Volume 1, Number 3 (December 1995)
Shifting Signs: Increase Mather and the Comets of 1680 and 1682
Andrew P. Williams
North Carolina Central University
Williams, Andrew P. "Shifting Signs: Increase Mather and the Comets of 1680 and 1682."
Early Modern Literary Studies 1.3 (1995): 3.1-34 <URL:
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And although I am a Lover of Art, I would not lay too great a stress upon Astronomy, or
anything belonging to it, and would have all that are searchers into these things, first be well
acquainted with the Scriptures, and they will make good work of it, and shew the mind of God by
his works in heaven, for the Heavens declare the Glory of God, and the Earth his handy work.
In November of 1680, a large comet appeared in the morning sky over Boston. Visible over
New England until mid-February, this blazing star prompted the Reverend Increase Mather to
provide the Puritans of Boston with a theological explanation of the phenomenon. In the
sermon Heaven's Alarm to the World (1681), Mather sternly views the appearance
of this comet as being a sign of God's displeasure and a herald of some mysterious calamity
destined to fall upon the Boston populace. Less than two years later a second comet appeared
over Boston, again prompting Mather to deliver a sermon concerning the divine and portentous
nature of comets. While this second sermon, The Voice of God in Signal
Providences(1682), retains much of the traditional theology evident in the first, Mather's
reading of the heavenly sign here undergoes an interpretive shift. The minister adapts his
rhetorical position to acknowledge what he sees as a linguistic component to the comet's
In Heaven's Alarm, Mather's primary interpretive concern is to identify clearly
he sees as inherent within the comet's presence for the spiritual edification of the Boston Puritans.
His rhetoric is highly emotive as he interprets the meaning of the heavenly sign as a precursor of
impending doom. In Signal Providences, however, Mather's interpretive focus is
directed toward explaining how the blazing star itself functions as a sign in order to make meaning. In this
second address, Mather's interpretation downplays the prophetic underpinnings of his first sermon
and, instead, explains the presence of the comet as a part of a divine, yet rational, linguistic
Though separated by only two years, the comet sermons illustrate an evolving hermeneutic
strategy on Mather's part with respect to the interpretation and significance of the appearance of a
comet as a sign from God. While Mather's interpretation of the comet's presence in
Alarm is grounded primarily in the mysterious yet portentous nature of such an event, in
Signal Providences his interpretation of the heavenly sign offers a clear and
explanation of the celestial phenomenon.
When Mather delivered his comet sermons, the cosmological outlook of the late
seventeenth-century was balanced between what can be described as two countervailing
approaches of rationalism and mysticism. These prevented Puritan cosmology from "becoming
excessively rational in orientation or excessively pietistic" (Wetering 417). Though this balance
did not specifically necessitate a conflict between science and religion for the Puritans, it can be
seen to have enhanced what Thomas Kuhn calls an "essential tension" in scientific thought, where
alternate codes of ethical and rational opinion compete (Mali 148). Religion and traditional
theology comprised for Mather and the Boston Puritans a necessary "matrix of old
beliefs" from which a "highly rational scientific method" evolved (Mali 143-148). For the Puritans,
the natural world, though a visible sign of God's creation, was both mysterious and orderly.
Although science could prove useful in explaining the physical nature of God's creations, it was
limited in its scope. The unexplainable mysteries within God's creations were as real
and valid to the Puritan faithful as the scientific facts which served to explain the rational order of
those creations. This conceptual duality provided an essential tension within Puritan scientific
thought which served as a cultural backdrop for Mather's comet sermons of 1680 and
The seventeenth-century was witness to numerous comet sightings, including those of 1618,
1664, 1665, and 1677. Inquiries into these comets produced a noteworthy number of scientific
texts including Samuel Danforth's An Astronomical Description of the Late Comet
(1665), John Gadbury's treatise De Cometis (1665), and Robert Hooke's 1678
report to the Royal Society, Cometa. These accounts complemented the earlier
work of Brahe and Kepler and helped to expand the emerging technical understanding of this
particular cosmic phenomenon. As a competent scientist in his own right, Increase Mather was
quite aware of the scientific analysis presented in these texts. The methodology of Gadbury and
the vocabulary of Hooke were incorporated into his own scientific inquiry into comets,
A Discourse Concerning Comets (1683).
