So many fathers (probably more than will admit it) harbor visions of their sons following in their footsteps. Sometimes those dreams come true, though rarely without some territorial friction. Just look at the Mathers—three generations of ministers who maintained a virtual dynasty over New England Puritanism for nearly a century.

The eldest, Richard Mather (1596-1669), came to Christ at age 18, when, in the words of his grandson, "the good Spirit of God healed his broken heart, by pouring thereinto the evangelical consolations of 'His great and good promises.'" A few years later, he was ordained an Anglican minister, but with Puritan convictions: he remained a firm Calvinist, and he kept clear of high church ceremonies. These stances became increasingly unpopular after 1630, and he lost his position in 1634. The next year he and his family sailed for Massachusetts, which had already become a gathering place for nonconformists.

Richard greatly influenced several key developments in the new colony. He persuaded his congregation in Dorchester (just south of Boston) to require applicants for church membership to provide a convincing account of their conversion, for he believed in a church composed of "visible saints." Second, he composed the bulk of the Cambridge Platform of Church Government, which offered a detailed description of, and biblical justifications for, the practices and government of New England churches. Richard later argued for a modification to the platform, allowing baptized non-members (i.e. adults baptized as infants who had not experienced Christian conversion as adults) to bring their infants for baptism. Eventually adopted in nearly all New England churches, this was derisively known as the "Half-Way Covenant."

Richard's son Increase, born June 21, 1639, agreed with his father's Puritanism and Calvinism but publicly challenged him regarding the Half-Way Covenant. The issue still divided them when Richard died, but Increase ultimately embraced his father's view. He also continued his father's legacy of powerful preaching and strong leadership. He pastored Boston's Second Church from 1664 to his death in 1723, and he served as president of Harvard College from 1685 to 1701, when he was forced out by theological liberals. Along the way he secured a new charter for the Massachusetts colony (the first had been rescinded by Charles II), helped curtail the Salem witch trials, and wrote a tract supporting smallpox inoculation—a very controversial idea at the time.

Increase's son Cotton,born in 1663, was descended from a distinguished line of Puritan ministers on both sides (his maternal grandfather, John Cotton, was the most eminent minister in Massachusetts). Cotton was exceptionally precocious—he graduated from Harvard at 15, began preaching at 17, and received his M.A. the following year. He was also considered priggish, artificial, and overly pious, yet he apparently thought very highly of his father.

In 1685 Cotton was installed at Second Church as his father's assistant, despite his father's stalling and proposing other candidates; Increase accepted the decision only because the church members "could not agree to calling any other." It's unclear why Increase was so ambivalent toward his son, though they certainly had very different ministry styles. Increase's sermons were plain and to the point; Cotton expressed himself in more flowery, ornate language. Increase focused his ministry on pulpit and study; Cotton visited church members in their homes and even organized lay societies, similar to small groups today.

Stylistic differences aside,Increase and Cotton saw themselves on the same side of a battle against the colony's growing secularism and liberalism. They quickly closed ranks against attacks from outside: Cotton berated his father's enemies at Harvard, and Increase supported his son's inoculation experiments even when the plan aroused violent protests. The year after Increase's death, Cotton published a glowing biography of his father, as Increase had of his father years before. In life and in history, the Mathers stand together, casting long shadows over the history of New England.

For more on the Mathers,see Christian History issue 41: The American Puritans.

Elesha is a former assistant editor of Christian History