The devil in America

A British scholar argues that one judge's apology for his role in the Salem witch trials helped usher in a secular America. But are those dark times really behind us?

Published September 24, 2005 7:45PM (EDT)

What happened in Massachusetts in 1692? The bald facts are scary and baffling: Hysteria spread from the tiny rural outpost of Salem Village and, in the course of less than a year, led to the deaths of 20 accused witches, 14 women and 6 men, at the hands of colonial authorities. There's no shortage of theories about the cause of the frenzy: a flare-up of lethal misogyny, the inchoate rebellion of pubescent girls, widespread ingestion of a hallucinogenic grain fungus, a power vacuum among the community's male leaders and, most recently, Mary Beth Norton's intriguing suggestion that the furor was an expression of profound communal anxieties about recent wars with the Indians.

How the witch hunts ended and how the colony dealt with the aftermath of the trials is nearly as fascinating a question, and one that's less often asked. Richard Francis' new book, "Judge Sewall's Apology: The Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of an American Conscience," promises to correct the imbalance a little. Francis' subject, the Puritan merchant and magistrate Samuel Sewall, was not only a prodigious diary-keeper, but also the only Salem witch trial judge (out of nine) to publicly apologize for his role in the tragedy.

Francis argues that Sewall's apology -- made in a Boston church five years after the trials -- is extraordinary in more ways than one. The judge's statement was a sign, he maintains, of a major transformation in the way the Puritan colonists understood themselves and their world. According to Francis, it was out of Salem's nightmare of religious paranoia that American secularism was born.

The Salem witch craze began in January 1692, when two girls, aged 9 and 11, living in the household of the minister of Salem Village (an offshoot of Salem Town, now Danvers), began having strange fits. The number of "victims" -- mostly, but not exclusively, female and very young -- grew quickly, and so did the ranks of those accused of bewitching them. At first, the accusers picked on typical witch hunt targets -- unpopular and quarrelsome older women -- but eventually more prominent citizens, including the village's former minister, George Burroughs, were tried, convicted and hanged. By the end, dozens of people were accused, and in addition to those killed intentionally, four more died in prison before the hysteria passed.

The trials that Sewall presided over were short; most of the questioning was done during preliminary examinations -- and strangely enough it was at these examinations that nearly all the pertinent "crimes" were committed. Alleged witches and wizards were brought in for questioning, whereupon the afflicted, their supposed victims, began howling, weeping and contorting, claiming to be tormented by the specters of the accused. No one else could actually see these phantoms, but everyone in court could be listed as witnesses to their evil doings, making the conviction of the witches at the trials yet to come a slam dunk.

The cases all hinged on the validity of this spectral evidence. From our contemporary vantage, the notion of people sending invisible doubles to abuse their enemies seems preposterous. But, Francis argues, the colonists still had one foot in an essentially medieval worldview. They saw human beings as pawns in a cosmic battle between forces of good and evil that were real, palpable, supernatural entities operating outside the individual self. The afflicted, who jerked around seemingly at the whim of the accused, were puppets in the hands of the specters, who were in turn tools of the witches, who were in turn the slaves of the devil.

As Francis puts it, "The prosecutors were engaged in the indefatigable pursuit of the either/or. They were incapable of using what we would regard as common sense, because they couldn't allow for inner conflict and contradiction. In short, they could not accept complex explanations, acknowledge confusions, live with ambiguity. They were inhabiting a myth in which good and evil were always separately embodied, like characters in an allegory." In a sermon, Samuel Parris, the minister in whose house the whole thing started, stated, "We are either saints or Devils: the Scripture gives us no medium."

The witch hunts flared up at a time when the colonists were worried about what they saw as a general falling away from the pious ways of New England's first settlers. Many of them, including Sewall, believed that the colonies would play a central role in the fulfillment of various biblical prophecies. These millennial fantasies cast New England as the "city on a hill" celebrated by the Puritan John Winthrop. The most gung-ho of the witch trial judges firmly believed they were on the trail of a vast, diabolical conspiracy to undermine God's great plan for the nation.

