Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Witch Hunts and Theocracy Then and Now: A Cautionary Tale

by BBT

Right-wing fundamentalists often claim that the United States is a “Christian country,” some even going so far as to argue that it should be governed by “Biblical Law.”  I'd like to take you back in time to look at the theocratic government that existed in northeastern Massachusetts in the 1600s and the terrible consequences of its theocratic excesses; these influenced the founders of the United States to reject theocracy in favor of separation of church and state.

Let's start with a brief recollection that, by the 17th Century in Europe, there were already many examples of why the fusion of religion and political power was, often literally, a double-edged sword – nice for those wielding the power, but not so good for those on the wrong side of the religious-political divide. They were often persecuted, stripped of their power and property, and exiled or executed. The power balance often shifted rather quickly, too, as the “ins” became “outs.” No one was immune, least of all royalty. English King Charles I, who had incurred the suspicion of the Puritans who controlled Parliament when he married a Catholic, and whose tumultuous reign included many military misadventures, led England to civil war and was beheaded in 1649. His Catholic grandmother, Mary, Queen of Scots, had met the same fate in 1587 during Elizabeth I's reign.

Mary, Queen of Scots
Death of Mary, Queen of Scots

This turmoil in England took place during the first century of English colonization of North America. At the same time, England was battling for control of Ireland, Scotland and Wales and engaged in struggles for European supremacy as other countries (especially Spain and France and to a lesser extent Portugal, Holland and Germany) were also colonizing the Americas. Almost all of these political struggles had religious and economic overtones or underpinnings.

The disputes were far more complex than “Catholics vs. Protestants.” Not only Catholics, but Quakers, Lutherans, Mennonites, French Huguenots and other Christian groups were persecuted in England, Holland, Germany, France and elsewhere; where they had political power, they persecuted others. Jews were often marginalized in Europe and America. Religious affiliations were very complicated and very political.  More on this here. While differences about religious dogma could be significant, it was the fusion of religion with political and economic power that often led to war and conflict.

There was also a real belief in witches who actively partnered with the devil to harm to people, crops and livestock. Witch-craft explained natural disasters, and “witches” - most of whom were women - were often scapegoated during plagues, droughts, crop failures etc. From the late middle ages to the late 17th Century, an estimated 80,000-100,000 Europeans were executed for witch-craft. Many more were accused. 

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"Witches" burned at the stake

Against this backdrop, religious persecution was probably the rule more than the exception if you were not one of the “ins” at any particular point in time.  For these, and many other social, economic, political and other reasons, many people chose to take the dangerous voyage to an unknown land. 

From the outset, there were distinctions among the colonies, and within them, about religion. New York and Pennsylvania attracted Mennonites, Lutherans, Quakers, Jews and others who were persecuted in Europe. In Massachusetts, the Pilgrims who settled the Plymouth Colony were “Separatists” who did not follow the Church of England, unlike the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, founded a decade later. The Puritans' religious “platform” was to “purify” the Church of England with rigid interpretations of biblical tenets. 

The Massachusetts Bay Company was rigidly Puritan, but even so, it rejected the call by some adherents for government strictly based on Biblical law. Instead, Massachusetts colonial law expanded upon English law and incorporated theocratic admonitions. The Body of Liberties  was the basis of the first Massachusetts code of laws.

The Body of Liberties is in many ways a remarkably progressive document for its time, enumerating the rights of colonial “freemen” and even including some rights for women, children, servants, “strangers and foreigners” and even animals. Slavery was ostensibly abolished, except that the exceptions in effect legalized slavery in most instances. (Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1780.) In all, these laws, as they applied to civil matters, were remarkably progressive for the 17th Century.

They were not progressive as they applied to religious beliefs, however. Missing church on Sunday was a significant offense that could result in imprisonment, whippings and fines. If you were convicted of being a witch, or a blasphemer, or an adulterer, or a believer in anything other than what the Puritans believed, that was a capital crime for which the punishment was being put to death.