Although Mather was familiar with conventional scientific thought prior to the appearance of
the comet of 1680, his first comet sermon, Heaven's Alarm, reflects little scientific
Instead, it relies on Biblical references and highly charged theological implications to direct the
significance of the comet beyond the realm of natural phenomenon to that of prophetic wonder.
Consistent with the directive purpose associated with the errand of the Puritan community, the
critical overtones of Heaven's Alarm reflect Sacvan Bercovitch's definition of the
jeremiad where "crisis was the social norm it sought to inculcate" (25). Borrowing from a rich
cultural tradition of apocalyptic fervor, Mather achieves this social norm by setting
Alarm within a framework of eschatological concerns. He challenges the Boston Puritans
a social crisis caused by their departure from the narrow path of the Puritan errand.
Heaven's Alarm begins with Mather's illustrating the theological implications of
of 1680, since these sights "strike a terror into the hearts of men that are spectators of them" (6).
Terror is an apt word to describe Mather's intended effect in this sermon as he weaves Biblical
allusions with highly emotive rhetoric to produce a sense of dread in his listeners. Since the sight
of a comet would be a thing of wonder to the Boston populace, Mather carefully
composed Heaven's Alarm to acknowledge its great spectacle while dictating the
which the comet's appearance could be interpreted.
There are also extraordinary stars sometimes appearing in the heavens. God in his providence
doth order, as that sometimes, Blazing Stars are seen in heaven. Such stars are called comets from
the stream like long hair which useth to attend them. (9)
Mather continues by firmly defining the sign's portentous nature.
Fearful sights are called signs in the scripture, it is partly on this account, in that they are signs
that the Lord is coming forth out of his holy habitation to punish the world for their iniquityes.
Mather leaves no room to challenge his interpretation. That comets are signs of God's impending
wrath is verified by scripture, and for his Puritan audience, scriptural authority is final.
In Mather's interpretive scheme, the appearance of the comet of 1680 is clearly a sign of
God's anger where "flaming Vengeance is kindled, and burning in Heaven against a sinful World"
(14). The comet proves a signal of God's flaming vengeance and the public judgement which is to
come "as Testimones of Divine Displeasure" (14). As a public sign, Mather makes an important
distinction concerning the portentous nature of the comet of 1680.
Inasmuch then as fearful Sights are Tokens of God's Anger, they are Presages of great and publick
Calamities. As the Rainbow (though a Natural Sign) is a token of Divine favours, so are
prodigieus Sights Tokens of Divine Anger. (15)
Unlike the rainbow which is also a divine sign but a product of God's natural government of the
universe, the comet of 1680 is a prodigious component of the supernatural government of God's
creations. There are no secondary or natural causes which precede the appearance of a comet;
instead, its presence in the heavens is contingent upon God's arbitrary will. But while its
appearance cannot be fully comprehended within the scope of human understanding, it is the duty
of the Puritan faithful to accept that through the comet of 1680 "God was operating
supernaturally upon the world, declining to utilize the ordinary course of natural law" (Wetering
Mather enhances the supernatural import of the comet through the skillful use of highly
emotive rhetoric which directs the significance of the comet as a public sign of God's displeasure
outside the realm of rationalization and into the apocalyptic arena of the terror sermon. God's will
cannot be predicted but, as Mather points out, "when there is a Star burning and blazing in
heaven, commonly it proves fatal to some" (16). He adds that comets are often forerunners of
"Lamentable Deaths and Destructions amongst Men" (19) as well as "Devestations and
Desolations" (21). Mather furthers the terrifying aspect of the comet's presence by graphically
illustrating God's active participation in the destruction the blazing star signifies.
God hath bent his Bow, and made his Arrows ready, and that if Sinners turn not, the Arrows of
Pestilence and Death shall fall upon them speedily. (20).
