Archive for the ‘ The Historical Muse ’ Category

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.

Writing Tips from C. S. Lewis

Lewis Letters Volume 3My intensive reading of C. S. Lewis letters is part of another of my sabbatical projects, with a book as the end goal. This has been no drudgery; rather, it has been fascinating to delve into them and see how Lewis responds to his American correspondents.

Often, he writes to children who have read his Narnia books. One of his regular child correspondents was Joan Lancaster, who, for her age, was quite mature and thoughtful. Lewis seemed to take an extra interest in her advancement as a writer. One of his letters to her could easily have been written to an adult writer trying to hone his/her craft. I like the advice he gives:

1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure yr. sentence couldn’t mean anything else.

2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.

3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “more people died” don’t say “mortality rose.”

4. In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”: make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words, (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please will you do my job for me.”

5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”: otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

We all could use some timely advice like that—it would be “infinitely” helpful.

Sabbatical Update: Texas

Periodically, I’ve been providing updates on my sabbatical year. Those of you who have kept up with this know I’m working on more than one project. One, though, has kept me moving across the country to different presidential libraries as I examine documents related to spiritual advisers to presidents.

I’ve already gone to Wheaton College–back in August–and researched in the archives of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, since he is the premier spiritual adviser for a number of presidents since WWII. Then I traveled to California and spent time at both the Reagan and Nixon libraries.

This past week I’ve been in Texas, continuing my research at the LBJ and George H. W. Bush libraries. Both of these presidents were close to Graham, and LBJ also had a couple other spiritual advisers I looked into as well.

Let me just give you a few impressions.

The LBJ Library, in Austin, is on the campus of the University of Texas. It is nothing like the Reagan Library (which remains my favorite, not only because of the president himself but also because of the beauty of the place and the immensity and quality of the museum). My first view of it was this:

LBJ Library

I certainly don’t wish to be overly critical. One could say it is majestic, I guess, but to me it appeared like a big block of concrete—massive, forbidding, almost like a fortress. Well, that may be just me. You can come to your own conclusions.

The museum portion had its highlights, but nothing as grand, in my view, as what I experienced at the Reagan Library. There was one “grand” view, however, that was worth noting:


They decided to showcase some of the archives behind the scenes. Going up this staircase, one can get some idea of the enormity of the collection. This is only a portion of it.

While in Austin, I also took in the Texas State History Museum.

TX State History Museum

I’ve heard that everything in Texas is big, or at least purports to be. This museum fits the stereotype, from its three-level staircase in the lobby to its nearly breathtaking view from the top level.

TX Museum-Interior 2

TX Museum-Interior 1

I want to pause here and offer a word of gratitude to the Texas State Trooper who decided to have a little talk with me after I went the wrong way on a one-way street. I didn’t see the sign, told him I was a newcomer (never been in Austin before), and was there to do presidential research. He asked what I was researching and seemed interested when I mentioned Billy Graham. He let me off with a warning. Yes, I am grateful (and will be more alert to one-way street signs in downtown areas in the future).

My next stop was College Station, and the campus of Texas A&M, where the George H. W. Bush Library is located.

Bush Library-Front

This library looked much more inviting. I also didn’t have any encounters with one-way streets. I like College Station.

The lobby was pretty grand.

Bush Library Lobby 2

The exhibits were excellent throughout and catch one’s attention right away.

Bush Portrait

Quotes from Bush are liberally scattered throughout. There were some I particularly liked, such as this one after he went down in the Pacific during WWII:

Bush-God Quote

While there, I decided to get a little work done, so I looked around for a desk I could use. I found one:

Bush Oval Office 3

Please don’t tell anybody.

That’s the travelogue side. Most of my time, of course, was spent poring through papers. I found a lot of fine documents that should help my colleague and me put together what we want to say about these presidents. I came away with a little more grudging admiration for LBJ, not in policy matters (where I disagree with his entire Great Society program), but simply for what he had to go through in a turbulent time. I’m not convinced, however, that his faith was genuine. One’s life must match one’s talk.

As for Bush, my appreciation for him was strengthened. I’ve always considered him to be a decent man, but I’m more convinced than ever that his Christian faith was the real thing. I have policy disagreements with what he did as well, but I want to give some leeway and offer praise for his strong family ethic, which can be seen in the way his sons honor him today.

Bush is now in his nineties and his health is declining. When he passes, the nation will have lost a true Christian gentleman.

I’m not yet sure when and where my next trip will take place, but when it does, another update will be coming your way.

The Dominion of New England: Tyranny Averted

I’ve been periodically presenting glimpses into American history, and have been writing about the Pilgrims and Puritans for quite some time now. There’s a lot to say. I’ve analyzed the Christian roots of the colonies they started (primarily Plymouth, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, with Rhode Island added in) and have pointed to both the high points and low points of their development.

