127-Which Witch

This, the 127th episode of CS is titled, “Which Witch?” and is a brief review of the well-known but poor understood Salem Witch Trials.

The Salem Witch Trials are often brought up by critics of Christianity as examples of religious intolerance & superstition. And while they did indeed carry a bit of that, they were far more an example of a breakdown in the judicial system. The phrase “witch-hunt” refers to an attempt to find something damning in an otherwise innocent victim. What’s rarely mentioned is that while there was a brief flurry of witch-hunting that went on in the New England colonies, it was a long practice back in Europe from the mid 15th thru mid 18th Cs. It reached its peak between 1580 & 1630. It’s difficult to sort out how many were executed but scholars say it was from a low of 40,000 o as high as 60,000.

In light of such large numbers, the 20 who were executed in the Salem Trials seems trivial – but that even a single person was executed on the charge of witchcraft was a travesty of justice.

Witch hunts began in the 15th C in SE France and W’n Switzerland. The European witch craze was further fueled by the publication of The Hammer of the Witches in 1486, by the inquisitors Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger.

The trials included both male & female victims as well as all ages and classes.

In New England, there’d been three hangings for witchcraft prior to Salem. But the first signs of trouble in Salem Village occurred during the winter of 1692, when the 9 yr old daughter of the village pastor, Elizabeth Parris, and her 11 yr old cousin Abigail Williams, began displaying bizarre behavior. The girls screamed uncontrollably, threw things, groaned, and threw fits with wild contortions. Witchcraft immediately surfaced as a possible explanation.

Suspicion soon centered on 3 women who lived on the margins of the village. A homeless woman named Sarah Good. An infrequent church-attender & so suspicious woman named Sarah Osborne. And Tituba, a slave accused of fortune-telling. These 3 were interrogated in March 1692 and sentenced to jail.

Tituba’s ethnic origins are difficult to sort out but she appears to have been an African slave brought from the Caribbean to serve in the home of Pastor Samuel Parris. She regaled the young girls with tales of the occult and indulged their desire to have their fortunes read. When the girls were caught gazing into a crystal ball, they tried to shift blame by affecting bizarre behavior that made them appear victims of spells cast on them by the malevolent.

Well, other adolescent girls saw all the attention this was gaining their rivals, they affected similar behavior to get a slice of the attention pie. They accused the soft targets of women who were already considered odd and suspicious. Tituba was the first to be accused, but soon Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne were also implicated, questioned and remanded to custody.

There was a long-running feud among the Putnam & Porter families in Salem. One of the young girls was 12 yr old Ann Putnam. Some of those who were accused of witchcraft were on the wrong side of that feud.

It didn’t help that Elizabeth Parris’ father, Pastor Smauel Parris used his pulpit to fan the flames of superstition that ANYONE in Salem, indeed, anyone in the church at Salem, might in fact be in league with Satan.

In March, several more women were accused. Then, anyone who questioned the girl’s veracity were suspected. Sarah Good’s 4 yr old daughter Dorothy was arrested and interrogated.

The accusations began pouring in. More arrests made. And the people being arrested weren’t just a fringe element. They were upstanding members of the community and church. As tension grew, Governor William Phips set up a special court to adjudicate the cases. The first to be brought to trial was Bridget Bishop, who was accused of being a witch because of her immoral lifestyle and her tendency for wearing black clothing. She was found guilty and was executed by hanging in June 1692. Five more women were executed in July, and then four men and one woman in August. The last executions took place in September, when six women and three men were hung.

Some of those arrested confessed that they had practiced witchcraft, and accused others of having been their mentors. But scholars now believe these confession were made under duress and with the promise that by implicating others they might be allowed to go free.

Giles Corey, an 80-year-old farmer and husband of one of the accused, was also arrested in September. Corey refused to cooperate with the authorities and was subjected to a form of torture in which the subject is placed beneath an increasingly heavy load of stones in an attempt to compel him to enter a plea. After 2 days, Corey died without entering a plea.

The last trial occurred at the end of April, and all five accused were found not guilty, bringing an end to the episode. In the final count, 20 had been hung, 1 was crushed to death, and 4 died in prison.

20 years later, the Massachusetts court declared the entire ordeal had been a gross injustice, and ordered indemnifications be paid to the victims’ families.

At the time, 2 of New England’s most influential leaders were the father and son, Increase & Cotton Mather. Increase, who became president of Harvard, believed in the reality of witchcraft, and has been blamed for much of what happened in Salem. But Increase Mather severely criticized the proceedings and use of spectral evidence which was central to the case.

Spectral evidence was the testimony of the young girls and their supporters who claimed they saw certain things that must mean the accused were in fact witches bent on the spiritual & social unravelling of the Salem community. They saw what they described as ghost-like images. Increase Mather decried the use of such evidence as being inappropriate to condemn someone to death. His son Cotton took a similar position, first writing against witchcraft, then deploring the manner in which the trials were conducted.

It was the two-fold whammy of the Mather’s condemnation of spectral evidence & that the girls apparently began to stretch out a bit to see just what they could get away with that moved people to begin to wonder what was going on in Salem. It’s one thing to accuse oddballs and misfits of being witches. But when some of the community’s most respected members and people known for their upstanding virtue were accused à Well, maybe we’ve been played by a handful of middle-schoolers!

While religious superstition fueled the panic that fired the Salem Witch Trials, it was in fact a failure of the judicial system that saw 20 people hanged. And while Pastor Parris stirred the pot in Salem with his use of the pulpit to fuel suspicion, it was the work of 2 other pastors, Increase & Cotton Mather that moved the people of Salem and Massachusetts to calm down and end the trials.

Let’s turn now in the balance of this episode to tie off the Puritanism of New England.

Within a single generation, the original Puritan vision was already dimming. A new cosmopolitanism from Europe had transformed cities like Boston. By the early 18th C, American Puritanism had split into 3 factions.

First there were the Congregational churches, which down-played Calvinist doctrines and looked to the Enlightenment. These came to be called the “Old Lights.”

Then there were those who continued to practice the rigid Calvinism of their forebears, referred to as the “Old Calvinists.”

The 3rd group emerged from the “Great Awakening” with its pietistic emphasis on a “new birth.” Adherents were called “New Lights.”

Puritanism wasn’t static on either side of the Atlantic. It couldn’t be since their political contexts were vastly different. English Puritans were engaged in a civil war, while New England Puritans were carving life out of a new world. Despite minor variations like the New England Halfway Covenant, the Puritan theological core remained the same. The Westminster Confession of Faith is a solid guide in identifying the theological tenets of Puritanism.

The Confession was the work of the Westminster Assembly which met from 1643-9.

The Assembly was a committee appointed by Parliament. It was charged with drawing up a new liturgy to replace the Book of Common Prayer and for implementing a new plan for church government. It met in what’s called the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey for the first time on July 1, 1643. Parliament appointed 121 clergy & 30 laypeople to the assembly.

The assembly replaced the Book of Common Prayer with the Directory of Public Worship in 1645, & the 39 Articles of the Church of England were replaced by the Westminster Confession in 1646. The House of Commons returned the Confession with instructions to add biblical proof texts. Revisions were made, and the Confession was ratified by Parliament. 2 catechisms were added. The Larger Catechism (designed for instructing adults) and the Shorter Catechism (a bit easier for children) were approved in 1648.

The Church of Scotland also adopted it without amendment, satisfying compliance with the Solemn League and Covenant. Its work being completed, the Westminster Assembly dissolved in 1649.

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