Of Salem & Witchcraft Trials

Perhaps the only thing some people know about Puritan history in America is that they executed presumed witches. Americans typically know nothing about how Puritans gave us our first constitution and bill of rights, but they are always told about the Salem witchcraft trials.

Salem Witchcraft Trials 2

How does one analyze this episode of Puritan history fairly? Of course, most historians automatically denigrate the Puritans for it because they operate on a naturalistic worldview that says belief in witches is a superstition of a bygone era. It merely reveals the harshness of judgment and bigotry that always connects to a people who hold to rigid religious dogmas.

Needless to say, I am not one of the number of those historians. I do believe the supernatural exists and that occult activities are real, albeit perversions of what God intends. I believe there is a real Satan whose adherents, knowingly or unknowingly, are working on his behalf.

So I do start from a different perspective when analyzing what took place at Salem during a few short months in 1692. Do keep in mind that it was a short time period, not a constant, unremitting hunt for witches.

It’s also instructive to know that Puritans were not the only group that looked into the possibility of witchcraft in their communities. One can find this activity throughout Europe at this time. In other words, concern about witches wasn’t a uniquely Puritan thing.

What occurred in 1692 to start this investigation?

TitubaSome young girls in the town were friends to a slave woman, Tituba, in the home of Rev. Samuel Parris. Most accounts refer to her as a black woman from the Caribbean. The actual court documents from her trial, though, call her an Indian. She apparently was born somewhere in South America, then captured and made a slave on Barbados. Eventually, she ended up in Salem.

We are usually told she led the girls into witchcraft, but there is no strong evidence of that either. What is evident is that the girls did go into fits that most people assumed were due to demonic influence in their lives. Tituba apparently did follow some occult procedure for trying to determine what was bewitching the girls. Whatever the truth may be, she became associated, in the minds of the townspeople, with the phenomenon.

As the investigation proceeded, a special court was set up to sift the evidence of satanic activity in the town. As one historian has noted, that was the first mistake. Any “special court” is under some pressure to come up with a good reason for its existence. The girls began to testify that they could see auras, or some type of spectral visions, around those who were witches.

Accepting that type of “evidence” was the second mistake. How does one confirm evidence like that? In this case, it all depended on the truthfulness of the girls.

Eventually, some 200 people were accused and 20 were eventually executed for witchcraft. Whether some were actual witches is highly dubious. By this time, the town had gotten carried away. Some have speculated that one group in the town used the trials as a means of revenge against another group. Again, that is speculative, but possible.

Increase MatherWhat we do know is this: the trials ended almost as abruptly as they began; one reason is that the governor’s wife was accused also. Another significant factor was the intervention of Rev. Increase Mather, a leader in the community who had been absent during the time as he was in England renegotiating the Massachusetts charter.

When Mather returned, he spoke out against the trials. He wrote against them, asserting that the real work of Satan might not be the placing of witches in Salem, but the destruction of the community through false accusations. Mather said that he would rather one witch escape prosecution than have many innocent people unjustly condemned.

Often, the role of this minister is omitted from the tale. Also omitted regularly are the following facts: first, the community, once it had recovered from the witch fever and realized its errors, voted monetary compensation for families who had lost a member due to execution.

Samuel Sewall's RepentanceSecond, one of the judges, Samuel Sewall, made a public confession of how he had allowed himself to be carried away. Sewall was hardly an evil man. Later, he wrote the very first book in America to deal with the issue of slavery. Entitled The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial, it was a Biblical appeal for the abolitionist cause, and considered a key inspiration for the antislavery movement that followed.

Third, one of the girls who leveled the accusations, Ann Putnam, later also confessed publicly that she had been deceived by Satan during that time.

What’s truly significant about the end result of the Salem witchcraft hysteria is the willingness shown by the entire community to try to make amends for what it had done. So, out of a gross error of judgment, they did what they could as Christians to make up for their own sins.

That’s a part of the Salem story that also needs to be told.

King Philip’s War & History’s Most Basic Truth

The New England colonies of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay suffered through a terrible war with the natives in 1675-1676. It is called King Philip’s War and, percentage-wise, a higher portion of the population died in that war than in any other American war since; not even the Civil War or WWII suffered as high a casualty rate.

What caused it? Who is to blame?

We must take a balanced look at it. When we do, we see that there is some blame on both sides, but at the root of it was greed, envy, and, well .  . . everything that the Bible says is the root of all wars.

As the first generation of settlers died off, the second generation, both English and native, allowed the relationship to sour. There were two basic reasons for it: land and religion/culture.

