How Cotton Mather’s Influence Caused The Salem Witch Trial Hysteria of 1692

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 3945 |

Pages: 9|

20 min read

Published: Dec 16, 2021

Words: 3945|Pages: 9|20 min read

Published: Dec 16, 2021


Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Context of Puritanical New England in 1692
  3. Cotton Mather: Background and Influence
  4. Cotton Mather's Role in the Salem Witch Trials
  5. Counterarguments and Rebuttals
  6. Conclusion


The Salem Witch Trials stand as a stark reflection of human nature's darkest inclinations. From the lens of New Historicism, these trials emerge as both products and outcomes of the complex social, political, and religious dynamics prevailing in seventeenth-century New England. The fusion of various factors within Puritanical New England culminated in a frenzy of hysteria that ultimately resulted in tragic bloodshed—a tale ingrained in the collective memory of early Americans. Undoubtedly, Cotton Mather's sway over the Salem Witch Trials resonated deeply within the community. Shaped by his personal experiences and familial legacy, Mather possessed a predisposition for public scrutiny, while his religious upbringing instilled in him a fervent zeal for communal purification. Given Mather's pivotal role in documenting the Salem Witch Trials, extensively scrutinized by contemporary scholars, it's challenging to conceive these events unfolding differently had he not fixated upon them. This essay endeavors to argue that Cotton Mather's influence was one of the factors that caused the Salem Witch Trial Hysteria of 1692 and exacerbated its severity.

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Context of Puritanical New England in 1692

The year 1692 found Puritanical New England in a tumultuous state of transformation and adaptation. What initially burgeoned under the auspices of religious freedom and fervent faith soon devolved into a breeding ground for conflict, conspiracy, and tragedy. Politically, socially, and religiously, dissenters found themselves navigating perilous waters. Politically, the denizens of Massachusetts had recently severed ties with a monarchy that had long governed their lives. While still under the crown's authority, each colony grappled with the onus of self-governance, navigating the intricacies of intra- and inter-communal administration. Socially, a palpable aura of independence pervaded the colonists, albeit tinged with latent dangers—a semblance of impunity preceding the inevitable awakening to reality. Religious convictions, foundational to the New World's inception, soon encountered the stark reality that corruption knows no bounds.

Religious upheaval clashed with entrenched conventionality, casting a shadow over the colonies. For some, mere worship and righteous living failed to suffice; they sought to impose their fervor upon others, exacting a heavy toll, as evidenced by the Salem Trials. The trials exploited a vulnerable juncture in American history. Freshly emigrated from Europe, colonial inhabitants grappled with an evolving sense of identity, ripe for exploitation by harsh, even tyrannical, rule.

Amidst the prevailing uncertainty, a pervasive fear of God gripped seventeenth-century New England.

"Rough times have come to America. Fear and paranoia permeate the atmosphere. The knowledge that an unknowable enemy is at work, one that hates us and plots our total destruction, pervades everything we do. For some, a primitive emotion as old as mankind is reawakening, in defiance of science and modernity. It’s the inescapable sense that we have angered God by our way of life and have brought his punishment down upon our heads" (Freed).

This fear, coupled with unstable leadership, set the stage for turmoil in Salem, Massachusetts. Leadership fell to Cotton Mather, scion of a renowned lineage. While revered by some as a chosen champion in the battle against encroaching darkness, Mather's reputation within the community remained subject to mixed reviews, oscillating between adulation and skepticism.

Cotton Mather: Background and Influence

Cotton Mather's imprint on the Salem Witch Trials reverberated through his contemporary community, shaping future generations and leaving an indelible mark on American history. His upbringing and lineage paved the path for a life scrutinized by public judgment, while his religious indoctrination fueled an ardent pursuit of communal purification.

Mather hailed from a lineage steeped in ministerial prominence, tracing his roots to esteemed figures like Richard Mather and John Cotton, stalwarts of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Immersed in an environment where theology, church policy, and natural sciences were frequent topics of discourse, Mather embraced this legacy as a cherished inheritance.

Having received a thorough education under the tutelage of his father, Mather's ascent to Harvard at the tender age of twelve underscored his intellectual precocity. Yet, this early success belied a struggle against the looming shadow of paternal influence, spurring him toward paths marked by controversy and extremism.

