People who oppose Christianity may at times appeal to the Salem Witch Trials of the 1600s. Their uninformed and tired arguments continue to seep into fertile yet ignorant cracks in liberal academia. Yet a more sober and objective study is required to formulate solid opinions on the matter. This is an examination of a Puritan leader “Increase Mather” who along with Cotton Mather (his father) and others came to oppose the trials and work to end the methods used against witches altogether. That these witches were guilty or not is not the purpose of this essay. My personal belief is that in the midst of the hysteria, it can be shown that at least two were, in fact, witches, and under Theonomic law punishable by death. But the purpose of this essay is to offer a balanced viewpoint on the matter of rational arguments against the proceedings and punishments of witches in Salem and in other places.
Increase Mather was a Puritan that could be singled out for being a representative of his time and place as it relates to intellectual capacity. Not only did he possess the biblical knowledge and piety that was usual among Puritan ministers, he also exhibited the gift of natural intellectual inclination that marked him as a genuinely learned man and leading figure of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Having been present as an influence during the Salem Witch trials of the late 1600s, Mather was one of those who enacted important amendments aimed at reducing superstitious practices used to try suspected witches in court. The reasons behind his ultimate rejection of “spectral evidence” were many, and these could be detailed and examined in the scope of a book. This essay will argue that one of the main reasons that Increase Mather changed his mind regarding the validity of spectral evidence in court during the latter portion of the Salem Witch Trials seems to be due to a product of his using of intellectual reasoning precisely because this was most probably a natural inclination of his, based on evidence contained in many primary and secondary resources.
Witch trials and occult matters were not a new thing to Increase Mather. He had been exposed to books and articles on this subject prior to his involvement in the Massachusetts Bay Colony Witch trials.1 This literature proceeded from both worlds (the colonies and Europe) and was written by intellectuals who showed concern for the methods that were being used by many people to gather evidence and to prove that a suspected witch was actually one. Mather, in one of his essays entitled Evidence Used against Witches (1693) details manners in which a suspected witch was drowned or tortured in an effort to prove to the accusers that this person was either innocent or guilty. Mather and many others considered these methods to be irrational and superstitious, not only on logical grounds but on biblical ones as well. Mather writes:
“…of this sort [of method] is that of scratching the witch … yea, and that way of discovering witches by trying their hands and feet, and casting them on the water to try whether they will sink or swim. I did publicly bear my testimony against this superstition in a book printed at Boston eight years past. (Evidence Used Against Witches, 1693)”
Here, he merely states some methods to try a witch and acknowledge them as erroneous. He agrees with the reasoning that:
“This pretended gift of immersibility attending witches is a most fallible deceitful thing; for many a witch has sunk under water…besides, it has some times been known that persons who have floated on the water when the hangman has made the experiment on them, have sunk down like a stone, when others have made the trial.”
The argument here concerns the inconsistency of this method. Mather and others reasoned that the alleged claim that “witches hate the water” is not objective because not all water is consecrated (as in holy water). Many at the time believed that water physically symbolized baptism. This would mean that a witch (considered unholy) would somehow miraculously survive an experiment of immersion because they would not be able to bear the “pureness” of the water. Mather responds in the same document by stating that witches drink wine and eat bread; two things that are used in the sacraments, and his reasoning leads him to believe that such experiments used to try witches completely ignore the fact that a true witch would always be exposed to sacramental elements without a problem. Therefore, Mather concludes, the experiments are no fool-proof way of ensuring that somebody is truly a witch since the method entailed a selective use of the this apparent sacramental principle. This method termed “The Vulgar Probation,” was apparently named so because it was not instituted by recognized state authorities. Mather compares this practice to pagan superstition that would empower the devil:
“This way of purgation is of the same nature with the old ordeals of the pagans. If men were accused with any crime, to clear their innocency, they were to take a hot iron into their hands, or to suffer scalding water to be poured down their throats; and, if they received no hurt, thereby they were acquitted.”
Mather figured that if the pagans used this superstitious reasoning to come to their conclusions, that people in a Christian nation, especially learned ones, should never adopt this method. The logic behind these methods is that only a miraculous power could save the people being tested. The question raised by many was: “could these miraculous powers be relied upon always, in the sense that they would take effect in every single individual as if it was a natural law?” Mather did not think so. He definitely ruled out a miracle from God by appealing to scripture (Deut 6:16):
“It is a tempting of God when men put the innocency of their fellow creatures upon such trials; to desire the Almighty to show a miracle to clear the innocent or to convict the guilty is a most presumptuous tempting of Him. If a crime cannot be found out but by miracle, it is not for any judge on earth to usurp that judgment which is reserved for the Divine Throne.”
Mather also states that through diabolical powers, people may be saved from drowning or other harms. He reasons that if Satan can have some sort of control to affect the outcome of a trial, it would be of benefit to him to also let people drown who might have been under his grip in order to confuse the people. Mather here uses what he knows about Satan through the Holy Scriptures and analyzes the possible behavior that demons may exhibit in order to build a worst case scenario that Satan may use to bring the most damage to the people of New England. He uses the scripture verse in Luke 8: 30-33 to make the conjecture that since many pigs were drowned in the Lake while possessed by Satan, that it is possible that a true possessed person may also drown as well.
