Commentary on Selected Correspondence Between Increase Mather and Sir William Ashurst

    By Harley P. Holden

    IN June of 1973 there became available through auction at Sotheby’s, in London, five manuscript letters written by Increase Mather, of Boston, to Sir William Ashurst, of London, in 1709, 1710, and 1717. They came to the attention of the Harvard University Archives because much of their content concerned topics of interest to the history of the University. Clifford K. Shipton, then four years in retirement as custodian of the Harvard University Archives but still a valued advisor to his successors, was consulted, and it was upon his enthusiastic recommendation that the Mather-Ashurst letters were purchased at auction, with funds made available through the Friends of the Harvard College Library and the Charles Warren American History Fund.

    This article will be concerned only with the content of the Mather-Ashurst letters that relate to the University: attempts to obtain a legal royal charter; insights into the resignation of Increase Mather as Harvard president; controversy over the choice of John Leverett as Mather’s eventual successor; circumstances surrounding Sir Robert Boyle’s legacy and attempts by the University to profit from it. Among the non-Harvard subjects for the researcher, mentioned in the Mather-Ashurst letters but not within the scope of this article, are war between France and England and attendant disposition of Canada and Nova Scotia; controversy between Mather and Governor Dudley; discussion over and choice of Sir William Ashurst as Massachusetts colonial agent (proferred but not accepted); references to such luminaries of colonial Massachusetts as Samuel Sewall, Jeremiah Dummer, John Leverett, and Governor Samuel Shute; charming discourse by Increase Mather on his ability and effectiveness as a preacher at the age of nearly four score. By the time this article appears, the full text of the Mather-Ashurst letters, with annotations and commentary by Robert W. Lovett, former Curator of Manuscripts and Archives at the Harvard Business School, will be available in two additional volumes of Harvard College Records edited by Mr. Lovett for the Colonial Society of Massachusetts (Publications, xlix. documents 158A-C, 160A, 177A). The intention of this article is to discuss the Harvard content of the Mather-Ashurst letters and to comment on their relationship to the history of Harvard.

    Increase Mather, Puritan clergyman, politician, Harvard president, author, and father of Cotton Mather, was one of the most prominent figures of the middle period of American colonial history. Sir William Ashurst, on the other hand, is a shadowy figure whose identity and accomplishments must be gleaned from the accounts of the activities of his father and brother, both Henry Ashursts, who played more prominent roles than William in American colonial affairs.

    Henry Ashurst, the father, usually known as “the Alderman” to distinguish him from his father and his son of the same name, was a London merchant much concerned with reformed religion and for the welfare of Puritan Nonconformists everywhere.1 For many years he was treasurer of the New England Company, an English Protestant missionary society, founded in 1649 by the Long Parliament for the purpose of converting Indians in New England.2 His interests as a merchant and as a supporter of Indian missionary activity also included politics. His ability to come out on top or near the top with every change in English government made him a most effective colonial agent for Massachusetts. Son Henry followed many of the same interests as his father, being a devoted Puritan, successful merchant, member of the New England Company and, for twenty years, a colonial agent for Massachusetts. Through his occupation of London merchant “he sat on most of the ad hoc Parliamentary committees concerned with colonial affairs and was, therefore, in a strategic position to be of assistance.”3

    Our Increase Mather correspondent, Sir William Ashurst, was son to Alderman Henry Ashurst and brother to Sir Henry. He was, himself, knighted in 1689 and served as Lord Mayor of London in 1693.4 Like his father and his brother, he was a London merchant, a Puritan in religion, and a Whig in politics. His activities on behalf of colonial New England, unfortunately, are less well documented than those of his father and brother. We may surmise that much of his interest in and service to New England came not only from his Puritan and Whig affiliations but from his long service, like that of other family members, in the New England Company, of which he became treasurer upon his father’s death in 1681 and governor in 1695, retaining the latter post until his death in 1720. “As a result of this central position in the New England Company, Sir William became the frequent correspondent of Samuel Sewell and of the Mathers. . . .”5

    During the period 1688 to 1692, when Increase Mather was in England, we know that one of the influential Englishmen with whom he became acquainted was Sir William Ashurst, twenty years before the Mather-Ashurst correspondence under discussion.6 This acquaintance, established between two men of similar political and religious outlook, grew and remained warm, so their correspondence indicates, during the next thirty years. A warm feeling for Sir William extended to the next generation of Mathers as well, for Cotton Mather was inspired to write to Jeremiah Dummer in 1716 of “our incomparable Sir William Ashurst, whom you know to be one of the best men, and I know that you have not a better Friend upon the earth.”7 Ashurst’s friendship extended not only to the Mathers and Samuel Sewall but to the Colony of Massachusetts and to New England. Although he declined to become colonial agent, when offered the post by the Massachusetts General Assembly in 1710,8 he was helpful and sympathetic to the needs of Massachusetts and the other New England colonies, like his brother and his father, in relationships between Crown and Colony.

