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Beat the Devil

The three hundredth anniversary of the Salem witch trials of 1692 comes at a time when witchcraft commands a scholarly attention that would have been puzzling in 1892 or even in 1792. In 1792 witchcraft was still widely practiced and feared, but it no longer held the attention of the educated elite in either Europe or America. The men who drafted the United States Constitution in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 took no notice of a mob that carted and killed a witch in the streets outside their windows. The event was reported in a single paragraph of all the Philadelphia newspapers, but none of the Founding Fathers thought it worth mentioning in any surviving diary or correspondence. It was the kind of thing to be expected among the benighted classes who had not yet benefited from the educational opportunities that the new republic would surely bring.

By 1892 enlightenment had progressed to the point where the Salem trials were simply an embarrassing blot on the history of New England. They were a part of the past that was best forgotten, a reminder of how far the human race had come in two centuries, embarrassing because there had been so far to come, embarrassing because they made it difficult to attribute liberal virtues to revered ancestors, but scarcely a subject worthy of study by any but antiquarians.

In the course of the twentieth century we have learned to look, if not with approval, at least with more sympathetic understanding on witchcraft. Science, which in 1892 seemed on the verge of making everything in the world intelligible, has now made the universe more mysterious and precarious. Its practitioners speak a language of quarks, neutrons, and anti-matter no more comprehensible to most of us than the spells of a necromancer three centuries ago. In reaction a new obscurantism has spread, often presented with a scientific veneer. Occult forces like those underlying witchcraft are discovered in rock crystals and plastic pyramids. Athletes chart their biorhythms, and a president of the United States consults his astrologer. Women purporting to be witches meet in conclave and protest like any other minority against discrimination; commemoration of the Salem trials is said to perpetuate a destructive stereotype.

Historians meanwhile have elevated popular culture to an equal rank with high culture, and witchcraft is a point of intersection that has yielded insights into both. Richard Godbeer’s new book has to be read as the latest in a long succession of studies that recreate for us a world in which sorcery was still on speaking terms with science, and religion was struggling to distinguish itself from superstition. Through them all stalks the eldritch figure of the witch, the instrument of unseen forces, sorceress and acolyte, predator and victim. The most illuminating of these studies in recent years, the starting point (at least in England and America) for most subsequent work, including Godbeer’s, is Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971). From a multitude of local records Thomas has extracted evidence of a virtually universal reliance on magic in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England.

Magic was the way to cure disease, to find lost or stolen articles, to win a mate, to ward off common afflictions, as well as to bring evils upon one’s enemies. Its practitioners, known as cunning men or cunning women, were as numerous as priests or ministers and as often consulted. Through hocuspocus they were able to summon supernatural forces to achieve objectives that defied accomplishment by ordinary means. Only if they turned rogue and used their powers malevolently did they arouse fear as witches.

As Thomas sees it, the Catholic church was able to accommodate a lot of magical practice within its fold, in such things as holy water and amulets and in the continuing belief in miracles. But Protestant theologians, while acknowledging the efficacy of some magic, traced its supernatural power exclusively to Satan and denounced all recourse to it, whether for good ends or bad. In the Protestant view magic was available only to those who confederated with the devil, and those who confederated with the devil were witches. To accept their favors was to accept favors from Satan, for which there would be hell to pay. By the eighteenth century Protestants had succeeded in discrediting all forms of magic among the educated and governing classes of England, though it retained a stubborn hold on the rest of the population well into the nineteenth century.

The most controversial—and most suggestive—feature of Thomas’s analysis was his distinction between magic and religion, at least Protestant religion. Although he admitted that Protestant theology allowed for the operation of supernatural powers in the world, both by the devil and by God himself, he saw a fundamental opposition between traditional magic’s claim of access to those powers, for whatever purpose, and the Protestant insistence that the only possible access was malign. Prayer to an almighty God who might or might not give heed was different in kind, Thomas argues, from arcane rituals that could invoke and direct supernatural powers.

Subsequent studies have refined, rejected, or reinterpreted Thomas’s distinction in a variety of ways. What troubles the critics is that magic and religion seem to shade into each other as points along a spectrum of belief, rather than as polar opposites. A more obvious antithesis is that between empirically based science on the one hand and belief in the supernatural, whether magical or religious, on the other. But that antithesis was not obvious in the seventeenth century, and Thomas’s great service has been to show that religion, however related to magic, was a primary force in discrediting it.

