Here is this week’s Memo from Moderator David Grimsted, continuing his thought-provoking exploration of our church’s Puritan roots.
As I taught history to college students, I kept a record of the most horrendous “truths” that appeared in exam books, out of good Puritan motives. Theoretically, they kept me aware of my sorry professional limitations; actually, they kept me laughing about our general human capacity for ignorance and the eternal twisting of truth. My clear favorite I think of often and never without smiling. It was written by a senior (please, God, forgive all educators their many sins) who informed me “Women were a lot better off in the 1920s because they passed an amendment ending women’s suffering.” What does a teacher say? This one said “Wouldn’t that have been a good idea!”
With the Puritans, popular prejudice often beat down my attempts at instilling some respectful understanding. My favorite is the weirdest: “The Puritans had this awful religion that made them just hate sunflowers and witches.” Despite decades of pondering, I have no idea how those sunflowers got planted, but the “awful” (and aweful) and “witches” were a part of the bigger “truth,” or at least my version of it.
The Puritans came to America to practice what they believed was the only true religion, although they encouraged all faithful to think intensely both theologically and personally. They saw God as loving and beautiful, but also as often angry—and with good reason given the foibles and failings of all humans. COVID-19 would not have surprised them. They would have judged it just, but with few falling into the vicious stupidity that those who survived were good and those who succumbed evil.
They were not especially persecutorial. The colony always had numbers of people in other sects or of no belief who were unhurt so long as they didn’t publicly proselytize. The early conflicts were with people within the Puritan community who began public attack on other Puritans. Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams aroused the chief trouble. Hutchinson, whose minister father in England was jailed for several years for some ideas judged non-Anglican, was condemned only to a period of comfortable house arrest while her husband left to build the family a new home. John Winthrop warned Williams and aided his escape to Rhode Island before trial.
The tragic case was that of the hanging of four Quakers. These victims had some warning. When they were arrested for public proselytizing they were taken beyond the borders of New England into the religious wilds of New York and told never to return. Return, still loudly speaking their truth, they did. One of the executed was a woman, Mary Dyer, who two decades earlier had been a follower of Anne Hutchinson. Both women got into mild trouble for not reporting the still-birth of a highly deformed fetus—a hard life and hard death doing God’s work.
And then there were witches. There were three outbreaks that led to executions in New England. Between 1647-1656, a series of Massachusetts outbreaks resulted in the legal killing of eight female and one male witch. In Hartford, Connecticut in 1662 three women and one man were executed. In the famous outbreak centered in Salem Village in 1692, twenty people died, fourteen of them women. This case spiraled hugely, until there were about 300 people jailed on witch charges and over 500 accused when the governor ended all further proceedings. The spread here grew from the way the court released witches who confessed—especially if they implicated others. This legal bloodbath over, New England had no more witch trials.
New England participated in worldwide Christian belief and practice stretching from the 13th into the 18th century. Very partial records suggest the hanging/burning to death of about 60,000 witches. The first American outburst was spurred on by several hundred English killings after Parliament passed a capital punishment law for witching in 1645.
The New England sociology of these events is interesting. As elsewhere, the great majority of victims were women, most of them poor. In Salem, many victims were comfortably off. All were people who chose not to live rather than to lie. The bulk of the possessed accusers were teenage girls, with quite a few older women also accusing other women. The first New England case featured a husband and wife accusing each other. Family tensions and neighborly animosities often seem clear.
A four-year-old child, jailed as a witch in Salem, was released when the governor ended the business. That seems just. The incident is good proof of an aspect of Puritan theology: decent and godly people are capable of gross delusions and brutalities. Occasionally they learn from them.