    Prominent among the topics of Harvard interest discussed in the Increase Mather-Sir William Ashurst correspondence, is the current state of Harvard’s charter and Mather’s wish to incorporate provisions which would safeguard Congregationalism and provide organizational stability. Intertwined with the Charter Controversy, is discussion of Mather’s resignation from the Harvard presidency in 1701 and the eventual selection of his successor, John Leverett, in 1707.

    From 1650 until 1686, Harvard was governed under the Charter of 1650. With the change in civil government that came with the advent of the Dominion of New England in 1686, came a change in Harvard governance as well. From 1686 to 1689, the College was not presided over by the President and Fellows and the Overseers, as provided by the Charter of 1650, but, under the new civil government, was administered by royal officials who appointed such individuals as they deemed necessary to operate the institution. Even though the former Massachusetts colonial government was restored in 1690, the College Charter of 1650 remained suspended until 1707.9 The Charter Controversy that boiled and roiled during the 1690’s and the early years of the eighteenth century, was covered by Samuel Eliot Morison, forty years ago, in his bible for the investigation of Harvard’s first century, Harvard in the Seventeenth Century, and more recently has been admirably recounted, in considerable detail and with emphasis on the early-eighteenth-century charter ramifications, by John M. Hoffmann, in his as-yet-unpublished Harvard doctoral dissertation, Commonwealth College; the Governance of Harvard in the Puritan Period. Thus, we shall not concern ourselves with those details here.

    In seeking a legal and stable charter for Harvard, Increase Mather and his supporters were concerned that the College remain Nonconformist and not fall prey to the encroachment of Anglicanism. During an audience with James II, in the course of Mather’s four-year stay in England, 1688–1692, Mather expressed a willingness to see the founding of a college of Church of England persuasion, in Massachusetts or New England, should one be contemplated, so long as Harvard, founded by Nonconformists, be allowed to retain that philosophy. James II agreed with the reasonableness of that desire.1 Mather as a cleric and representative, at that time, of a majority of the Harvard Corporation, was willing to accept a charter whereby the Crown would have the same rights of visitation as it had at such English universities as Oxford and Cambridge, so long as Congregational or Nonconformist control was maintained. The Colonial Council, on the other hand, dominated by laymen, was anxious to renew the right of visitation or review that they had enjoyed as Overseers of the College under the Charter of 1650.2 As president of Harvard, Mather was concerned, above all, with incorporation and was willing to accept either a legislative or a royal charter so long as Anglicanism was avoided.3 Thus the controversy continued, sometimes quiescent, at other times eruptive.

    In 1707, Massachusetts Governor Joseph Dudley, long an opponent of the Mathers, reversed his previously held opinion that the charter of the College had died in 1686 along with the civil government. He now declared that the Harvard Charter of 1650 remained valid, since it had never been formally repealed. This pleased the Colonial Council, who wanted a restoration of the power of visitation that they had enjoyed, although not necessarily always exercised, under the Charter of 1650, and made them amenable to the election of Dudley’s choice as president of Harvard, John Leverett.4

    It was within this framework that Increase Mather wrote to Sir William Ashurst, on 19 January 1709/10, alluding to Governor Dudley and the recently elected Harvard president, John Leverett: “D. has put in a Lawyer to be the President, who is his creature. And the professors of the same stamp. They have now no charter, but what is of D’s making so that they are not a Corporation in Law. This I thought it needful to inform you of, that so you may consider whether it may be meet to put anything into their hands as things are now circumstanced. . . . There is no hope of having the Colledge settled on a Legal foundation as long as D. is Gouvernour.”5 As we have seen, Mather had had an audience with King James and, later, with King William and had discussed the college charter with them. In the Mather-Ashurst letter of 8 November 1710, Mather recalls his audience with King William and also his negotiations, in Massachusetts, for a college charter that had caused him so much anguish during the twenty years previous and that now, in 1709/10, still remained a matter of great concern to him. He writes as follows:

