The End of Witchcraft Trials in New England

Posted on October 1, 2013. Filed under: 17th century America, Colonial America, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

Part the last of our short series on the practical whys and wherefores of witchcraft cases in Puritan New England ends with a look at reasons for the decline and disappearance of these cases. Again we are relying on John Demos’ priceless book Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and and the Culture of Early New England for many of our specific examples.

As Demos points out, and as we noted in part 1 of this series, one of the exacerbating factors in witchcraft accusations was close proximity: in early New England towns, the entire population lived in small houses crowding the small square, saw each other daily in a variety of roles, socialized together, worshipped and worked together, and basically could not get out of each other’s hair for one minute. If you disliked someone in town, you would not be able to avoid interacting with them every day, and, in their blunt Puritan way the person you disliked would likely barge into your yard and home whenever they wanted, sometimes just to bother you. We have seen that most people accused of witchcraft were difficult people who demanded favors, gifts, and intimacy from those around them, giving nothing back in return. If a neighbor refused a gift or favor, the difficult person might curse or threaten them. Then, if by coincidence some harm befell the neighbor, the difficult person would fall under suspicion of having used witchcraft to make good their threats.

So if witchcraft accusations were provoked in some part by too-close proximity, it makes sense that once New England had expanded enough to conquer its frontier, and it was safer and less laborious to start new towns, two things happened to slow witchcraft accusations: towns began to grow, and people began to move more often. As Demos puts it:

“Eventually witchcraft would disappear as a matter of formal proceedings. This last part of the sequence is extremely hard to analyze from a distance of three centuries; perhaps, however, one key factor was a certain loosening of the social tissues themselves.  …The growth and dispersion of the local populace, a somewhat broadened range of economic activity, an increasingly firm system of social stratification: these interlocking trends seem gradually to have modified the tensions amid which witchcraft had flourished.” (371)

If the average town goes from 150 people to 1,000, you are less likely to constantly deal with the same people each day, and your neighbor is less likely to focus his full attention on you 24 hours a day simply because there are more people to be interested in. Your neighbor is also less likely to also be your tax collector, fence inspector, pew-fellow, midwife, cattle-driver, etc. A small number of intensely intimate relationships are replaced by many more casual ones.

When Demos talks about loosening of the social tissues, remember that the Puritans were dedicated to the principle of mutual watch: the loving oversight of their community. This meant playing a role in the spiritual lives of your community, and welcoming your community’s involvement in your own spiritual life. Puritans worshipped, prayed, and debated together on a regular, almost daily basis, and their ideal was to work out all conflicts through loving negotiation. Ideally, no matter would ever have to go to court. Many times, when a problem did go to court—including witchcraft cases—it was sent back to the town by the judge with a recommendation that the problem be solved privately, by the interested parties, through prayer, negotiation, and applied goodwill. Ministers, deacons, and especially godly church members were on constant call to mediate conflicts, and were successful far more often than might be expected.

As towns grew, and people knew each other less well, mutual watch became difficult and then impossible to carry out. Just as a growing population meant less intimate, less frequent contact between townspeople, so too it meant less conviction that the community was bound, or able, to mediate conflicts. And larger, more mobile populations meant fewer personal problems between individuals had the chance to fester and grow. Problems went directly to court and were settled there. This meant that the weeks, months, or even years of private tension over a suspected witch, and the weeks, months, or years of attempted mediation and accumulated anxiety and bad feeling were done away with. Without that long history of conflict, fewer accusations of witchcraft were made. Without that long history of conflict to produce dozens of witnesses for and against the accused, those witchcraft cases that did go to court were weaker and taken less seriously. It was easier to see the case as the result of a personal conflict. The wind was taken out of the sails of witchcraft.