Navigating a complex religious milieu, Mather's sermons served as a conduit for shaping communal perceptions, leveraging the prevailing uncertainty to underscore his divine mandate. His fervent belief in acting upon God's will lent credence to his pursuit of contentious avenues during the Salem Witch Trials, where he sought to furnish parishioners with compelling evidence of spiritual warfare.

As minister of Salem, Mather's involvement in the trials may have stemmed from a desire to realign his flock with traditional theological precepts amid shifting social and political landscapes. The pressing concerns of his parishioners, increasingly oriented towards political and social issues over theological matters, prompted Mather to defend the established order of church authority against encroaching secular influences.

Cotton Mather's Role in the Salem Witch Trials

Cotton Mather's involvement in the Salem Witch Trials epitomized a strategy of wielding fear and damnation to mold compliant, devout community members. Employing tactics reminiscent of the church's historical use of scare tactics to instill reverence for God, Mather sought to bolster moral authority over the fragile political power of the clergy. This approach, coupled with the influence of crowd mentality, perpetuated a dangerous cycle wherein moral guidance extended beyond the confines of the church, blurring the lines between church and state, an issue still in flux within the colonies of the time.

Despite the disproportionate historical significance of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts, the Salem Witch Trials escalated into a significant event due to the proliferation of conspiracies, propaganda, and media coverage. Mather's extensive coverage of the trials provided a platform for both accusers and accused to memorialize their experiences, elevating his personal testimonies to the status of divine doctrine.

Mather's own encounters preceding the trials laid the groundwork for widespread panic in Salem in 1692. His account in "Remarkable Providences" detailed the possession of the Goodwin family's children in Boston, an episode that Mather interpreted as a battleground with Satan. This narrative of possession, later echoed in his sermons and publications, likely influenced the initial accusations of witchcraft among the young women of Salem. Mather's vivid depiction of eternal damnation and divine wrath instilled a palpable fear of God, reinforcing the urgency of identifying and rooting out perceived threats to individual and communal salvation.

By intertwining theological teachings with sensational accounts of demonic influence, Mather played a pivotal role in stoking the flames of hysteria that engulfed Salem. His relentless warnings of the dangers posed by unseen spiritual forces underscored the perceived necessity of vigilance against perceived manifestations of evil.

With this historical backdrop established, the subsequent paragraphs will provide a succinct overview of the trials before delving into an interpretative analysis of their underlying foundations in conspiracy, propaganda, and crowd psychology.

The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 unfolded following the accusations made by a group of young women who claimed to be possessed by dark forces. This led to widespread anxiety throughout the colony and neighboring areas, prompting the convening of a special court to adjudicate the cases brought forth. However, the trials took a dark turn when false accusations surfaced, insincere confessions were made in hopes of gaining leniency or reward, and the town's reaction exacerbated the unfolding tragedy.

Cotton Mather's significant influence fundamentally altered the trajectory of the Salem Witch Trials, despite not holding an official position of judicial or political authority. As the minister and chronicler of the community, Mather wielded considerable power through his dual roles. Utilizing the persuasive tools of speech and literature, he inadvertently fueled the hysteria surrounding the trials, drawing parallels with a previous witchcraft case in Boston in 1688. Mather's entanglement of church and state blurred the lines of his responsibilities and perpetuated the turmoil within the community long after the trials had concluded.

His persistent efforts to prolong the witch hunts, even after their official end, demonstrated a fervent commitment to what he perceived as the community's moral purification. However, this zeal only served to deepen the divisions within Salem and perpetuate the cycle of fear and suspicion.

Moreover, the pervasive influence of crowd mentality further exacerbated the complex dynamics of the Salem Witch Trials. Both the accused and the accusers succumbed to the pressures of collective hysteria, driven by a primal instinct for self-preservation and a desire for significance in the eyes of their community. Mather's prominent role as both chronicler and spiritual guide only heightened these tensions, as the townspeople grappled with conflicting messages of divine righteousness and human fallibility.

In this tumultuous environment, Mather's chronicling of the trials served as a catalyst for their perpetuation, offering individuals a means of immortalizing themselves within the annals of history. By granting them a platform for recognition and notoriety, Mather inadvertently incentivized the fabrication and exaggeration of accusations, perpetuating the cycle of suspicion and persecution.