    For a long time there was no president and Fellows. When I was in England I addressed K. William for his Royal favor to the Society, who expressed to me a great willingness to encourage them. Several Ministers of State assured me that if the General Assembly would by an act incorporate the Colledge it would be confirmed by the K[ing]. This the Assembly upon my desire, did, but they took no notice of the K. in their Act for incorporation. The K. very kindly (tho he repealed that Act) signified to the General Assembly that they should view that Act again only reserve to his Majesty a power of visitation as in all the Colledges in England. After which the Governour and Council (which doubtless you will wonder at) made themselves visitors but left out the K. which his Majesty was not well pleased with. They urged me to remove from Boston to the Colledge to which the Church to which I am related would not consent. Nor was I myselfe willing except the Colledge had bin on a charter foundation confirmed by the K. I therefore resigned the presidentship. After which for 7 years there was no president nor Fellows (only Tutors to uphold learning) and a legal foundation. When Mr. D. became Governour he proposed to the Assembly that Mr. Leverett might be established president. The House of Commons noted twice that they could not approve of him. Nevertheless, by a trick when the leading men were gone home, the Governour prevailed with a bare majority to consent. Mr. Leverett (not withstanding we are of differing principles) professed a great respect for me, for which he has some reason for that he received his Academical Degrees from me, and I brought him in to be a Fellow of the Colledge above twenty years ago.6

    Thus, expressed in this letter, we have an account of Mather’s years of effort to obtain a soundly legal College charter, the reason for his resignation as Harvard president (explored in detail and expanded by Morison and Hoffmann), and the bitterness that he felt toward his official successor as Harvard president, John Leverett. Mather was not alone in feeling that the Charter of 1650 was not legally adequate to insure the flow of gifts and bequests, to survive Imperial invalidation or to counter the threat of Anglican intrusion. But Mather and his sympathizers did not get a royal charter. The Charter of 1650 prevailed and, with the passage of time, the mitigation of the threats to Harvard survival that concerned the Mathers and the internal strengthening of the College and its governance, under President Leverett, the early constitution of the College, embodied in the Charter of 1650, came to seem more satisfactory.7

    Another subject of discussion, in the Mather-Ashurst letters, and one tied closely to Increase Mather’s wish for a sound legal charter for Harvard College, was the matter of the Boyle legacy. Sir Robert Boyle (1627–1691), the English natural philosopher, chemist, and author of Boyle’s Law on the proportional relation between elasticity and pressure, was also much interested in the education and conversion of American Indians and in the growth of Harvard College. Although Boyle never visited America, he was familiar with the College and with New England. When Leonard Hoar, who served as Harvard’s president from 1672 to 1674/75, was in England, he had cultivated the friendship of Boyle;8 George Stirk (a.b. 1646), an alchemist, had also become Boyle’s good friend.9 “Boyle had many correspondents in America who wrote to him on a variety of subjects. For example, William Avery wrote of natural phenomena in New England, of the clay of Martha’s Vineyard, and of his alchemical discoveries and speculations; William Penn described the Indians, natural ores and the wild flowers; John Winthrop wrote describing the death of a fish in a pond in Watertown.”1 John Winthrop also corresponded with Boyle on the “New Englander’s program in civilizing and converting the heathen.”2 It is evident, then, that Sir Robert Boyle, both through his New England correspondents and acquaintances and through his service as governor of the New England Company from 1661 to 1689, was well acquainted with Harvard College and New England when Increase Mather met with him during the latter’s English sojourn from 1688 to 1692.3

    Sir Robert Boyle died during Mather’s visit, in 1691. Long interested in Indians, through his position as governor of the New England Company, he directed, in his will, that a fund of £400 be employed as an investment for the relief of poor Indian converts. Boyle’s executors were persuaded to invest the £400 and additional funds in the manor of Brafferton, in Yorkshire. Forty-five pounds from the annual rents were to go to the New England Company, to pay two Indian missionaries, and another £45 to the President and Fellows of Harvard, “to be by them employed and bestowed for the Salary of two other Ministers, to teach the Natives, in or near his Colonies, in the Christian Religion. . . .”4

