Sunday, January 1, 2017

Setting the Record Straight on Salem by Kenneth Murdock

 Increase Mather and the new royal governor, Sir William Phips arrived  in Boston on May 14, 1692. Cotton Mather  had written in his diary a fortnight before:

We have not our former Charter, but we have . . . one which much better suits our circumstances. And instead of my being made a sacrifice to wicked rulers, all our Counsellors of the Province are of my own father’s nomination; and my father-in-law, with several related unto me, and several brethren of my own church, are among them. The governor of the Province is not my enemy but . . . one of my own flock, and one of my dearest friends. .  . 

But Sir William had at once to deal with a mad witch hunt that had begun in Salem village, some twenty miles from Boston. Dozens of supposed witches were in jail in the nearby town of Salem, awaiting trial, and a hysterical search for others was spreading farther each day. The governor appointed a special court to meet in Salem to try the accused. By the time it finished its work, nineteen suspects had been found guilty of witchcraft and hanged, and another, who had refused to plead guilty or not guilty, had been pressed to death in accordance with an old English law.

Horrible as the affair was, it was a comparatively minor episode in the dire record of witchcraft delusions  in many countries for centuries before the Salem Village outbreak and, outside New England, even thereafter.

The Magnalia Christi Americana gives a summary account of the witchcraft episode as Cotton Mather saw it four years after it ended. Any reader who wishes to study the details of the whole sad story will find in Mather’s pages, together with the notes and bibliographical references in this edition, all he needs for understanding the course of events.

So far as the Mathers are concerned, the essential facts are that Cotton wrote in June 1692 The Return of Several Ministers, a document which he and other members of the clergy submitted to the governor and council in response to their request. It warned the “witch court”: against relying on “spectral evidence” as the sole basis for convicting the accused. The Magnalia explains adequately the nature of this “evidence,” commonly accepted in witch trials in England and elsewhere. The ministers also pointed out other ways in which the court could correct its procedures. Had the advice given in the Return been followed, many of the accused would have been saved, but the magistrates paid little or no attention to it.

Throughout the period of the trials and even before, Cotton argued that those who said they had been tormented by the devil or his agents should be examined not in open court but privately. If possible they should be brought to fasting and prayer to repulse Satan and frustrate his diabolic campaign. In 1688 Cotton had taken into his own home a girl who appeared to be afflicted by the devil, and together with others of the clergy has succeeded in curing her of delusion. After the trials began he offered to harbor six others and try to save them by the same method, but the court refused his permission.

The five essential sections of the Return of June 15 are given in the Magnalia. The full text was not printed until early November of 1692, when it was included in the postscript to Increase Mather’s Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits. This book was written at the request of a group of ministers who met at Cambridge on August 1. Six ‘witches” had already been hanged, and Mather and his colleagues alarmed by the court’s failure to heed the Return. Shortly after October 3, Mather’s finished manuscript was sent to the governor, with the endorsement of the ministers of eleven towns and three of the Congregational churches in Boston. By then fourteen more persons had been hanged in Salem, a half-dozen more had been condemned, and fifty others were in jail awaiting trial.

The Cases repeated the warnings of the Return but argued its points more vigorously and supported them by references to a variety of authorities. And, in two memorable sentences, it made absolutely clear Increase Mather’s position, and presumably, that of his son: “It were better that ten suspected Witches should escape, than that one innocent Person should be condemned,” and “ I had rather judge a Witch to be an honest woman, than judge an honest woman as a  Witch.”

By October 12 Governor Phips had read the manuscript and had been deeply impressed. On the 26th his council voted to call a meeting to seek light on the “right way as to the witchcrafts.” The Salem court interpreted this as, in effect, a dismissal. Three days later Phips confirmed this and suspended the trials until January, when the Supreme Court was to convene with instructions not to condemn any “witch” on the basis of “Spectral evidence.” It tried fifty-two of the accused and acquitted all but three. These the governor reprieved and later pardoned. Sir William declared that “the stop put to the first method of proceedings . . . dissipated the black cloud that threatened this Province with destruction.”. There was never again a trial for witchcraft in New England. Thus, “Increase Mather . . .brought the murders to an end by his Cases of Conscience.”

 By September, however, Governor Phips had received from England sharp queries about the court’s proceeding. In Massachusetts manuscript copies of Increase Mather’s Cases had been widely circulated, and there signs of growing opposition to the judges that Phips had originally appointed. He hoped that a record of a few of the trials, carefully selected and adroitly commented upon, might help him reply to his English interrogators and check the New England critics’ hostility to the court. Some of the judges, notably William Stoughton, the chief justice, and Samuel Sewall, were men of influence and supporters of Sir William’s regime, and  was eager to protect them from attack. But who was to write the sort of book he wanted? Not Increase Mather, since he was writing a severe critique of the court’s methods. But what about Cotton? He was less powerful, but was the pastor of an important church and renowned as a writer.