James IIIn the 1680s, those colonies, along with New York, faced a threat to their original goals. The new king, James II, decided that they were not sufficiently under the thumb of the royal government and decreed a change in their charters. He officially revoked all the charters and reorganized the area into one large colony directly under his control. He called it the Dominion of New England.

This meant that, by his command, the Separatist colony of Plymouth would now lose its uniqueness. Massachusetts Bay would no longer be the “city on a hill” that its founders hoped it would be. Connecticut, which gave us our first constitution, would be melded together with the others and lose its own identity and the government it had created. Rhode Island, founded by Roger Williams, and recently granted a new charter, would now have to relinquish it.

Edmund AndrosTo oversee this change, James appointed as governor Sir Edmund Andros, who was now responsible for administrating the entire area, New York included.

Andros’s charge was to implement a number of changes. First, Anglicanism was now to be promoted, thereby putting an end to both Separatism and deviations within the Church of England that the Puritans had put into effect.

Second, all land titles were to be reexamined. It didn’t matter if you had held title to your land for decades; if the king thought someone else would be better suited to have that land, it could be taken from you. Private property was no longer secure.

Third, town meetings—the political lifeblood of the New England communities–were now to be limited to one per year. The aim, obviously, was to eliminate any political discussions that didn’t go in the direction the king desired.

This new arrangement, though, came to a sudden halt when James, who was a closet Catholic, had married a French Catholic to be his queen, and who was now in the process of raising his son—and heir—as a Catholic, ran afoul of the whole Protestant tenor of the country. What followed is what historians call either the Glorious Revolution or the Bloodless Revolution. It’s as if the entire nation rose up and threw out its king; he had squandered all his political capital.

With James no longer on the throne, the colonies reestablished themselves. The new co-monarchs, William and Mary, did examine all charters. They made some changes to the Massachusetts charter, eliminating the rule that only church members could vote and installing a royal governor. But they allowed both Connecticut and Rhode Island to return to their former status.

An interesting sidelight to this episode is what Connecticut did when faced with the loss of its charter. It refused to turn it over, hiding it, instead, inside an oak tree in Hartford. When the Dominion of New England fell by the wayside, the colony retrieved the charter and picked up where it left off.

Charter Oak QuarterThe tree became known as the Charter Oak. As you may know, each state has a quarter dedicated to it, and could choose what image it wanted on the back. If you look at the back side of the quarter that features Connecticut, you will see an image of that Charter Oak. It’s a testimony to the desire for self-government that existed in these early settlers.

The threat of tyrannical government has reared its head many times in American history. This was the first attempt, and it was soundly defeated, though not by the colonists but by the nation itself back in England. The next time the British crown tried to impose a tyranny, though, the colonists were forced to take matters into their own hands and won their independence.

Sabbatical Update: Lewis Edition

Many of my regular readers know I’m on a sabbatical this year, and I’ve been alert to provide periodic updates on the progress of my various endeavors. Recently, I posted photos of my time at the Reagan and Nixon libraries and the Reagan Ranch as I research on the topic of spiritual advisers to presidents. The hope is that will turn into a series of books with my Southeastern colleague, Dr. Robert Crosby.

C. S. Lewis 7I’m also deeply involved with a study of C. S. Lewis’s influence on Americans. I would like to author a book on that particular topic, since no one has ever done it. I have a literary agent who is working with me on the book proposal. A major blessing has been the e-mail communication I’ve had with Rev. Walter Hooper, who served as Lewis’s personal secretary during the author’s final months of life. Rev. Hooper then has gone on to be the primary representative for keeping Lewis’s writings in print for the last five decades. His help in providing personal information on his relationship with Lewis has been invaluable.

20140804_184024I’ve mentioned before how the Wade Center at Wheaton College has come alongside to aid in my research. Wade has the largest collection of Lewis papers and books by and about him in America. The Center featured on its website and Facebook page my appeal for testimonies from Americans on how Lewis has influenced their thinking and their lives. Again, as with Rev. Hooper’s assistance, the Wade Center’s willingness to work with me on my research has greatly encouraged me to continue this project.

I’m also reading through the 3-volume collection of Lewis’s personal correspondence, pulling out all letters he wrote to Americans and making extensive notes on them. One might think such a task would reek of drudgery, but it has been quite the opposite. Lewis’s lively words practically fly off the pages and into my heart and mind.

So I’m optimistic that my Lewis research is progressing well. I would like to thank those of you who participated in my survey on the Wade Center site. It’s not too late to do so if you have been considering it but just haven’t gotten around to it yet. I want as many testimonies as possible.

You can access the survey by going to this link:

Scroll down to the announcement titled “C. S. Lewis’s American Influence Survey” and simply click on “Take the Survey.” Your contribution would be greatly appreciated.

As you can tell, I continue to be excited by the opportunities I have during this sabbatical year. Please pray for them to come to fruition.

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.