Book Review : A Utopian in the Seedbed of the American Revolution

The Last American Puritan: The Life of Increase Mather by Michael G. Hall (Wesleyan University Press: $29.95; 528 pages)

During the last week or so of family holiday gatherings, I've been coming up with lots of anecdotes about Increase Mather, a man about whom I knew little or nothing until I began to read Michael G. Hall's exhaustive biography, "The Last American Puritan."

I can't tell whether my family has found these nuggets of historical wisdom to be quite as compelling as I do, although my 11-year-old son, Adam--a history buff, like his old man--has been kind enough to say "That's interesting, Dad" whenever I remark on the Half-Way Covenant of 1632 and the procedural vagaries of "spectral evidence" in the Salem witch trials.

What's remarkable about "The Last American Puritan" is that a scholarly monograph on a fairly obscure figure in American history is so readable and so accessible. Although some of long-past theological controversies may be rather baffling to the lay reader--Mather's position on the Pelagian and Arminian principles went by pretty fast--I found myself wholly absorbed by the biographical narrative. While I must leave it to the academic journals to pass on Hall's scholarship, I can witness to the success of the book as a work of biography with a special resonance for contemporary Americans.

Father of Cotton

Increase Mather--father of the more celebrated New England minister, Cotton Mather--is depicted as a man of immense intellectual, political and spiritual ambition (and accomplishment) whose life spans an era of profound transformation in early American history. Mather was born in 1639 into the rarefied world of the Puritan fathers who founded Massachusetts Bay Colony--a colonial backwater where a handful of strict and somber religious fundamentalists struggled to create a hermetic utopia in the wilderness, a City on a Hill. By his death in 1723, Massachusetts was a worldly, diverse, politically sophisticated city of real-world dimensions that would become the seedbed of the American Revolution and its sterling values of political and religious liberty.

Thus we are reminded, for example, that the Puritans may have fled England in search of religious liberty--but it was only liberty for themselves. Anglicans and Catholics were unheard of, and Baptists and Quakers were actively persecuted. (Jews were the subject of abstract theological contemplation only, and Mather wrote extensively on the imminent conversion of the Jews as a sign of the Second Coming.) The vote belonged only to church members, and church membership was available only to those "visible saints" who were found to be among the elect--as a practical matter, only 17 men in the congregation of Mather's Boston church in 1644 were fully enfranchised. Mather conceived of himself as "a soldier of Christ waging war against the forces of Antichrist," which included virtually anyone and anything that did not fit into the rigid social order of Puritan society.

But Hall also chronicles the personal and political growth of Increase Mather, which symbolizes the parallel development of the New England colonies themselves. Mather served as an emissary of New England to the royal court in London, as president of Harvard College, as a patron of the earliest printing presses in North America, as a scientist with a special interest in comets, as a prolific author and a Jeremiah of a sermonizer, and as a potent political power broker. Hall lets us understand that "the Last Puritan" was not free from both spiritual and temporal temptations, including leanings toward atheism, a taste for the cosmopolitan life in London, and constant worries about money.

Not Shrill and Rigid

As a result, Increase Mather is not the shrill and rigid Puritan figure that we often associate with his son, Cotton. The "soldier of Christ" was a practical politician and an expert diplomat. Although Increase shared his son's belief in angels and devils, the father stood in opposition to the son during the infamous Salem witch trials--Increase argued that the uncorroborated testimony of hysterical young women should not be sufficient to send the accused to the gallows. And Increase is shown as a moderate and moral influence during the anti-Indian hysteria of the early colonial days.

Even the central political crisis of Mather's career--the revocation of the original charter of the Massachusetts colony--can be seen as an example of Increase Mather's powers of statemanship and his maturing political sensibilities. Mather spent four years in London as an informal ambassador of New England; the stern Puritan who had known and harbored the regicides of King Charles I now lobbied the House of Lords and the king himself. Massachusetts was eventually granted a new charter, although it came with a governor appointed by the king, two companies of British troops, and more religious liberty than the Puritans themselves had been willing to allow. The stranglehold of the Puritans was abolished--and the seeds of the American revolution were sown.

"The Puritan commonwealth dreamed of and put in place by John Winthrop was no more; the constitutional framework for the pluralistic, secular society that would be inherited by John Adams was now in place," Hall writes. "Not a little irony resides in the turn of mind that now permitted Mather to take great pride in the charter that contained so many fundamental changes: 'God has been so gracious to me, as to make me instrumental in obtaining for my Country a Magna Charta, whereby Religion and English Liberties . . . are Confirmed and Secure.' "

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World