On September 22nd, the day of the last execution in Salem, he was called to meet with Stroughton and two other judges, Samuel Sewall and John Hathorne, and the clerk for the court, Stephen Sewall. He was promised the records of the trials, and both Samuel Sewall and Stoughton, who was not only chief justice but also lieutenant governor, pledge him their support if he would write the book Phips wanted.

Cotton Mather was caught in a painful dilemma. He agreed with his father’s criticism of the witchcraft trials. Could he now with a clear conscience write anything in defense of the judges which would satisfy them and the governor, unless he hid his real feelings and dealt only in half-truths?  On the other hand, could he take the consequences of a refusal to follow the magistrates wish? His father, by virtue of his age, experience, and achievement, could afford to rebuke them, but Cotton, not yet thirty, still had his way to make. He was passionately eager for fame and power, and for success he must preserve the good will of such local potentates as Stoughton and Sewall.

Cotton agreed, finally producing the hastily written and strangely confusing book titled The Wonders of the Invisible World, “Published by special command of his Excellency, the Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay.”

First, he dashed off a prefatory section, “The Author’s Defense”, left a blank sheet for a statement approving his labors which he hoped Stoughton would supply, a wrote a curious little forward, which began: “I live by Neighbors that force me to produce these undeserved lines.” At this point he paused and sent all he had written to the chief justice. He was rewarded by a fulsome letter of praise and gratitude, signed “Your assured friend, William Stoughton.” Thus stimulated, he plunged on, adding to his manuscript some pages which had little or no relevance to his ostensible purpose. Then, at last, Stephen Sewall delivered some of the court’s records of five of the Salem trials. Mather settled down to write his version of them, trying to demonstrate that in these cases at least the court had not acted improperly. Samuel Sewall and Stoughton read his account in proof and wrote an endorsement of it as a true report of the “matter of fact and evidence’ and correct in “Prospect” of the “methods of conviction.” This Mather promptly dispatched to the printer. Still unable to control his pen, he added to the book a sermon on “The Devil Discovered” and some extracts from an account of witchcrafts in Sweden. The whole desperate hodge-podge was hurried through the press put on sale probably about October 15.

Here and there in the book are passages which reveal what Mather actually thought about the magistrates’ mistakes – their reckless reliance on “spectral evidence”, their unwise method of conducting the first investigation of each of the accused, and their failure to treat the “afflicted” as he had recommended. But for the most part these passages so swamped by other material and so cautiously phrased that the reader must agree with Perry Miller’s verdict that the Wonders was “a false book, produced by a man whose heart was not in it,” which failed “to convey except by its utter confusion, what Cotton Mather really believed” about the judges’ acts in Salem.

Once the last of the accused in Salem was freed, even those who “reviled” the Wonders when it first appeared did not trouble to press their attack. Cotton Mather, his father, and the judges of the court lost neither standing nor influence. In  the election of members of the Council in 1693 all nine magistrates who had condemned the supposed witches were chosen, together with two-thirds of those whom Increase had asked King William to appoint as counsellors.

In 1700  , however, there arrived from London a book which assailed both Mathers but aimed its sharpest shafts at Cotton. Robert Calef’s More Wonders of the Invisible World was a heated criticism of what its author considered to have been the part played by the ministers, especially  the two leaders of the Second Church, during the witch trials eight years before. Calef seems to have been a cloth merchant of Boston. He was no scholar but a man of common sense. Although anticlerical, he was a faithful reader of the Bible and as early as 1693 had interested himself in the witchcraft persecutions. He began to gather what information he could, collected fuller records of the Salem trials than Cotton Mather had, and wrote to him and to other ministers asking them for comments on his ideas about the witchcraft affair. For the most part they seemed to have treated his requests with scant courtesy, refusing to answer, or, in the case of Cotton Mather, threatening him with a libel suit.

Calef’s book is clumsily constructed and hard to read, but is nonetheless a courageous attempt to defend an important thesis. Like most men of his time in Old and New England, he believed that there were witches – “Scriptures else were in vain which assign their punishment to be by death.” He shared the common view that “there are possessions” by Satan and that “the bodies of the possessed have hence been . . afflicted.” But he insisted, as Perry Miller has put it, that the Bible gives no “explicit rules for detecting  the witch,” so “learned theories concerning the nature of the sin or its evidences are ‘human inventions’ –mere ‘traditions’ of men foisted onto Scripture, exactly on a par with the superstitions of Rome.” He inveighed especially against the “assumption to which all theorizers subscribed, the notion that witch enters explicit ‘covenant’ with the Devil” and declared it to be utterly without textual foundation.