Continuing in this vein, Mather calls the comet a sign that "those Judgements, which are God's
sharp Razors on Mankind . . . doe draw near" (27).
Throughout Heaven's Alarm Mather consistently reinforces the implications of
signs of impending doom, yet he indicates that such signs are not universal and that only God
knows where, and for whom, any potential calamity is directed.
In general, we may safely say that there is just cause to expect that great calamityes are at hand,
but what persons or places shall eminently fall under those judgements is not for us to determine;
but we must leave that with God, who best knows himself what he intends to do. (17)
While God's intentions may remain a mystery, his active presence is clearly evident in Mather's
sermon. There is no question in Mather's estimation that a comet is a sign of God's wrath, yet
there is no way to determine exactly who is to be the recipient of the punishment the comet
Mather skillfully uses the familiar case of the comet of 1618 to illustrate the portentous but
varying signification of this type of cosmic sign. He points out that the comet of 1618 proved a
sign of deliverance to the Puritans in the new world but one of calamity to those in Germany:
"The prodigies in Germany were looked upon by the protestants as Signs of Deliverance unto
them, and destruction to their enemies. But alas the event was quite otherwise" (26-27).
However, Mather is quick to note that the same blazing star was a sign of God's sending a
plague upon the Native American population whose decimation was vital for the success of the
Puritans' errand into the wilderness: "So did the Lord call out the heathen before this his people,
that the way might thereby be prepared unto our more peaceable settlement here" (22).
In his Wonder Working Providences (1653), Edward Johnson refers to the
comet of 1618: "whereas the Indians report they beheld to their great wonderment that
perspicuous bright blazing comet . . . after which uncouth sight they expected some strange things
to follow" (39). Johnson goes on to indicate that around the time of the comet's appearance "there
befell a great mortality among them, the greatest that ever the memory of Father to Sonne took
notice" (40). While the great mortality was the result of the Native American population coming
into direct contact with diseases to which they had no immunity, the appearance of the comet
proved a timely celestial providence for Johnson and Mather, signifying the power of God to
intercede on behalf of the early Puritan settlers.
While Mather's allusion to the plague described in Johnson's account places the portentous
nature of God's heavenly signs within an historical framework, Mather also emphasizes to the
Boston Puritans that these signs, like all things, are dependent upon God's will. However, in the
case of the comet of 1680, Mather is adamant that the comet is unequivocally a sign of God's
wrath in that "a Strange sight doth betoken strange punishment" (28). Heaven's
Alarm leaves no
doubt that the comet of 1680 is a sign of God's displeasure with the Boston Puritans. Yet the
strange punishment which accompanies the presence of such a sign
remains a problem for the minister if no calamity or serious disturbance occurs. Mather is
able to qualify this point by intimating that "the Lord's Threatening's are not absolute, but
conditional" (32). This conditionality enables Mather to prophesize impending doom but still
retain his credibility if that doom does not materialize.
Mather's sermon bounces between Biblical and historical evidence and prophetic exegesis in
order to instill the necessary sense of dread in his Puritan audience, but just as his doomsday
language reaches its peak, he reveals a way of salvation. "Reformation, reformation" (36) he cries
out, providing his listeners with a course of action which will divert the calamity at hand.
Referring to the familiar Biblical story of Jonah and Ninevah, Mather contextualizes Boston's
current spiritual plight: "Yet when they repented and reformed (though it was but external
reformation) the Lord spared them forty years longer. Ah New England wilt thou not do more
than Ninevah?" (36-7).
