Cotton Mather: an Early American’s Call to Holiness


Cotton Mather (1663-1728) is probably best remembered for his publications of The Wonders of the Invisible World (1692), published as a defense of the Salem witch trials, which led to the execution of nineteen men and women accused of practicing witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts. But, this important Boston minister, from a renowned Puritan family, was a prolific opponent of all worldliness and carnality and a proponent of deep spiritual living and Godliness. Cotton Mather used both his pulpit and pen to admonish New England Christians to embrace a life of obedience and sacrifice and viewed the Scriptures as the ultimate authority for civil and ecclesiastical law. His published sermons, tracts, and books evidence Reverend Mather’s strong sense of personal piety and his fervent desire for the institutional Church to inform and regulate the lives of early Americans.

In 1692, Mather published “Ornaments for the daughters of Zion. Or The character and happiness of a vertuous woman: in a discourse which directs the female-sex how to express, the fear of God in every age and state of their life; and obtain both temporal and eternal blessedness.” In the work, Mather makes plain his strong stand against lewdness, wantonness and vanity. Citing the apostolic precepts of I Tm. 2.9 and I Pt. 3.2-4, Cotton Mather begins his discussion of dress and adornment with the basic holiness principle that “where the fear of God sanctifies the heart, it will doubtless regulate the habit.” The minister enumerates guidelines for Godly dress, beginning with the forbiddance of immodest exposure of the body. He allows only for the display of just the hands and face because “The face is to be naked because of what is known by it; the Hands are to be naked because of what is done by them.” He further disallows the practice of patching, or painting black or blue spots on the face to cover scars and blemishes, calling the marks “tokens of the Plague of the Soul.” He criticizes the dishonesty of women who use “artificiall painting” to produce a superficial “beauty which they are not really the owners of.” According to Mather, cosmetic alteration is the “guise of an Harlot,” and he argues that “a painted face is but a painted sign hung out for Strangers that they shall find entertainment there.” He admonishes Godly women to observe modest dress and to never spend more on “ornamental superfluities” than they are spending on “clothing and feeding the Distressed members of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Mather believes that any woman whose “rayment is too costly to leave her capable of attending the duties of Justice and Mercy commits but a piece of shining Theevery, in that cheating and cruel Finery.” He advises elderly women to dress with even greater gravity, not mimicking the fashion of the young: “For an old woman to flant [flaunt] it in a youthful dress, is altogether as prodigious a Disorder as for the Flowers of May to appear among the Snows of December.”. Mather warns against any obsession in fashionable dress as “contrary to Christian moderation” and says that “If a Woman spend more Time in Dressing than she does in Praying, or in working out her own Salvation, her Dress is but the Snare of her Soul.” Cotton Mather begs all women to avoid “garish, pompous, flaming modes” of dress and presents these regulations as “Lessons, by the Remembrance and Observance of which, you may be kept from such Transgression in your Apparel as may say, There is no Fear of God before Your eyes.”

In addition to his appeal to New England’s women to avoid immodesty and excess in dress and ornamentation, Cotton Mather delivered a great deal of advice to Christian families on early religious training and additional guidance to young people on the value of personal consecration and morality. The lengthy titles of early American publications serve as a general abstract of the works. In 1694, he published “Early religion. Urged in a sermon. the duties, wherein, and the reasons wherefore, young people should become religious. Whereto are added, the extracts of several papers, written by several persons, who are dying in their youth, left behind them those admonitions for the young survivers; with brief memoirs relating to the exemplary lives of some such, that have gone from hence to their everlasting rest.“ Early mortality served as a powerful and ever-present reminder to young Puritans of the brevity of life. In 1699, Mather wrote “A family well-ordered. Or An essay to render parents and children happy in one another. Handling two very important cases. I. What are the duties to be done by pious parents, for the promoting of piety in their children. II. What are the duties that must be paid by children to their parents, that they may obtain the blessings of the dutiful.” In 1703, he preached a sermon entitled “The Duty of Children, Whose Parents have Pray’d for them. Or, Early and Real Godliness Urged, Especially upon Such as are Descended from Godly Ancestors.” Clearly, he viewed the home as a sacred space for Biblical instruction and exemplified Christianity.

Cotton Mather also greatly admonished Christians to maintain a life filled with spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study, and introspection. In 1703, he preached “The Retired Christian. Or, The Duty of Secret Prayer;” and in 1705, he ordered the printing of “The Religion of the Closet, An Essay on the Holy Employments which are proper for a Christian in his Daily Retirements Or, A Christian Furnished with a Companion for Solitude.”

Though Cotton Mather and his Puritan contemporaries never realized many of the rich truths of the Scriptures, their homiletic contributions evidence the history of holiness and dedication to God that served as a solid foundation for Colonial America. Governors, magistrates, jurists, and clergy looked to the Bible as the full embodiment of ideals for the construction of a Godly social order. Sadly, our hallowed national origins have been reinterpreted as an era of ignorance, bigotry, and even theocratic tyranny. Cotton Mather’s sermons, however, are in indelible record of the passionate piety of our American ancestors. In these degenerate times of immorality, profanation, and widespread wickedness, Cotton Mather’s messages, now long-forgotten by most, call us to return to the daily observance of heartfelt holiness and a renewed recognition of the pre-eminent Christ as the true center of our personal, familial, and communal lives.

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