King PhilipThe land issue was obvious. As more settlers arrived, they purchased land from the natives. Philip himself was more than happy to do so, valuing what he received in return more than the land. That didn’t stop him, though, from becoming resentful over time as his kingdom shrank. If that sounds illogical, so be it.

In my last post about the Puritans, I talked about the natives who were converted to Christianity, and how they set themselves up as a separate culture, reassessing their tribal ways. This became a sore point with the natives who didn’t convert.

One particular convert, named Sassamon, had even gone to Harvard. At one point, he returned to the tribe to be one of Philip’s advisers, but was accused of taking advantage of Philip for his own gain. I’m not sure how accurate the accusation was; the documentation I’ve seen is somewhat flimsy. Sassamon, though, left Philip and returned to his English friends.

One day, Sassamon was found dead in a pond. Evidence indicated foul play, and testimony placed other key advisers to Philip in the vicinity at the time of the murder. A trial took place that included Indians on the jury. Some say the trial was unfair; others disagree. Regardless, the accused were found guilty and executed. That, ostensibly, ignited the war.

King Philip's War-Indian AttackYet the spark was only the pretense for a war that Philip wanted anyway, and for which he had been preparing. He and his allies began massacring settlers who lived in the frontier areas. The English authorities responded with equal force. The whole thing became quite bloody and brutal.

A major mistake on the part of the colonists was to lump in the Christian natives with the others. They rounded them all up and put them on an island, where they suffered tremendous deprivation. This was uncalled for—and some of the colonists spoke out against this treatment—but fear and stereotypes prevailed.

The irony is that the downfall of Philip and his allies was due largely to the actions of some of those same Christian natives who were being mistreated. They spied for the colonists, brought significant intelligence about their enemies’ movements, and even served with the colonists bravely in some of the battles.

Eventually, the colonial authorities came around and recognized the essential difference between hostile natives and those who had become Christians. The bad treatment ended, and so did Philip’s life, at the hands of a native allied with the colonists.

What should we learn from this episode? There are many lessons, of course, but the one I want to leave you with today is the Biblical truth that the only real division among people in this world is between Light and Darkness. We may divide ourselves in other, more artificial, ways, but the real division is between those who have given their lives to the Savior and those who continue to reject that Savior.

All of history revolves around that basic truth.

In Honor of John Eliot

In my previous American history posts about the Puritans we’ve seen the good (city on a hill, establishment of Christian education, the first American bill of rights and constitution) and the not-so-good (treatment of Quakers, the Halfway Covenant that watered down the message of salvation).

What about their relationship with the natives? It was mixed. The Puritans weren’t as missions-oriented as later evangelicals. Yet there were attempts to reach out to the surrounding tribes.

John EliotI want to give credit in particular to one man who devoted his life to spreading the Gospel to the natives. His name was John Eliot, and he spent his entire time in the New World seeking to bring them the Word of God.

Born in 1604, he lived until 1690. His arrival in Massachusetts in 1631 was one year after John Winthrop’s initial voyage. He was the pastor at the church in Roxbury, and remained so for the rest of his life. Yet, while pastoring that church, he extended his ministry voluntarily to the native communities.

By all accounts, Eliot’s kindness won him many friends among the natives, who were then open to listening to his message. He undertook this mission from a heart of genuine concern for those who needed to hear about the love of Christ.

John Eliot's BibleEliot was the first to learn the native language, develop an alphabet for it, teach it to the natives, and then create a translation of the Bible for them in their own language, which was published in stages from 1661-1663. Modern scholars consider this practically a modern marvel, for one man to accomplish this pretty much on his own.

As natives converted to the Christian faith, they also sought to change their tribal ways. They organized themselves into fourteen self-governing towns, and they were given the name “The Praying Indians.”

Eliot’s work among the natives would then go through a severe trial in the event known as King Philip’s War, during which many of the colonists treated these new converts disgracefully. But that’s a story for the next American history post.

For today, let’s pause and honor John Eliot for his exemplary Christian life and witness. This “Apostle to the Indians” fulfilled his calling from God.

Halfway Christians?

Any endeavor for God can start out with the best of motives and still go wrong eventually. I have a prime example from Puritan history.

Puritan ChurchIf you’ve been following my posts on the unfolding of American history, you may remember that when the Puritans migrated and set up Massachusetts, they had a rule that only church members could vote. It seemed reasonable at the time, especially since they wanted to maintain the Christian commitment that inspired their journey.