Quaker Mary Dyer being led to her execution 

And they did. Quakers, a new religious group in the 1650s, were persecuted and hung in Massachusetts because they refused to adhere to Puritan orthodoxy. They disrupted church services, engaged in civil disobedience, defied bans and persistently challenged the Puritans' rules. Even on the gallows, they steadfastly refused to save themselves by betraying their beliefs. Here is an account of the persecution of Quakers in Massachusetts, which ended when King Charles II intervened on their behalf.  (Yes, by then, the English were more tolerant than the Puritans.)

There was dissent against the Puritans' rigid theocracy from the earliest days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Roger Williams, a brilliant and charismatic minister who arrived in Massachusetts in 1631, was a separatist who rejected Puritan orthodoxy and preached tolerance. He was a strong and passionate advocate of freedom of religion and the separation of church and state, and is said to have strongly influenced Thomas Jefferson and other founders on this issue. He was offered the ministry in Boston when he first arrived from England, but declined because he refused to adhere to their strict tenets, arguing among other things that there should be no punishments for blasphemy, heresy, adultery or other religious transgressions. He became the minister in Salem, where he was generally well-respected, although his “radical” ideas continued to attract attention. In 1635, the Massachusetts General Court convicted him of sedition and heresy, ordering him to be banished. He narrowly avoided being jailed, escaping on foot during a blizzard and walking 105 miles in deep snow to Narragansett Bay, where he was taken in by Native Americans. He went on to found Providence Plantation, where laws only applied to “civil things,” not religion – the first “western” government with separation of church and state. The area attracted many Quakers, Baptists, Jews, and others who were persecuted elsewhere, and was the most tolerant and progressive of the colonies – so much so that Connecticut, Plymouth and the Massachusetts Bay Colonies tried to get it abolished. Williams went to England and succeeded in getting a charter for the area that eventually became Rhode Island.

Roger Williams and Narragansetts

Anne Hutchinson was another charismatic religious leader. She led well-attended weekly meetings of women in Boston that professed a “covenant of grace” that differed from Puritan orthodoxy. Her gatherings became so popular that she had to expand them to include men, including then-Governor Henry Vane. The Puritans became increasingly alarmed at her “free grace” views and growing influence, which were at the root of the Antimonian Controversy. The Puritans voted Vane and others supporting “free grace” out of office in 1637 and prosecuted Hutchinson later that year. She was convicted of contempt and sedition and banished; she escaped to Providence Plantation, establishing a settlement nearby. These settlements, with other religious dissidents, united and formed the colony and later the state of Rhode Island, which became a bastion of religious tolerance. The colony passed laws outlawing witchcraft trials, imprisonment for debt, most capital punishment; Rhode Island also outlawed slavery in 1652.

The Puritans were not only concerned with ridding Massachusetts of religious dissenters; they soon turned their attention to witch-craft. From 1648-1663, 80 people were accused and 13 women and 2 men were executed. The first was Margaret Jones, a midwife and healer whose 1648 execution was witnessed by then-12-yearold John Hale, who later played a key role in the witch-hunts of 1692. In 1688, Cotton Mather, the influential minister of the Old North Church, zealously persecuted a laundress known as “Goody Glover” for bewitching the Goodwin children; he witnessed her execution, took in her children and wrote a book Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions. This book quickly became a “best seller” in Massachusetts. Perhaps as a result, in 1689 there were enough accusations of witch-craft that the jail in Salem could not hold all those accused. 

This all came to a boil in 1692, the year of the infamous Salem Witch Trials. The witch hunt began not in the city of Salem but in Salem Village (now the town of Danvers; see map here); soon it spread to communities throughout northeastern Massachusetts. This account suggests that unrest due to King William's War and other socio-economic factors played a role.

