Victor Nuovo: The mind of New England Puritanism
Cotton Mather (1663–1728) was regarded in his time as one of the most learned persons in America. Born in Boston, educated at Harvard College, he became minister of a prominent church in Boston. He was a prolific author, publishing over 400 books. He is credited with bringing the thought of the European Enlightenment to colonial America.
He studied the works of Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, with whom he corresponded, and was well versed in the new science, to which he made modest contributions in his careful descriptions of American flora and fauna and experiments in plant hybridization. He was also an early advocate of inoculation against smallpox, and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London. He was, of course, well grounded in theology and the Bible. He exemplified the flowering of the New England mind in all its scope and paradox.
It is paradox that I shall take as my theme. As an advocate of the new experimental science, Mather was convinced that the operations of nature proceeded according to physical causes that could be discovered through observation and experimentation. He was, in this respect, an empirical naturalist.
But he also believed in divine providence; that is, he believed that all events in nature and human history are pre-determined by the will of God. Nothing happens by chance. And because he believed that God is the moral governor of the world, he supposed that all events are divine communications, that there is some divine meaning in them which we should try to ascertain.
On the other hand, as an experimental scientist, albeit an amateur, he believed material nature operates according material causes in a lawlike manner, according to a law of nature discoverable by experimental research. But he also believed in spirits; indeed, he supposed that there was great invisible spiritual world surrounding the visible material one, just as the heavens surround the earth.
I should point out that this was not an unusual belief for the age in which Mather lived. His contemporary, the English philosopher John Locke believed the same. Locke believed that we form an idea of spirit by reflecting on the operations of our minds, which he supposed are not material but spiritual, although he confessed to have no idea what sort of thing a spirit is, and he conjectured approvingly from a human standpoint contemplating the great chain of being that there are probably a greater number of species of spirits above us than there are species of animals below us. He supposed that human life is unique because unlike other species it participates in spirit and matter (about whose nature, he also confessed ignorance except that it was tangible).
Yet, because he imagined that mankind is closer to the lowest of material beings than to God, the highest of spiritual beings, mankind does not stand midway in the chain of being, rather, closer to the bottom than the top.
His friend, Robert Boyle agreed, but this did not stop him from trying to communicate with “spirits of the air.” Both Locke and Boyle claimed to be as certain of the existence of spirits as they were of material bodies.These views were commonplace among the 17th Century elite in England and in colonial America.
Mather became notorious because of his role as an apologist for the infamous New England witch trials, a role that he took upon himself with some misgiving, which he expresses in his book The Wonders of the Invisible World, where he gives an account of the trials and of many supposed instances of the spirit world.
Here is another paradox: Mather believed that God governs the world with an absolute power, that nothing opposes his will, which is purely good and unremittingly just. If malignant spirits operate in the world causing harm, it is because God has allowed it. God allows malicious spirits to cause harm as a means of punishing their victims or perhaps testing them.
I should add that Locke and Boyle, and their friend Isaac Newton, believed the same. They also believed, like Mather, that the world is in its last age, that human history will soon come to an end, and that a sign of this is the increase of the activity in the spirit in the physical world as it heads towards its consummation. One sure sign of this was an increase in evidence of spirit possession and witchcraft, and it was an infatuation with this idea that was the root of these malignant beliefs.
The witch trials were legal procedures against individuals who were accused of practicing witchcraft, of using spiritual power to cause mischief or harm. In 1691, Sir William Phips, a protégé of Mather’s father, Increase Mather, became royal governor of New England. Cotton Mather wrote of the occasion in his great history of the colony: Magnalia Christi Americana. He writes that it was a time “when a governor would have had Occasion for all the Skill in Sorcery.”
Especially among the young, there was an increase in the practice of magic, fortune telling, spells, and suchlike practices; people suffered from unexplained ailments, psychological and physical. “Preternatural Vexations upon their bodies, and a variety of cruel torments, which were evidently inflicted from the Demons, of the Invisible World”; deformations in the birth of animals and of humans. Among the torments were “spectres”: phantoms or ghosts or intangible presences of persons well known to the tormented, intangible yet malevolent and terrifyingly threatening. There appeared to be an epidemic of such occurrences, a mass hysteria. And the cause of these disorders was thought to be men and women, mostly women, who had become possessed of the devil, who were known or suspected (and the suspicion was rarely if ever rational) of practicing witchcraft.
Now, Mather did not for a moment doubt these spiritual disorders, and he wrote about them with enthusiasm and in great detail. He believed that God allowed them, for although such circumstances “subvert government” and cause the ruin of civil society, God may sometimes allow them as a reminder to the people that it is only because of the restraint that he lays upon devils and infernal spirits that the world is not always so afflicted. This, of course, is a rationalization. But he also believed that trials must be subject to the rule of law, and to the law of evidence.
To his credit, in sermons and other public discourses, Mather counseled judges and warned them that they must not give unwarranted credit to witnesses of witchcraft. In particular, he questioned the credibility of witnesses who experienced torment from spectres, that is, spirits who were visible only to themselves. He considered them doubtful for there was no corroborating evidence, no witness of the cause of the victim’s torment, and that without corroborating evidence a fair and rational judgment could not be made against the accused.
This curious mixture of the rational and the superstitious is a chief characteristic of the New England mind, perhaps even today. It was also characteristic of the mind of the early modern English elite, such as John Locke and Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. And, allowing for cultural differences, it may be a characteristic that is still very much with us, chronic if not natural.
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