Three decades later they had to face up to a problem with that rule. How they resolved it was a giant step backward.

By the 1660s, the voters in the colony were becoming a significant minority. Why? Many of the children of the founding generation were not church members. It wasn’t that they weren’t attending church, but they had to be able to give a solid testimony that they believed they were one of the “elect.”

This is where their theology got in their way. As devoted Calvinists, they didn’t believe it was up to man to choose to follow Christ; it was God’s choice, and only He could give that assurance. Many were faithful to the outward manifestations of the faith and probably thought they were right before God, but without the inward assurance, they couldn’t join the church.

This raised another theological issue. The Puritans believed in infant baptism, and that the baptism was a way of bringing the children into the covenant community. If the parents weren’t church members, then their children couldn’t be baptized, therefore placing them outside of the protection of God’s covenant with His people.

What to do? Well, here’s what they decided.

They allowed these church attenders who hadn’t received God’s assurance of salvation to be partial members of the church. This was called the Halfway Covenant, passed in 1662.

Halfway CovenantWhat did it mean? As a partial member, one could have his children baptized and could vote. Other things, though, such as communion, were not allowed. This seemed to solve those two problems: now the children were under God’s protection and there would be more voters, thereby reducing any resentment that might arise from property owners who couldn’t take part in choosing their political leaders.

But was this really a solution?

Where, in the Bible, does one find reference to halfway Christians? I already am opposed to the theology that says man doesn’t choose to follow God, but this Halfway Covenant made things even worse. The message of salvation was now watered down to include, perhaps, those who never had any assurance of being one of the saved.

I believe this hastened the Puritan community’s slide into a loss of spiritual fervor and seriously undermined their original intent of setting up a model of a Christian community for Old England to follow.

In my view, the Halfway Covenant was a drastic departure from Biblical truth, and the consequences of that departure were ultimately disastrous for a generation’s understanding of salvation through Christ.

No one today has officially set up some type of Halfway Covenant, but don’t we do the same thing anytime we talk about “nominal” Christians? My reading of Scripture doesn’t permit me to think that a person can be half a Christian. We are either devoted to God through Christ—and our whole lives are built on that relationship—or we are outside the kingdom.

We are, to a greater extent than I would ever hope to see, another generation that has lost its way with a watered-down salvation message.

Puritans & Education

My last few posts about the early Puritans have contained controversy, as they attempted to deal with disagreement in the Massachusetts colony. They had to decide what to do with people like Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and the Quakers who showed up later. Some of their decisions may have been just, while others (such as hanging Quakers) clearly were not.

Let’s leave most of that controversy behind today and examine the Puritan desire to educate their communities. In a document called New England’s First Fruits, written in 1643 to explain what they were doing with education, we get this bedrock philosophical foundation for the need for education:

After God had carried us safe to New England, and we had builded our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, rear’d convenient places for God’s worship, and settled the Civil Government; One of the next things we longed for, and looked after was to advance Learning, and to perpetuate it to Posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate Ministry to the churches, when our present Ministers shall lie in the dust.

Dame SchoolHow did they go about this for the different levels of education? First, considering they lived pretty much in small communities, they tended to organize what they called “common” schools. These schools usually met in the church building, since it was at the center of the community; often the local minister doubled as the schoolteacher. Educational standards were set by local committees who were also members of the church.

It’s important to understand that the Puritans never conceived of any type of education that wasn’t clearly Biblical in orientation.

Education acts passed by the legislature in the 1640s required parents to ensure their children were properly instructed in the Christian faith, reading proficiency, the laws of the colony, and in a vocation (often through an internship with another member of the community who had a business). Parents were even warned that if they didn’t take this responsibility seriously, their children might be placed in another home to make sure they got the education they needed.

A more specific act, often referred to as The Old Deluder Satan Act, passed the legislature in 1647. It was given that name because the Puritans believed an uneducated person, particularly one who was ignorant of the Scripture, could be more easily deceived by Satan and fall into error.

This act required towns with at least fifty families to set up common schools. Towns with at least one hundred families had to set up a grammar school, which was a higher level of learning. The decision for how to fund these schools was put in the hands of the locality; the citizens of the town could determine if they wanted to pool their money for them (i.e., taxes) or charge tuition. Or both. The key, though, is that is was the locality’s choice; it was not imposed by a higher authority.

Neither did parents have to put their children in these schools; they remained free to educate at home, if they chose to do so.

What about those who sought a higher education? In 1636, plans were put into effect to set up a college. Mr. John Harvard offered his library to help it get started; as you may guess, it was named after him.