    Harvard had to wait a long time to receive any benefit from Sir Robert Boyle’s estate. In the aforementioned letter of 19 January 1709/10, to Sir William Ashurst, Increase Mather discusses this concern. “Some years ago you wrote of a moyety out of Mr. Boyle’s Legacy to be disposed of by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. It is disputed whether it was intended that the Corporation should improve the money for the education of some to preach to the Natives, or only to determine which of those that are employed in that service should have the benefit of that Legacy. The Colledge has not as yet received anything. And now that Society is in other hands than it was when the Corporation in London ordered the Legacy for them.”5 By “that Society” Mather referred to the College and by “the Corporation,” to the governing board of the New England Company in London. Sir Henry Ashurst, brother of Sir William, was an executor of Boyle’s estate and, as an officer of the New England Company, undoubtedly saw that that body benefited from the estate of Sir Robert Boyle, its first governor. Mather’s reference to “now that the Society is in other hands,” concerns the fact that the mantle of leadership in Harvard College had passed from his shoulders to the shoulders of John Leverett.

    In the letter of 8 November 1710 to Sir William Ashurst, Mather continues his discussion of the Boyle legacy. “I know not whether you received what I wrote to you concerning Mr. Boyle’s legacy to the Colledge. I was president of the Colledge when that money was ordered. And indeed my solicitation with the executors of Mr. Boyle’s will in special Sir H. Ashurst occasioned that donation to the Colledge. The unsettled state of that Society made your Commissioners at a Loss what to do.”6 As we have noted, Sir Henry Ashurst was an executor of Boyle’s will and, like his brother and his late father, a valuable and useful friend to the Bay Colony and to the College. The last sentence of the quotation may indicate that the Commissioners of the New England Company, from their post in London, were unwilling to dispense income from the Boyle estate investments because of the uncertain legal status of the College.

    Later in the letter of 8 November, Mather writes that, when Leverett became president of Harvard, Mather had informed him of the status of the Boyle legacy and of the New England Company’s order, of July 1697, to make annual payments to the College.7 The text of the letter indicates that there was some dispute between the College and the New England Company Corporation over the amount to be paid, resulting in Harvard’s receiving nothing. Mather indicates his willingness to cooperate with the settlement of the “Arrears.”8 He concludes discussion of the Boyle legacy, in the letter of 8 November, as follows: “I attest that the design of the Legacy is that 2 scholars shall be educated in that Society who shall with gratitude instruct the Indians in Christianity. And that will be a great benefit to the Colledge when two of the members therein shall be so priviledged, and may (if the Lord pleases) promote Christianity. I must pray you to inform me if I am mistaken.”9

    A few months before Mather’s letter to Ashurst, of 8 November 1710, the New England Company received a letter from the President and Fellows of Harvard College, inquiring about their share in the Boyle estate. The Company declared its intention to pay the £45, in the future, but hoped that the College would not insist on payment of arrears, since the money had been spent by the Company’s Commissioners to pay the salaries of ministers. Sir William Ashurst, in his capacity as governor of the New England Company, wrote to the President and Fellows of Harvard College, admitting that this had been done and that annual payments had not been made to the College, as ordered in 1697. At a meeting between representatives of the Commissioners and the College, in 1710, it was agreed that the Commissioners would pay £90 each year for six years and, thereafter, £45 per year.1 In the following decades, some money was received from the Commissioners but the whole matter of the dispersal and receipt of income from the Boyle legacy, as the Harvard records reveal, remained a matter of dispute and uncertainty throughout the eighteenth century.

    The five Increase Mather letters written to Sir William Ashurst in 1709, 1709/10, and 1717 and purchased by Harvard University in 1973, as we have noted, are concerned with the governance of Massachusetts, with the education of Indians, with some of the leaders of Massachusetts, and with Increase Mather as a preacher in his old age, as well as with matters of interest to the University. The letters, in their Harvard discussions, contain nothing to change significantly our view of Harvard’s history but, rather, add to our knowledge of it. We learn, from Mather’s own words, of his reasons for resigning the Harvard presidency, his attitude toward his successor, John Leverett, and his central theme of the need for a strong legal charter for the University which would insure the continued receipt of gifts and bequests and preserve its Puritan Nonconformist philosophy. Also partially revealed, is the very important role played in Massachusetts and Harvard College affairs by the politically and economically powerful London-based Ashurst family. Whatever the importance of the Mather-Ashurst letters to students of Harvard’s and New England’s past, they are significant in that they add a few more squares to the great patchwork quilt of Harvard history.