Increase Mather could see King Philip’s War coming from his pulpit. All around him he saw sinful activity: periwigs, high prices, tippling in the ordinary, even people leaving the Sunday meeting before it ended. And so when the Native Americans rose up and began to destroy entire villages, Mather pressed the Massachusetts General Court to legislate morality. The lawmakers then passed the 1675 Provoking Evils legislation, New England’s most notorious blue laws.
Increase Mather, an ambitious 36-year-old minister, had a fanatical desire to reform Puritan society. He believed the Puritans had strayed from the founding generation’s moral purpose. He was literally a product of those founders: His father, the influential Rev. Richard Mather, had come to Massachusetts Bay Colony during the Great Puritan Migration.
“Mather seems to have been on the side of the declining old-style,” wrote historian Anne Kusener Nelsen. “All that was new in any way — the merest toleration, luxurious apparel, or the changing character of the churches — presented a threat to Mather’s ideal of the Puritan state.”
Mather thought the Puritans had gone horribly soft even before the Nipmucks, Wampanoags and Narragansetts began attacking New England’s frontier. Parents weren’t bringing up children properly within the church. Fashions had gotten out of hand, with men wearing long hair and women wearing bangs and topless dresses.
And that wasn’t all. The lower orders of society showed contempt for authority and people didn’t behave in church. Merchants and laborers charged exorbitant prices. Some people even rode to other towns on the pretext of going to lecture but really frequented taverns.
Clearly, the Puritans were going to hell in a handbasket.
And so when King Philip unleashed his fury on the New England colonists, Mather was quite certain the Lord had sent them as his agents to purify his people.
The way to win the war, Mather believed, was to eliminate the provoking evils.
“Let them no more say, God must do all, we can do nothing, and so encourage themselves to live in a careless neglect of God, and of their own souls, and salvation,” he wrote in his history of the conflict.
King Philip’s War
King Philip’s War began on June 20, 1675 when a war party of Pokanokets struck the tiny Plymouth Colony settlement of Swansea. Thereafter, Indian allies shocked and terrified New England. Hundreds of warriors would strike swiftly and suddenly, burning villages, taking captives and slaughtering families.
During the 14 months of fighting, Plymouth Colony lost 8 percent of its adult male population. In the end, 35 towns were burned or abandoned, leaving only 65 in New England.
The war also disrupted the homogenous, self-governing Puritan communities. Military commissioners had authority over the Puritan ministers. Large numbers of armed soldiers, usually strangers, moved into small, close-knit towns.
The Indians suffered even more as a result of the war. The colonists sold as many as a thousand into slavery, and 5,000 died in battle, of sickness or of starvation. Another 2,000 fled west or north. At the outset of the war, Indians comprised 30 percent of New England’s population; by the end, they dwindled to 15 percent.
In October 1675, four months into the war, Increase Mather took his turn delivering a lecture before the General Court.
He told them only one thing could turn God from his displeasure and spare Massachusetts from the heathen: a thorough reformation of provoking evils.
The lower house, the democratic deputies (now known as the House of Representatives) quickly passed the laws banning provoking evils. The aristocratic magistrates in the upper house (now the Senate) didn’t go along with them. One week later, an Indian war party attacked a town. The magistrates quickly passed the Provoking Evils law.
On the day the magistrates acted, the Puritans scored a victory against the Indians. Mather, of course, interpreted that to mean God approved of the Provoking Evils law.
The General Court passed a strict dress code prohibiting such fashion excesses as slashed sleeves, periwigs and bared bosoms. The law authorized local officials to prosecute men for wearing long hair and women for wearing bangs or curling their hair.
Town officers had to close the meeting house doors so no one could leave before service ended. If children didn’t come to Sabbath service, town officials would fine their parents or whip the children.
Massachusetts already had laws on the books against swearing, but lawmakers strengthened them by ordering punishment to anyone who overheard a swear word and didn’t report it.
The General Court ordered every person found at a Quakers meeting to be apprehended, jailed for three days or fined five pounds. If the constable didn’t enforce the law, he would pay a four pound fine.
No longer could townspeople drink in taverns (known as ordinaries), which existed only for travelers.
Finally, they fixed wages and prices.
Enforcing the Provoking Evils law would surely end the war, wouldn’t it?
Not everyone thought so.
Gov. John Leverett told Mather over dinner he’d gone too far when he complained about rampant drunkenness in the colony.
Three months after the Provoking Evils law passed, Increase Mather gave another sermon about excess in apparel and the frequenting of taverns. After meeting, two wealthy parishioners, Capt. Thomas Lake and John Richards, stayed behind. They told him he might have persuaded the ignorant, but no rational man would buy his argument. .
And Mather’s rival, the less-fanatical Rev. William Hubbard, believed the Puritans’ land grabbing caused King Philip’s War. Hubbard also thought military ineptitude and overconfidence prolonged the bloodshed.
Eventually, of course, the Puritans won the war and the provoking evils laws were repealed. And in the end, Mather came around to Hubbard’s view that land hunger caused the conflict.
Land! Land! hath been the Idol of many in New-England: whereas the first Planters here that they might keep themselves together were satisfied with one Acre for each person, as his propriety, an after that with twenty Acres for a Family, how have men since coveted after the earth, that many hundreds, nay thousands of Acres, have been engrossed by one man, and they that profess themselves Christians, have forsaken Churches, and Ordinances, and all for land and elbow-room enough in the world.
Thanks to King Philip’s War and the Hubbard-Mather Rivalry by Anne Kusener Nelsen, published in the William and Mary Quarterly, and The Last American Puritan: The Life of Increase Mather, 1639–1723 by Michael G. Hall. This story was updated in 2023.