So we see that by the end of the 17th century, a century of intense population growth in New England, witchcraft cases are dwindling to nothing. In fact, after the Salem witch trials in 1692, there were “no more executions, no convictions, indeed no actual indictments” related to witchcraft in any New England court. (Demos 387) We talked in part 2 about why Salem, the largest witch trials, happened as witchcraft trials themselves were dying away. Here we want to focus on its aftermath. The hysteria at Salem deeply shocked and shamed New Englanders, who saw government go off the rails, replaced by accusation and panic, and they were embarrassed to think of how they looked to the outside world. The Age of Reason was influencing how people thought about natural and unnatural phenomena, even New England Puritans.

Thomas Brattle is a good example of this. Brattle lived in the town of Cambridge and wrote a letter to a friend about the events in Salem just as they were ending, in October 1692. Brattle’s account of the way the trials were conducted is a powerful example of a good Puritan completely rejecting the irrationality of the Salem trials:

“First, as to the method which the Salem Justices do take in their examinations, it is truly this: A warrant being issued out to apprehend the persons that are charged and complained of by the afflicted children, (as they are called); said persons are brought before the Justices, (the afflicted being present.) The Justices ask the apprehended why they afflict those poor children; to which the apprehended answer, they do not afflict them. The Justices order the apprehended to look upon the said children, which accordingly they do; and at the time of that look, (I dare not say by that look, as the Salem Gentlemen do) the afflicted are cast into a fit. The apprehended are then blinded, and ordered to touch the afflicted; and at that touch, though not by the touch, (as above) the afflicted ordinarily do come out of their fits. The afflicted persons then declare and affirm, that the apprehended have afflicted them; upon which the apprehended persons, though of never so good repute, are forthwith committed to prison, on suspicion for witchcraft.

…I cannot but condemn this method of the Justices, of making this touch of the hand a rule to discover witchcraft; because I am fully persuaded that it is sorcery, and a superstitious method, and that which we have no rule for, either from reason or religion. [This] Salem philosophy, some men may call the  new philosophy; but I think it rather deserves the name of Salem superstition and sorcery, and it is not fit to be named in a land of such light as New-England is… In the mean time, I think we must [be] thankful to God for it, that all men are not thus bereft of their senses; but that we have here and there considerate and thinking men, who will not thus be imposed upon…

What will be the issue of these troubles, God only knows; I am afraid that ages will not wear off that reproach and those stains which these things will leave behind them upon our land. I pray God pity us, humble us, forgive us, and appear mercifully for us in this our mount of distress.”

Puritans had always treasured reason. They believed it was God’s greatest gift (after saving grace), given to humans to allow them to comprehend God’s creation and to seek to understand God’s will. Their legal code was a model of reason. As the 17th century drew to a close, Puritans began to doubt that their courts should be hearing witchcraft cases. Like Thomas Brattle, they felt there was no way for a judge to ” discover witchcraft” because witchcraft was supernatural—it could not be addressed in a human court: witchcraft was “that which we have no rule for, either from reason or religion.” Most Puritans felt the same, and witchcraft accusations were handled privately after Salem.

They were handled privately because witchcraft accusations didn’t disappear after Salem; they dwindled, and  they entered the realm of ambiguity. “Witchcraft was hard to square with ‘enlightened’ standards and values, yet it could not be dismissed entirely” [Demos 387], and in this state of limbo witchcraft accusations were reduced to the status of gossip and private fulminations and, eventually, legend. Ministers reported strange cases that alarmed them, but never led them to publicly reveal the suspected culprits. Almost every little town seemed to have a local witch who fueled gossip and folklore but was mostly left in peace. “The figure of the witch was effectively scaled down, so as to shrink the elements of death-dealing power, and to emphasize those of sheer eccentricity. …The harm attributed to witchcraft was confined more and more to routine domestic mishap, nightmares, and simple ‘mischief’… such elements had always been part of the witch’s maleficium, but now they were virtually the whole of it.” [Demos 390]

