Increase Mather was a Puritan minister in Boston who is often associated with the Salem Witch Trials. He was the son of a prominent minister and the father of another minister who is associated with the Salem Witch Trials-Cotton Mather. He is often remembered as a man who opposed the way the Salem Witch Trials were handled. However, he was a man who rode the fence in such a way as to be a noteworthy figure on both sides of the argument. He defended the choice of the judges, while dreading the idea of executing the innocent. Because of this duality, it is hard to understand Increase Mather, especially so long after his lifetime.
Increase Mather was born on June 21, 1639, in Dorchester, Massachusetts. His father was a local minister. Increase was one of five of the man’s sons who became ministers like their father. He attended Harvard College from which he graduated in 1656. He became an ordained minister in 1664.
Increase was a typical Puritan minister in that he believed in witchcraft and connected it to all sorts of sinful acts. He was also of the belief that the people of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s sinful acts were responsible for unfortunate things from bad weather to war. Nonetheless, he was a prominent minister in the colony and even defended it when Parliament revoked its charter in 1688. He traveled to England to have the charter reinstated. He was there for nearly four years. When he returned to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692, he traveled with the colony’s new governor–Sir William Phips. The colony had been granted a new charter.
By the time Governor Phips and Increase Mather arrived in Boston on May 14, 1692, the events that would lead to the Salem Witch Trials were in full swing. There were a number of people who stood accused of witchcraft. The Governor established the Court of Oyer and Terminer roughly two weeks after his arrival. The court was to hear the onslaught of witchcraft cases. Two weeks later, one of the accused was executed.
Increase Mather and other ministers, including his son, did what they could to influence and guide the court through these superstitious trials. As history shows us, the Salem Witch Trials quickly got out of hand. A number of people were executed, all of whom were innocent of the crimes with which they had been charged. Increase attended only one of the trials-that of George Burroughs. George was found guilty and executed. Increase expressed that he fully agreed with the guilty finding and execution in this case.
During the Salem Witch Trials, Increase Mather published “Case of Conscience.” In this publication, he argues that some of the evidence being accepted may not be credible. (We know now that none of it was.) He seemed very concerned that an innocent person or persons would be executed in the witchcraft hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials. His worst fears had already come true. Oddly, Increase Mather seems not to realize this. He also argues that all of the judges did the right thing. Unlike one of the judges, Samuel Sewall, Increase Mather never publicly denounced the decisions made during the trials. Mather may have been riding the fence on the issue. His conscience may have told him the whole thing was wrong while his theological education was telling him that the Devil was afoot in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Because of Increase Mather’s seeming unwillingness to admit that at least one of his opinions would have to be wrong for the other to be right, he presents as something of a dual personality in history. On the one hand, you may find accounts of him trying to stop the trials by questioning the evidence (The trials were stopped by Governor Phips.). On the other hand, you find accounts of him attending a trial that ended in an innocent man’s death and agreeing with the judgment. This gives us an imperfect picture of the man himself. Many historians must long to travel back and time and find out what the man was really thinking.
Increase Mather passed away on August 23, 1723. He is buried at the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in Boston, Massachusetts.
Increase Mather, retrieved 10/10/10, law.umck.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/ASA_INC.HTM
Madder, Matthew, Increase Mather, retrieved 10/10/10, iath.virginia.edu/salem/people/i_mather.html