Thursday, September 1, 2016

Increase Mather on Voting, Toleration, Biblical Civil Law, & More

Increase Mather (1639-1723) was a defender of Puritan Orthodoxy who served as President of Harvard University. A Congregational minister in colonial Massachusetts, he was the father of Cotton Mather and an important figure in the Salem Witch Trials.

Below are some quotes regarding his views on:

  • punishing crime and applying due process according to Scripture
  • basing laws on God's word
  • toleration
  • the role rulers play in societal reformation
  • choosing rulers

Punishing Crime and Applying Due Process According to Scripture

While touching on the state's duties regarding those suspected of witchcraft, Increase Mather assumes the abiding validity of Old Testament civil law regarding crime and due process. For instance, witches should be a punished by the magistrate, who should seek to rid the land of such evildoers: 
But we have in the Scripture the Example of a better Man than Saul to encourage us to make enquiry after Wizzards and Witches in order to their Conviction and Execution. This did the rarest King that ever lived caused to be done, viz. Josiah, 2. Kings, 23. 24. The Workers with familiar Spirits and the Wizzards, that were spied in the Land of Judah, did Josiah put away, that he might perform the Words of the Law. It seems there were some that sought to hide those Workers of Iniquity, but that incomparable King spied them out, and rid the Land and the World of them.[1]
Magistrates, however, cannot arbitrarily punish those accused of witchcraft. They are constrained by biblical rules of due process (e.g., two or more witnesses), and cannot invent their own means for determining whether one is a witch. Thus he states the following (where he also advocates Scripture's criminalization of murder and adultery): 
Let them say this is an infallible Proof, produce any Word out of the Law of God which does in the least countenance that Assertion: The Word of God instructs Jurors and Judges to proceed upon clear humane Testimony, Deut. 35. 30. But the Word no where giveth us the least Intimation, that every one is a Witch, at whose look the bewitched Person shall fall into Fits; nor yet that any other means should be used for the discovery of Witches, than what may be used for the finding out of Murderers, Adulterers, and other Criminals. ...
The Evidence in this Crime ought to be as clear as in any other Crimes of a Capital nature. The Word of God does no where intimate, that a less clear Evidence, or that fewer or other Witnesses may be taken as sufficient to convict a Man of Sorcery, which would not be enough to convict him were he charged with another evil worthy of Death, Numb. 35. 30. If we may not take the Oath of a distracted Person, or of a possessed Person in a Case of Murder, Theft, Felony of any sort, then neither may we do it in the Case of Witchcraft.[2]
For Mather, then, 
It is better that a Guilty Person should be Absolved, than that he should without sufficient ground of Conviction be condemned. I had rather judge a Witch to be an honest woman, than judge an honest woman as a Witch. The Word of God directs men not to proceed to the execution of the most capital offenders, until such time as upon searching diligently, the matter is found to be a Truth, and the thing certain, Deut. 13. 14,15.[3]  
And as he also states:
I answer the Question affirmatively; There are Proofs for the Conviction of Witches which Jurors may with a safe Conscience proceed upon, so as to bring them in guilty. The Scripture which saith, Thou shalt not suffer a Witch to live, clearly implies, that some in the World may be known and proved to be Witches: For until they be so, they may and must be suffered to live.[4]  
Basing Laws on God's Word

In his An Earnest Exhortation To the Inhabitants of New England, Mather affirms that civil government should base its laws on Scripture (at least as it applies to prohibitions and punishments); unbiblical laws should be changed to conform to God's word:
In order to Reformation: Let there be a due execution of wholesome Laws which are founded upon the Word of God. If there be any Laws amongst us which cannot be warrented from the Word, change them and establish other in their room (I speak of Laws which respect the punishment of transgressors) but if the Scripture will justifie this or that testimony against Transgressors; either of first or second Table, let that and only that be done which shall please God: I have read, that it is a Rule in Politicks, that a bad Executioner of Laws is worse then a violator of them. Our defect is not so much in respect of the want of good Laws, as in the non-execution of those Laws that are good. It were better never to make Laws for the suppressing of Evils that are provoking in the sight of God, then not to see them faithfully executed when they are made.[5]
Speaking for his colony -- if not for all of the New England colonies -- Mather affirms that the Commonwealth should be regulated by God's Word:
We are the Children of the good old Non-Conformists: and therefore are we under the deepest engagement, not only to reject Inventions Humane in the things of God but to come up to the practice of Institutions Divine. As to our Ecclesiastical constitution, the Congregational way ... is that which we profess. And as to our Civil Polity, our Profession hath been, that they that are Rulers should be men that fear God, and that they that choose them should be such also, and that Laws in the Common-wealth should be regulated by the Word of God, that so the Lord Jesus may reign there.[6]