The trouble began in January 1692 when two girls in the household of Reverend Parris started having “fits” and behaving strangely – much like the Goodwin children as described in Mather's book. (It's surprising that the girls themselves weren't accused of being witches; some say that is because they were so young that they were presumed innocent, yet a four-year old child was accused.) Soon, other girls started showing similar behavior. (Interestingly, no boys were affected.) A doctor could find no physical ailments and concluded witch-craft was the cause of their afflictions.

Salem Witch Trial

This led to the accusations. The first accused were women who attracted attention because they were outspoken, not submissive, provocative, “unpuritan,” or social outcasts. 

Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne were accused in late February, along with Tituba, the Parris family's slave. Tituba confessed to being a witch and was spared; her confession was instrumental in causing the hysteria to expand, but she later recanted it.  Sarah Good, who had been born to a prosperous family but lost her property in a legal battle, by 1692 was a pregnant beggar and outcast who was an easy target; she was hung in July and her infant daughter was born and died in the jail. Good's 4-year old daughter was also accused and imprisoned. Sarah Osborne may have been targeted because she hadn't attended church due to illness. She was an in-law of the Putnams and had been involved in disputes with them. She was never tried; she died in jail in Boston after being held captive for several months. Bridget Bishop was another woman who did not fit the mold of women in Puritan society; she was a tavern keeper, had been married 3 times, was described by some as promiscuous, and had been twice accused of witch-craft previously. She was the first of the accused to be tried because the magistrates felt that it would be easy to convict her because of the prior accusations. They were right; she was the first to be hung, in June of 1692. 

While those accused at the outset of the witch hunt were all “outcasts” in some fashion – they did not conform to the Puritan model – this soon changed. That spring and summer, Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse and many other well-respected members of the communities were accused, and some, including Corey and Nurse, were convicted and hung that summer.

Martha Corey was known for her piety and regularly attended church; however, she did not believe in witch-craft and was outspoken about her opinion that the girls making the accusations were lying. At that point, they accused her. She had no doubt that she would be exonerated; however, the girls' actions at Corey's trial gave the impression that they were possessed and controlled by Corey, leading to her conviction. She was hung in September.

Rebecca Nurse was an elderly, pious, well-respected resident of Salem Village. She was accused by Anne Putnam and her daughter, among others, although Putnam's brother-in-law and others in the family were among those who spoke in Nurse's defense. Apparently Nurse had criticized the younger Anne Putnam for bad behavior on several occasions. Another accusation came from neighbor Sarah Holten, who claimed that Nurse cast a spell that caused her husband to die, after they had argued because his pigs destroyed Nurse's garden.  39 people risked their own lives by signing a petition attesting to her good character and seeking her release. She was initially acquitted, but the girls accusing her starting having fits in the courtroom after the verdict was read, and Chief Magistrate Stoughton ordered the jury to reconsider. Nurse was then convicted and hung in July. To the end, she proclaimed her innocence:

I can say before my Eternal Father I am innocent and God will clear my innocency…The Lord knows I have not hurt them. I am an innocent person.”

Rebecca Nurse's sisters, Mary Easty and Sarah Cloyce, were also accused, and Mary was executed. Sarah was released from prison in January 1693.

Rebecca Nurse Homestead

Remarkably, part of Nurse's 300-acre 17th Century farm and her house are still intact in the midst of a very suburban area; the property includes a graveyard with her remains (dug up from Gallows Hill and moved by her grandson) and those of several other victims of the 1692 witch trials. Three Sovereigns for Sarah was filmed there.  (The Salem Village Historic District is well worth a visit; however, I was alarmed to see that several key buildings in other parts of Danvers, including the Israel Putnam house and Sarah Osborne's house, are falling into disrepair.)

Elizabeth Howe was a cousin of Rebecca Nurse. Howe's husband was blind, leaving her with the tasks of running the farm as well as the household. She had an “assertive personality” and had been accused of causing fits in a girl ten years earlier. In 1692, she was accused of afflicting cows, horses and pigs. At her trial, she said: If it was the last moment I was to live, God knows I am innocent of any thing of this nature”. She was hung. Here is an excellent account of Howe's story. 

