Cotton Mather's Writings: Magnalia Christi Americana, Pillars of Salt & Other Writings

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  • 0:05 The Voice of His Era
  • 1:22 Pillars of Salt
  • 2:02 Magnalia Christi Americana
  • 3:59 Style & Influence
  • 5:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Cotton Mather, an important Puritan minister, wrote the first American true crime book and an influential book about the religious history of the New World. In this lesson, we'll learn more about Mather and his two most influential books.

The Voice of His Era

Cotton Mather was a famous Puritan minister and writer in New England in the 17th century. Mather was the son of a prominent minister and the grandson of two other ministers. Mather was a prolific writer who composed more than 450 books and pamphlets during his life. Due to the volume of his works, as well as his standing in the community and his persuasive abilities, Mather had a heavy influence on the politics of his day and became an influential voice during his lifetime.

One area of influence that Cotton Mather has become notorious for was during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. During that time, Mather publicly spoke out about the accused witches and used his ability with words to increase the superstitions about witches.

More importantly, he wrote the document that encouraged the court to use spectral evidence, which meant that the accusers could claim that a ghost of the accused was torturing them. For example, a girl claimed to be pinched by the specter of a woman accused of being a witch. Despite the fact that the accused woman was in clear view in the courtroom the entire time, and her protestations of innocence, the court allowed the girl's accusation to be entered as evidence in the trial.

Pillars of Salt

Mather's interest in the justice system went beyond the courtroom. When someone was publicly executed, Puritan ministers like Mather would preach an execution sermon, describing the crimes that led to the execution and condemning of the convicted. Afterwards, the sermon would be printed up in pamphlet form and sold.

In 1699, Mather collected 12 of his execution sermons together and printed them in a book he titled Pillars of Salt. Though the sermons could be read as religious fodder, the book is considered to be America's first true crime book. In the years after it was published, true crime became a popular genre, one that remains popular today.

Magnalia Christi Americana

Despite the success of Mather's sermons and pamphlets during his lifetime, his most influential and enduring work has been his 1702 book, titled Magnalia Christi Americana. The title is Latin and can be translated to mean 'The Glorious Works of Christ in America'.

The book, which Mather himself considered to be his biggest contribution to the literary world, is a religious history of the colonies. That is, it tells the history of America from a religious standpoint. To Mather, no history mattered except the Puritan influence on New England. The massive volume includes seven different books. The first book tells the story of the Puritans who founded the settlements of New England. In it, he talks about the New World as a place ordained by God to spread the 'true' religion of Puritanism.

The second book tells the lives of the politicians who shaped early New England, including the influential governors and magistrates. The third book includes biographies of church leaders whose ministry shaped the day-to-day life of Americans. The fourth book is a history of Harvard University and a list of its graduates. The fifth book lays out the faith and dedication of the churches of New England and their role in shaping the moral character of the colonies.

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