Mather questions an audience eager for deliverance from the destruction foretold by the
blazing star by engaging what he saw as the chief social evils of the day. "Daughters of Sion,
reform their Pride in Appearal? Wilt they have the attire of a Harlot?" (37), and "Shall there be
still such a multitude of licensed drinking houses (and towndwellers frequenting them) to the
shame of Boston?" (37). Mather's text is clear. The tragedy that may descend upon New England
has been brought on by a relaxing of the Puritans' moral code and of their commitment to being
the shining example of God's newly chosen people. Though Mather specifically avoids intimating
the type and time of the approaching tragedy, Mason Lowance points out that the minister is "too
aware of the contemporary apostasy of New England from the errand into the wilderness to allow
any opportunity to slip by, and he chastises his countrymen with constant allusions to these
speaking providences" (82). The comet of 1680 provided Mather with the necessary speaking
providence to illustrate what he viewed as God's discontent with the moral consciousness of
the Puritan community. By acting upon the apocalyptic fears of his audience, Mather was able to
maximize his own explicit social agenda in Heaven's Alarm To The World and to
establish the sense of communal crisis necessary for desperately needed reformation.
Less than a month after Mather preached Heaven's Alarm, the printer John
completed his almanac of 1681 which included a general description of "Comets: Their Motion,
Distance and Magnitude" and a section titled "Observations of a Comet seen this last winter
1680." Dating from November 18, 1680 to February 10, 1681, Foster's "Observations" provided a
detailed account of the comet's path including specific readings of its longitude and latitude, and
calculations of its distance from Earth. Though Foster indirectly refers to Heaven's
"these things we have lately heard in Publick by a Reverend Divine among us, in a sermon
occasioned by this ominous appearance" (19), his treatment of the comet in the almanac remains
objective, lacking Mather's apocalyptic fervor.
Foster printed the text of Mather's Heaven's Alarm soon after his own almanac
went to press (Green 124) but before that, less than a week after Foster's last observation (on
February 16, 1681), Mather finished his preface, entitled "To the Reader," which was added as an
introduction to the first printed edition of Heaven's Alarm. While the printed text of
Mather's sermon reflects the
minister's theological interpretation of the comet's divine signification, Mather's preface
acknowledges the value of objective scientific inquiry into the physical nature of comets.
Concerning those admirable and amazing works of God which are called by us Comets, as under a
physical and mathematical consideration, there are many that have published their sentiments, and
to good purpose and edification. The scope of the ensuing discourse is only (that being most
proper for one under my circumstances) to make a theological improvement thereof. (1)
The tempered language of Mather's preface acknowledges the comet of 1680 as a natural,
physical phenomenon and places his own theological observations within an established body of
scientific inquiry. Though the preface does not underscore his fervent pleas for social
reformation, scientific rationalization of the comet's presence, absent in the sermon, is now
specifically addressed in the introduction to the printed text.
Mather's interpretation of the comet of 1680 as a sign of impending doom reflects traditional
Puritan theology. He does not consider the comet as causing any catastrophe, but rather as an
outward sign of God's displeasure with the moral state of the Boston Puritans. Although the
presence of the blazing star gave Mather an opportunity to address the Boston populace
concerning their moral failings, the drama of the comet of 1680 also wakened in him a keen
interest in astronomy and the scientific analysis of comets. Michael Hall points out that after the
appearance of the comet of 1680 "the scientific revolution of the seventeenth-century, which he
[Mather] had earlier barely recognized, absorbed more and more of his time" (159). Following
Heaven's Alarm, cosmology held a special fascination for Mather who, in the
months to follow,
became familiar with not only the work of Kepler and Hooke, but also Riccioli, Bernouilli, and
Two years after Heaven's Alarm, the sighting of a second blazing star prompted
Mather once again to address the theological implications of a comet's appearance. On August 31,
1682, two weeks after a new comet, later christened after Dr. Halley, had been sighted, Mather
preached The Voice of God in Signal Providences. In this sermon, the apocalyptic
intensity which characterized Heaven's Alarm is toned down. Mather relies less on
doomsday message and, instead, interprets this comet in the context of Biblical narratives
as a product of God's own, unique communicative system.
The rhetorical tone of Signal Providences is substantially different from that of
comet sermon. It lacks what Michael Hall calls "the rhetorical drama of Mather's great jeremiad
sermons" and carries "none of the vibrancy of Heaven's Alarm'" (165). Mather's
pronouncements are more reserved and based less on emotive rhetoric and more on a rational
explanation of the comet's significance. Unlike his approach in the first comet sermon, in
Signal Providences Mather intimates that the presence of a comet stems from natural
causes. While he
is no less adamant that comets are divine signs, his interpretation of the blazing star of 1682
focuses much more on the process by which the comet functions as a sign.
