Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Religious Establishment Advocated for Restraint - The Return of Several Ministers

Today in the Salem witch timeline:Salem Witch Trials Timeline: "Twelve ministers of the colony advise the court not to rely on spectral evidence for convicting suspected witches."

The document they produced, which was authored by Cotton Mather, was called The Return of Several Ministers Consulted by his Excellency, and the Honorable Council, upon the present Witchcrafts in Salem Village.

It argued for more caution in the prosecution of witchcraft and warned that the Devil may be behind false allegations. Had the judges considered this far fewer people would have been tried. Perhaps there would have been no additional executions.

Many have the view that the religious establishment was behind the witch trials, but the fact is that most ministers were either opposed to the trials outright or were at least skeptical of what was going on.
I address all of this more fully in my book, Justice at Salem.

The document these ministers signed is produced below:

I. The afflicted state of our poor neighbors that are now suffering by molestations from the invisible world, we apprehend so deplorable that we think their condition calls for the utmost help of all persons in their several capacities.

II. We cannot but with all thankfulness acknowledge the success which the merciful God has given unto the sedulous and assiduous endeavours of our honorable rulers to detect the abominable witch- crafts which have been committed in the country, humbly praying that the discovery of these mysterious and mischievous wicked- nesses may be perfected.

III. We judge that in the prosecution of these, and all such witch- crafts, there is need of a very critical and exquisite caution, lest by too much credulity for things received only upon the Devil's authority there be a door opened for a long train of miserable consequences, and Satan get an advantage over us, for we should not be ignorant of his devices.

IV. As in complaints upon witchcrafts there may be Matters of Inquiry which do not amount unto Matters of Presumption, and there may be Matters of Presumption which yet may not be reckoned Matters of Conviction, so 'tis necessary that all proceedings thereabout be managed with an exceeding tenderness towards those that may be complained of, especially if they have been persons formerly of an unblemished reputation.

V. When the first inquiry is made into the circumstances of such as may lie under any just suspicion of witchcrafts, we could wish that there may be admitted as little as is possible of such noise, company, and openness as may too hastily expose them that are examined, and that there may be nothing used as a test for the trial of the suspected the lawfulness whereof may be doubted among the People of Cod, but that the directions given by such judicious writers as Perkins and Bernard be consulted in such a case.

VI. Presumptions whereupon persons may be committed, and, much more, convictions whereupon persons may be condemned as guilty of witchcrafts, ought certainly to be more considerable than barely the accused person being represented by a specter unto the afflicted, inasmuch as 'tis an undoubted and a notorious thing that a Demon may, by God’s permission, appear even to ill purposes in the shape of an innocent, yea, and a virtuous man. Nor can we esteem alterations made in the sufferers by a look or touch of the accused to be an infallible evidence of guilt, but frequently liable to be abused by the Devil's legerdemains.

VII. We know not whether some remarkable affronts given to the Devils by our disbelieving those testimonies whose whole force and strength is from them alone may not put a period unto the progress of the dreadful calamity begun upon us in the accusation of so many persons, whereof we hope some are yet clear from the great transgression laid unto their charge.

VIII. Nevertheless, we cannot but humbly recommend unto the government the speedy and vigorous prosecution of such as have rendered themselves obnoxious, according to the direction given in the Laws of God and the wholesome statutes of the English nation for the detection of witchcraft.

(reprinted in Hansen 123-25)

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