The afflicted obliged the judges by spinning out sensational stories of black masses, a demonic minister-wizard in the person of George Burroughs and an ambitious satanic missionary campaign launched in the very heart of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. All this, Francis astutely points out, combined to form a "myth of negative colonization ... leading to the creation of an alternate community, symmetrically balancing the original settlement, and devoted to the worship of Satan." The witches' rites were an "inverse reflection of the village's official worship." The devil aimed, as the colonists imagined, to create an evil twin to the city on a hill.

As crazy as the witch trials look from here, a lot of this thinking is still with us, from the outer fringes of wackiness, where Harry Potter books are denounced for seducing children into sorcery, to the more common belief that Americans have lost touch with the virtues of our forefathers. An obsession with conspiracies, the belief that an "alternate community" observing different sacraments constitutes a direct attack on the Christian mainstream, a conviction that the United States is God's chosen nation, even a preference for subtlety-impaired leaders who tout primitive notions of pure good and evil -- all these are still present as aspects of our political culture.

Sewall was not the only person mixed up in the trials to officially voice his regrets afterward -- Samuel Parris, a jury foreman named Thomas Fiske and one of the afflicted did so, too. But, as Francis sees it, Sewall's apology is categorically different from theirs. It illustrates the dawn of a different way of looking at people and the world, one that coincided with "the growth of the social infrastructure of colonial New England and the increasing secularization of its culture -- with a shift from rural to urban values, in fact, and from traditional, almost medieval ways of thinking to characteristically modern ones."

The difference is that while the other participants described their own behavior as "ignorant" and "unwitting" and committed "under the power of a strong General Delusion," Sewall expressed his desire to "take the Blame & Shame of it" on himself. The distinction is fine: In the other cases, Francis sees people who view "guilt as a matter of external manipulation" and themselves as "simply conduits" for a much greater force (the devil again, who by then was seen as operating the afflicted rather than the accused). They claimed they could not help it; Sewall, on the other hand, seems to be saying that he should have known better.

The apology was made in the context of a growing sense that evil was less a matter of demonic intervention and instead an internal psychological struggle. Angels and devils did not rove the gloomy New England landscape harvesting souls; they battled within the souls of individual human beings. "By its very structure," Francis writes, Sewall's statement implied that the assumptions about the nature of guilt that underlay the trials rested on an inadequate view of human nature, and therefore made possible a more complex perspective."

This conclusion would be a lot more convincing if Francis could point to more than implications in Sewall's writings on the subject. The fact that other New Englanders made this point more explicitly (quoted by Francis to demonstrate that the idea was in the air) only makes his premise seem more strained. If others could float this new conception of the devil so frankly, then why is Sewall, who only alluded to it, held up as an exemplar of the change?

It must be said that "Judge Sewall's Apology" is not really a book about the Salem witch trials. Its title and subtitle are misleading, in a way all too common in today's trade publishing. Francis has written a biography of Sewall, a figure he finds appealing, and the book has been titled and packaged in a way that exaggerates the amount of witch trial information and analysis between its covers, presumably because more people are interested in the trials than in reading about a likable Puritan.

Likable Sewall may be, with his long and loving marriage, his sympathetically comical campaigns to find a new wife once he was widowed, his tender heart and straightforward dealings with friends and relatives, his integrity in many matters of public policy and his fondness for describing the New England countryside and his favorite meals in enthusiastic detail. We can admire Sewall for writing and publishing the first anti-slavery tract in America and for his efforts to help Native Americans. (This took the form of devoting himself to their conversion to Christianity -- an event he believed would prompt the Second Coming, as he considered them to be one of the lost tribes of Israel. By contrast, many of his fellow colonists considered the Indians to be little better than wild animals, and possibly even worse.)