Puritans had always been skeptical of claims that someone was truly a witch in league with and empowered by the devil, and required many witnesses and much evidence in trials, and even then dismissed most cases. By the 1700s, that skepticism was complete. 1630-1700 is a pretty brief window for witchcraft, and since we see that witchcraft cases really began in Puritan New England in the mid-1640s and ended after 1692, the window is even briefer. It is odd, therefore, that Puritan New England is so identified with witch trials and witch hunts. Poor Thomas Brattle was right, it seems, to fear that “ages will not wear off that reproach and those stains which these things will leave behind them upon our land.” Americans love to reproach the Puritans with their “witch mania”, unfair though that accusation may be, given that English colonists throughout North America believed just as firmly in witches. If only there had been a Salem in Virginia, another anomaly that drew attention away from its laser focus on Massachusetts, we might have a better general understanding of the role of witchcraft belief in the early modern western world.

As it is, we will leave off here feeling we’ve done our small part to set the record straight.

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The Chronology of Witchcraft in Puritan New England

Posted on September 24, 2013. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , |

Hello and welcome to part 2 of our short series on the Puritans and the factors behind the seeming madness of their accusations of witchcraft. Again we’re referring to John Demos’ book Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and and the Culture of Early New England for many keen observations on what caused the Puritans to make these accusations.

One of his most interesting conclusions is that witchcraft accusations came about during times of relative political and social peace. When communities were first founded, people’s time was completely occupied with building homes, clearing fields, putting in crops, and other necessities of life. During the first few years of a new town’s life, there were few or no witchcraft accusations. This was not only because people had little time to pursue such accusations, but because the populations were so new—people did not all know each other well. The core founders may have come over from England together, or a core group may have left one town to start another, but most of the rest were people who joined in from all over, and did not really know each other. We mentioned in part 1 that people lived in very close quarters and had a great deal of daily, often intimate (in the home) contact with each other over the course of years, and when people were difficult neighbors in these circumstances they more likely to be accused of witchcraft. As Demos says, the first tumultuous years of settlement, with high population turnover and few established relationships, “were not conducive to the development of full-blown witchcraft proceedings, which required time and a certain constancy of social relations.” [371]

After the initial tumult of founding, however, people had time to get to know each other, sometimes all too well, and the accusations would begin—usually about a decade in to the life of the town. At that point, only one thing could disrupt the attention to witchery: outside conflict. War, threats to the town or the colony, dissension in the town’s church; these were all events that devoured the attention of townspeople, putting them back into a life-or-death situation similar to the early founding years. The 1640s were a time of relative peace in New England, and during this decade the colonies in Massachusetts and Connecticut experienced a high-water mark of witchcraft trials. But when the Hartford Controversy (a bitter conflict over church leadership) broke out in 1656, the number of witchcraft cases in that colony dropped sharply, and remained down until the controversy was ended.

After a conflict, there was a brief resting period, and then witchcraft accusations would resume, sometimes more vigorously than before, as excess energy and anger left over from the conflict found a vent.

There is an important difference here, as Demos notes, between conflict and “harms” or “signs”. Epidemic disease, insect infestations, comets, hurricanes, and other such events were considered harms or signs from God, warning the people of the need to repent their sins. These harms and signs often triggered witchcraft accusations, as people attempted to harrow (as they would put it) and purify their communities in the face of God’s demonstrated anger.  Unusual or inexplicable events fueled fear of witches, but concrete, clearly human conflicts did not. Political fights, wars with or fear of Indians or the French in Canada and Maine, and church divisions were not sent from God but were the result of very human arguments, and these did not provoke quests to uncover witches.

The Puritans arrived in North America in numbers in 1630. For that first decade of settlement in the 1630s, witchcraft cases were few. It was in the 1640s that settled communities began prosecuting witches, and this persisted into the 1650s. By the 1660s, witchcraft cases in Massachusetts Bay Colony had dropped, while harms and signs (a smallpox epidemic and repeated crop failures) in Connecticut led to an increase of cases there. 1660 was a pivotal year: Charles II was restored to the English throne, and the Puritans in America justly feared for their safety and continued political independence with a Stuart back on the throne, since it had been Puritans who had executed his father. When the new king sent commissioners to inspect the colonies in 1664, fear of political takeover choked off witchcraft cases. In the late 1660s, a critical conflict in the mighty First Church Boston also preoccupied the colonists’ attentions, and it was not until the early 1670s that witchcraft cases rose again in Massachusetts, which was suffering through a series of droughts and storms (harms and signs), while almost disappearing in Connecticut, which was still struggling with religious divisions (human conflict).