While Mather was a most tolerant man, he understood that liberty of conscience should never be used to excuse the profanest errors, such as Sabbath breaking and idolatry. Such toleration provokes God's wrath:

There is indeed one particular insisted on, which is now become a matter of Scruple and distaste to some amongst us, viz. that which concerns the Magistrates power in matters of Religion. But as it was by me either intended or expressed, I know not to this hour why any one should be offended at it. I may better speak in this cause than some others, as having my self had experience what it is to have Conscience imposed on, and therefore would be loth that any truly conscientious should be burdened; and it is sufficiently known that I have a greater latitude and Indulgence in the point of Toleration, than many better than my self have. Nevertheless I judge it most unreasonable that pretended Liberty of Conscience should be an Asylum for the profanest errors to take Sanctuary in: As though men must therefore have Liberty to profane Sabbaths or Sacraments, or set up an Altar against the Lord's Altar and their Threshold by his Threshold, & their Posts by his Posts, when and where they please: It cannot be but the Lord will be provoked at such things, especially in New-England where men are not under such temptations to forsake their Assembling themselves together, as in some other places: And where Zeal on the other hand hath been notorious, so that such Lukewarmness will in a People circumstanced as we are, be an evidence of Apostacy.[7] 
As for the common objection that rulers in the New Covenant era should not punish offenses against the First Table of the law, Mather writes:
3. I beseech you in the Name of the Lord, that you would in special manner beware of that which was the sin of Solomon: and what was that! Truly sinful Toleration was Solomon's great Iniquity, whereby he did forsake the Lord. It is said of him, he built High places for Asht•••h, 2. King, 23.13. because he did tolerate, and give publick allowance, unto those Idolatries: and that sin of his was the reason why the Lord stirred up Adversaries against him. Do we not find that all the godly reforming Magistrates, spoken of in Scripture, thought it their Concern to pull down false worship, as well as to set up the true Worship of God. It is a most vain objection which some have made, That we do not read in the New Testament, that the Magistrate did ever punish any, on account of transgression against the first Table: No more (saith Calvin) do we read in the New Testament that the Ma∣gistrate did ever punish men for murder, or other Crimes, does it therefore follow that he ought not so to doe? But therein it is said that they ought to punish all evil doers, Rom. 13.4. 1. Tim. 1.9. And that Transgressions against the first Table are evil deeds, Gal. 5.19.20. Phil. 3.2. 2. Joh. 10.11.[8]
Mather notes that toleration of all religions is a tactic used to persecute Christians. While it is better for rulers to be too lenient than to be too harsh in matters of toleration, tolerating attacks on the foundations of Christianity can destroy the Christian social order. Mather warns rulers of the consequences of neglecting their duties:
Moreover, sinful Toleration is an evil of exceeding dangerous consequence: Men of Corrupt minds though they may plead for Toleration, and Cry up Liberty of Conscience &c. yet if once they should become numerous and get power into their hands, none would persecute more than they: So the Donatists of old, and the German Anabaptists in the last Age. And the Arminian Remonstrants in the Netherlands made Hideous Clamours for Liberty of Conscience, and that the States of Holland were more cruel than the bloody Spanish Inquisitors, yet when they became potent, they did persecute the Orthodox Professors of the Truth. And indeed the Toleration of all Religions and