Failure of the elders

Rev. Increase Mather

Increase Mather was the pastor of the First Church of Boston (the Old North Church), president of Harvard Divinity College, colonial religious and political leader, father to Cotton Mather (see below).  In 1684 he wrote An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences, also known as Remarkable Providences, describing witchcraft cases of early New England.  The same descriptions of the afflicted's behavior, being pricked with needles, scratched and beaten by unseen assailants, and other sundry assaults, were recorded by Rev. Mather eight years before the incident at Salem (Burr, pgs. 1-38).

During the trials the use of 'spectral evidence' usurped common-law that required at least two witnesses against the accused.  Spectral, the image cast by Satan of his willing or unwilling, human agent.  It was theologically held that Satan could use the specter of the innocent. The court argued otherwise. The specter of the guilty was the criminal returning to the scene of the crime (Miller, Colony, pg. 194).  To obtain a conviction of witchcraft, it was enough for the accuser to say that the image or spectre of the accused appeared to them and caused them distress and physical harm. 

Increase Mather spoke against the opinion of the court on the issue of 'spectral evidence' arguing that Satan was beyond comprehension and power.  He could possess the innocent.  He argued theologically to the court that their insistence upon empirical evidence of an assault by a spectre violated the doctrine of the invisible world that Increase clung to with Calvinist Absolutism (Konig, pg. 172).


 
 
Deodot Lawson, former pastor of the Salem Village Church, whose late wife and daughter were accused as appearing to the afflicted as spectres, spoke in March urging caution while at the same time confirming suspicion. "Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the Devil goes about as a roaring lion, seeking whom amongst you he may distress, and devour...let the observation of these amazing dispensations of God's unusual and strange Providence quicken us to our duty..." (Lawson, Salem-Village, pg. 125, from a sermon entitled "Christ's fidelity the only shield against Satan's Malignity," given at Salem Village, March 24, 1692). Lawson could react no other way.  He was responding within the logic of the covenant (Colony, pg. 194).  In "Christ's Fidelity" he called the affliction a judgment on the destiny of the colony (Weisman, pg. 127).

 

Gov. William Phips

William Phips commissioned the court of Oyer and Terminer on June 2, 1692, without waiting for the newly reauthorized legislature to convene.  Earlier courts of Oyer and Terminer were commissioned to hear general cases but this one was ordered to hear only cases of witchcraft.  The limited scope of the court may have served to intensify the situation, casting personal grievances in the darkness of the supernatural in order to be heard.  All that was necessary was evidence of satanic collusion that would become increasingly easy to prove (Konig, pg. 170).


William Stoughton

William Stoughton was the Chief Justice of the court of Oyer and Terminer.  He held the absolute conviction that no innocent person, under the guardianship of God, could be imagined as a specter (unlike Increase Mather who argued man could not know the workings of the invisible world).  Therefore, any who were seen by their accusers were guilty (Miller, Colony, pg. 194).

The Covenant of Grace assumed guilt on the part of man and it was the duty of the civil authorities to vigorously pursue and prosecute the disagreeable, or whoever would not confess and repent.  Stoughton, who began his career in study for the ministry, did exactly as the covenant ordered (Miller, Colony,  pgs. 194-195).  Stoughton would die claiming his judgements  were sound and within the logic of the covenant, they were.


 

Reverend Cotton Mather

Cotton Mather, pastor of the Second Church of Boston, begged the court not to take too seriously spectral evidence.  He prophetically proclaimed that "The Door is opened!" when too much credence is given to demonic sources of malady in form of one's neighbor. 

Yet in 1689, he had published Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions.  It was about his pastoral work with the Goodwin Children of Boston who were said to be afflicted by the old washerwoman/witch, Mary Glover.  Glover was executed in Boston Common in 1689.  Memorable Providences records Mather's experiments with the afflicted children, most notably Martha Goodwin, age fourteen.  He recorded the response of "spectators."  His view of witchcraft was well known. 

In the Summer of 1692, a girl named Mercy Short was said to be afflicted and tormented by Sarah Good, an accused and soon to be executed witch.  She was one of the first three taken in February.  Cotton took Mercy into his home to cure her with prayer as he had done with the Goodwin children in 1688-1689. He wrote his findings and reflections in A Brand Pluck'd Out of the Burning (Burr, pgs. 253-288).

By fall he was exhorting the magistrates "to do something extraordinary in promoting what is laudable, and in restraining and chastising of Evil Doers" (Miller, Colony, 203).

In Wonders of the Invisible World about the Salem trials Mather would employ apocalyptic imagery to express the witch incident as a focal point of a great cosmic drama (Weisman, pg. 130)

 


 
 
 

 

 
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