Few among us enjoy recapping the crimes of our own groups. The American political left rarely mentions its general support for "Uncle Joe" Stalin's purge trials in the 1930s and its attempt to blacklist dissenters in this country. The American political right skips by its unfair counter-attempt to tar some liberals during the 1950s.
Christians do not like to be reminded of one incident from our early history in this country, the Salem witch trials of 1692. Of course, those who hate Christ emphasize that incident. My college students generally don't know much about history, but they have unfailingly been taught about the hysteria three centuries ago, and since Hollywood likes to jab at Jesus, The Crucible is now playing on movie screens across the land.
Christians cannot avoid the subject-and if we explain what actually happened, we may find some allies. After all, The Crucible's "tendency to see things in black and white" was a little too much for even Newsweek's reviewer, David Ansen, who described his resistance to "a work that makes the audience feel as noble in our moral certainty as the characters it invites us to deplore."
Here's some background on what happened: Virtually everyone in the 17th century knew that witches exist, but Bible-readers knew that individuals suspected of witchcraft still deserved a fair trial. Many countries and colonies gave no legal protection to suspected witches during the 1600s, but until 1692 Massachusetts did. From 1663 through 1691, trials of witches in New England led to 20 acquittals and only one execution.
Rights of the accused were protected because biblical justice-see Deuteronomy 19:15-requires the testimony of at least two unimpeachable witnesses. Salem became a byword for injustice in 1692 only when politician-judges overstepped biblical restraints and began accepting what was called "spectral evidence."
Spectral evidence was testimony by individuals that they had seen not the accused, but a ghostly likeness or "spectre" of the accused, engaged in criminal actions such as burning houses or sinking ships. Leading Puritan ministers such as Increase Mather and his 29-year-old son Cotton Mather had long argued that acceptance of spectral evidence was an unbiblical practice that could lead to abuses and general hysteria.
In May, 1692, before anyone was executed, Cotton Mather attacked reliance on spectral evidence, saying, "It is very certain that the devils have sometimes represented the shapes of persons not only innocent, but also very virtuous." Ambitious Salemites who cared more for their own popularity than God's honor did not listen: They jailed several hundred residents and executed 20 from June through September, 1692.
Ministerial chastisement eventually stopped the hysteria: Increase Mather wrote a pamphlet, Cases of Conscience, that attacked the use of spectral evidence and self-incrimination under pressure in Salem. Massachusetts citizens who saw the documented evidence of unbiblical practice demanded that the executions stop, and they did; as esteemed historian Perry Miller has noted, "Increase Mather-and he alone-brought the murders to an end."
Sadly, the tendency among some to place political popularity above biblical faithfulness did not end then. The governor of Massachusetts "ordered" Cotton Mather to write an account of the trials that would make the conduct of his Salem cronies not look as bad as it was, and the ambitious young man complied. Cotton Mather's rushed book, Wonders of the Invisible World, is still quoted today as "proof" of Puritan zaniness.
It took Cotton Mather almost three decades to make journalistic restitution for his cravenness. In 1721, when Dr. Benjamin Boylston fought a smallpox epidemic raging in Boston by making use of the latest scientific innovation, inoculation, a committee of Boston city councilmen ordered Boylston to stop the bizarre process of putting germs into a person.
Mather came to Boylston's defense and argued that God often uses human innovations for godly ends. The debate raged for weeks, with anti-inoculationists attacking Mather sharply by bringing up his defense of the Salem witch trials: They argued that he was deluded then and was deluded again.
This time, however, Mather did not give in to political pressure. His support of Boylston carried the day and helped to save hundreds of lives.
As Christians, we should welcome examination of troublesome matters like the witch trials, because they show how all-including Christians-fall short of the glory of God. Christians and non-Christians both sin, but Christians know that there is a means of forgiveness.