Persuasions, is the way to have no true Religion at all left. That was Julian the Apostate's device, in order to an extirpation of Christianity. And it is a Solemn Word which Mr. Cotton (the first and famous Teacher in this Congregation) speaketh I wish (saies he) that Antichrist do not creep in at the back door of Tolleration. I do believe that Antichrist hath not at this day a more probable way to advance his Kingdom of Darkness, than by a Tolleration of all Religions and Perswasions, Hence some of the chief of the Popish Doctors have writen against the Magistrates power in matter of Religion. But remember I pray you how God hath punished this sin which I am testifying against. Of old (as some have truly observed) when once the Roman Emperours did indulge and tolerate Arians, God was provoked to let the Barbarous Goths loose to break in upon the Empire and destroy it, so as that the Church fled into the Wilderness, and had like to have been swept away with that flood. And what misery this sin hath more than once brought upon our Land and Nation, I need not tell you. It is a very memorable Passage which I find related in the Life of that great learned VSHER, when Popish Idolaters were by the Civil State allowed; Well, (said that Worthy of his time) you shall find that God will punish you forty years hence, by those very men, whom you have sinfully indulged: And so it came to pass; for just forty years after that, was the Irish Rebellion. This very sin which God calls me to bear witness against this day hath been subversive to the interest of Religion in some Christian Nations. The Toleration of Socinianism has proved the ruin of the Churches in Poland & TransylvaniaYet it is far from my design in speaking this to stir up Magistrates to that which the Scripture calls Persecution: it were better to err by too much indulgence towards those that have the root of the matter in them, than by too much Severity. Nay, as to those that are indeed Heretical, I can for my own part say with Luther, ad judicium sanguinis tardus sum, I have no affection to sanguinary punishments in such Cases. And certainly there are other ways to suppress Hereticks besides Heretic•de, witness what was done by great Constantine for the suppression of Arianism. Nevertheless, approved Writers who, are large enough in the point of Toleration, declare, that they, the principles of whose Religion are disturbant to the Civil State and Constitution of any place, may not be indulged, (and that therefore Popish Priests and Jesuits are not to be permitted) Sure then they whose Religion, and whose Profession doth warm in its bowels a fatal Engine, against the Kingdom and Churches of the Lord Jesus, ought not to be tolerated. Nor is it tolerable for any sort of men amongst us, to set up a mount Gerizzim that if these or those are justly cast out of the Churches of Christ, they shall be suffered to set up an Altar against the Lord's Altar, and (it may be) to take those hands that are in the Name of the Lord Jesus delivered up to Satan, I say, to take those hands to administer the dreadful misteries of the Kingdom, it is an abomination enough to make desolate. Certainty (much honoured in the Lord) if your blessed Fathers and Predecessors were alive and in place, it would not be so; If Winthrop, Dudley, Endicot were upon the Bench such profaneness as this would soon be suppressed. And if it be so that the spirit of Rulers in New-England is changed, if you do become cold and indifferent in the things of God, departing from your former love, and zeal for the Name, Truth, and blessed Ordinances, of the Lord Jesus, I will be bold to speak to you, as once Mr. Brightman said to a greater man than any of you all, if it be so, you may believe it, God will change either you, or your Government ere long. I speak it to you with great solemnity of Spirit, and in the Name of Him that is Higher than the highest.[9] 

