Volume 7, Issue 4: Historia
Salem in 1692 (Pt.IV)
Justice was perverted by the court that presided over the witchcraft cases in
Salem. The previous studies describe what transpired, and how the Puritan
clergy effected a stop to the trials. Massachusetts was thereafter burdened by
the weight of corporate guilt. The accounts of repentance that followed, some
of which are recounted below, reveal a piety and integrity that is quite absent
in our society today. Though they sought restitution, we still bear a grudge
against the Salem of 1692; and yet we are not men enough to repent of our own
In 1697, a contrite Massachusetts held a day of prayer and fasting throughout
the entire colony. The General Court's proclamation was drafted by Judge
Samuel Sewall, who had presided over the witchcraft trials.
Whereas the Anger of God is not yet turned away, but his Hand is still
stretched out against his People in manifold Judgments . . . And altho
considering the many Sins prevailing in the midst of us, we cannot but wonder
at the Patience and Mercy moderating these Rebukes; yet we cannot but also fear
that there is something still wanting to accompany our Supplications. . . .
Wherefore it is Commanded and Appointed, that Thursday the Fourteenth of
January next be observed as a Day of Prayer, with Fasting throughout this
Province, strictly forbidding all Servile labour thereon; . . . that all
iniquity may be put away which hath stirred God's Holy jealousie against
this Land; that he would shew us what we know not, and help us wherein we have
done amiss to do so no more . . .
The appointed day brought sober reflection to the people. Most notable is the
confession of Judge Sewall himself. At church, on the day of the fast, he
passed a letter to pastor Samuel Willard. As Willard read Sewall's letter
aloud, Sewall stood, nodding at the end. It read,
Samuel Sewall, sensible of the reiterated strokes of God upon himself and
family; and being sensible, that as to the Guilt contracted upon the opening of
the late [court] at Salem (to which the order for this Day relates) he is, upon
many accounts, more concerned than any that he knows of, Desires to take the
Blame and shame of it, Asking pardon of men, And especially desiring prayers
that God, who has an Unlimited Authority, would pardon that sin and all other
sins, personal and Relative: And according to his infinite Benignity, and
Sovereignty, Not Visit the sin of him, or of any other, upon himself or any of
his, nor upon the Land: But that He would powerfully defend him against all
Temptations to Sin, for the future; and vouchsafe him the efficacious, saving
Conduct of his Word and Spirit.
Other significant confessions followed. Below is a statement over twelve
signatures, the names of jurors who rendered the verdicts in the trials.
We whose names are under written, being in the Year 1692 called to serve as
Jurors, in Court at Salem, on Tryal of many, who were by some suspected Guilty
of doing Acts of Witchcraft upon the Bodies of sundry Persons: We . . .
prevailed with to take up with such Evidence against the Accused, as on further
consideration, and better Information, we justly fear was insufficient for the
touching the Lives of any, Deut. 17.6, whereby we fear we have been
instrumental . . . to bring upon our selves, and this People of the Lord, the
Guilt of Innocent Blood; which Sin the Lord saith in Scripture, he would not
pardon, 2 Kings 24.4, that is we suppose in regard of his temporal Judgments
. . . . [We] do therefore humbly beg forgiveness, first for
Christ's sake for this our Error; And pray that God would not impute the
guilt of it to our selves, nor others; and . . . we do heartily ask forgiveness
of you all, whom we have justly offended . . .
Also significant was the repentance John Hale, a nearby pastor who had
encouraged the proceedings in 1692. After the fast he penned an account of the
witchcraft cases in Salem, written for the sole purpose of preventing the sort
of errors that he himself had committed. In his introduction he wrote,
"And what a grief of heart it brings to a tender conscience, to have been
unwittingly encouraging of the Sufferings of the innocent."
Another stirring public confession was Anne Putnam's, one of the
afflicted girls. Church records in Salem state that her confession was read
before the congregation on August 25, 1706.
I desire to be humbled before God for that sad and humbling providence that
befell my father's family in the year about '92; that I, then being
in my childhood, should, by such a providence of God, be made an instrument for
the accusing of several persons of a grievous crime, whereby their lives were
taken away from them whom now I have just grounds and good reason to believe
they were innocent persons . . . for which cause I desire to lie in the dust,
and earnestly beg forgiveness of God, and from all those unto whom I have given
just cause of sorrow and offence, whose relations were taken away or accused.
[Signed] Anne Putnam.
Lastly, on December 17, 1711, the General Court adopted a plan to financially
compensate various families for "damages sustained by sundry persons
prosecuted for witchcraft in the year 1692."
The blindness of modern historians about the Salem witch trials, and their
unjust railings against the Puritans, would have been best understood by the
Puritans themselves. They would have viewed the slanders levelled against them
by future historians as God's just chastisement for their iniquity. How
much more do His people in our own day need His mercy!
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