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: http://www.library.ubc.ca/emls/01-3/willmath.html>.
Copyright (c) 1995 by the author, all rights reserved. Volume 1.3 as a whole is copyright (c) 1995 by Early Modern Literary Studies, all rights reserved, and may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law. Archiving and redistribution for profit, or republication of this text in any medium, requires the consent of the author and the editor of EMLS.

  1. 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 presence.

  2. In Heaven's Alarm, Mather's primary interpretive concern is to identify clearly the message 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 system. 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 Heaven's 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 distinctively rational explanation of the celestial phenomenon.

  3. 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 1682.

  4. 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).

  5. 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 analysis. 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 American 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 Heaven's Alarm within a framework of eschatological concerns. He challenges the Boston Puritans with a social crisis caused by their departure from the narrow path of the Puritan errand.

  6. Heaven's Alarm begins with Mather's illustrating the theological implications of the comet 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 terms by which the comet's appearance could be interpreted.

    Mather continues by firmly defining the sign's portentous nature.

    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.

  7. 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.

    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 418).

  8. 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.

    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).

  9. Throughout Heaven's Alarm Mather consistently reinforces the implications of comets as 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.

    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 signifies.

  10. 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).

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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).

  14. 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.

  15. Less than a month after Mather preached Heaven's Alarm, the printer John Foster 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 Alarm as "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.

  16. 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.

    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.

  17. 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 Snell.

  18. 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 the doomsday message and, instead, interprets this comet in the context of Biblical narratives as a product of God's own, unique communicative system.

  19. The rhetorical tone of Signal Providences is substantially different from that of Mather's first 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.

  20. As in Heaven's Alarm, Mather uses Biblical and historical references to associate the appearance of a comet with portentous events. In Signal Providences, however, Mather 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 sign of 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.

  21. 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 discourse.

  22. 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.

    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.

  23. Throughout Signal Providences Mather interprets the presence of the comet as a visible 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.

  24. 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.

    This is a noticeable departure from Heaven's Alarm in which Mather calls comets "extraordinary 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.

  25. 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 divine mystery of God's heavenly sign system, making it more comprehensible, and thus meaningful, for the Puritan populace.

  26. Signal Providences illustrates an ideological shift by Mather as he interprets the comet of 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 audience that "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 new hermeneutic approach allows him to avoid a tone of prophetic certainty and accept that of a concerned exegete.

  27. 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 Heaven's Alarm to recursive elements of God's language system. But with his 1683 treatise, A 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 comets, and 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).

  28. 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 fully 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.

  29. 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 Halley, represents a significant departure from the Aristotelian cosmology of Gadbury.

  30. 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).

  31. Like Hooke's Cometa (1678), Mather's Discourse incorporates a new and 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.

  32. Kenneth Murdock notes that in the Discourse Mather's "doctrine is most cautiously 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).

  33. Mather's Discourse ends with an attack upon "Judicial Astrologers" who "undertake 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).

  34. 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 Puritan 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.

Works Cited

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.]