As in Heaven's Alarm, Mather uses Biblical and historical references to
appearance of a comet with portentous events. In Signal Providences, however,
indicates the existence of an analogous relationship between God's signs and the events they
portend. He points out that "there was many times an Analogy to be observed between the
Miracle and the thing adumberated thereby" (3), before referring to Moses' calling by God in the
desert in which "the children of Israel were by the hand of Moses brought out of the vile and
abject condition . . . And this was the first sign" (4). Mather illustrates this Biblical sign as a
product of a linguistic system where the presence of a comet does not necessarily act solely as a
signifier of "Christ's coming to Judge the World" (Heaven's Alarm 12). Instead,
Mather argues that
these types of wondrous signs are a part of a greater discursive scheme, mastered and controlled
by God but interpreted by Mather. In this scheme God's blazing stars do not act as independent
signs of catastrophe but are contingent upon one another in foretelling the doom which is to
come. Thus, in Signal Providences, Mather proposes that the comet of 1682 is not a
new, impending doom, but a second reminder within God's communicative system that the
judgement presaged by the comet of 1680 has still not arrived.
Mather's rhetorical strategy successfully fuses the portentous significance of the pair of
comets into one larger, more systematic heavenly sign. David Hall points out that "for the clergy,
knowledge was a system, a set of principles that cohered to form an interlocking whole. This
system was complete in the sense of comprehending God and his creation from beginning to end"
(66); while the implied significance of the pair of comets was clear with respect to Mather's
understanding of the principles of divine communication, in order for his audience to comprehend
God's message it was necessary for the minister to explain God's language in a clearly defined
and understandable systematic structure. In Signal Providences, Mather's
interpretation of the
comet of 1682 as a second sign seems to humanize God's mode of communication by indicating
that "the Lord is pleased to speak in the manner of Men; who, if one Attempt fail, they'l try
another" (6). Even though the comet of 1682 acts as a visible word and God's "Works of
creation have a voice in them" (22), in order for the Puritans to comprehend their messages, the
blazing stars must first be explained by Mather within the scope and understanding of human
Mather's explanation of God's language centers on the connection between the presence of the
comet and the voice of God: "if they will not hearken to the voice of the first sign, then they will
believe the voice of the second sign" (5). In this passage, Mather is referring to the comet of 1680
as the first sign, but later he explains that the presence of any blazing star acts as a second sign
within God's communicative system. Scripture is the initial word in God's language, and it is only
when that word is not hearkened to, that God chooses to communicate through heavenly signs.
The Lord's usual method is, first to speak to men by his Word, and if that taketh place, well and
good: but if his Word be not regarded, then He speaks by signal Providences, one after another.
The special Design of such solemn works of God, is to confirm his Word. (16).
Mather's explanation of the special design provides for his audience a rational model of God's
communicative system in which the visible word of God is rhetorically connected to the
scriptural word of God. Both words contain clear and definite meaning which must not only
be heard by the Puritans, it must be understood.
Throughout Signal Providences Mather interprets the presence of the comet as a
utterance of God's divine language, "yea the voice of the almighty" (23), yet it is a voice that only
the Puritan faithful may hear. "Brutish men may feel the Rod; but wise men hear the Rod and
understand the Lord's meaning therein" (23). Understanding the word of God contained within
the visible sign is contingent upon the faithful's hearing it. Mather intimates that this is
accomplished only by believing the divine word of the scripture.
Yea, and when there is a portentous Sign appearing in the heavens, it is, that so men might believe
the Word of God. Therefore when they do this, they may be said to Hear the Voice of God in
such signal Providences. (16).
An important aspect of Mather's explanation of God's linguistic system in Signal
Providences is his acknowledgment that heavenly signs, though wondrous, proceed from
natural causes. While Mather calls miracles "above the constituted Order of Nature" (8), he
considers the comet of 1682 as part of God's rationally ordained natural order.