Harvard BuildingsIt’s fascinating to review Harvard’s Rules and Precepts in its initial years. Here’s one of the precepts:

Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life, John 17:3 and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning. And seeing the Lord only giveth wisedome, let every one seriously set himself by prayer in secret to seeke it of him Prov. 2,3.

Yale--First BuildingIn 1701, Connecticut set up its first college, Yale. Like Harvard, the original intent was to give students a solid foundation in the faith as they went into the world to do God’s will. Early instructions at Yale included the following:

Every student shall consider the main end of his study . . . to know God in Jesus Christ and answerable to lead a Godly, sober life.

All scholars shall lead religious, godly and blameless lives according to the rules of God’s Word, diligently reading the Holy Scriptures, the fountain of light and truth; and constantly attend upon all the duties of religion, both in public and secret.

Seeing God is the giver of all wisdom, every scholar, besides private or secret prayer, . . . shall be present morning and evening at public prayer in the hall at the accustomed hour.

Not bad for beginnings. Now, the best aims don’t always come to fruition. Certainly not all the students followed those principles; yet it’s significant to take into account the goals of the founders of these institutions.

Yale continued as a bulwark of Christian education at least through the first half of the nineteenth century, aided by leadership from men such as Timothy Dwight and Nathaniel Taylor. Revivals occurred at Yale regularly.

Not so for Harvard, which, by the turn of the nineteenth century, had been taken over by Unitarians who denied the deity of Jesus.

This points to a hard truth: one must stay vigilant to keep education on track. The temptation remains today for Christian colleges and universities to water down the Gospel and try to fit into the trends of the times. We do so at our spiritual peril.

Let’s at least give the Puritans credit for putting into operation an educational system that sought to honor God first.

Puritan Controversy #3: Quakers

The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay had their own reasons for setting up their colony. They sought as much uniformity of thought as possible, which is good in itself, but which also led to confrontations with those who disagreed with the leadership.

When Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson went astray from the original vision, and their beliefs threatened the existence of the colony, they were banished. As I mentioned in previous posts, that punishment wasn’t all that severe; they simply wanted them to go away.

George FoxIn the 1650s, though, a new group came into being in England under the leadership of George Fox. The official name of the group was the Society of Friends, but they were commonly known as Quakers, a name given to them by their detractors after seeing them quake under the power of the Spirit in worship.

Quaker doctrines didn’t mesh with those of the Puritans. Quakers rejected both water baptism and communion, they would take no oaths (similar to Roger Williams), their Sunday meetings were unorganized as they sought to follow the leading of the Spirit, women were allowed to exhort and preach at the meetings (never allowed in Puritan churches), and they were pacifists, which meant they would not take up arms in self-defense if attacked.

These early Quaker believers were imbued with an almost fanatical enthusiasm to convert everyone to their views. Some decided to emigrate to Massachusetts for that very purpose. They, in fact, intruded upon a society that had set up its own rules; often they were outright obnoxious.

One famous (infamous?) incident occurred one Sunday morning when a Quaker woman interrupted a church service by striding down the aisle yelling at the worshipers, telling them their form of worship was rejected by God—naked worship, she called it—and created her own visual sermon by appearing stark naked herself. Needless to say, that was quite a disruption of the service.

Massachusetts authorities told Quakers to leave, find someplace else to settle because their views weren’t welcome in a Puritan community. They refused. No matter how often they were banished, they returned.

Mary Dyer Led to ExecutionFinally, the frustration with Quaker obstinacy led the legislators to pass a law that included the death penalty for those who consistently returned after being banished. Four Quakers were found guilty and received the death sentence—three men and a woman. The sentence was carried out on the men, but the woman, Mary Dyer, was given a reprieve if she would leave and not come back.

She came back. The sentence was carried out.

It didn’t take long after this for the people of Massachusetts to recoil from what they had done. The death sentence for Quakers was repealed. They still weren’t welcome, though. If a Quaker refused to leave, he would be tied to an ox cart, whipped, and then taken to the next town for another whipping, etc., until set free at the border. The message was unmistakable—go away.

How to judge these actions?

First, the Puritans had every right to establish their own rules for living in their community.

Second, the Quakers arrived for one reason only—to cause disturbances.

Third, if Quakers really wanted to bring people into the Kingdom, why pick on Puritans who already were believers? Why not go to the natives in America instead?

Fourth, the death penalty was definitely a step too far. It never should have been made law. Fortunately, it was repealed and never repeated after the one judgment.

