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Volume 7, Issue 3: Historia

Salem in 1692 (Part III)

Chris Schlect

The Salem Witch Trials were a travesty of justice, which few historians would deny. But many do not acknowledge, in the face of abundant historical testimony to the fact, that the Puritan clergymen were heroes in Salem's witchcraft crisis of 1692. They ended unjust legal proceedings and its attendent chaos without capsizing the new and fragile colonial government.

The trials were unjust because defective evidence was treated as sufficient for conviction, and the clergymen knew it. Citing Scripture, they called for presumption of innocence and conviction only on the basis of the corroborating testimony of two or three credible witesses. Hence, they opposed the admission of two kinds of evidence that fell short of these standards: "that which refers to something vulgarly called Spectre Evidence , and a certain sort of Ordeal or trial by sight and touch."[1] Spectre evidence describes a witness's claim that the defendant's spectre or apparition had harassed him. No alibi can counter such an allegation. The "ordeals" by sight and touch were responses in the afflicted accusers which corresponded to glances or touches from the defendant. In such an ordeal, no observed effect can be surely established as a result of the defendant's bewitching. Sadly, many of the defendants in the Salem trials were convicted on the basis of these insufficient evidences.
Shortly after Governor William Phips appointed the special court of Oyer and Terminer to hear the witchcraft cases, he sought the counsel of area ministers. Their "Return" was penned by Cotton Mather, which they all signed.
We judge, that in the prosecution of these and all such witchcrafts, there is need of a very critical and exquisite caution. . . . Presumptions, whereupon persons may be committed, and much more convictions, whereupon persons may be condemned as guilty of witchcrafts, ought certainly to be more considerable, than barely the accused person's being represented by spectre to the afflicted: inasmuch as it is an undoubted and a notorious thing, that a daemon may, by God's permission, appear even to ill purposes in the shape of an innocent, yea, and a virtuous man: nor can we esteem alterations made in the sufferers, by a look or touch of the accused, to be an infallible evidence of guilt: but frequently liable to be abused by the devil's legerdemains. [2]
This letter of June 15, 1692, clearly states Cotton Mather's position, as well as that of the clergy, on rules of evidence. Another of Mather's letters during the crisis, dated August 17, reaffirms his opposition to spectre evidence and ordeals by sight and touch. [3]
Though Cotton Mather and the other clergymen held important positions in Massachusetts society, they were in no position to stop the witch trials. Contrary to popular misconception, the Puritans advocated and practiced an institutional separation of church and state. Clergymen carried their influence through preaching and writing and in personal counsel when possible. One prominent divine, Samuel Willard of Boston's Old South Church, had three of the court's judges in his congregation. A contemporary applauds Willard's pastoral efforts to dissuade the judges from their view of evidence, lamenting that the situation would never have escalated if his counsel was given due consideration. [4]
By October 12, the prisons of Boston, Salem, and Ipswich were filled to capacity with accused witches. In the five meetings of the special court there were twenty-six convictions, and nineteen executions had been carried out. Governor Phips now ordered a halt to the prosecutions that appeared to have barely begun. A new court, which reversed its predecessor's policy on evidence, held four sessions early in 1693 and acquitted every defendant. Phips pardoned those who had been convicted by the previous court. When he reported back to England of the special court's termination and of the judicial process employed by the new court, Phips accredited the judgment of "Mr. Increase [Mather] and several other Divines" as being instrumental in the change of policy. [5] Later in 1693, Increase Mather's Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men was published, the definitive treatise against defective evidence in the prosecution of witches. There is no record of legal action against witches in Massachusetts after 1693.
Instead of giving the Puritan clergy their due credit, a very great number of historians hold them responsible for the injustice that transpired at Salem. They defame the Mathers especially for two reasons: their belief and teaching that witchcraft was real and that it was practiced in New England and that they addressed the special court with deference and respect. The first reason is vented against the backwardness of believing in witchcraft at all. This is but the noise of modern materialisman appeal to godless metaphysics, not to historical record. The second reason is based upon humanistic individualism, rejecting the godly virtue of submission to authority even when criticizing it. The Mathers and their Puritan colleagues have earned a bad reputation, not because they were witch hunters, but because they acted like Christians during a crisis.

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