For American historians Thomas’s work has been a reminder that early Americans, most of whom came from England, carried a large cargo of magical practices with them.1 That reminder has come in the train of increasingly sophisticated studies of New England Puritanism. Beginning with Perry Miller’s monumental The New England Mind and other studies, historians have subjected the seventeenth-century Puritans to closer scrutiny than any other group in American history. The Salem witch trials have received their share of attention, largely at first because of their sensational aspects (Miller, in dealing with them, argued that “the intellectual history of New England up to 1720 can be written as though no such thing ever happened”).2

Thomas’s study, though concerned only with England, has thrown the trials into the larger context of folk religion where they have always belonged. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century witch hunts, whether in Europe, the British Isles, or America, unlike their modern analogues, were not usually stirred up by fanatical demagogues. They arose out of a kind of spontaneous combustion among ordinary people, for whom the exercise of supernatural powers was an ever-present reality. Malicious use of those powers was a danger constantly to be watched for, dreaded, and punished; and the authorities, it often seemed, were not vigilant enough or severe enough.

So it seemed to many ordinary New Englanders. In the half century before the Salem outbreak people who believed themselves injured or menaced by unseen forces had already brought over sixty persons to trial for witchcraft in Connecticut and Massachusetts. There might have been many more trials but for the fact that the courts generally found the evidence insufficient to convict, and acquittal often triggered an action for slander by the wrongfully accused against the accuser. Surviving testimony from these earlier trials and at Salem has opened a wide window on early New England communities. In two brilliant studies, John Demos, in Entertaining Satan (1982), and Carol Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman (1987), have used it to explore the web of human relationships and cultural assumptions of the time. Now Richard Godbeer uses it to probe the nexus between magic and religion and to test Thomas’s distinction in a New England context.

Godbeer is building not only on the work of Thomas but also on that of David D. Hall. In a path-breaking study of popular culture in early New England, Hall, rejecting Thomas’s distinction as applied to New England, has shown how the high culture of Puritanism penetrated the whole society to a degree never achieved in England.3 Literacy was probably higher than anywhere else in the Western world. Ministers were prominent in every community, and they spoke a language calculated to reach the simplest minds, assimilating popular culture without destroying it. There was no conflict between magic and religion. Cunning men and women were comparatively few and viewed with suspicion, because the popular culture of New England was dominated by religion.

That religion, in its insistence upon an omnipotent sovereign who created a universe imperiled by evil, presented its adherents with a host of troubling paradoxes. God was good but permitted evil. He was all-powerful but did not crush Satan. Men must obey his laws but were by nature unable to. When they did evil, as they would, it was Satan’s doing but their personal sin. They must strive continually for salvation, but salvation was beyond their reach. It could come through Christ, but could never be deserved. Such beliefs could generate unbearable internal conflicts. To people tormented by their own sinfulness and incapacity to overcome it, despair could turn to heresy and to a quest not only for the Saviour whom God had provided but also to a scapegoat in the person of Satan, or even to a belief in surrender to Satan—to witchcraft and to accusations of witchcraft.

Godbeer pursues some of Hall’s insights into the tensions of living in a world where invisible forces of good and evil contested control of the human soul and the external world. But without directly challenging Hall’s overall analysis (which is likely to be as influential as Thomas’s) he contends that magic was less assimilated to religion and more autonomous a part of popular culture than Hall would allow. The evidence for this is far from overwhelming. But it does show a number of New Englanders who professed to tell fortunes through palmistry or to disclose future events by balancing a sieve on a pair of scissors. Much of the evidence comes from what we would designate as mere superstition, such as nailing a horseshoe over a doorway to shut out evil spirits. Godbeer does not argue that New Englanders resorted to such practices as an alternative to religion, but that ordinary men and women indulged in them without understanding the ministerial rejection of them as diabolical.

Godbeer’s point is that an independent popular belief in magic did persist in seventeenth-century New England, though admittedly it offered a weaker rivalry to religion than in England. The point is not significant in itself, but it enables the author to enlarge the context in which witch trials and witch hunting may be viewed. Witch trials in both England and New England (before Salem) differed markedly from those on the European continent in that the usual outcome was acquittal. In Europe, where witch hunts were much more numerous and protracted, more than 80 percent of those accused, numbering in the thousands, were convicted and executed. The usual ground for conviction was a confession, often extracted under torture, of confederation with the devil. In England, by contrast, the courts were less interested in confederation with the devil than in whether the accused had caused serious personal injury, technically known as maleficium. Witchcraft without a proven element of maleficium seems to have been regarded as harmless. Hence cunning men and women, however obnoxious to the clergy, were not generally prosecuted. And successful prosecutions for witchcraft did not result in executions unless the damage attributed to the witch was sufficient to warrant it.

