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Revisionist life of Cotton Mather shows him flawed, not diabolical

The Life and Times of Cotton Mather, by Kenneth Silverman. New York: Harper & Row. 479 pp. $29.95.

Cotton Mather (1663-1728) received an honorary doctor of divinity degree from the University of Glasgow in May 1710. He thought about wearing a ring to symbolize this award, but the pompousness of such a gesture troubled him. As Kenneth Silverman explains in ''The Life and Times of Cotton Mather,'' ''To convince himself that he might wear the ring without pridefulness, he drafted more than a page of possible justifications.''

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This Boston-based Puritan preacher, who entered Harvard College at the age of 111/2, authored 388 publications on various topics and vociferously expressed his views on controversies, including the Salem witch trials. Yet Mather's virtuosity couldn't prevent him from tormenting himself over trifles like the propriety of donning a ring.

Vanity caused Mather excruciating pain, Silverman writes. The preacher meticulously listed ''justifications'' for wearing the ring because he was deeply ashamed of ''that particular Lust, my Pride.'' Mather was aware that people would detect his vanity and then scorn him for it. Disapproval unnerved him because he desperately craved praise. Yet Mather's inability to be a completely selfless servant of God saddened him. He detested himself for his ''abominably proud Fishing for popular Applause.''

Silverman hypothesizes that Cotton Mather's immense vanity often made him act unwisely. This is truly a revisionist view. For 300 years, biographers and historians have depicted him as inherently inhumane and even sadistic. Mather's contemporaries, as well as generations of writers, saw his actions as definitive proof of his evil nature. But Silverman claims that the preacher would do virtually anything to win affection, even if his deeds contradicted his good judgment.

Mather coveted renown. Silverman explains that ''he wished to become what he understood his father to have been, '... a Young man every where Admired, and Applauded, and Accepted, and Flock'd after.' '' The younger Mather found that he could display his erudition while attracting interest by publishing a vast amount of his writings. Unfortunately, he garnered sneers as well as compliments. Mather's father disdainfully remarked that his son's torrent of publications evolved from ''Vanity, which the Earth Groans under.'' In 1977, Robert Lowell wrote of Mather's ''power-crazed mind,'' ''cruel ... obsessed intellect,'' and ''his soft bookish hands ... indelibly stained with blood - a black image ...'' - typical of the manner in which Mather has been denounced.

Silverman argues that Mather had a valid reason for desiring attention. His father, Increase, was a renowned Boston preacher whose remoteness made Mather wonder how much Increase cared for him. His self-esteem suffered, due to this father's detachment and the lofty standards of conduct and achievement he imposed upon his son. Increase did love Mather, but he was a man who did not display affection. He distanced himself from his family by reading and praying in his study for 16 hours a day. Silverman maintains that Mather never fully understood Increase's inability to show fondness for anyone, so throughout his life he looked to others for the lavish praise Increase withheld. Generally, Silverman's deductions are fortified by convincing facts, anecdotes, and quotations.

Demons fascinated Mather. He invited a 13-year-old witch into his home so he could study her; despite such firsthand observations, he couldn't decide why some devils apparently possessed telepathic powers while other devils did not. Mather's investigation convinced him that extreme caution was required before accusing or punishing anyone suspected of witchcraft. His concern for the defendants in the Salem witch trials prompted Mather to ask Judge John Richards whether it was necessary to hang or burn ''every wretched creature'' involved with spirits.

But when Mather later advocated ''the speedy and vigorous Prosecution'' of the accused witches, he appeared to reverse himself. It is possible that his eagerness to win the judges' respect overruled his common sense. Silverman maintains that Mather urged the judges to act harshly only out of ''feelings of deference, loyalty, and youthful subordination.'' These men were family friends, neighbors, and members of Mather's church.

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Fortunately Silverman refrains from blaming Mather's vanity for all his unpleasant acts. And in ''The Life and Times of Cotton Mather'' he presents convincing evidence that Mather was flawed, not diabolical. Silverman clearly hopes the preacher will now be accepted in that light.

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