Wednesday, March 10, 2010

These Were Once the Devil's Territories: In Defense of Witch-Hunting and Witch-Hunters

Before my Phronesisaical colleagues try to undermine the fine reputation of witch-hunters by using them as a figure for the sort of heedless, paranoid, and ruinous persecution that compromises some of our most fundamental rights in this country, I would like to say a few words in defense of Hunting Witches in Salem in the 1690s.

I will admit that Our Pilgrim Fathers were a little ways off from drafting the Constitution (though, as for that, any Texan can tell you that the Constitution is just the Mayflower Compact on nicer paper). I will admit that Our Pilgrim Fathers, who came here to create the Kingdom of God on Earth (I mean after our other English Fathers, that Jamestown gang, came here to figure out how turn a profit from the place . . . but forget about those guys, they just cloud the picture; and leave the Spanish and French out of it, too, for now) could be a little judgmental. But recall that they were Chosen, and that it is hard, being Chosen. It's a lot of responsibility!

They were Chosen, living in the woods, and all of them, all of the Pilgrim Fathers, I mean, they were all Good (I suppose it's also worth mentioning that not all of them were Pilgrims; some others came, they claimed, to seek their fortunes; but then everyone knows Thomas Morton burns in Hell still, and shall for All Eternity). But the Pilgrim Fathers, they knew what they were about.

Having said all that I come to my point. Not everyone likes to hear this, but it's true: there were witches. Cotton Mather, nothing if not an objective historian (and, sure, he wasn't there), has explained it very clearly: it was the Devil. Please forgive me for quoting at length, but these are the facts.

THE New-Englanders are a people of God settled in those, which were once the Devil's territories; and it may easily be supposed that the Devil was exceedingly disturbed, when he perceived such a People here accomplishing the Promise of old made unto our Blessed Jesus, That he should have the Utmost parts of the Earth for His Possession. There was not a greater Uproar among the Ephesians, when the Gospel was first brought among them, than there was among, The Powers of the Air (after whom those Ephesians walked) when first the Silver Trumpets of the Gospel here made the Joyful Sound. The Devil thus Irritated, immediately try'd all sorts of Methods to overturn this poor Plantation: and so much of the Church, as was Fled into this Wilderness, immediately found, The Serpent cast out of his Mouth a Flood for the carrying of it away. I believe, that never were more Satanical Devices used for the Unsetling of any People under the Sun, than what have been Employ'd for the Extirpation of the Vine which God has here Planted, Casting out the Heathen, and preparing a Room for it, and causing it to take deep Root and fill the Land, so that it sent its Boughs unto the Atlantic Sea Eastward, and its Branches unto the Connecticut River Westward, and the Hills were covered with the shadow thereof. But All those Attempts of Hell, have hitherto been Abortive, many an Ebenezer has been Erected unto the Praise of God, by his Poor People here; and, Having obtained Help from God, we continue to this Day. Wherefore the Devil is now making one Attempt more upon us; an Attempt more Difficult, more Surprizing, more snarl'd with unintelligible Circumstances than any that we have hitherto Encountered; an Attempt so Critical, that if we get well through, we shall soon enjoy Halcyon Days with all the Vultures of hell Trodden under our Feet. He has wanted his Incarnate Legions to Persecute us, as the People of God have in the other Hemisphere been Persecuted: he has therefore drawn forth his more Spiritual ones to make an Attacque upon us. We have been advised by some Credible Christians yet alive, that a Malefactor, accused of Witchcraft as well as Murder, and Executed in this place more than Forty Years ago, did then give Notice of, An Horrible PLOT against the Country by WITCHCRAFT, and a Foundation of WITCHCRAFT then laid, which if it were not seasonably discovered would probably Blow up, and pull down all the Churches in the Country. And we have now with Horror seen the Discovery of such a Witchcraft!
Read it however you like, colleagues. The worst you can say is that Mather meant this figuratively, but then that would be a strange combination of the spectrally figurative and the Biblically literal, no?

No, the truth is: there were witches. Among them Martha Carrier. A famous and foul example, but just one. Among the Fathers she made to suffer was Allin Toothaker, who testified that, before her arrest, she had caused him to have a wound he could stick a knitting needle into -- four inches deep. After her arrest it disappeared. What's not clear about that? All that's left is to confirm the hypothesis. So: Samuel Preson lost a cow "in a strange Preternatural unusual manner" after a dispute with Carrier. Oh, and Benjamin Abbot. She gave him a boil; when it was lanced by Dr. Prescot, "several Gallons of Corruption ran out of it." Duh.

