Sin 3 The Salem Witch Trials

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The Salem witch trials at the end of the 1600s are frequently cited as a kind of Christian hysteria. In all, nineteen people were hanged and one pressed to death for refusing to testify.20

"Isn't this another example of how Christian beliefs can result in the trampling of the rights of others?" I asked.

"Yes, it's an example-if, in point of fact, true Christianity is involved here. When you unpack the episodes leading to the trials, you see there are many factors that precipitated them. There are issues related to people scheming to get land from other people; there are issues related to hysteria; there are issues of believing in astral appearances, whereby people testify that somebody did something even when they were in another place. When you study the legal context for the trials, there are variables that take you into issues unrelated to Christianity."

"Are you saying the churches were innocent?"

"This may not be a total exculpation of Christianity's influence in the trials, but historians who work with matters of this sort know that you should not be monocausational in sorting out such events. Life is more complex than just saying 'Christianity' was responsible. Although there were witch trials in Europe, this was an aberration, not part of a bigger pattern in the colonies. You have to question the psychological equilibrium of some of the people who were involved in the witch trials and consider their false reporting of things.

"Again, we have to emphasize that the Salem witch trials constituted a terrible episode. I'm not trying to downplay their seriousness. But historians recognize that the story line is considerably more complicated than merely blaming the churches."

"One of the presuppositions at the time was that witches exist," I pointed out. "How about you? Do you believe there are witches?"

"Yes, I believe that they do exist," he replied. "In fact, a number of years ago I was watching French television when Robert Mandrou, a very distinguished historian, was proposing that once people become enlightened, they don't believe in witches anymore. Then a woman called to say, 'Mr. Mandrou, I'm very impressed by all you've said, but I just want to tell you that I'm a witch.' And, indeed, witchcraft is practiced in France, the United States, and elsewhere.

"So part of the problem in dealing with the Salem witch trials is the assumption that all of this was totally hokum, that there's no such thing as witches and witchcraft. The hardcore reality is that there are; even many non-Christians recognize that.

"Does this excuse what happened at Salem? No, of course not. But when you sort through the complexities, this situation can't be simply written off as an example of Christianity having run amok. Life-and history-just aren't that simple."

"What ended the trials?" I asked.

"This isn't commonly known," he said, "but it was a Christian who played the key role. A Puritan leader named Increase Mather spoke out forcefully against what was happening and that was the beginning of the end. Ironically, it was a Christian voice that silenced the madness."

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