“…is the devil afraid if they should sink that he should be drowned with them? But why then were the Gadaren’s hogs drowned when the devil was in them?”
A pivotal part of Mather’s argument was his belief that since Satan “appears as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14), that it is very probable that he could impersonate a “pious individual” without that person having made any sort of pact with the Devil. People who testified that they had been “afflicted by the spirit of a person” may in fact have been afflicted by a demon impersonating a person.
Voetius in his De Spectris, proposes that question, whether the Devil may not untruly personate a Godly man, and answers in the affirmative.” (Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits, 1693)
Constant appeals to history in order to gather well-rounded information is a habit of Mather as he continued to seek answers to his questions. It might be reasonable to say that his drive and passion for knowledge would have naturally led him to consult these past works and these may have tilted the balance in favor of the position of skepticism concerning spectral evidence. Since Puritans, as a collective, tended to influence each other while gaining insight from the past through careful study, it can be said with some certainty that a group consensus was active in seeking to eliminate as much superstition and lack of proper reason in procedure during the latter half of the trials. The opinion of one person would probably not be enough to curb such a sensational tide of public chaos and disorder, so the work of many intellectuals was necessary to impose a set of regulations in a court of law. But having reviewed primary and secondary evidence, it seems that Mather would not be one to simply succumb to peer pressure and leave it at that. It is more likely that upon gathering and evaluating this group evidence, It was his own intellect and sound reasoning that helped to form a conviction in his mind. This prompted him to investigate and disseminate the issue in public.
Even though Mather was not the first to think critically concerning testimonies given by people in court, it seems as though it did sink in his mind that a piece of spectral evidence based on a subjective testimony may have erroneous qualities to it. The lack of objectivity of the evidence probably would have appealed to Mather or to many other divines of his time, once the issue was raised with sufficient vigor and consensus. Mather admits that he had been skeptical of these trial procedures for many years, leading him to publish a book:
“I did publicly bear my testimony against this superstition [the immersion tactic] in a book printed at Boston eight years past. (Evidence Used Against Witches, 1693).”
If this book was printed, it tells us that Mather had been skeptical of the trial procedures since at least some time before 1685. Since the mass hysteria of the trials did not hit its peak until the early 1690s, it is reasonable for us to say that Mather may not have changed his mind abruptly as some claim he had. Since Mather’s wife was targeted during such hysteria, it has been proposed by some that this occurrence was a deciding factor that caused Mather to deny the validity of spectral evidence. If a loved one is accused of something that you are sure that they did not do, this would most likely prompt you into some sort of action. If Mather had been thinking about spectral evidence and reasoning with others who probably wrestled with the same worries, it is probable that Mather was influenced by these2 while having been convinced that spectral evidence and questionable trial procedures were truly lacking in logic and damaging to trials of any sort. Apparently, he had been giving serious thought to the matter for at least a decade before the Salem Witch Trials occurred. His knowledge of trial procedures in general is evident, not only because many of the judges and magistrates were his friends, but because he had most likely been present in dozens of trials as any New England minister would have. He took in consideration that since there existed many types of trials, that applying the same objective procedures to a witch trial (as opposed to a case of murder) would not only be fair and logical, but also Biblical:
“The evidence in this crime ought to be as clear as in any other crimes of a capital nature. The Word of God does nowhere intimate that a less clear evidence, or that fewer or other witnesses may be taken as sufficient to convict a man of sorcery, which would nor be enough to convict him were he charged with another evil worthy of death.”
In order to calm down the tide of hysteria surrounding the trials, Mather makes an appeal to reason in judgment. As an authoritative figure, he would have had the internal and external pressures to address the subject with clarity, especially believing that the God’s people are affected by the decisions of their rulers. As an intellectual among intellectuals, it was important to come to a group consensus concerning something as important as witchcraft and the lives of people. As any Puritan would have thought, the occult is not a trivial matter since it is addressed in Scripture as sinful and dangerous. The General attitude of the divines that did not readily accept spectral evidence and who still considered the occult to be a thing of great importance to combat and eliminate could be best summed up here:
“So Odious and Abominable is the name of a witch, to the civilized, much more the Religious part of Mankind, that it is apt to grow up into a scandal for any, so much as to enter some sober cautions against the over hasty suspecting or too precipitant Judging of Persons on this account.” (Cases of Conscience Concerning Witchcrafts, 1693)
Mather, in this work, cites an example of how the Devil might manipulate a situation where a specter may appear as a pious individual, without the consent or cooperation of that individual. He compares this Old Testament narrative where Saul consults a witch to perform necromancy (2 Chron. 10:13) to what he believes may be happening in New England in a similar fashion.
