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The Salem Witch Trials and the American Puritans

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
February 17, 2023 3:02 am

The Salem Witch Trials and the American Puritans

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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February 17, 2023 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, historical truths often emerge with time. Early on, a hush descended over 1692-1693 Salem Witch Trials for generations. Then came playwright Arthur Miller, who made off with the story, or at least his version of it. Since 1953, The Crucible has become the culturally-accepted story line that has come to define American Puritans (e.g., the Pilgrims) and the city of Salem itself. Dr. Stephen Nichols is president of Reformation Bible College, chief academic officer for Ligonier Ministries. He’s here to tell the story of the Puritans and the Salem Witch Trials.

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Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there. And we continue with our American stories. And up next, well, a little piece of American history.

Historical truths often emerge with time. Early on, a hush descended over the 1692 to 1693 Salem Witch Trials. Then came playwright Arthur Miller, who made off with the story or at least his version of it.

Since 1953, The Crucible has become the culturally accepted storyline. It has come to define American Puritans. Dr. Stephen Nichols is president of Reformation Bible College, chief academic officer of Ligonier Ministries, and is the author of Jesus Made in America, a cultural history from the Puritans to the Passion of the Christ. He's here to tell the story of the Puritans and the Salem Witch Trials.

Here's Stephen Nichols. Well, as we look over American history, probably one of the groups that is misunderstood the most the most is the New England Puritans. Most of what Americans know about these New England Puritans, we have read in high school in two books. The first is Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic text, The Scarlet Letter. And then there is Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible. Neither of these books paint a very flattering portrait of the Puritans. The Scarlet Letter portrays the Puritans as a bunch of hypocrites, as self-righteous, as mean-spirited people who are just full of gloom and doom. Though you show no modesty in your apparel, yet you have a chance still to repent your sins. The hero of the story in Hawthorne's book is one who actually subverts the community and subverts the sort of framed narrative that governed that Puritan community.

And then we find Miller's play, The Crucible. I want to open myself. I want the light of God.

I want the sweet love of Jesus. I danced for the devil. I saw him. I wrote in his book. I go back to Jesus.

I kiss his hand. I saw Sarah Goode with the devil. I saw Goody Osborne with the devil. I saw Bridget Bishop with the devil. She speaks. She speaks. Glory to God. It is broken.

They are free. Arthur Miller wrote this in 1953. It was a very gossamer veiled criticism of McCarthyism and the purges and the Red Scare of the 1950s and as people were in that era speaking of the witch hunt that was going on in McCarthyism. So Arthur Miller turned his attention back to that original witch hunt back in Salem. So the result of coming to know the Puritans through the crucible, through the scarlet letter is that the Puritans have come to most Americans with a bad reputation. To be Puritanical is certainly not a compliment.

It was H.L. Mencken back in the 1920s who said that anyone who thinks that somewhere, someone might just be having a good time, that's a Puritan. So what are we to make of all this? And more importantly, what are we to make of the New England Puritans? First, who were they? The New England Puritans came from old England. The Puritans themselves were essentially legislated into existence. This was under the reign of Queen Elizabeth and her act of uniformity from 1558. It intended to bring conformity to the religious culture of Great Britain. This was in the wake of the Reformation. There was a great divide between Catholicism and Protestantism in England.

Elizabeth needed a united country to withstand Spain and Britain's enemies and so she enacted the act of uniformity. Well, there was a group that dissented and they were technically called non-conformists because they would not conform to the Church of England. One of the things they stressed was the nature of the Church. They believed that the Church should consist of not simply those who were baptized but those who also believed the Gospel. And they also believed in an idea that we call visible sainthood.

That is to say that the Church should be made up of professing Christians who, well, who act like Christians. And so immediately this group, these non-conformists, were criticized. They were given a name of derision and so they were called Puritans.

Not a name they gave themselves, but a name that their enemies gave to them. They were seen as holier than thou people. Well, we fast forward to King James I and he did not like the Puritans at all. It was King James who quipped, I shall make them conform or I will harry them out of my land.