Martha Carrier's “crime was not witchcraft but an independence of mind and an unsubmissive character.” Susannah Martin apparently ruffled feathers by contesting her father's will.  Anne Pudeator was a nurse and midwife who was accused after some of those in her care died or babies were stillborn.  Wilmot Redd was an “eccentric” character with a volatile temper who was known to get into lively arguments with her neighbors in Marblehead. Margaret Scott of Rowley was an elderly beggar.  "Non-conformist" Sarah Wildes, Mary and Alice Parker were also executed.

John Proctor was the first man accused (along with his wife, Elizabeth). Proctor was a prosperous farmer with large landholdings in the southern part of Salem Village, in what is now the city of Peabody. He is one of the main characters in Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible (which is not historically accurate). He was executed and his wife was also condemned, but her execution was delayed because she was pregnant, and she was released the following year.

Harvard graduate George Burroughs, who had been a minister in Salem Village, was hung the same day as Proctor, even though he had no “witches marks” on his body and was able to recite the Lord's Prayer, which Puritans believed that witches could not do. After he spoke, the crowd was so moved that they began calling for him to be freed, but Reverend Cotton Mather stepped in and argued that he and four others should be executed.

Death of Giles Corey

80-year old Giles Corey, whose wife Martha was accused, was tortured and crushed to death because he refused to enter a plea, thus preventing the court from seizing his property from his heirs. John Willard was accused after he refused to arrest those whom he thought were innocent; he was hung.  Samuel Wardell, his wife and step-daughter were all accused. He confessed to witch-craft to save himself, but then recanted, and was hung. George Jacobs, Sr. was also executed, based on testimony by his granddaughter, who was also accused and was trying to save herself.

Convictions were often based on hearsay and “spectral evidence.” This was testimony based on visions and dreams that the accusers – many of whom were children - claimed to have, with no tangible proof. Spectral evidence did not meet the legal standard even then, but the magistrates allowed it anyway. The trials led to the execution of 20 people; at least 5 others died in prison.  Another 150 people were jailed in horrible conditions that year, and 200 more were accused. By the fall, more leaders were speaking out against the trials and particularly against spectral evidence.

Cotton Mather 

Several Puritan ministers like Cotton Mather played a key role in instigating the witch-craft hysteria; others helped bring it to an end. Reverend Samuel Parris, minister of Salem Village, helped inflame the hysteria that began in his own household. Reverend John Hale of Beverly testified against the accused in several cases, but his views changed dramatically when his wife and several parishioners were accused. He became a critic of the proceedings and two years later wrote a forthright account, admitting that they had lost their way and became irrational out of fear. Reverend Dane in Andover, where many accusations took place, argued against the hysteria and especially against the use of spectral evidence, and is considered one of the heroes who helped save people from death. Samuel Willard played a similar role in Salem Village and helped foster reconciliation after the end of the hysteria.  Ipswich town records indicate that ministers there spoke out against the witch-craft accusations in 1689 and again in 1692. 

Even Cotton Mather wrote a letter in early June condemning the use of spectral evidence. His father Increase Mather (who was the influential president of Harvard College) decried the use of spectral evidence in a letter in early October, writing: "It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person be condemned." 

Thomas Brattle and Robert Calef were community leaders in Boston who were highly critical of the witch trials and whose critiques helped bring them to an end. Calef was a particular critic of Cotton Mather, blaming him for establishing fertile ground for the hysteria to occur. His book More Wonders of the Invisible World is a direct rebuttal of Cotton Mather's 1693 book Wonders of the Invisible World; Calef's book is one of the best contemporaneous reports on the witch trials. 

Eventually, the accusers went too far, accusing more and more respected members of the community, including the wives of Hale and other ministers, and even the wife of Governor Phips. In the fall he disallowed spectral evidence and disbanded the special court; early the next year he put an end to the trials, and in May he pardoned and released the remaining prisoners.

