Cotton Mather as Pawn of Puritan Politics: His Private Writings and His Role in the Salem Witch Trials

By:
Martha E. Pfeiffer
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The Reverend Cotton Mather (1663-1728) has traditionally been viewed as the spearhead of the Puritan movement in Massachusetts. Often referred to as, “the witch-finder”, Mather has been attributed with almost the sole responsibility for perpetuating the Salem Witch Trials, culminating in the death of twenty people and one dog. Closer examination of primary sources, however, reveals Mather to be a man who resisted, rather than drove, the building frenzy of the Salem Witch Hearings. In fact, Cotton Mather worked within his means towards bringing an end to the whole atrocity.

This paper sets out to refute the traditional image of Mather “the propagator” and to present him as a victim of the Puritan Colonial political machine. Closer examination of Mather’s role in the witchcraft proceedings and, most particularly, his reluctant involvement within the Massachusetts Commonwealth government, as witnessed thorough his private writings, reveals him as a political pawn. As revealed in his self-damning “Wonders of the Invisible World”, Mather clearly wrestles with issues of guilt and responsibility in endorsing the pursuit of the witchcraft trials; an endorsement entered against his better judgment. A puppet of the Crown, by his own admission, Mather was too vain to resist the temporary fame promised by such an appointment. As a tragic hero suffering from hubris, Mather’s decision to become a representative of the court for the witch trails resulted in his downfall and cast him in History as the perpetrator of the atrocities he so ardently sought to prevent.


Keywords: History, Religion
Stream: History, Historiography, Sexuality, Gender, Families, Religion, Spirituality
Presentation Type: Virtual Presentation in English
Paper: Cotton Mather as Pawn of Puritan Politics


Martha E. Pfeiffer

History Teacher, Mariner Middle School 7th Grade History Teacher, Cape Henlopen Schol District
Lewes, Delaware, USA

Martha holds two Batchelor's degrees; one in education and the second in communication arts. She also holds a Master's degree in History, in which her focus was the American Colonial period and has served as historical consultant for several productions - including the Broadway revival of 1776. Her thesis examined the role of Cotton Mather in the Salem Witch rial Proceedings. Her principle love of History has led her to continue her studies to include the ancient world for which she holds a special fascination.

She has taught history in the middle school level for eighteen years where she has won singular honors and citations for her success with 'at-risk' children.

She is also an avid Theatre - lover, actress, choreographer and director who strives to bring theatre to her students through re-enactments and debates in her history classes and in highly successful school productions.

Ref: H06P0519