In the late 1670s, both Massachusetts and the Connecticut colonies experienced a very low number of witchcraft cases—almost none—thanks to the turmoil and fear of King Philip’s War: as Demos puts it, “For the time being danger from the invisible world was superseded by combat with a host of quite present and visible Indian enemies.”

After the war, the usual witchcraft cases driven by residual fear and anger cropped up,  and a fire in Boston and other “harms and signs” exacerbated the tension. But in the 1680s and 90s cases dropped off again as fears of a royal political takeover grew—the Massachusetts Bay Colony was fighting for its independence as its charter was called into question in London. It was revoked finally in 1691, and the MBC became a royal colony with a royally appointed governor, a calamity that put almost all witchcraft accusations to rest.

But then came the one witchcraft episode that most Americans know about—Salem. Its date gives its motives away. The first accusations were in 1692, a year after the loss of the charter, and were clearly part of the usual post-traumatic stress of a big conflict. Other factors made Salem explode into a witch hunt such as had never been seen before (see our series on Salem here), but the unusually large trouble of losing political independence obviously contributed to an unusually large case of witchcraft accusations.

After Salem, the 1690s saw almost no witchcraft cases in Massachusetts or the Connecticut colonies, and this was likely, in part, a reaction against the Salem mania.

This chronological tour of rises and falls in witchcraft cases in New England shows us some interesting points:

—witchcraft was on people’s minds mostly in the absence of human conflicts

—witchcraft accusations were not constant over time

—Puritans did not blame witchcraft for concrete crises and problems, but for more abstract, hard to explain events like storms, failed crops, and epidemics.

—Witchcraft accusations were often safety valves used to release accumulated tension and anger after a human conflict, and sometimes a way to strike at all-too human enemies who had emerged victorious from a conflict that should have destroyed them, according to the accuser.

Next time we’ll see how demographic and geographic growth ended witchcraft cases altogether in Puritan New England by the early 1700s.

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Puritans and Witchcraft: more method, less madness

Posted on September 18, 2013. Filed under: 17th century America, Colonial America, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

John Demos’ invaluable book Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and and the Culture of Early New England is a worthy read for anyone seeking scientific analysis of witchcraft amongst the Puritans—not just trials and executions, but the daily lived experience of witchcraft. It is a mark of the book’s soundness, in some ways, that it does not discuss the Salem Witch Trials (they are mentioned in passing a few times). This confirms our opinion that the Salem trials were an anomaly in New England, and tell us about the Puritans’ experience and understanding of witches only by spelling out what they were not.

It is clear from Demos’ study that most 17th-century Puritans did believe that a few people around them practiced witchcraft, but the myth-busting corollary to this is that few people suspected of practicing witchcraft were actually tried, and fewer of those were convicted. It is amazing to read dozens of stories of people who were suspected of practicing witchcraft and repeatedly accused of it over many years—sometimes decades—who were never convicted in court, and who often had many public arguments over their suspected witchcraft before charges were even made against them.

The usual (though not universal) profile of a suspected witch was a middle-aged man or woman (more often a woman) with few or no children and an aggressive personality who made a habit of barging into people’s homes uninvited, demanding jobs or favors from people, and meddling or attempting to meddle with the treatment of the ill. The usual victim was an infant or child, or a woman who had recently given birth. This, Demos argues, could illustrate the difficulties for childless women or women who lived past their childbearing years in early modern society: they had no children to do chores or bring in income for them, and therefore frequently asked for favors from others; and those in menopause had no hope of having (more) children and envied women who were younger and having children, which led them to insistently barge in on women in childbirth or to demand to touch and hold infants. In a society where the average family had 5 children, to be childless or to have only one child was to stand out, and once your only child grew up and perhaps moved away, you were alone, which was difficult in a frontier situation.