And now Nineteen persons having been hang'd, and one prest to death, and Eight more condemned, in all Twenty and Eight, of which above a third part were Members of some of the Churches of N. England, and more than half of them of a good Conversation in general, and not one clear'd; about Fifty having confest themselves to be Witches, of which not one Executed; above an Hundred and Fifty in Prison, and Two Hundred more accused; the Special Commision of Oyer and Terminer comes to a period. --  Robert Calef

Governor Phips wrote:
When I put an end to the Court there ware at least fifty persons in prision in great misery by reason of the extream cold and their poverty, most of them having only spectre evidence against them and their mittimusses being defective, I caused some of them to be lettout upon bayle and put the Judges upon consideration of a way to reliefe others and to prevent them from perishing in prision, upon which some of them were convinced and acknowledged that their former proceedings were too violent and not grounded upon a right foundation ... The stop put to the first method of proceedings hath dissipated the blak cloud that threatened this Province with destruccion.”  Governor William Phips, February 21st, 1693

Here is a summary from The Smithsonian. On this site, you can read the testimony from many of the trials. 

Of course, it is hard to put ourselves in the 1692 mindset of those who actually believed in witch-craft and to whom the devil was a real entity. Still, how could the accusers – many of them children – be given such credence? This is not just hindsight; many argued at the time that there was no basis to believe that their testimony was true – it made more sense to believe that it was “made up.” But it was accepted by the infamous Court, and people were executed on that basis.

There was also a huge 17th Century Catch-22. If you confessed to being a witch, you would be spared, but if you didn't you'd be executed. Only those who were most true to their religion, refusing to lie and steadfastly maintaining their innocence, were condemned and executed. That in itself would seem to be a red flag that the process was seriously flawed. Who couldn't see that? Why wasn't it obvious. Religious zealotry can blind people to reason.

If anything good could come of such a travesty, the Salem Witch Trials have served for centuries as a cautionary tale against intolerance and mass hysteria. Apt parallels were made during the McCarthy era, when the anti-communist fervor led to a similar suspension of people's rights and lives were ruined based on hearsay and associations. Arthur Miller's play “The Crucible” was inspired by this very parallel.

The Salem Witch Trials set a clear example of why the separation of church and state is necessary. I would take it a step farther: arguably, all religion is “spectral” - there is nothing tangible that proves the tenets of the world's religions. They are based on faith, not evidence. People's faith is real, but in any religion, because the articles of faith are subject to people's interpretations, there will always be differences of opinion and interpretation about what they mean, or what is most important. That's the nature of the beast.

Many of the founders recognized the evils that men do in the name of religion. Practically speaking, they also had to blend the interests of many people of different faiths, and some of no faith, to create a viable political union. That included Rhode Island, founded on principles of religious liberty and separation of church and state. It included Dutch Mennonites in New York, German Lutherans in Pennsylvania, Catholics, Jews, Episcopalians, Baptists, deists and, yes, atheists. In fact, a number of key revolutionaries and founders of the nation were deists, including George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen. They wisely built a wall to separate church and state.

witty, quotes, sayings, thomas jefferson, religion

We've already had a theocratic tragedy in our early history which can serve as a cautionary tale, if only we are willing to take heed: though religion is supposed to be a force for good, mixing it with political control is unwise and can lead to persecution and bloodshed.

More than once it has been said…that the Salem witchcraft was the rock on which the theocracy shattered.
— George Lincoln Burr

Yet some don't understand the history or choose not to heed the lesson. The Dominionists are the Puritans of today, but with a much more extreme political agenda, fewer scruples, and a stronger determination to combine their religious beliefs with government. Their 7 Mountains strategy aims to take control of business, government, media, arts and entertainment, education, family and religion. Here's a site that has a lot of information on this topic.  Their infiltration of all these areas is well underway; perhaps the infiltration of not only the civilian government, but of the U.S.military, is particularly troubling.

We can learn from history, or we can repeat it.

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