Things which proceed from Natural causes, if Unusual, are Signal. So may it be affirmed as to the
Sign now hanging over our heads. (28)
This is a noticeable departure from Heaven's Alarm in which Mather calls comets
stars" whose appearance "God in his Providence doth order" (9). By indicating that comets
proceed from natural causes, Mather asserts that the comet of 1682, though a heavenly sign, is
governed by natural and rational laws. Rather than a supernatural event, Mather interprets the
appearance of the second comet in Signal Providences as a natural occurrence
which, only by
the will of God, has important theological implications as part of a divine linguistic system.
An interactive model of communication between God and the people of Boston is essential to
Mather's sermon. No longer is the appearance of a comet solely a sign of impending doom. It
is instead a sincere effort on the part of God to communicate with the people of New England.
Speaking of the role of the Puritan minister in guiding his congregation, Charles Cohen points out
that the conversation was an integral part of Puritan religious experience in which "dialogue
with God was ultimately the most significant" (162). By explaining how God established this
dialogue with his people in Signal Providences, Mather serves to rationalize the
of God's heavenly sign system, making it more comprehensible, and thus meaningful, for the
Signal Providences illustrates an ideological shift by Mather as he interprets the
1682 as less a sign of God's wrath and more a divine linguistic attempt to establish a
dialogue with Puritan Boston. Mather's interpretation of the comet of 1682 proposes the heavenly
sign to be a distinct component of this significant religious experience indicative of divine and
patient interaction: "God seems to intimate that there are Great changes hastening upon the
world . . . What these changes are, time will discover" (11). The intentional ambiguity of
Mather's pronouncement does not necessarily contradict his earlier interpretation of the
theological significance of the appearance of a comet. Instead, it acknowledges the linguistic
variability of the cosmic sign. While the comet remains for Mather the voice of God, its
significance lacks any specific portentous message and, instead, appears to possess broader
interpretive implications. Signal Providences concludes with Mather reminding his
"The voice of the Lord cryeth to us saying, Be you prepared for whatever Changes may come.
Labor to do such as nothing shall be able to do you any hurt" (31). Though the reformative
underpinnings of Heaven's Alarm are still evident in Mather's concluding point, his
hermeneutic approach allows him to avoid a tone of prophetic certainty and accept that of a
The Voice of God in Signal Providences marked a substantial shift in
Mather's discourse concerning the signification of comets, from the univocal doom of
Alarm to recursive elements of God's language system. But with his 1683 treatise,
Discourse Concerning Comets, Mather combined his ministerial underpinnings with
scientific inquiry in a single examination of the phenomenon. By the time Mather composed the
Discourse, Halley and Newton had completed much of their scientific inquiry into
the influence of their inquiry had direct implications on Mather's text (Murdock 144-145). Also
having an important influence on the minister's scientific understanding of cosmology at this time
was Johan Hevel's Cometographia and the Transactions of the Royal
Society (Hall 166). Mather himself viewed the comet of 1682 through a telescope on September
12 and "recognized that comets proceed from natural causes and that they move like planets with
orbits greater than the planets" (Stearns 154).
Mather divides A Discourse Concerning Comets into three clearly delineated
sections; a scientific explanation of the properties and motions of comets, the history of comets
"from the beginning of the world," and a reminder of their theological implications. As a result,
Mather is able to retain the theological fervor of his sermons in the Discourse while
acknowledging the physical dynamics and appearance of comets as wholly within the scope of
natural phenomena. The Discourse shows Mather as "a Puritan deeply interested in
contemporary science without altering religious beliefs formed on the basis of the Old and New
Testaments" (Hall 170). This allows Mather's rhetoric to
remain planted firmly on both theological and scientific grounds. In the Discourse
Mather is able
to conclude that comets are both signs of heavenly wonder and wholly natural, physical
phenomenon whose presence can be studied, plotted, and oftentimes predicted.