But Sewall was still a Puritan, and therefore someone who saw himself and the world primarily in religious terms. He made his famous apology in large part because the years following the trials brought harsh weather, poor harvests and deaths among his own children -- all of which he interpreted as punishments levied on his community and himself for the shedding of innocent blood. This fear of a vengeful god hardly seems a sign of creeping secularism (and it's certainly not a view of the elements that's vanished in today's America).

Furthermore, as Francis himself mentions, Sewall wrote very little in his diary about the trials while they were going on. He may have suffered to see the aged and widely admired Rebecca Nurse accused, then defended in writing by 39 of her neighbors, then tried and acquitted; then her acquittal retracted by the merciless chief justice, William Stoughton, who instructed the jury to reconsider; then convicted and condemned; then reprieved by the governor and then finally hanged after that reprieve was withdrawn under pressure from persons unknown. Sewall may indeed have felt some twinge at this torture by judicial process, but if he did, he found it less worthy of a diary entry than many a plate of excellent roast pork.

The record of the trials Sewall presided over are lost, though we do have Cotton Mather's account of them, which draws heavily on the original source. So there are very few direct descriptions of what Sewall thought and felt about the trials, or how he behaved during them, an astonishing lacunae in an otherwise so well-documented life. This leaves Francis to speculate on what a man of Sewall's generally amiable and forgiving character might have felt and to draw inferences from the apparently few references he made to the affair afterward.

Every effort Francis makes to demonstrate that Sewall was exceptionally warmhearted for a Puritan only serves to prompt more questions: How could a man so kind and principled be party to such a horrific miscarriage of justice? Even at the start, there were colonists who dared to object to the proceedings, often at the risk of their own lives and liberty. Judge Nathaniel Saltonstall resigned from the panel after the first hanging and refused thereafter to sign warrants against accused witches or conduct any witchcraft examinations.

Francis would have us believe that when the trials started, Sewall still felt guilty about a mistake several years earlier, a reprieve he granted to a pirate at the request of the man's prominent friends. At the time, Sewall sought council from Stoughton, and Francis believes that it was Stoughton who later urged him to stand firm as the witch trials became increasingly unpopular. Again, more questions: Why did the convivial, flexible Sewall lend so much authority to this ultimate Puritan, a man Francis describes as "full of his own rectitude, very much on his dignity, utterly sure of himself." (Stoughton stuck to his guns to the very end, stalking out of court when, as the craze fizzled, the governor reprieved three "witches" the judges had sentenced to death. He refused for the rest of his life to admit that he'd been wrong.)

The marvel of Sewall's career is not that a pious Puritan should ease into slightly more modern attitudes in his later years. Rather, it is the power of communal pressures and religious mania to make a constitutionally decent man complicit in the bloody persecution of his own neighbors. Furthermore, only someone who lives in England (Francis teaches at a British University) could take such a sanguine view of the triumph of secularism in the U.S. and a tempering of the American impulse toward religious absolutism and excessive moral self-confidence.

Softening the dour image of Puritans is an understandable impulse; a complex image of history is usually more plausible than a simplified one. But that shouldn't blind us to the realities of Puritanism, a severe, fundamentalist religious movement that sought the freedom to establish a society that was anything but free.

When the novelist Salman Rushdie calls (as he did recently in the Washington Post) for an "Islamic Reformation," he seems unaware that this is exactly what Wahhabism and other forms of Islamic fundamentalism are: reform movements. His confusion is based on a misunderstanding of the Christian Reformation; he seems to have the idea that it was a cosmopolitan, liberalizing force, instead of an often radical, back-to-basics movement that produced fanatical sects like the Puritans.

It should come as no surprise, then, to learn (courtesy of Eve LaPlante's excellent biography of the Puritan dissident Ann Hutchinson, "American Jezebel") that John Endicott, one of Massachusetts' founding fathers, tried to pass a law forcing women to follow Old Testament practices and wear veils. The old- time religious values that some Americans say they want the nation to return to have some chilling similarities to the ideals of our most implacable enemies. Salem is not the only horror they produced, just the most flamboyant one, and one that even nice people like Samuel Sewall found themselves perpetrating.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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