Well, he couldn't make them conform and so eventually the Puritans left. The first group was the pilgrims. This is the group that landed in 1620. They came on the Mayflower and this group formed the Plymouth Colony. The more properly Puritans came in 1630. They set sail on the Arbella and when they landed in the New World they formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was really during that decade of the 1630s that there was a great migration of Puritans to the New World. Almost each week a new boat would arrive and it would dock there and it would bring in a whole fresh group of Puritans. The Puritans in New England formed a government.

They carved a society in what was, as they called it, the Howling Wilderness of New England. Even after just six years of being there they founded a college, the first college in the New World. Of course, this is Harvard. We can take a look at this first generation of Puritans and we can see what they were truly about. One of the things that we see is that they loved learning. Not only did they establish Harvard but they were very much for literacy for their children and they loved learning, all learning. These Puritans had a very substantial, what we would call today a classical education. The Puritans were very industrious people.

They had an incredibly impressive work ethic and within that first generation establishing towns and trade networks and establishing all sorts of institutions and churches and schools and colleges there as they carved out this community and this society for them in New England. Well, this brings us of course to that subject of Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible, and that subject is the Salem Witch Trials. These witch trials occurred from 1692 to 1693.

Now, to understand these we need to sort of take a step back and look at a broader sort of European context and also look at the context of some of the ideas that really were behind the Puritans. So, when we go back to Europe we see that witch trials go of course back into the Middle Ages but in the wake of the Reformation and the Roman Catholic Church's establishment of the Inquisition there was an intense time of witch trials. This went from about the 1570s or 1580s on into the 1630s or 1640s. It's estimated by historians that tens of thousands of witch trials occurred over these decades and that many were executed. The numbers range anywhere from lower end estimates to about 50,000 people to upper end estimates of 100,000 were executed as witches. Across Europe pretty much every single nation had a law on the books against witchcraft and it was also an offense that was a capital offense. So, if one was found guilty they were punishable by death.

So, we have that context in Europe. And you've been listening to Dr. Stephen Nichols when we come back more on the Salem Witch Trials and the American Puritans here on Our American Stories. And we continue with Our American Stories and we just heard Stephen Nichols talk about the European Witch Trials that executed an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 people all over Europe.

Let's return to Dr. Nichols who will pick up the story from there. As you come to the New England Puritans the different colonies, the Massachusetts colony also had laws on the books against witchcraft and as with their European counterparts this was also considered a capital offense. With a lot of that as context now we can talk about the the trials themselves. I think the first thing we have to say is these were wrong. The judges of the trial were wrong. The townsfolk who accused these folks of witchcraft. This whole episode of the Salem Witch Trials is not something we want to make an excuse for or certainly not something we want to say is inconsequential. It was very consequential and it was wrong but having said that I think it's always important for us to actually take a look at what happened and to try to do as much justice as we can to the event itself.

So we look now at the at the trials. Everything seemed to start in the winter of 1692 and it was started with two young girls. One was just nine years old and the other was 11 years old.

One was the daughter of the minister there in the village of Salem and now these days the village of Salem is is Danvers, Massachusetts. But the daughter of the minister and a niece of the minister and they had these episodes of of what you would just call severe of what you would just call severe effects, convulsions. They'd be writhing on the ground.

They'd be making strange sounds. They were examined by the medical doctor and there seemed to be no medical reason or at least as they could at that time discern a medical reason and so they looked for another explanation. And very quickly the fingers all started pointing to a slave that was in the home.

This was a Caribbean slave from Barbados. Her name was Tituba and these young girls accused her of witchcraft and alongside of Tituba there were two women in the town. One was a widow and and from what we can understand was essentially sort of a homeless beggar and the other was also sort of in that category as one I think one historian referred to these ladies named Sarah Goode and Sarah Osborn. He called them social misfits but as I looked at Tituba and Sarah Goode and Sarah Osborn they said these were witches and they had put these girls under a spell. Well of course they were questioned. Tituba actually confessed that she was a witch. That the devil had come to her. That the devil had seduced her and that she did practice in fact witchcraft and now we sort of see how things begin to spread within this town.