The Importance of Rulers in Defending Christianity

For Mather, rulers play an important role in defending Christianity -- not only be policy, but by example:
If Magistrates, Ministers and people all do what Duty requireth, the feared Apostasy, together with the unavoidable Calamity coming therewith, may be prevented, however in great Measure and for a long time.
1. Let me apply my speech unto Zerubbabels, h▪ e. Rulers in the Common-Wealth: Honoured and much Esteemed, The Wellfare or Ill-fare of the present, yea, and following Generation doth much depend upon you. Magistrates are in the Scripture compared to to Corner stones, because where there is a Common-Wealth erected, the Safety of the whole Building under God depends much upon them: Hence are they also termed Foundations, Psal. 11.3. If the Foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous doe? If David had perished, Foundations had been destroyed, and the good people of the Land would have dearly felt the loss of him. And when in Saul's time there were corrupt Judges and Magistrates, it is therefore said that the Foundations of the Earth were out of Course, Psal. 82.5. And the prophet Micah speaking to the Rulers in the Common-Wealth of Israel saith, hear ye Foundations of the earth, Chapt. 6.2. It is with you (by the help of Christ) to lay such Foundations as shall make Posterity either happy or miserable. David improved the power which God in his providence entrusted him with, to serve his Generation according to the will of God, Act. 13.36. And therefore was an Eminent Blessing to all that Generation wherein he lived. If the Sins of the people under your Care and Charge should ever provoke the Lord to leave you in an hour of Temptation you cannot possibly turn aside from God alone but many others will do so too, 1. Kin. 11 33▪ & 12.30. 2. Chr. 24.18. and 33.8. Regis Exemplum — People are apt to follow the Examples of those in pl••e. You know it mentioned concerning Rehoboam, that he within a few years after his coming to the Government did forsake the Lord and all Israel with him, 2. Chron. 12.1.[10]
Mather goes on to discuss the importance of rulers in bringing about Reformation, giving examples:
And how is there like to be that Reformation which the Lord requires, except you that are Leaders over this people, do your utmost to promote it? Where do you read of any great and general Reformation brought to pass, except the civil Magistrate did forward it? It is true, that many times God doth make use of his Messengers and Ministers to set the Wheel a going, but then Magistrates have fallen in with them. The Prophets Haggai and Zachary set the work of Reformation upon the wheel, but Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel (that godly Magistrate) carried on the work to effect, Ezra. 5.1, 2. Luther began the Reformation in Germany, yet if some of the Princes there had not engaged with him, the work had never been carried on with such success. Calvin (and other eminent Ministers of God) exhorted the people at Geneva, unto Reformation, but if the Senatours of that place had not hearkened to the voice of God in those Exhortations, the people would have remained unreformed still. Zwinglius by his Ministry was instrumental towards the accomplishing a great Reformation in Zurick, but then the Magistrates of that place fell in with the Word of God. Oecolampadius was an happy instrument in the hand of Christ to reform Basil; but if the Magistrates of that City had not set to their helping hand, Oecolampadius alone might have laboured in vain. The like is to be said concerning the Reformation of Bern, (not to insist on more instances) where that learned Hallerus was once a Preacher of the Gospel. I know you cannot change mens hearts, yet you may do much (if God help you) towards the effecting an outward Reformation, which will procure outward blessings and prevent outward Judgments and desolations.[11]

Choosing Rulers

Mather understood that rulers are not to be chosen as lesser of two evils -- rulers must be chosen by God's righteous standards. Choosing those who don't can bring about God's judgment: 
It is a great Privilege which you enjoy at this day, that you may choose Rulers from among your selves. And although as to what concerns the Transactions of this day, it is almost too late to speak, yet you may hear for the time to come. Freemen, remember the oath of God that is upon you. I doubt there is lamentable guilt upon many, who in Elections are acted more by interest and Faction than by conscience. You know what the Rule is, viz. that you should Choose men that are just, and that fear God and hate Covetousness. Choose men that shall aprove themselves (like Eliakim) Fathers to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, Choose men of Hezekiah's Spirit, who spake comfortably to all those that taught the good knowledg[e] of the Lord. In a word, choose those that will be zealous for the interest of Reformation, and that therefore will improve their power to suppress Transgressions of the first, as well as of the 2nd. Table. If you will choose such (which mercy forbid that ever it should be) under whose shaddow Thorns and Briars shall thrive, and those Weeds of Pride, Cont••tion, Heresie shall receive Nourishment, and Encouragement; it will be an Ominous sign that God will ere long deprive you of your Liberties until such time as you know better how to improve them.[12]


[1] Increase Mather, Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men; Witchcrafts, Infallible Proofs of Guilt in such as are Accussed with that CRIME (London: John Dunton, 1693). In Cotton Mather, The Wonders of the Invisible World: Being an Account of the Tryals of Several Witches Lately Executed in New-England (London: John Russell Smith, 1862), 275, 276.
[2] Ibid., 268, 269.
[3] Ibid., 283.
[4] Ibid., 275.
[5] Increase Mather, An Earnest Exhortation To the Inhabitants of New England,ed. Reiner Smolinski (1676) (University of Nebraska - Lincoln, 1998), 14, 15. Retrieved January 13, 2015 from
[6] Ibid., 21.
[7] Increase Mather, A call from heaven, to the present and succeeding generations or A discourse wherein is shewed I. That the children of godly parents are under special advantages and encouragements to seek the Lord.: II. The exceeding danger of apostasie, especially as to those that are the children and posterity of such as have been eminent for God in their generation. : III. That young men ought to remember God their creator. (originally written 1639-1723) (Boston, MA: R. P. for I. Brunning, 1685), 47 - ?. Retrieved August 26, 2016, from;view=fulltext. We have made some slight modifications to the English in some of the quotes from this work.
[8] Ibid., 104-105.
[9] Ibid., 105-109.
[10] Ibid., 94 - 96.
[11] Ibid., 110, 111.
[12] Ibid., 130, 131.

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