In New England the courts were as slow to convict as in England but, Godbeer emphasizes, for different reasons. New England judges were less concerned with maleficium than they were with putting down any dealings with Satan. When a person was accused of witchcraft, the accusers had to show not only that the accused—almost always a woman—had harmed them, but that she had done so with the connivance of Satan. The evidence they presented, however, could usually demonstrate only that the alleged witch was reputed to use magical practices, such as piercing or breaking a doll or puppet, writing or intoning magic phrases, or performing what appeared to be rites with human urine or hair. Since the accusers, usually humble men and women, did not themselves describe these acts as covenanting with Satan and could not offer testimony of diabolical intent, the courts seldom found the evidence compelling. Unless the accused believed and confessed that she had made a compact with the devil, she was likely to be acquitted. Sometimes, even when the jury verdict was guilty, a judge would set it aside, to the consternation of the community. Of the sixty-one known trials for witchcraft in New England before Salem, only sixteen resulted in convictions.

The Salem trials were different in kind from any that preceded them, largely because a special court of oyer and terminer failed to require the kind of evidence formerly demanded. The judges, swept up in the popular hysteria over diabolical activity, used torture and psychological duress to obtain confessions and dictated the contents of such confessions in a way that generated more accusations. To be accepted as authentic a confession had to include the names of fellow witches who had participated in meetings with the devil. And where confession had formerly been the principal ground for conviction, at Salem confession and contrition became the only way to escape conviction and execution. Defendants who confessed and repented were set free, as the judges hastened in pursuit of their alleged confederates. Nineteen people were convicted and executed and over a hundred more were awaiting trial before the authorities came to their senses and called the whole business off.

Did these hysterical proceedings and the sober ones that went before them arise from a belief in religion or in magic? The question scarcely admits of an answer, which suggests that the distinction between the two may be less useful for understanding seventeenth-century New England than it may be for the eighteenth century. Godbeer shows us that popular belief in magic underlay most accusations of witchcraft, even in the Salem epidemic, and he also shows that popular belief did not necessarily ascribe the efficacy of magic, and by consequence of witchcraft, to the devil. But witch trials were the product not only of popular demand but of the recognition accorded witchcraft in the high culture of Protestant theology.

Before Salem, the courts, speaking for the high culture, disciplined popular demand by insisting on proofs of diabolical conspiracy that were difficult to produce. At Salem, though cautioned by the clergy, the magistrates gave way to community pressure and only belatedly resisted it. But if Godbeer is right, they resisted, ultimately at Salem and regularly before that, because as spokesmen for the high culture they took witchcraft and magic even more seriously than the accusers did. The accusers were less concerned about thwarting Satan than in averting the maleficium that ill-disposed necromancers could inflict on them; the authorities were less concerned about the maleficium than with the terrifying confederation with the devil that was its foundation. But if their motives differed, their objectives coincided, and for a time in 1692 they joined in a deadly embrace.

When the authorities stopped the trials the embrace was broken. After 1692 there were but two witch trials in New England, in 1693 and 1697, and both ended in acquittals. By 1697 devout New Englanders realized that they had made grave mistakes in 1692; and Massachusetts held an official day of fasting to lament the innocent blood that was shed. It was not that the godly had ceased to believe in Satan’s activity in the world. What Salem had taught them was a more profound recognition of that power as inscrutable, its workings hidden from human understanding and human control even as God’s supreme power was.

With that recognition, religion moved decisively away from magic as it never had in the seventeenth century. Religion could now dismiss magic as nonsensical superstition and its practioners as deluded or deluding because they were attempting the impossible. But, as Godbeer points out, that dismissal by the spokesmen of the high culture did not stamp out the popular reliance upon magical rites or popular fear of bewitchment. In an epilogue he cites as many instances of eighteenth-century magical practices as in the seventeenth. The lynching or attempted lynching of witches continued long after witch trials stopped. And it would be possible to trace continuities down to the present. Religion has prospered in its divorce from magic, but it is less clear that magic has suffered. And as the cosmos grows ever more mysterious, magic might once again become a more serious rival not only to religion but to its more obvious adversary, science.


Convicting Witches August 13, 1992

  1. 1

    See, for example, Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Harvard University Press, 1990), pp. 67–97.

  2. 2

    The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (Harvard University Press, 1953), p. 191.

  3. 3

    Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (Knopf, 1989). Hall has collected much of the testimony from witchcraft trials in Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England, 1638–1692 (Northeastern University Press, 1990).

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