The Mathers

For four generations, the Puritan dynasty of Richard, Increase, Cotton, and Samuel Mather and their close relatives dominated the religious and intellectual life of colonial New England. The Mathers collected what was by far the best private library in the American Colonies; they also preached and published prolifically. In 1935 Tracy W. McGregor seized the opportunity to acquire the best collection in private hands of books and manuscripts written by or relating to the Mathers. Formed by William Gwinn Mather of Cleveland, Ohio, the collection numbered over 2,100 items—the largest and most expensive library acquisition ever made by Tracy W. McGregor. Since its arrival in Charlottesville, Special Collections curators have augmented the Mather portion of the McGregor Library until it is now one of the best Mather collections extant.

John Foster, Woodcut portrait of Richard Mather. [Boston, ca. 1675]  Original McGregor Library (M 1670 .F6)

The Mather family dynasty of New England Puritan ministers was founded by Richard Mather, who arrived in Boston in 1635 and soon became a pillar of the religious community. This woodcut portrait of Mather created after his death in 1669, is one of five extant examples. It is the earliest known American woodcut and portrait print. Artist John Foster was a graduate of Harvard and Boston’s first printer. A few examples are bound into copies of Increase Mather’s 1670 memoir of his father, though Foster probably executed the print later.

Congregational Churches in Massachusetts. Cambridge Synod (1648), A platform of church-discipline gathered out of the Word of God Cambridge [Mass.]: Samuel Green, 1649.  Original McGregor Library (M 1649 .C65)

In the late 1630s Richard Mather was one of several Puritan ministers who prepared the Bay Psalm Book, a new translation of the Book of Psalms that, in 1640, became the first work printed in the American Colonies. Of equal significance, and greater rarity, is the Platform of church-discipline, largely authored by Mather. This foundation work of New England Congregationalism spelled out the new form of church government developed by the Puritan settlers of Massachusetts. It also linked church and state by empowering civil courts to enforce religious orthodoxy.

Volume bound by John Ratcliff for Increase Mather, ca. 1680.  Original McGregor Library (M 1670 .M5 L5 copy 2)

During the 17th century, three generations of Mathers—Richard, Increase, and Cotton Mather—formed what was the largest and best library in the American Colonies. Numbering approximately 8,000 titles, the library included many works authored by the prolific Mathers. This volume contains Increase Mather’s personal copies of fourteen of his earliest works, all printed in Boston or Cambridge, Mass., between 1670 and 1680. Mather commissioned this bookbinding of blind-tooled calfskin from Boston binder John Ratcliff. One of the finest extant early American bindings, its simple but refined decoration befitted both the owner and its contents.

Cotton Mather, Letter to John Cotton, 17 October 1690.  Original McGregor Library (MSS 38-632)

In this letter to his uncle, Cotton Mather discusses Publick Occurrences, the first newspaper published in the American Colonies. “People had & have a Notion, that I was ye Author of it,” a rumor Mather initially denies before admitting that he had “accidentally” met publisher Benjamin Harris “on ye high-way” and had offered some editorial advice. Mather further reports that the Massachusetts provincial government had suppressed the unlicensed publication after one issue. But Mather hopes that it may resume: “I look upon his Design, to bee a very Noble, useful, & Laudable Design.”

Increase Mather, “Concerning Apparitions.”  Original McGregor Library (MSS 38-632)

Increase Mather and his son Cotton firmly believed in the supernatural. Through the careful interpretation of such “Remarkable Providences” as “Tempests, Floods, Earthquakes, Thunders, … strange Apparitions, … Witchcrafts, [and] Diabolical Possessions,” one might better understand God’s will. In 1684 Mather published in Boston An essay for the recording of illustrious providences, in which he described supernatural phenomena recently witnessed in New England. The McGregor Library possesses a copy of the book as well as the original manuscript for Chapter VII, shown here. The manuscript was formerly in the collection of Sir Thomas Phillipps, considered by many to be the world’s greatest bibliomaniac.

Increase Mather, Several Reasons Proving that Inoculating or Transplanting the Small Pox, is a Lawful Practice ... Boston: S. Kneeland for J. Edwards, 1721.  Original McGregor Library (M 1721 .M5 S4)

When a deadly smallpox outbreak hit Boston in 1721, Cotton Mather persuaded Dr. Zabdiel Boylston to experiment with inoculation—a preventive measure Mather had learned from an African slave fifteen years earlier.. Although the trial was successful, it occasioned furious public opposition on both religious and secular grounds. Mather enlisted his father’s aid in writing this leaflet in support of inoculation. The “Several Reasons” is by father Increase Mather; the anonymous “Sentiments on the Small Pox Inoculated” that follows is by son Cotton Mather.

Hannah Mather Crocker, Observations on the real rights of women ... Boston: Printed for the author, 1818.  Original McGregor Library (M 1818 .C76)

The Mather family papers and a large portion of its extraordinary library were inherited in 1785 by Hannah Mather Crocker, who ensured that these would be preserved in perpetuity. Crocker also distinguished herself through her writings, which included the first American book to advocate for women’s rights. Shrewdly countering criticism through modest argument, Crocker asserted the intellectual equality of the sexes, and women’s right to the free exercise of their mental powers. Rather than confine themselves to domestic duties, Crocker urged women to engage in the public sphere by “form[ing] societies for promoting religious, charitable and benevolent purposes.”