“Moreover, had it bin the true Samuel from Heaven reprehending Saul, there is great Reason to believe that the would not only have reproved him for his sin, in not executing Judgment on the Amalekites; as in Ver. 18. But for his wickedness in consulting with Familiar Spirits: for which sin it was in special that he Dyed 2 Chon. 10:13…..we may conclude that it as not Real Samuel that appeared to Saul. And if it were the Devil in his likeness the Argument seems very strong, that if the Devil, may appear in the Form of a Saint in Glory, much more is it possible for him, to put on the Likeness, of the most Pious and innocent Saint on Earth.” (Cases of Conscience Concerning Witchcrafts, 1693)
Mather, a flat biblicist himself, would never separate the reality of his belief in the infallibility and sufficiency of Holy Scripture from trial procedures and the established government. This may lead us to conclude that since the early Puritans believed that New England was much like ancient Israel in the sense that they both represented a “chosen people,” that it would be a standard procedure for Mather as well as for any other divine to hold a high regard for the Scriptures in every single aspect of their lives. This would mean that if something command or precept was mandated in the Bible, it would logically pertain to the affairs of New England. Not only is Mather using his senses to apply biblical truth reasonably into the trial proceedings, he also uses analysis when interpreting scripture. A divine his caliber would be very well read in the Scriptures as well as philosophy, history, and in the religious works of the people of his time period. This kind of education and inclination3 would have fostered in him a disdain for pagan superstition and practice. Since these practices seemed to be present during witch trials, it would not be surprising that Mather would have closely observed these proceedings, and with his intellectual superiority over the vulgar populace, heavily questioned the methodology.
Since Mather had been away from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for a number of years for mostly political reasons (He returned to New England with a new Colony Charter in 1692, precisely when the Witch Trials were beginning to become sensational) He probably did not have the time to influence these trials in absentia, and returned from England to encounter these surprising events. This political absence was probably the reason why Mather did not have the adequate resources to immediately express the errors he witnessed. By then, many people had been executed and the atmosphere swelled like a descending snowball. Maybe this matter became of utmost importance to Mather as he wrestled with the rest of the colony authorities on how to keep the peace.
“Going back to his study in Boston, Mather set to work with his usual thoroughness. Looking back on it now, Mather worked with painful, tragic slowness. Later that month four more were executed. (The Last American Puritan, Michael Hall, 1988 p. 261).”
In order to make a more solid case for the thesis of this essay, a few things ought to be examined in small detail. It is evident that there existed tensions between the magistrates and ministers. These tensions were not feelings of enmity but of responsibility to one another. Mather had established friendships and alliances with some of the rulers and magistrates of the colonies and there was a chance that he did not want to strain these relationships since the general peace of the land was most likely important to him. Not only was there a numerous group of ministers and authorities who desired to swing the pendulum into the realm of reason and denial of spectral evidence, there may have been a sizeable group of people (maybe also authorities) who were not sure of which direction to take, if any.
“Increase Mather was pulled in two directions. At the assembly of ministers he had agreed to write out arguments against using spectral evidence in capital cases. But would there have been any case against the accused if spectral evidence were not used? Like the others, Mather was horrified at the outburst of accusations and the mounting executions. On the other hand, he was deeply troubled at the rising tide of atheism, which was widely thought to be connected to the growing disbelief in the world of spirits.” (The Last American Puritan – The Life of Increase Mather, 1988)
With this in mind, it is evident that there were pressures from both sides applied to Mather, especially concerning his son Cotton who also denied the validity of spectral evidence. Cotton Mather published a work in defense of the witch trial judges.4 Despite these types of pressures, it can be said that he stood firm in his convictions that these executions were to be halted until strong viable evidence was presented against any accused person. This confusion also did not seem to sway Mather in any other direction than to strongly deny the admission and validity of spectral evidence in court. It is highly probable that his learning experiences stemming from his investigations, writings, consorting, intellectual analysis, observation, and ministerial training managed to override any pressure to yield to superstitious practices that he came to view as illegitimate.
We cannot know for certain what drove Mather and what thoughts and anxieties passed through his mind during this whole ordeal, but the evidence contained in his writings and from other sources may be able to point us in the direction of the validity of the thesis of this essay. Increase Mather was a man who not only excelled in academic and scholastic matters from an early age, but was a Puritan who took the Bible as seriously as he did logic, intellect, and reason. These possibly constituted a stronger factor than other variables in his conception and implementation of information that helped to influence the thought process and proceedings of the second half of the Salem Witch Trials.
1 Mather often times appeals to literature on witches and trial procedures to make his case against spectral evidence stronger. Mather, Increase, Tales of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits. Montana: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2003 (p.59)
2 Authors cited by Mather who also wrote about the supernatural included: Boissardus, Spineus, and Cumanus. He included his contemporaries William Perkins and Richard Bernard who had published works that may have influenced Mather (Cases of Conscience Concerning Witchcrafts, by Increase Mather p. 32)
3 Increase Mather was naturally fascinated with cosmology and certain aspects of science. He Published a book in 1683 entitled Kometographia – A Discourse Concerning Comets. (Hall, Michael G. “The Last American Puritan – The Life of Increase Mather” Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1988)
4 Cotton Mather was probably not as opposed to the executions as were others like Increase. Since his book Wonders of the Invisble World (1693) defended the decision of the judges, it may have been that many of these judges were not fully convinced of the elimination of the validity of spectral evidence in court.