated from Harvard College in 1656, an institution to which he would return as its President. His son, Cotton Mather was born into the third generation of Puritan Mather ministers, and after following in father's footsteps by studying at Harvard, Cotton would join his father as a leader in the Boston religious establishment.
In February 1674, Increase Mather delivered a sermon, entitled "The Day of Trouble is Near", the first of many great speeches to the faithful that would make him an influential Puritan leader in Boston and across the growing Massachusetts Bay Colony. By 1680-1681, Increase Mather had "established himself as the conservative champion of the New England church." His predominant role in Puritan society would call him across the ocean, as turbulent events in England led to the revocation of the Massachusetts Bay Colony's charter. Between 1688 and 1692, Increase Mather was in England advocating on behalf of the colony.
Mather returned to New England on May 14, 1692 with not simply a new charter, but also a new Governor, Sir William Phips. Increase Mather played a crucial role in securing Phips' appointment by the Crown, and therefore the Governor was indebted to him for his position.
When Mather and Phips arrived in Boston, events in Salem Village had already begun to swirl beyond the confines of that small community. The jails were beginning to fill with the accused witches, and interim Governor Bradstreet had kept courts from sitting in trial. The new Governor, empowered by a new charter, looked to clear the judicial backlog and established the special Court of Oyer and Terminer to "hear and determine" the witchcraft cases. On May 27, 1692 the Court was established, and Bridget Bishop was the first to be executed on Gallows Hill in Salem exactly two weeks later on June 10.
Governor Phips, apparently surprised at the speed and force which his actions had begun to unleash, looked to Increase Mather and other notable Boston ministers for guidance. Increase signed onto "The Return of Several Ministers," written by his son, Cotton Mather, which put the Boston ministers on record urging caution in the use of spectral evidence in the Salem court. Pre-occupied with preparations for an expedition to fight Indian forces in Maine, Phips did not pay sufficient attention to the mounting number of arrests and executions ordered by the Salem court, before he left Boston for Maine in mid-August 1692. With Phips went Increase Mather's highest patron in civil government and any hopes he might have had of restraining the court in Salem.
As June stretched into July, the pace of arrests, examinations, and imprisonments only quickened leading to the execution of five women on July 19. On July 31, Increase delivered a sermon at Simon Willard's Third Church in Boston in which he posed the question to the congregation: "O what makes the difference between the devils in hell and the angels of heaven?" Mather answered that the quality of holiness distinguished an angel in heaven from the devils below, and in doing so he "focused responsibility on the people of New England at large, and yet looked to individuals for the means to solve the problem. It encouraged the individual believer to attend to the state of his or her own soul regardless of what might be happening in the world." (Peterson, 93). The impact of such words from a Boston pulpit on views of the witchcraft problem is indirect, but clear nonetheless. Mather advised the congregation that they should focus their attention on their own shortcomings and not those that they saw in their neighbors and friends. Still, this was not a clear message to halt the trials, and they continued unabated in Salem.
Increase Mather attended only one trial in Salem, that of George Burroughs, Jr., and he seems to have fully agreed with the result. Bernard Rosenthal in his Salem Story focuses attention on the seeming contradiction between Increase Mather's overall opposition to the Court's methods and his support for the same methods in the case of Mr. Burroughs. Rosenthal writes that, "Burroughs, as a dissenting minister, offered so powerful a symbol of lost Puritan power that such moderate and influential ministers as Increase and Cotton Mather lost their way in confronting his case." Contradictions such as this continue to haunt comments on Mather by scholars of the period.
By late September 1692, the witchcraft trials had truly reached an hysterical pitch. Nineteen had been hanged, and Giles Cory had been tortured to death for refusing to enter a plea. Scores of people languished in the jails awaiting trial on the charges against them.
In Cases of Conscience Increase Mather forcefully related his distrust of spectral evidence to convict witches. He argued that it would be better that ten witches go free than the blood of a single innocent be shed. One Mather biographer wrote that, "No zeal to stamp out crimes ever drove him from his belief that, whatever the fate of the guilty, the innocent must never be in peril." His strong words of disapproval for spectral evidence so prominently used by the Court of Oyer and Terminer ended the trials after the directive from Governor Phips at the end of October, recently returned from his expedition in Maine.
Cases of Conscience, however, is not without its flaws, the chief one being Mather's attempt to absolve the judges of Salem of any wrongdoing and to praise them for their work. Bernard Rosenthal writes that, "Indeed, when the witch trials ended, he damned the prosecution and justified the prosecutors." Perry Miller, more forcefully, writes that "Without the postscript, Cases of Conscience would be a bold stroke; with it, the book is a miserable species of double-talk." Kenneth Murdock offers a more balanced approach when he writes of Mather's postscript, "Less could hardly be said in fairness. More approval of the trials Mather never expressed."
Increase Mather has been criticized for his delay in putting his considerable moral authority against the trials, but it would seem that from his endorsement of "The Return of the Ministers" through his own Cases of Conscience, Mather was continually seeking to lend caution to the hysteria without undermining the tenuous framework of the Puritan government in Boston and Salem. Others have criticized Mather for his seeming duplicity, in excoriating the trials in general but supporting that of Burroughs or in deriding the conduct of the Court but praising its overseers. It is important to note, as many have done, that Increase Mather very much believed in the evils and dangers of witchcraft and had no doubt that if the handiwork of the devil was proven, a Puritan society should "suffer no witch to live." Mather may very well have thought George Burroughs was a witch and been satisfied to hear of his hanging in August 1692. He likely admired to some degree the tenacity with which the Court of Oyer and Terminer took to the task of defending the covenanted community of the Massachusetts Bay from the devil.
Increase Mather, however, understood that innocent blood was being shed, and that the Salem court ran rampant without concern for the advice of the clerical guides, an unprecedented development in the Puritan Colony. In the witchcraft trials that grew out of the supposed afflictions of young girls in Salem Village, Mather may also have seen the symptoms of a fundamentally changing Puritan world. He was caught in the middle of it, along with the rest of New England, and no doubt agreed with his friend Thomas Brattle that, "ages will not wear off that reproach and those stains which these things will leave behind them upon our land."
Miller, Perry. The New England Mind: From Colony to Province. Harvard University Press,. 1953.
Murdock, Kenneth Ballard. Increase Mather: the foremost American Puritan, 1971
Peterson Increase Mather
Rosenthal, Bernard. Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692, 1993