Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Cotton Mather's Household Rules

Cotton Mather wrote much on domestic concerns, including A Family Well-Ordered (a treatise on the duties of parents and the duties of children), Help for Distressed Parents (an essay designed to give counsel and comfort to godly parents who have ungodly children), and A Token for the Children of New England (following the example of James Janeway's Token, Mather compiled accounts of children who loved God and died young for consideration and encouragement to young people).

In his diary, he lays out ten rules for ordering his own household (he had 15 children) that have been often cited or alluded to. They were included as an appendix to William Scribner's Pray for Your Children (1873, reprinted in Naphtali Press' Anthology of Presbyterian & Reformed Literature, Vol. 4 (1991)), and elsewhere. However, the text reprinted there is put in the third person, modernized, revised (words changed) and abridged. The full, original text is rich and helpful to parents in his and our day, so I have reproduced the text here from the Diary itself (it can also be found in John Demos, Remarkable Providences: Readings on Early American History (1991), pp. 46-49:

Diary of Cotton Mather, 1681-1724, Vol. 1 (1681-1709), pp. 534-537:

Some Special Points, Relating To The Education Of My Children.

I. I pour out continual Prayers and Cries to the God of all Grace for them, that He will be a Father to my Children, and bestow His Christ and His Grace upon them, and guide them with His Councils, and bring them to His Glory.

And in this Action, I mention them distinctly, every one by Name unto the Lord.

II. I begin betimes to entertain them with delightful Stories, especially scriptural ones. And still conclude with some Lesson of Piety; bidding them to learn that Lesson from the Story.

And thus, every Day at the Table, I have used myself to tell a Story before I rise; and make the Story useful to the Olive Plants about the Table.

III. When the Children at any time accidentally come in my way, it is my custome to lett fall some Sentence or other, that may be monitory and profitable to them.

This Matter proves to me, a Matter of some Study, and Labour, and Contrivance. But who can tell, what may be the Effect of a continual Dropping?

IV. I essay betimes, to engage the Children, in Exercises of Piety; and especially secret Prayer, for which I give them very plain and brief Directions, and suggest unto them the Petitions, which I would have them to make before the Lord, and which I therefore explain to their Apprehension and Capacity. And I often call upon them; Child, Don't you forgett every Day, to go alone, and pray as I have directed you I

V. Betimes I try to form in the Children a Temper of Benignity. I putt them upon doing of Services and Kindnesses for one another, and for other Children. I applaud them, when I see them Delight in it; I upbraid all Aversion to it. I caution them exquisitely against all Revenges of Injuries. I instruct them, to return good Offices for evil Ones. I show them, how they will by this Goodness become like to the Good GOD, and His Glorious CHRIST. I lett them discern, that I am not satisfied, except when they have a Sweetness of Temper shining in them.

VI. As soon as tis possible, I make the Children learn to write. And when they can write, I employ them in Writing out the most agreeable and profitable Things, that I can invent for them. In this way, I propose to fraight their minds with excellent Things, and have a deep Impression made upon their Minds by such Things.

VII. I mightily endeavour it, that the Children may betimes, be acted by Principles of Reason and Honour.

I first begett in them an high Opinion of their Father's Love to them, and of his being best able to judge, what shall be good for them.

Then I make them sensible, tis a Folly for them to pretend unto any Witt and Will of their own; they must resign all to me, who will be sure to do what is best; my word must be their Law.

I cause them to understand, that it is an hurtful and a shameful thing to do amiss. I aggravate this, on all Occasions; and lett them see how amiable they will render themselves by well doing.

The first Chastisement, which I inflict for an ordinary Fault, is, to lett the Child see and hear me in an Astonishment, and hardly able to beleeve that the Child could do so base a Thing, but beleeving that they will never do it again.

I would never come, to give a child a Blow; except in Case of Obstinacy: or some gross Enormity.

To be chased for a while out of my Presence, I would make to be look'd upon, as the sorest Punishment in the Family.

I would by all possible Insinuations gain this Point upon them, that for them to learn all the brave Things in the world, is the bravest Thing in the world. I am not fond of proposing Play to them, as a Reward of any diligent Application to learn what is good; lest they should think Diversion to be a better and a nobler Thing than Diligence.