Mather's diary indicates that he was familiar with the work of Gadbury and Hooke. He
specifically acknowledges them in the Discourse, and their influence is most
noticeable in the
first two chapters as Mather categorizes comets according to their size and shape. Mather follows
Gadbury's De Cometis (1665) in borrowing from Pliny's Natural
History and classifies comets within respect to the "Common and known accidents of color
and shape" (6). De Cometis also provides Mather with a textual model for his
chronicle of the "history of Comets from the beginning of the World." Of the forty-nine accounts
of comet sightings Gadbury illustrates in De Cometis, Mather refers to thirty-one,
and includes, like Gadbury, an historical account of what he viewed as "some remarkable events
attending them" (24). Each of the two historical reviews echo an apocalyptic temperament similar
to Heaven's Alarm, but Mather's scientific analysis, clearly influenced by Hooke and
represents a significant departure from the Aristotelian cosmology of Gadbury.
Mather recognizes the limitations of the Aristotelian model of the universe in light of the
scientific developments which followed the composition of De Cometis. While
Gadbury adheres to the conclusion that comets are "attracted and drawn from the Earth into the
highest region or part of the air" (11), Mather promotes a more sophisticated model for describing
the origin of comets, a model more in line with Hooke. He discounts the notion that comets are
formed within the Earth citing that "it would be needless and endless to tell how many have, after
Aristotle, embraced this fiction" (1). And while even the "wisest of men must ingeniously confess
their own ignorance in these things" (10), Mather's rejection of Gadbury's geocentric position is
made clear as he concludes that comets are "generated out of the same matter which Stars were in
the beginning of the World made of" (11).
Like Hooke's Cometa (1678), Mather's Discourse incorporates a
highly specialized astronomical vocabulary. Reference to Hevelius, and the use of
terms such as coma and parallax are prominent in the portion of the work devoted
to the scientific analysis of the phenomenon. The reliance on the new vocabulary prominent in
Hooke's report to the Royal Society indicates a significant degree of acceptance by Mather of
the validity of scientific analysis into a natural phenomenon he had previously relegated to the
field of prophetic wonder.
Kenneth Murdock notes that in the Discourse Mather's "doctrine is most
expressed . . . He accepts some of the newest scientific tenets, and his attempt to combine them
with his religious views results in a position held by others for a century after him" (147).
However, this caution does not necessarily indicate a theological compromise for Mather. Instead,
it allows the minister the rhetorical flexibility to address and incorporate the growing body of
scientific knowledge within his theology and under his own terms. Mather avoids any rhetorical
conflict by acknowledging the validity of certain scientific observations about the physical nature
of comets while still holding firmly on to the basic theological truths of God's blazing stars which
exist independently and beyond the scope of scientific determination. Human science may be able
to answer the questions concerning the matter and motion of comets, but their purpose remains a
mystery, a mystery which Mather feels best left within the divine hands of God. Mather remains
content to interpret the natural phenomenon as heavenly "signs of evils to come; like strange
apparitions in the air" (22). Comets are clearly God's signs, yet Mather is also equally
adamant in pointing out in the Discourse that comets are "only signal and not
causal" and have
no inherent connection to any catastrophe that might occur during their appearance beyond that
which is "their universal and supernatural cause, God" (133).
Mather's Discourse ends with an attack upon "Judicial Astrologers" who
preemptorily to Prognosticate what the particular things are" (140). Mather alludes to an
"Anonymous Astrologer in London" who, also borrowing from Gadbury's De
Cometis, published "his sentiments upon this Comet; presumptuously determining not only
what Events are which shall attend this, with the former Blazing Stars, but the places, yea and
persons concerned therein" (120). Mather's attack on astrology is primarily directed toward
William Lilly whom he refers to as that "blind, but insolent Buzzard" (Murdock 146). Even
though Lilly's An account of The Comet or Blazing Star (1677) advances the
prophetic message that comets are "forerunners of sad and dire calamities" (5), the author falls
victim to Mather's vehement criticism on both scientific and theological grounds. Mather has no
patience for Lilly's adherence to the outdated Aristotelian model of the physical universe and
concludes that astrologers like Lilly are neither serious scientists nor theologians, but "Monthly
Prognosticators" who "Could tell us nothing of, before that God who rules the Kingdoms of men,
brought to pass" (Discourse 142).
