Date of this Version
Cambridge: Printed by S.G. and M.J. 1670
(Facsimile reprint, Athens, Ohio, November 1966).
We most often turn to American Puritan prose to glean historicalor biographical data. If we seek a biography that spans the evolution of American Puritanism from its nadir in England through its zenith in the New England of the 1630's to 1650's, and to the beginning of its decline as symbolized by the "Half-Way Covenant" in 1662, we may turn to Increase Mather's biography of his father, The Life and Death of That Reverend Man of God, Mr. Richard Mather. It includes the background for the elder Mather's decision to emigrate to New England (events leading to his suspension from his ministry for nonconformity), his arguments for leaving England (to go from ministerial bondage to freedom), and his account of the voyage to Boston (including the episode of a storm at sea in which his ship was saved by God's intervention). Increase also reflects on his father's parish in Dorchester (in which his plain style of preaching was precisely the style demanded by his congregation), and limns a vivid portrait of the old man on his death bed attempting to convince him, Increase, that the Half-Way Covenant would be in the best interest of Puritanism. To be sure, the biography deals almost entirely with the elder Mather's involvement in his religion and it may be read as a historical document, but it is neither ponderous nor boring and it possesses, as Kenneth Murdock says, "a simple dignity that comes close to art" (Increase Mather: The Foremost American Puritan). The author's use of anecdote (Gillebrand' s questioning of Richard Mather's name); of direct discourse (the dying Puritan's statement concerning the younger generation); and of excerpts from his father's diary and will all help the biography escape the ennui-producing sameness that characterizes other Puritan biographies (see Kenneth B. Murdock Literature and Theology in Colonial New England).
The tone of this biography, while eulogistic, is one of compassion, understanding, or sympathy--the result of a son's sincere appreciation of his father's life and heritage--and it is this that accounts for the ease with which it may be read today. The author's attitude leaves no room for the overt didacticism and pedantry and the overabundant use of religious allusions that are prevalent in many Puritan tracts, not the least ponderous of which are the biographical sketches in Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana (1702). Increase Mather is peaceful and serene throughout, an unusual pose among Puritan writers whose works were influenced by the rebellious nature of their omnipresent religion. This biography shares with other Puritan biographies the trait of providing an impulse-~through its description of a "visible saint" --for errant sinners to come to God, but it differs from most of them since its purpose is neither to defend the religion against its antagonists nor to castigate the heathens. Instead, it is a tender--but not sentimental--eulogy of a man who embodied the whole of American Puritanism.
The Life and Death of· . Richard Mather has been published in its entirety only twice since its first appearance in 1670 (Collections of the Dorchester Antiquarian and Historical Society, 1850, 1874). A new edition of this biography--Increase Mather's first work published in New England and the first biography published in America--is now offered in facsimile, that the charm as well as the content of the original may be shared. (Also reproduced here is the first woodcut print produced in America, John Foster's Richard Mather, c. 1670.) This biography of Richard Mather does not constitute great literature, but there can be little doubt that it is, as Perry Miller says, "the finest of the New England biographies" (The American Puritans: Their Prose and Poetry).