I would have them come to propound and expect, at this rate, / have done well, and now / will go to my Father; He will teach me some curious Thing for it. I must have them count it a Priviledge, to be taught; and I sometimes manage the Matter so, that my Refusing to teach them Something, is their Punishment.

The slavish way of Education, carried on with raving and kicking and scourging (in Schools as well as Families,) tis abominable; and a dreadful Judgment of God upon the World.

VIII. Tho' I find it a marvellous Advantage to have the Children strongly biased by Principles of Reason and Honour, (which, I find, Children will feel sooner than is commonly thought for:) yett I would neglect no Endeavours, to have higher Principles infused into them.

I therefore betimes awe them with the Eye of God upon them.

I show them, how they must love JESUS CHRIST; and show it, by doing what their Parents require of them.

I often tell them of the good Angels, who love them, and help them, and guard them; and who take Notice of them: and therefore must not be disobliged.

Heaven and Hell, I sett before them, as the Consequences of their Behaviour here.

IX. When the Children are capable of it, I take them alone, one by one; and after my Charges unto them, to fear God, and serve Christ, and shun Sin, / pray with them in my Study and make them the Witnesses of the Agonies, with which I address the Throne of Grace on their behalf.

X. I find much Benefit, by a particular Method, as of Cotechising the Children, so of carrying the Repetition of the public Sermons unto them.

The Answers of the Catechism I still explain with abundance of brief Quaestions, which make them to take in the Meaning of it, and I see, that they do so.

And when the Sermons are to be Repeated, I chuse to putt every Truth, into a Question, to be answered still, with, Yes, or, No. In this way I awaken their Attention, as well as enlighten their Understanding. And in this way I have an Opportunity, to ask, Do you desire such, or such a Grace of God? and the like. Yea, I have an Opportunity to demand, and perhaps, to obtain their Consent unto the glorious Articles of the New Covenant. The Spirit of Grace may fall upon them in this Action; and they may be siez'd by Him, and Held as His Temples, thro' eternal Ages.


  1. What a stunning example of devoted parenthood, and how far more worthy than either the one by which I was reared or the one I set in bringing up my own family. I am constrained to think that, even in his own day, Mather's devotion to his stewardship of his children for Christ was the exception rather than the rule.

    This is not merely method which can be adopted as one's own, but an attitude of heart which can only be born from great labor before the throne of grace, both in absorbing God's Word and in pleading for wisdom and help to do so.

    Thank you for bringing this piece to our attention. May God use it in our day as in the past.

  2. I like this a lot (and even printed it out) but I was wondering if he went more in depth anywhere about "I would never come, to give a child a Blow; except in Case of Obstinacy: or some gross Enormity."
    Does this mean that he very rarely spanked?

  3. Jessi -- I can't say for sure how often he used corporal punishment in his own household, but he both opposed the use of the rod as a first resort in all cases, and advocated its restrained use when appropriate. Elsewhere, he wrote this counsel to parents:

    Yes, there may be occasion for you, to consider that Word of God in Proverbs 13:24 He that spareth his Rod, hateth his son, but he that loveth him, chasteneth him betimes; and that Word in Proverbs 19:18 Chasten thy son while there is Hope, and let not thy soul spare for his Crying; and that word, in Proverbs 23:13,14. Withold not Correction from the Child; for if thou beatest him with the Rod, he shall not Die; Thou shalt beat him with the Rod, and shalt deliver his Soul from Hell.
    But if it must be so, Remember this Counsel; Never give a Blow in a passion. Stay till your passion is over; and let the Offenders plainly see, that you deal thus with them, out of a pure Obedience unto God, and for their true Repentance.
    One of the ancients, has this Ingenious gloss In the tabernacle, Aarons Rod, and the Pot of Manna, were together; so (says he) when the Rod is used, the sweetness and goodness of the Manna must accompany it: and Mercy be joined with Severity. Let me leave that premonition with you, in Proverbs 29:15 A child left unto himself, bringeth his Mother to shame.