The comets of 1680 and 1682 presented Mather with a unique opportunity to
address these phenomena as signs from God while still adhering to his own scientific
understanding. In the sermons Heaven's Alarm to The World and The Voice
of God in Signal Providences, Mather displays a stern yet dynamic mode of interpreting
the comets as either signs of God's wrath or God's word while in the version
of his "To The Reader" and A Discourse Concerning Comets, his theological agenda
is strategically balanced by scientific analysis. As a result, Mather's investigation into comets
adeptly demonstrates the minister's acceptance of the importance and permanence of the growing
intellectual authority of the natural sciences without diminishing his own position on the divine
authority of God as revealed in the scriptures. Published together in 1683, Mather's comet
sermons and Discourse helped to stimulate the growing intellectual community of
Boston. In the same year, Mather and "a number of Boston gentleman including Samuel
Willard formed a scientific club: The Philosophical Society" (Morison 255). This New England
offshoot of London's Royal Society provided Mather with an organized peerage in which to
"conference upon improvements in philosophy and additions to the stores of natural history"
(255). Despite The Philosophical Society's emphasis on natural history, Increase Mather never
forgot the Puritans' "Errand into The Wilderness," and his treatment of the comets of 1680 and
1682 stands as a unique commentary on the mysteries of faith and the realities of science within
Puritan New England.
- Bercovitch, Sacvan. The American Jeremiad. Madison: U of Wisconsin P,
- Cohen, Charles. God's Caress: The Psychology of Puritan Religious Experience.
New York: Oxford UP, 1986.
- Croom, George. An Answer of a Letter From a Friend in the Country to a Friend in the
City of Some Remarks on the Late Comet. London, 1681.
- Danforth, Samuel. An Astronomical Description of the Late Comet or Blazing
Star. Cambridge: Samuel Green, 1681.
- Foster, John. An Almanac of Celestial Motion for the Year 1681. Boston: John
- Gadbury, John. A Discourse of the Nature and Effects of Comets. London,
- Green, Samuel. John Foster: The Earliest American Engraver and the First Boston
Printer. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1909.
- Hall, David. Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgement: Popular Religious Beliefs in Early
New England. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.
- Hall, Michael. The Last American Puritan: The Life of Increase Mather,
1639-1723. Middletown CT: Wesleyan UP, 1988.
- Hooke, Robert. Cometa. London: Royal Society, 1678.
- Johnson, Edward. Johnson's Wonder Working Providences 1628-1651. Ed. J.
Franklin Jameson. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1959.
- Lilly, William. Strange News From the East or a Sober Account of the Comet or
Blazing Star. London, 1677.
- Lowance, Mason. Increase Mather. New York: Twayne, 1974.
- Mali, Joseph. "Science, Tradition, and the Science of Tradition." Science in
Context 3 (1989): 143-173.
- Mather, Increase. A Discourse Concerning Comets. Boston: Samuel Sewall,
- -----. Heaven's Alarm To The World. Boston: John Foster, 1681.
- -----. Heaven's Alarm To The World. 2nd. Impression. Boston: Samuel Sewall,
- -----. The Voice of God in Signal Providences. Boston: Samuel Sewall,
- Morison, Samuel. Harvard College In The Seventeenth Century. Cambridge:
Harvard UP, 1936.
- -----. The Intellectual Life of Colonial New England. Ithaca: Cornell UP,
- Murdock, Kenneth. Increase Mather: The Foremost American Puritan. New
York: Russell and Russell, 1925.
- Stearns, Raymond. Science in the British Colonies of America. Chicago: U of
Illinois P, 1970.
- Wetering, Maxine. "Moralizing in Puritan Natural Science: Mysteriousness in Earthquake
Sermons." Journal Of The History of Ideas 43 (1982): 417-438.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at EMLS@arts.ubc.ca.
Return to EMLS 1.3 Table of Contents.
[RGS; December 12, 1995.]