Finally, Mather himself, who compiled Wonders of the Invisible World, after all, with "Such a Spirit of Love," himself notes in passing -- quite apart from his reportage of the proceedings -- that Carrier was "a rampant hag."

Were innocent women tried and tortured and burned? Yes. We can't deny that. Were they deprived of something like what we would now call "rights" and "liberties"? Sure. Were their trials terribly unjust? Sort of.

But there were witches, and we caught them.

And that's just one of the reasons why the Pilgrims achieved all of their Goals.


Anonymous said...


Cheryl Rofer said...

Barba, I think this is a brilliant bit of history. I have forwarded the link to Marc Thiessen with a recommendation he hire you as a ghostwriter.

MT said...

I've been trying to argue from these precedents since the get go. Well done. Let it not be said we at Phronesisaical suffer a witch to live. I wonder if we should draw up some kind of loyalty pledge to that effect?

barba de chiva said...

Thanks, Cheryl. I feel certain Thiessen would see the Truth of the matter; and MT: I like. And if not a loyalty pledge, perhaps a detailed account of the visitation of divine grace? That'd suffice. But it will need to be convincing.

Vox Clamantis in Deserto said...

Just stumbled on this blog :). You mix up Puritans and Pilgrims. It were really the Puritans who persecuted witches. Cotton Mather was no Pilgrim, but a Puritan. There is little or no evidence that the Pilgrims persecuted witches.

As W.E. Griffis argued compellingly: "It is surely no accident of history that while the Puritans of Massachusetts and Connecticut put scores of witches to death, the Pilgrims, who had been eleven years in Holland, were free of the taint, making no allegation and hunting no witch" (77). The American in Holland.

Even leaving the French and Spanish out, it would be wise to include the Dutchmen.

Kind Regards,

barba de chiva said...

You're right, joost!

A classic conflation, partly a result of the desire to simplify the English (but how could I forget the Dutch??) Colonial experience. As you note, it doesn't help that we mostly fail to remember that the Pilgrims found their first refuge in Amsterdam.

The distinction, though, has more to do with national church politics than theology -- Puritans were identified as such not because of a intrinsic commitment to purity but because of an extrinsic one: they wanted the Church of England to be pure (i.e. theologically aligned with their own set of beliefs and practices). Those folks we call the Pilgrims were less concerned with the Church of England and more interested in just doing their thing. But if the two groups were politically distinct, they are theologically pretty hard to tell apart. In fact, the inclination to conflate the two groups likely comes from Mather himself, as much as anyone else. The first major figure in his Magnalia Christi Americana (or: The Ecclesiastical History of New England) is the Pilgrim figure William Bradford. He's among the fathers, as far as Mather is concerned (and Mather, as the first historian of the place, is also partly responsible for the glorification of the Pilgrim story: persecuted, they fled to practice their faith in truth, etc.).

Anyway: thanks for the comment. Stumble on by anytime!

Vox Clamantis in Deserto said...

Thank you for your explanation. It was not my intention to criticize in any way and it was already my impression that you are more than knowledgeable with regard to the distinction between Pilgrims and Puritans. However-and perhaps therefore-I do believe that you should not have simplified it. Some things cannot and should not be simplified ;)

So I find it incredibly interesting that the Pilgrims did not have, or hardly had, any 'problems' with witches.

I believe you're right when you say the theological distinctions were negligible and your statement on Mather and his thoughts about the distinction Pilgrim/Puritan are interesting to say the least and perhaps give you again enough reason to simplify...

Kind Regards.

MT said...

Part of the reason pilgrims had no witches may have been because they were a smaller population. Witchery and witch hunting are about social deviance and enforcing conformity. Beyond a certain size of population perhaps we get sects and civil wars instead, with witch stuff in between. Where's Jared Diamond when you need him?

barba de chiva said...

Right: smaller and less and less distinct, as the years passed. For them to be identified, specifically, as witch-hunters, they'd have to have taken it up in the first generation. And they had other problems to address.

I've always liked the contrast between William Bradford (early, Pilgrim) and Cotton Mather (late, Puritan); for Bradford (et al, if you believe him, and I do, mostly . . . if he were going to make things up, he probably just would have left out the part about the kid screwing the turkey), for Bradford, it was all about God. He saw Providence in everything that happened. Their safe arrival, the sickness that followed. Good harvests, bad ones. It was all God. Mather, by contrast (if you look at Wonders of the Invisible World), is all about the Devil and his influence.

But it's 75 or so years later at this point; the Pilgrims, the original ones, are no longer entirely distinct communities.

Jared Diamond indeed! Say, he'd look pretty spiffy in them early colonial duds, wouldn't he? With that beard . . .