The almost universal aggressiveness of suspected witches is interesting. Today we tend to think of the accused as kind and helpless old women singled out for no good reason. But the men and women accused of witchcraft were always difficult people. They complained and took people to court even more frequently than the average litigious Puritan. They called people names and spread malicious gossip. They threatened people’s livestock and livelihoods, predicting death or destruction. They made unreasonable demands on their neighbors for food, goods, and labor, and threatened illness, death, or worse when their demands were not met. Many of the couples accused of witchcraft had difficult marriages that sometimes resulted in physical abuse. A surprising number of accused witches actually boasted about their familiarity with the devil and sorcery, and while one can imagine the thrill of holding an audience spellbound with your stories about what you’ve heard the devil and his consorts do at night, one can’t imagine that this display of intimate knowledge of satanism wouldn’t come back to haunt the teller of the tales.

Demos’ book concludes with some valuable generalizations about Puritans and witchcraft that we will spell out and amplify here and in the next post. But first, we want to make our own claims, which are these:

1. Too often the Puritans of New England are singled out for studies in witchcraft. One can be forgiven for thinking that the Puritans were the only group in North America who believed in or prosecuted witches. But witchcraft was an accepted reality throughout the early modern world, and the settlers in Virginia, Maryland, and New York were just as firm in their belief in witches as the settlers of Massachusetts and Connecticut. New Spain was constantly battling against native American witchcraft, and the meager Christian outposts of New France were happy to keep their distance from the witchery of the native Canadians.

Indeed, we posit that the only reason New England is the witchery upon a hill is the notoriety of Salem, and if that anomaly had not taken place the number of people interested in New England witchcraft would be equal to the minuscule number of people studying witchcraft in Jamestown.

2. We tend to cut the New England Puritans far too little slack for being a pioneer people. We somehow block out the fact that most Puritans in the mid-17th century, when witchcraft claims and trials were at their height, were living in mud huts in isolated villages of about 100-150 people, wary of Indian attacks, and suffering all the hunger, fatigue, and strain of founding a frontier settlement. The houses in a new settlement were literally all in one place, lining the road through the village, and everyone was almost astoundingly interconnected: your neighbors next door were also likely sitting next to you at church; serving in the militia with you; plowing the field next to yours; hosting your son or daughter as a live-in worker; performing some task, like weaving or cattle-driving, for you; deciding the borders of your land; having their baby delivered by your wife the midwife; serving on a committee with you; etc. The list goes on and on. Such frequent, intimate contact in an already stressful frontier situation was bound to create arguments, grudges, and other conflicts. If you disliked someone and then had to endure this kind of constant presence in your life, those arguments could grow, over months or years, into more serious accusations of witchcraft. If that hated neighbor was driving your cattle and one was lost, and he didn’t apologize for it, longstanding tension could quickly escalate.

The point here is that most Puritans in the mid-1600s in New England lived in very stressful situations, and they lived in those stressful situations at a time when everyone in the western world believed in witchcraft. It is logical that they would blame witchcraft for the inevitable problems of losing livestock, suffering disease and death, failed crops, and, quite often, just a powerful sense of confusion and uncertainty.

The wonder is not that people were accused, but that so relatively few of the accused were convicted. That means that if you finally accused your neighbor of witchcraft, and testified against him in court, it was most likely that, after spending some weeks or months in prison awaiting trial, that neighbor was returned to your village, to resume life next door to you. Sometimes the neighbor would move away from an unendurable situation. But many other times, the two parties continued to live next to each other, and sometimes renewed accusations would break out.