Calef’s book was finished in 1697 but not printed until 1700 and then in London. It was too late to accomplish anything by raking over the dead coals of the Salem trials. Samuel Sewall had already publically acknowledged that, as a member of the first Salem witch court, he had followed methods and accepted evidence which he feared had cost some innocent people their lives, although, of course, he did not question that there were witches or that the law required that they be tried and, if found guilty, put to death. By 1700 most New Englanders shared his opinion and were eager to forget the whole dismal affair of 1692. No one seems to have paid much attention to Calef’s book, except those who were directly attacked in it – notably the Mathers- and those who welcomed anything that might weaken the influence of the Congregational clergy.

The book has been ably studied and summarized by several careful scholars. The only reason for mentioning it here is the fact that nearly two decades after the trials ended, when belief in witchcraft was no longer general, it became the principal source of the persistent myth which portrays Cotton Mather as the chief originator of the witchcraft hysteria, a villain who egged on the judges in their bloody work and gloated over the executions – a myth unhappily still cherished by some writers of fiction and drama and a few hasty historians.

This is understandable. As he went on with his work, Calef, justly angered by Cotton Mather’s cavalier treatment of his own inquiries, devoted many pages to virulent denunciations of him, often more abusive than respectful of truth. He enlarged the scope of his attack on the clergy to cover their political position and influence in matters that had little or no relation to the Salem trial. . . .

The story that Increase Mather had the book publically burned at Harvard may be true, although it has thus far been traced back no farther than 1809. Both Mathers did, however, collaborate in the production of an answer, refuting much that Calef had written, and successfully disposing of most of his charges, in a style often as vituperative as his own: Some Few Remarks Upon a Scandalous Book, against the Government and Ministry of New-England (1701)

Calef’s work deserves to be read for his sensible theory about the unsound basis traditionally relied on in New England and abroad for the discovery and trial of witches. But any dispassionate reader interested in the actual relation of the clergy to the witchcraft delusions of 1692 should also make his way through the pages of Some Remarks as an antidote to the More Wonders’ reckless ignoring or distorting the facts.  Although Cotton declared that, even after the Remarks appeared, Calef, the “vile fool,” was employed by “the enemies of the Churches . . .to go on, with more of his filthy scribbles,” nothing seems to have come of it. Little is known about the “fools” career after 1700, excerpt that he ‘held several town offices in Boston and Roxbury” and ‘died on April 13, 1719.”

Magnalia Christi Americana; Books I and II by Cotton Mather edited by Kenneth B. Murdock & Elizabeth W. Miller; Belknap Press, Cambridge, MA , 1977

1 comment:

  1. "As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten"
    Increase Mather's prophecy was unfilled in 1674 when the Indians went to war agains the colonists. By August dozens of villages had been burned and several thousands killed. Fire ravaged the center of Boston. "Pestilential sicknesses did sometimes become epidemic. There are multiply shipwrecks and 'enemies prey'd on our vessels and sailors.'
    In May the MA General Court invoked a synod of the representatives of the churches to determine "What are the Evils that have provoked the Lord to bring his Judgment on New England?. It stirred up some young people but proved more palliative than cure, God's wrath was not appeased.
    For some time King Charles had been concerned about New England's virtual independence of royal control and his advisors reported that its people were "all most upon the brink of renouncing and dependence on the Crown." The collector of the King's revenue detested Massachusetts non-conformists, send a variety of charges against them to London; recommending all locally elected officers be replaced with the King's appointment.
    Late in 1683 Charles sent to Boston a "declaration" that unless there was "full submission, and entire resignation . . to his pleasure a Quo Warranto" would be prosecuted against their charter.
    Before Boston Freemen in January 1684, Increase Mather responded that "If we make full Submission . . .we will fall into the Hands of Men Imediately. But if we do not, we still keep ourselves in the Hands of God; we trust ourselves with his Providence... who knows what God may do for us?"
    The deputies promptly refused to the Council's vote to send a conciliatory answer to Charles.
    Some New Englanders, however, while having no serious quarrel with Congregationalism and pious enough, were not ready to disobey the King. Others with little of no religious interest saw no reason for defiance and did not wish to risk the anger of the King, his dire penalties or resorting to force of arms. Anglicans were hostile to the Congregationalist and felt that no tyranny couuld be worse than, or even as bad as, the tyranny they were subjected to by the non-conformist clergy in Boston.
    The colony was divided against itself. The Royal government took matters into its own hands. . .