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Volume 7, Issue 4: Historia

Salem in 1692 (Pt.IV)

Chris Schlect

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 society's injustices.

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.[1]
    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 . . .[2]
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.[3]
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 . . .[4]
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."[5]
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.[6]
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."[7]
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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