Fifth, we need to keep in mind that the Puritans shouldn’t be singled out for this. The established Anglican church back in England was treating Quakers the same way. This wasn’t a particular Puritan practice.

It took decades before different denominations were able to coexist comfortably in Massachusetts (and in other colonies as well). And the Quakers? Well, they found a colony where they were not only welcome, but where they ran the government. But that’s a story for another day.

Puritan Controversy #2: Anne Hutchinson

Last week, I looked at the Roger Williams episode in early Puritan history and came to the conclusion that the Puritan establishment had good reasons to worry about his influence, given their desire not to have their charter taken away.

Today, let’s move on to the second major controversy to arise in Massachusetts in the 1630s. It had to do with a movement that historians call “antinomianism.” That’s just a fancy name for people who believe there is no law. It refers to both theology and the civil government.

Anne HutchinsonThis controversy didn’t begin with Anne Hutchinson—there were many others involved and questioned also—but her case seems to have come to the forefront, especially in our day when feminists are looking for a cause everywhere. They try to say that Hutchinson was bucking the “good-old-boy” system of Massachusetts. The historical record, though, doesn’t support that claim.

Here are the essentials of what happened:

  • First, Anne Hutchinson and her husband were part of a band of followers of the minister John Cotton, and when he removed to the New World, so did they.
  • She began to claim that Cotton was the only preacher preaching the true Gospel, and that all others were preaching a gospel of works. Cotton, as a result, had to defend himself against being associated with her.
  • What did she mean by a gospel of works? She said the ministers were wrong in telling people to prepare themselves for conversion through self-examination and a heart of repentance. What’s wrong with that? Well, even though the official theology of the Puritans was Calvinist, and predicated on predestination (it’s up to God who has been called and not the choice of man), they still believed one should prepare oneself in case God decided to choose you. Hutchinson said that was trying to work one’s way to heaven. In one sense, she was more consistent logically with Calvinism than the Calvinist ministers.
  • That charge, however, got her into trouble because she was essentially saying all the ministers were leading people astray, and that since God was the ultimate decider of one’s salvation, one couldn’t look at a person’s life and determine if that person was saved or not. If a person’s outward life looked pious, that was no indication of salvation; a person who looked less pious might be the one God has chosen. That was one basis for the charge that she taught there was no “law,” i.e., any regard for outward actions.
  • Then, they claimed she also made that application to society as a whole, teaching that true believers (the chosen) are taught directly by the Spirit of God and no civil or ecclesiastical authority could tell them what to do.
  • Added to all this was the fact that she was holding meetings in her home to spread these ideas, and those meetings were being well attended, even by men. Puritans didn’t believe a woman should be teaching doctrine to men. This is the thin thread feminists use to say she was persecuted for being the first feminist. Yet that was only the proverbial tip of the iceberg for her accusers. The accusations were more foundational than that.

Hutchinson was put on trial and questioned on her views because they threatened to undermine the very basis of ecclesiastical authority and the need for civil government. By all accounts, she acquitted herself well since she had a sharp mind and ability to communicate effectively. Up until the end of this trial, she fended off their questions and seemed to have defended herself ably, never stepping over the line publicly about her beliefs.

Anne Hutchinson's Trial

Just when it seemed she would get off without a guilty verdict, she blew it. Apparently too flush with her “victory,” she began to regale the accusers with a special revelation she received from God in which He told her that they would fall under His judgment for their actions against her.

That was the step too far. Puritans were wary of anyone saying he or she had received any kind of special revelation, and when that revelation included a condemnation of the judges themselves, they reacted by pronouncing her guilty. The sentence was banishment, the same sentence pronounced on Roger Williams.

Hutchinson and her family moved first to Rhode Island, then down to New York, where a few years later, they were killed in an Indian attack. Her death, the Puritan magistrates concluded, was confirmation of their verdict. God had judged her.

Anne Hutchinson StatueSo was Anne Hutchinson a heroine, standing up for women’s rights? There’s really no evidence of that. Was she a martyr, persecuted by evil men? That depends on whether you agree with her beliefs. If she was off the charts theologically [which is where I place her], then she was prosecuted for causing disturbances in the community and attempting to destroy the entire concept of authority in society.

The judges, though, have their share of pride in this. They didn’t like being told the theology their ministers were preaching was wrong. From my perspective and my understanding of Scripture, both sides held incorrect views.

Bottom line: this was a lose-lose situation. Neither side comes out looking all that good. Yet this was nothing compared to what happened when Quakers started showing up in Massachusetts in the 1650s. That’s where we’ll go next.