Cotton Mather, son of Increase Mather [q.v.], was born in Boston, graduated from Harvard in 1678, and was ordained in 1685 in the Congregational Church. He assisted and then succeeded his father in the Second Church pastorate, Boston. Although he countenanced the Salem witchcraft trials and executions (1692-93), he did not directly participate in them; he did however have a hand in choosing some of the Salem judges and wrote to them during the trial, urging the rejection of spectral evidence (testimony of attacks by the specters of people otherwise known to the victim) and the merciful treatment of those who confessed (his counsel in each case was rejected). Then, having tried to be a moderating influence on the trials, he damaged his own reputation by writing Wonders of the Invisible World (1693), condemning the excesses of the trials but defending several of the trials’ resulting convictions. Cotton’s book was published at the same time as Increase’s attack on the use of spectral evidence in the Salem trials, Cases of Conscience. Even though Increase was different in his assessment of the witch trials, Increase is said to have publicly burned Robert Calef’s More Wonders of the Invisible World in Harvard Yard, a book attacking Cotton’s book.
Cotton Mather’s discussion of suicide is distinctive in its quasi-medical character. He is particularly concerned with the etiology of suicidal acts; once suicidal ideation begins, it is intensified and taken advantage of by the intervention of devils (hence the title, “A Discourse on the Power and Malice of the Devils”). Nevertheless, it is possible to take steps to avoid this. In what may seem to modern readers to anticipate the role of psychiatric intervention, Mather emphasizes the importance for the potential victim of suicide of not keeping silent and of speaking with friends, physicians, and neighbors about feelings of guilt, sin, and what would now be identified as depression.
Cotton Mather, Memorable providences, relating to witchcrafts and possessions. : A faithful account of many wonderful and surprising things, that have befallen several bewitched and possessed persons in New-England. Particularly, a narrative of the marvellous trouble and releef experienced by a pious family in Boston, very lately and sadly molested with evil spirits. : Whereunto is added, a discourse delivered unto a congregation in Boston, on the occasion of that illustrious providence. : As also a discourse delivered unto the same congregation; on the occasion of an horrible self-murder committed in that town. : With an appendix, in vindication of a chapter in a late book of remarkable providences, from the calumnies of a Quaker at Pen-silvania. Boston: Richard Pierce, 1689. Material in introductory passage from Stephen Latham.
Facsimile available online from the Yale University Library.
from MEMORABLE PROVIDENCES RELATING TO WITCHCRAFTS AND POSSESSIONS
Temptations to Self-Murder, may likewise be fierce upon some unhappy people here. Tis almost unaccountable, that at some times in some places here, melancholy distempered Ragings toward Self-Murder, have been in a manner Epidemical. And it would make ones hair stand, to see or hear what manifest Assistence the Devils have given to these unnatural Self-executions when once they have been begun. Tis too evident, that persons are commonly bewitch’t or possess’t into these unreasonable Phrensies. But What shall these hurried people do?
My Advice is,
Don’t Conceal, much less Obey the motions of your Adversary. Failing in this, made a poor man, after a faithful Sermon in a Neighbouring Town, presently to drown himself in a pit that had not two foot of Water in it. If you will not Keep, that is the way not to Take the Devil’s Counsel. Let not him Tie your Tongues, and it is likely he will not gain your Souls. Complain to a good God of the Dangers in which you find your selves; cry to Him, Lord, I am oppressed, undertake for me. Complain also to a wise Friend. Let some prudent and faithful Neighbour understand your Circumstances: Tis possible you may thereby escape the Snares with which the cruel Fowlers of Hell hope to trapan you into their dismal Clutches for evermore. Your Neighbours may do much for you; and may prove your Keepers if God shall please. It may be the unkindness of some Friend, may have thrown you into your present Madness. Now the Kindness of some Friend may prove the Antidote. Many times, a Natural Distemper, is that by which the Devil takes advantage to get the souls of Self-Destroyers into his bloody hands. In this case, for the tempted persons to disclose their Griefs, will be the way to obtain their cures. Their Neighbours ought now to consult a skilful Physician for them; and oblige, yea, constrain them to follow his Directions. When the Humours on and by which the Devil works, are taken away, perhaps he may be starved out of doors. Many times, again, The sin of Slothfulness gives the Devil opportunity to procure the Self-Destruction of the sluggard. In this case too, the Tempted person may be succoured by the standers-by becoming sensible of their Circumstances. Their Neighbours may now compel them to follow their business. A Calling, the Business of a Calling, is an Ordinance of God, sanctified by Him to deliver us from the evil spirits that enter into the empty house,
But most times, There may be some old and great Sin unrepented of, where Temptations to Self-Murder have a violence hardly to be withstood, There was once a man among us, who in the horrours of Despair, uttered many dreadful speeches against himself, and would often particularly say, I am all on a light Fire under the wrath of God! This man yet never confessed any unusual sin, but this; that having gotten about Forty pounds by his Labour, he had spent it in wicked Company: But in his Anguish of spirit he hanged himself. There was once a woman among us, who under Sickness had made vowes of a New Life; but apprehending some defects in her conversation afterward, she fell into the distraction wherein she also hanged herself. And the Sin of Adultery and Drunkenness has more than once issued in such a destructive Desperation. In case of this or any such Guilt, Confession with Repentance affords a present Remedy. To fly from Soul-Terrour by Self-Murder, is to leap out of the Frying-pan into the Fire. Poor tempted People, I must like Paul in prison, cry with a loud voice unto you, Do your selves no harm; all may be well yet, if you will hearken to the Counsels of the Lord.
Now, Do thou, O God of peace, bruise Satan under our Feet. World without end, Amen.