The Puritan President

The Pre-Revolutionary War Period: A Profile of President Increase Mather

In 1673, Harvard was facing a succession crisis.

Harvard had been established just 37 years earlier, and, in the winter of 1673, it faced one of the most serious threats in its early history. Increase Mather had just returned from England after a stint there advocating on behalf of Puritan freedoms when the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, had appointed him one of its members. And, after the resignation of Leonard Hoar, the Corporation asked Mather to take on the position of president. Mather politely declined.

Born in 1639 to Richard and Katherine Mather, Increase Mather followed in the footsteps of his family’s religious heritage. The Mather clan was part of a group of prominent and influential families in the first colonies of New England. Richard Mather, an Oxford scholar and minister, assisted in the Puritan journey to the new world and subsequent establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Although Increase Mather would go on to play a crucial role in the development of Harvard College, in 1673, Mather was less than willing to lead the University. Mather was the second oldest of five brothers. In 1651, at the age of 12, he began at Harvard, intending to carry on his father’s spiritual work. After graduating in 1656, Mather began his work in the church, preaching his first sermon at 18.

Mather left Massachusetts in 1657 to study in Ireland, where he attained a masters degree from Trinity College and continued his work as a chaplain at Guernsey until 1661. He returned to America the following year to pursue a more significant religious post and began preaching to the Second Church of Boston upon his arrival. Back in Massachusetts, he married Maria Cotton and was ordained in 1664. Increase strongly opposed the popular practicing of the half-way covenant, which sought to lower the requirements of church membership, and took part in a campaign to reestablish and reform New England from the evils of liberalism. In his stringent Puritanism, Mather was a representative of the College’s early religious heritage, and his ideological conviction would feature heavily in his later life when he found himself embroiled in the Salem witch trials.

When Mather finally agreed to take on the presidency, his ambivalence toward the job was clear. Harvard’s top brass had made a point of wanting a president who lived on campus, but Mather refused to move to Cambridge. As president, he spent a total of three months in close proximity to the University during his eight years in office.

Not surprisingly, Mather’s energies often seemed focused on issues far removed from the confines of Cambridge. During Mather’s tenure as president, King James II of England attempted to reform New England’s colonial economy and flush out the Puritan influence, making the College a primary area for the debate and contest over American colonial identity. Mather’s time as president was widely criticized for the time he spent lobbying against the King’s revocation of the charter of Massachusetts (a document that established the legality of the College itself).

But when his attention turned toward Harvard, Mather worked to Puritanize much of his alma mater’s curriculum and rules. According to historian Samuel Morrison, Mather restored instruction in Greek and Hebrew and emphasized the use of Biblical and Christian writings in ethics courses. He also rewrote college laws requiring students to reside in dormitories and have regular attendance at meals and in lectures.

By 1691, the sun began to set on Mather’s tenure as president. By that year—his last as president—had racked up enormous debts while traveling. In the process, he had lost much of his authority and control in the church and at Harvard. The College’s General Court presented him with an ultimatum—move to Cambridge or resign the presidency. He acquiesced, only to move back to Boston six months later. With that, his time as president ended.

At this time, the accusations against Salem women as so-called “witches” had just begun, and Mather left to restrain the court in Salem. Mather came under criticism for his delay in using his considerable moral authority against the trials, as he supported the jury that finally decided to hang 19 innocent people in 1692. During this time and after the hangings, however, Mather wrote many sermons relating his distrust of spectral evidence to convict witches. His own daughter was even accused of witchcraft at one point, which resulted in his immediate decision to advocate against the execution of “witches.” In one of his most famous sermons, “Cases of conscience concerning Evil Spirits,” he argued that “better ten witches go free than the blood of a single innocent be shed,” a phrase that would later be known as Blackstone’s formulation.

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