In essence, Mather's dual role as town chronicler and minister contributed to the entrenchment of the Salem Witch Trials within the fabric of the community's collective memory. His writings immortalized the events of 1692, perpetuating a legacy of fear, suspicion, and division that continues to resonate in the annals of American history.

Counterarguments and Rebuttals

In addressing potential counterarguments, it is essential to examine the assertion that Cotton Mather's direct involvement in the Salem Witch Trials was inconsequential to the outcomes. It is argued that various historical factors, such as belief in the supernatural and prevailing societal tensions, predated Mather's influence and contributed significantly to the trials' unfolding.

Indeed, belief in witchcraft and the devil's influence had long permeated European and colonial New England societies. Additionally, the aftermath of conflicts, epidemics, and social rivalries created a volatile environment ripe for suspicion and scapegoating. These factors laid the groundwork for the hysteria that engulfed Salem in 1692, preceding Mather's direct involvement.

Furthermore, while Mather's views on spectral evidence varied, his writings undoubtedly perpetuated the fear and paranoia surrounding witchcraft. Although he expressed reservations about the reliability of such evidence, his relentless propagation of divine conspiracy and the threat of damnation contributed to the fervor driving the trials forward.

It is also noteworthy that Mather was not the sole chronicler of the trials. Other writers, such as Deodat Lawson and Thomas Brattle, offered alternative perspectives and criticisms of the proceedings. However, Mather's prominence as Salem's minister and his extensive literary output ensured that his interpretations held significant sway over public opinion.

While Mather did not serve as a judge in the trials, his dual roles as spiritual leader and chronicler wielded considerable influence over the community. His writings immortalized the events and provided a platform for individuals to leave their mark on history. Despite mixed opinions of Mather at the time, his position as a moral authority and his relentless pursuit of divine truth reinforced the fervent atmosphere that fueled the trials.

In his writings, Mather appeared to prioritize the pursuit of truth above earthly concerns, manipulating his words to absolve himself of culpability while perpetuating the narrative of divine intervention. His publication of "The Wonders of the Invisible World" further cemented his support for the trials and demonization of the accused.

To sum up, while Mather's direct involvement in the Salem Witch Trials may have been indirect, his influence as a spiritual leader and chronicler cannot be understated. His relentless propagation of divine conspiracy and his manipulation of public sentiment contributed to the fervor that drove the trials forward. Thus, while other factors may have laid the groundwork for the hysteria, Mather's role in perpetuating it remains a significant aspect of the trials' history.

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Cotton Mather's multifaceted role as a pastor, reporter, and political activist significantly contributed to the unfolding of the Salem Witch Trials. Through his writings and sermons, he wielded considerable influence, instilling fear and promoting communal purification. However, this zeal for religious fervor ultimately led to tragic consequences, as religious extremism often does. The Salem Witch Trials serve as a stark reminder of the dangers inherent in unchecked religious fervor and the manipulation of public sentiment for personal or ideological gain.


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  2. Demos, John. “Underlying Themes in the Witchcraft of Seventeenth-Century New England.” The American Historical Review, vol. 75, no. 5, 1970, pp. 1311–1326. JSTOR. Accessed 21 June 2019.
  3. Freed, Amy. ‘Theater; what Possessed them? A Shameless Betrayal of Principles Surrounded the 17th Century Salem Witch Trials. here’s Why I Felt Compelled to Deal with it as Farce.’ Los Angeles Times, Apr 04, 2004. ProQuest. Accessed 21 June 2019.
  4. Editors. “Salem Witch Trials.” HISTORY, A&E Television Networks, 6 June 2019. Accessed 4 August 2019.
  5. Levine, Robert S., and Julia Reidhead, editors. “Cotton Mather, 1663-1728.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume A: Beginnings to 1820, 9th Edition. Edited by Robert S. Levine. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2017, pp. 321-322.
  6. Mather, Cotton. “The Wonders of the Invisible World.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume A: Beginnings to 1820, 9th Edition. Edited by Robert S. Levine and Julia Reidhead. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2017, pp. 322-325.
  7. Walker, Rachel. “Cotton Mather.” Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature, Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project, University of Virginia, 2001. Accessed 4 August 2019.
  8. Werking, Richard H. “‘Reformation Is Our Only Preservation’: Cotton Mather and Salem Witchcraft.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 2, 1972, pp. 281–290. JSTOR. Accessed 21 June 2019.
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