Yes, I’m not ashamed to say it – I love the Puritans! Their commitment to godly living and the theological writings and sermons they have left behind are a rich treasure chest for Christian influence. I know they get a bad rap nowadays, but to the average critic, everything boils down to a short period of time in a concentrated area commonly known as the Salem Witch Trials. So when my youngest daughter was asked to write a paper on this topic, I did some research of my own to unearth the truth. In a nutshell, here’s what I concluded as it pertains to this singular event.
1. While many believe the witch trials tended to characterize the entire New England Puritan movement, the reality is they only happened during a short period of time (February 1692 – May 1693), executing 20 people and occurring in a few towns in one geographical location (most notably, Salem). Overall, this was far from being the norm to depict the whole Puritan era.
2. While convicted witches in Europe were burned at the stake for heresy, all those who were sentenced to death in New England we hanged (except Giles Corey who was crushed because he refused to enter a plea). While rarely enacted, the law of the land in Colonial America was that witchcraft was punishable by death by hanging.
3. Tension was high for the people of this time. The new colony in Salem was just settled in 1628. There was a war going on with France, a constitutional crisis in England, constant fear of Indian attacks, an increase in arriving refugees and a recent small pox outbreak. Add to this a newer charter invoked from Charles II in 1691 replacing their original one that gave the Puritans less religious freedom. The newer charter led to fears that they were facing religious persecution. Freedom from religious persecution was the very reason they risked their lives in their departure from England.
4. So with the community on edge and overly defensive to preserve their spiritual heritage, the stage was set to make rash choices. Therefore after strange physical abnormalities were discovered among some teenaged girls, demonic activity was deemed the culprit that was threatening their religious culture and bringing on the wrath of God. They determined that witchcraft was something that must be eradicated for their society to survive.
5. On March 1st, three women were arrested. One of them confessed that they had been approached by Satan and all three agreed to serve him as witches. This confession ignited the overzealous hunt for additional witches in an effort to completely eliminate this influence from their community.
6. Eventually opposition from others in the community (even many noted pastors) against the witch trials began to rise. The masses feared that the innocent were being executed and the means to obtain guilty verdicts (such as “spectral evidence” based on dreams and vision and the appearance of strange moles on the body) were dubious.
7. When the Puritans realized the wrongdoing of their ways they turned from their errors and instituted a colony-wide “Day of Pray and Fasting” in 1697. Reverend Increase Mather stated, “It were better than ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person should be condemned.” All societies have made mistakes and the witch trials (although they occurred only among a small group) were a blemish on the Puritan record. However, it must be noted that the Puritans acknowledged their sin and repented within their own generation.
8. While it was fellow Puritans that opposed the trials, it must be stressed that the community opposed the way in which the trials were conducted based upon insufficient evidence. They did not oppose the fact that witchcraft was a sin against God Almighty (Ex. 22:18; Dt. 18:10) and something that was not desired in their community.
9. If the Puritans were indeed trying to establish a theocracy like ancient Israel in the New World, the capital punishment of witches is supported in the Mosaic Law.
10. As a whole, they were far from being the simple-minded, uneducated, overreacting, unlawful, superstitious individuals that later generations have tended to characterize them. The Puritans left behind some of the most profound and intellectual expositions of Scripture. They are models for godly and orderly living. And Puritanism, contrary to the beliefs of many, continued to flourish for decades after the witch trials.