The Salem witch trials were a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts, between February 1692 and May 1693. Despite being generally known as the Salem witch trials, the preliminary hearings in 1692 were conducted in a variety of towns across the province: Salem Village (now Danvers), Ipswich, Andover and Salem Town.
The most infamous trials were conducted by the Court of Oyer and Terminer in 1692 in Salem Town. One contemporary writer summed the results of the trials thus:
"And now Nineteen persons having been hang'd, and one prest to death, and Eight more condemned, in all Twenty and Eight, of which above a third part were Members of some of the Churches of N. England, and more than half of them of a good Conversation in general, and not one clear'd; about Fifty having confest themselves to be Witches, of which not one Executed; above an Hundred and Fifty in Prison, and Two Hundred more acccused; the Special Commision of Oyer and Terminer comes to a period,..."
At least five more of the accused died in prison.
"When I put an end to the Court there ware at least fifty persons in prision in great misery by reason of the extream cold and their poverty, most of them having only spectre evidence against them and their mittimusses being defective, I caused some of them to be lettout upon bayle and put the Judges upon consideration of a way to reliefe others and to prevent them from perishing in prision, upon which some of them were convinced and acknowledged that their former proceedings were too violent and not grounded upon a right foundation ... The stop put to the first method of proceedings hath dissipated the blak cloud that threatened this Province with destruccion;..."
Governor William Phips, February 21st, 1693
The episode is one of the most notorious cases of mass hysteria, and has been used in political rhetoric and popular literature as a vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations and lapses in due process. It was not unique, being an American example of the much larger phenomenon of witch trials in the Early Modern period, but many have considered the lasting impressions from the trials to have been highly influential in subsequent American history.
Okay, that's the background, now for the short quiz:
- Do you believe any of the fifty people convicted (or who confessed), the twenty executed and the eight condemned but reprieved, for witchcraft in the Salem Witch Trials really were witches? Yes or no?
- Do you believe that Jesus existed and was who the Bible claims him to have been, i.e. a human manifestation of the God of the Bible? Yes or no?
If you've answered 'no' to 1 and 'yes' to 2, on what are those beliefs based? Evidence, maybe? On rejection of the idea that a group of (mostly) women can suddenly be possessed by evil spirits which take control of them and give them magical powers to control nature and cause bad things to happen?
If the latter, why would you reject that idea yet believe the Bible's account of Jesus driving out evil spirits? (Mark 1:23-26, Luke 4:33-36, Matthew 8:28-32).
Maybe your opinions are based on evidence, not incredulity? So how does the relative evidence stack up?
First, hundreds of people were involved in concluding that the accused were witches. They testified in court, signed sworn affidavits, and demonstrated their utter conviction that the accused were witches. Furthermore, the people attesting to the witchcraft charge came from diverse backgrounds and social strata. They included magistrates, judges, the governor of Massachusetts, respected members of the community, husbands of the accused, and so on. These people had a great deal to lose by being correct - men would lose their wives, children would lose their mothers, community members would lose friends they cared about. It seems very unlikely that they could have had ulterior motives. Accusing a friend or wife of being a witch would very likely have the horrible outcome of getting them executed.
How good was the evidence-gathering process at the time? The trials were a part of thorough, careful, exhaustive investigations. They deliberately gathered evidence and made a substantial attempt to objectively sort out truth from falsity. In the court trials, they attempted to carefully discern the facts. That there were witch trials in Salem and that many people were put to death has been thoroughly corroborated by a range of other historical sources (whereas no such trials, investigations, or efforts are recorded concerning the resurrection of Jesus). It also seems abundantly clear that the accusers, or at least a significant number of them, were utterly convinced that the women were witches. Why else would so many people agree and act so decisively and with such conviction? It strains credibility to suggest that there was a conspiracy or a mass hallucination shared by all of the hundreds of people involved. The same hallucination cannot be had by large groups of people.
What about the state of the evidence as it was passed to us, centuries later? The Salem Witch Trials were historically recent, so we have hundreds of the actual documents that were part of the evidence. We have the signed, sworn testimonies of the very eyewitnesses claiming to have seen the magic performed - again, not as it was repeated and relayed for decades to unknown others, but from the witnesses themselves immediately after it occurred. We even have whole volumes written by witnesses to the trials such as Cotton Mather and John Hale. How much evidence do we have? Enough to fill a truck. Modern archives at the University of Virginia and elsewhere have thousands of documents, books, records, transcripts, affidavits, testimonials, and other works detailing the events. That there were witch trials that convicted the women is beyond a shadow of historical doubt. We have nothing like any of this for the resurrection of Jesus.
And what of the evidence for Jesus? Where are these sworn affidavits? Where are all the eye-witness accounts?
There are none. Not a single source document written or dictated by a single contemporaneous witness. There is not a single mention of the name of Jesus in the entire first century CE. No documents, no inscriptions, no court records, nothing. The only historian, Philo-Judeaus, writing and living near Jerusalem at the time Jesus is reputed to have lived, never mentioned him. He seems to have missed all those claimed miracles, the Herodian massacre, the 'triumphal entry into Jerusalem', the 'crucifixion earthquake' and unnatural eclipse and the dead saints rising from their graves and walking around. Despite the constant claims of Christian apologists there are no reliable historical sources for the historicity of the biblical Jesus.
If you believe in the biblical Jesus but believe the Salem Witch Trials were a travesty; a miscarriage of justice; an outbreak of mass hysteria; maybe ignorant and superstitious people reading what they wanted to see into the evidence, being hoodwinked by devious council, misdirected by perverse magistrates or perhaps witnesses reporting as evidence something they wrongly believed they saw, you have to reconcile holding two sets of opposing beliefs simultaneously.
You have to reconcile:
- rejecting the many testimonies of the witnesses, and the mass of existing 'evidence' which convinced the juries at the Salem Witch Trials, on the basis that whatever they thought they witnessed, it could not possibly be true because people are not really possessed by evil spirits which give them magical powers to change the natural world;
- a belief that Jesus really existed, despite the complete absence of any evidence and that he cast out evil spirits which had possessed people and gave them magical powers to change the natural world.
If you believe in Jesus you have no possible logical reason to believe the Witches of Salem were innocent; and you have no possible reason to reject the idea of witches, witchcraft and people controlling the physical world with spells and incantations today.
If you believe in the biblical Jesus but not in the guilt of the Salem Witches you are holding diametrically opposed views simultaneously about the existence of controlling spirits and about the value of historical evidence and eye-witness accounts, even of confession evidence.
And if you believe in Jesus and rid yourself of the hypocrisy of compartmentalised beliefs, there is nothing to prevent you and like-minded people taking us back to the time when we burned women for witchcraft, should we ever be stupid enough to allow you the power again to do so.