There were trials and and the event just sort of snowballed out of control. People if they would question the testimony of these girls they would then be accused of witchcraft and they would be arrested and brought into trial and then others just started turning on each other and turning in each other. These trials went on from 1692 through 1693. Over the course of these trials probably somewhere in the neighborhood of about 200 people were at one time or another arrested and and of those 200 people 20 of them were executed. So all but 20 were released but there were in fact 20 that were killed. They were hanged all except for the instance of one and they were sort of hanged at particular times. The first execution came in July 19 of 1692 and then another group was executed on August 19th of 1692 and then again on September 22nd. Of those that were killed there were 14 women but among them were in fact six men and often what had happened in these trials was that if someone actually confessed to being a witch and would repent well they would be released and so the ones who maintained their innocence because they weren't witches and they cared about their reputation and their name meant a great deal to them so they would maintain their innocence. It was those in the case of the 20 of them that were executed during these trials.

Well how did all this come to an end? A key figure in all of this was Increase Mather. Increase Mather is probably of what we might call Puritan nobility.

He's both of the Mather family and of the Cotton family. He was in fact in during the time of the witch trials he was president of Harvard. As the trials were beginning he was back in Old England petitioning the king to get a new charter for the colony and actually it was it was during this time that Simon Bradstreet that of course is the husband of the poet Anne Bradstreet. Simon Bradstreet was installed as a governor again in 1692 and as governor he actually put a stop to the trials.

He was not very pleased with what was going on was not aligned with it and so he just sort of hit the pause button on it to keep any more trials from happening. Well eventually Increase Mather comes back a new governor is put into place and the tribunal was set and the trials commence. From the very beginning Increase Mather and other ministers across Boston and across Massachusetts cautioned Salem to be cautious as they looked at evidence as they made decisions to not be rash in their judgment and to weigh the evidence as you would in any court case. And increasingly that was set aside and the trials there at Salem focused on what was called spectral evidence. So maybe someone was testifying that you know they had seen one of these persons that was accused go off into the woods and practice witchcraft and then all of a sudden during the trial they would just sort of point to the person and say look there's a witch above the person.

Well of course you can't verify that right and so that's the spectral evidence and it was on a lot of those kinds of evidences that the judges nine of them in total overseeing Salem would make their decisions. Well when Increase Mather heard about this he just wanted to put an end to this and stressed in no uncertain terms that this was not biblical and that these folks these judges needed to conduct themselves and carry about the law in a way that was a biblical and reject this notion of spectral evidence and so thankfully that brought these Salem witch trials to an end. A really crucial story here is the story of Samuel Sewell. Samuel Sewell was one of the nine judges and he sat on the court was part of the Salem witch trials but later he was convicted of this. He repented of what he had done. In his own testimony to how he came to this realization he says that he was reading a biblical text he was reading Matthew chapter 12 verse 7 and that text tells us if you know what this means I will have mercy and not sacrifice you would not have condemned the guiltless and Samuel Sewell just felt the weight of that verse and he realized that what he had done back in 1692 and 93 was that he had condemned the guiltless that there were those that were executed that were not witches and when he realized that he had relied on bad evidence and making that decision well he repented and he published a book that he just simply called his apology and spread it widely. Sewell then just committed himself to calling a day for fasting for the entire colony of Massachusetts for what had happened at Salem. He worked almost tirelessly for reparations and for restitution of the accused. It's also fascinating that a few years after this in 1703 Samuel Sewell wrote a book against slavery and he called for its abolition so you know Sewell's one of those figures who often just gets associated with the Salem witch trials and then he just sort of gets written off as one of those bad guys in the pages of history but there's little doubt that the Salem witch trials was a difficult moment for Puritanism in New England and you don't see much recovery of Puritanism after that and so here we have this time period you know of 60-70 years of the New England Puritans and it's easy for us you know I think we read Hawthorne again Scarlet Letter we read Miller the Crucible it's easy for us to sort of just look back on these folks and sort of dismiss them and judge them you know for quite frankly being wrong but I think we also owe it to them to look at the full context of the Salem witch trials and when we do again we just see a fascinating a bunch of folks who were very pivotal very integral to the founding of what would become America and very much a part of the American story these American Puritans. And a great job as always to Greg Hengler and a special thanks to Dr. Stephen Nichols who is the president of the Reformation Bible College and the chief academic officer for Ligonier Ministries. The complicated and rich history of America as always told here on Our American Stories.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-19 15:48:58 / 2023-02-19 15:55:59 / 7

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