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America's man for all seasons. Increase Mather paired Puritan zeal with practical politics

The Last American Puritan: The Life of Increase Mather, 1639-1723, by Michael G. Hall. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press. 438 pp. $35. Illustrated. Will the 21st century be, as Tom Wolfe said at a recent software conference in Boston, the ``Somnolent Century,'' a hangover from the 20th? Or will it be along the lines suggested by Robin Westen in ``Channelers: A New Age Directory'' (Perigee Books, New York), who says, ``Perhaps as we glide into the third millennium, we are preparing ourselves for yet another Judgment Day. This time, however, we are attempting to explore the world beyond before our inevitable entry into it.''

Dazed by competing visions of the future, I turn toward the past - or rather look at a portrait of Increase Mather by Jan van der Spriett, done in London in 1688. His pale face looks out of the darkness of his study, his pale finger points to a book lying open on top of other books. Spines of upright volumes glisten dimly in the recesses of the room. Page and face and straight Puritan collar are strongly lit.

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A man to depend on! As Michael G. Hall shows in his splendid new biography of the great Puritan, Increase Mather was a man for all seasons. He had his portrait done while he was in London as agent for the colony of Massachusetts. In Boston, his ``hot and passionate'' eloquence had served him well in North Church. But in London, Hall says, he abandoned his apocalyptic rhetoric and pursued tangible political goals.

Patiently, and sometimes cunningly, he exploited the turning wheel of fortune. Surviving changes of administration in London and rebellion at home, four years later he had successfully negotiated a new charter for Massachusetts, securing for it a unique measure of home rule.

Throughout this long, complex, and well-illustrated book, Hall weaves 25 years of research on all aspects of this many-sided man into a single, often spellbinding narrative. His quick, vivid sketches of context - Boston as it grows from a muddy little town to an urbane capital, early Harvard, bustling London, the Indian wars - are carefully dovetailed with quotations from original sources, many of them virtually inaccessible until now. In frequent, fascinating digressions, Hall presents the political, social, literary, and scientific life of the times.

Mather emerges not only as ``the last American Puritan,'' but as an unlikely but authentic American hero in a time of change. The grim otherworldliness of earlier portrayals is subordinated by Hall into a well-rounded account of a complex personality. A rich family life with nine children gave Mather emotional support. His tastes were urbane, he preferred London to Boston, but what mattered most to him was his religious calling in New England. He survived several grave illnesses and lived to see his son Cotton replace him in the eyes of the religious.

Mather wrote his autobiography (an American first) ``in the rhetoric of Whig politics,'' not the language of his sermons. Hall is sensitive to other paradoxes about his subject. An inveterate chiliast, Mather took a literal view of biblical prophecy about the millennium, but this ``crazed star-gazer'' was also an enthusiast of modern science. Among his 136 publications was a book on comets published in 1683, the first of its kind in English.

Passionately devoted to the Puritan way, but certain that good letters and good religion go together, he devoted himself to Harvard College and served as its president for a time. He took an unbendingly experiential view of conversion and angels, but was widely credited with stopping the Salem witch trials.

In brief, Hall argues, ``Mather loved to demystify religion.'' In the end he saw the vision of New Jerusalem evaporate in the clear light of the Enlightenment. But he insisted that the millennium was ahead. The view from his study chair was glorious. How else could he interpret the Bible? And he used the growing sophistication of Boston publishing to spread the word, at one point using five printers for one publication.

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In his later years, Mather saw his vigorous, packed, plain style, and much else, give way to new fashions. Mather's output did not fail, though his old, trembling hand sometimes did; he employed an amanuensis. As of old, he spent long days, and sometimes long nights, writing - or praying. Writing and praying were two sides of the same piety. Mather had always believed that God dwelled in the dark prophecies of His word. ``The truth is,'' he said in one of his great chiliastic sermons, ``that whilst a man is dwelling upon these meditations, he is as it were in heaven upon earth....''

Signs of the times - a fire, an earthquake, a death in the family - could be interpreted only one way. Mather's vision of the New Jerusalem, tempered by the realization that N.E. (as he habitually referred to New England in his diaries) was not it, continued to be nourished by his reading of scriptures and his meditation on experience.

By Mather's time, Hall argues, ``the millenarian expectation of an earthly world of joy'' had eclipsed ``the medieval Augustinian view of history in which the meek would inherit a heavenly city.''

In our own times, few are willing to go back to Augustine. Mather is our contemporary. He simply had narrow views of who would enjoy the millennium. ``No prophane person, no hypocrite shall have admission into that city.'' His own contemporaries found his views narrow.

When, on the final page, Hall quotes Horace - ``a great man needs an inspired poet to be remembered'' - it's in reference to Mather as his father's biographer, but it applies equally to himself. Increase Mather has found his poet. And in ``The Last American Puritan'' we have found a standard of integrity and vision for our own troubled, baffling, sometimes bizarre times.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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