The Salem Witch Trials

In Our Time: Series 18, Episode 9


There is a remarkable book called Tears of Repentance by John Eliot.  It was first published in 1653.  The subtitle explains the book best:

A further narrative of the progress of the Gospel amongst the Indians in New-England: setting forth, not only their present state and condition, but sundry confessions of sin by diverse of the said Indians, wrought upon by the saving power of the Gospel.

John Eliot was a Puritan missionary who worked in North America principally with the Massachusetts.  He died in 1690.  The Salem witch trials began in the colony of Massachusetts in 1692.

There is a powerful narrative about “Americaness” that involves Christianity.  The Thanksgiving holiday that has just passed is one of the foundation myths of that Christian story.  It pays to remember though that the who, when and where of that Christianity (Puritans, “Indian Country”, the 17th century) represents a very different type of Christianity from what we think of now.  Having said that, a core idea seems to have survived in American Evangelical Christianity that has largely died out in other denominations: aggressive proselytising, and the notion of being at war with demons and evil.

Edmund Morgan’s book Visible Saints does the job of explaining the Puritan world view well.  What can and can’t be seen turns out to be very important to the Puritans.  Unhappy with the visible church, they believe in the invisible one which is perfectly pure (unlike the visible form), and has a perfect congregation of elect.  Although who the elect are is unknown it may be that visible signs of a particularly Godly nature give strong indications.

Invisible forces become hugely important in the “evidence” given in the witch trials.

The Puritan idea was that the devil could work through spectres….  The spectre is a kind of invisible presence that can carry out witchcraft that can make really bad things happen…. The young women who began all of this [the witch trials] claimed that they could see spectres tormenting others.  Of course the problem there is that there’s no external corroboration, so that someone can allege that someone’s spectre is tormenting them even if that very person has a perfectly good alibi and is physically present somewhere else.

Susan Castillo Street

The idea that uncorroborated evidence about seeing spectres was not only valid in court but enough in of itself to find someone guilty is important to understand how you end up with so many people in prison, and so many people hung.

I think it is easy in the story of the Pilgrims and Puritans of New England to present the Witch Trials as a terrible anomaly and not as what it really was.  Let’s please keep in mind that these beliefs drove this brand of Christianity to perform countless horrific acts on the local Native American communities that took far more lives than these trials.  The only reason that the Witch Trials stand out is because the community turned on itself; instead of murdering Native Americans for being in league with Satan they began to murder each other.  The fact that the Witch Trials are an “important moment in History” is racist.

While at war with the Pequot the Puritans managed a decisive victory against an Indian “fort” in 1638.  Problematically for the account below, the 700 people inside that fort were largely women, children and old men, as most of the warriors were out on a raid.

Those that escaped the fire were slain with the sword; some hewed to pieces, others run threw with their rapiers, so they were quickly dispatched, and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them frying in the fire, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the praise there of to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to enclose their enemies in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud & insulting an enemy.

William Bradford

In the tortured logic of the invaders, it was the Puritans who believed they were being persecuted when the local tribes rose up against them for the constant erosion of their land, resources and dignity.  It is not dissimilar thinking to how some Americans today believe that having taken the land, resources and dignity of peoples around the world, that they – the most powerful military state in the world – are being persecuted when some of those people retaliate.

In fairness, it is important to note that it was not uncommon for Indian warrior raiding parties to hit soft targets in these colonial conflicts.  I think it is perfectly valid to call those particular attacks terrorism just as long as you give equal weight to the context, and the acts perpetuated by the Puritans as well.

Alongside the acts of physical violence that were described as “sweet sacrifice” to God, were the acts of spiritual violence that Tears of Repentance records.

Since it hath pleased God to send his Word to these poor captivated men (bondslaves to sin and Satan) he hath through mercy brought two hundred eighty three Indians (not counting young children in the number) to renounce their false gods, Devils, and Pawwaws [spiritual leaders], and publicly in set meetings, before many witnesses, have they disclaimed the Divinity of their formerly adored multitude.

Tears of Repentance

Reading the confessions of the Native Americans in this book is heartbreaking.

Before I prayed unto God, the English, when I came unto their houses, often said unto me, Pray to God; but I having many friends who loved me, and I loved them, and they cared not for praying to God, and therefore I did not: But I thought in my heart, that if my friends should die, and I live, I then would pray to God; soon after, God so wrought, that they did almost all die, few of them left; and then my heart feared, and I thought, that now I will pray unto God, and yet I was ashamed to pray.

Although the initial readers of this book probably focused on the end of each confession (the confessor is happily come to Christ), it is hard for this modern reader not to focus on the beginning of each confession because the note struck there is one of torment; of a society and system of belief in collapse in the presence of a new, powerful and alien force while a terrible sickness ravages the land.

All the forces present in the Witch Trials are present in the Trials of the Native Americans by the same group of people in the same century: the importance of confession; the idea of Satan working invisibly though people and spectres to wreak havoc and threaten the Godly, and the belief that death for those under the influence of spectres was righteous.

At their worst it is hard not to see the Pilgrims and Puritans as religious extremists using violence to create their vision of a perfect world, and everyone else’s vision of hell.

Published by


I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

2 thoughts on “The Salem Witch Trials”

  1. Nice to see you’ve gone public again. Good to be reading Man of Errors again. Just one more week of school. Yes!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s