That’s because, amazingly, people once accused of witchcraft seemed to have no fear of provoking another accusation. Even people who were tried and acquitted, sometimes very narrowly, often returned home and picked up where they left off with their aggressive, argumentative behavior, and even their claims to know all about Satan and his minions.

Next time, we’ll go further into the patterns and logic of witchcraft accusations outlined by Demos.

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Capital crimes in Puritan Massachusetts

Posted on September 6, 2012. Filed under: 17th century America, Politics, Puritans, The Founders | Tags: , , , |

Welcome to part 6 of our series on the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties, in which we wrap up this 100-law codification of Puritan law with the section on capital crimes and the section on churches. We won’t look at each of the laws in these sections, for time’s sake, but pull out the laws that are most indicative of the nature or gist of the Body. If you’d like to read the whole Body of Liberties, and the codes of law that followed it and incorporated it, you can find it in libraries or for sale online under the title The Colonial Laws of Massachusetts: reprinted from the edition of 1660, with the supplements to 1672, containing also the Body of Liberties of 1641.

We should note here once again that “man” is used pretty consistently, except in the short section devoted to the liberties of women and minority populations. Otherwise, it’s all about “men” in the Body. This does not mean that the laws that follow did not apply to women. It means two things: “man” was used to mean people; and some of the laws were about men only (such as the laws about military service). Women could be banished and fined just like men, so laws about those things applied equally to both sexes.

Some might assume that the Puritans assigned capital punishment to all infractions, including sneezing; the truth, of course, is that the section on Capital Laws is very short—12 laws. As we read, we need to keep in mind that relatively few people were executed in Puritan Massachusetts, and that like capital laws in England in the 18th century, these laws were meant to scare people straight, and were often bent to prevent an actual execution. Let’s take a look. (All spelling has been modernized in the following excerpts.)

94. Capital Laws

1. “If any man after legal conviction shall have or worship any other god but the lord god, he shall be put to death.”

—You get one strike on worshipping false idols, then you are put to death. This is straight out of the Ten Commandments—thou shalt have no other gods before me. Law 3 in this section also dips into the Commandments, punishing blasphemy—“high-handed blasphemy”.

2. “If any man or woman be a witch (that is hath or consults with a familiar spirit), they shall be put to death.”

—Yes, at last it’s a law about witchcraft! and the only one in the Body. Note that it applies to men and women equally, and that it narrowly defines witchcraft as communicating with a “familiar”, or evil spirit. This would be very hard to prove, and there would be few cases of witchcraft that made it through court in Massachusetts (see Puritans and Witchcraft: more method, less madness and  Did the Puritans believe in witchcraft? for a more in-depth study).

4. “If any person commit any willful murder, which is manslaughter committed upon premeditated malice, hatred, or cruelty, not in a man’s necessary and just defense, nor by mere casualty against his will, he shall be put to death.”

—This is the first of three laws about murder. #4 states that premeditated and cold-blooded murder will be punished with death. Self-defense and accidentally killing someone (“mere casualty against his will”) do not count. This definition is enhanced in the next law, #5, which states that slaying someone “suddenly in his anger or cruelty of passion” is a capital offense, making crimes of passion capital crimes. Law 6 in this section spells out that killing someone “through guile, either by poisoning or other such devilish practice” is a capital offense.

The next three laws are about sex. #7 forbids bestiality, and orders that the human culprit be killed and the animal be “slain and buried and not eaten.” #8 forbids homosexuality;  interestingly it is only applied to men—“If any man lies with mankind as he lies with a woman”. In actual fact, Puritan records show cases where men repeatedly had sex with animals (generally cows) or other men and were not executed because they confessed their “sin” and vowed to repent. It generally took several occasions for someone to finally be executed. #9 addresses men who commit adultery with “a married or espoused wife”, saying “both of them have committed abomination [and] both shall surely be put to death.” Again, these cases came up fairly often and were often handled without recourse to execution (the offending parties were given a chance to repent), but unrepentant adultery was met with execution in most cases.

10. “If any man steals a man or mankind, he shall surely be put to death.”

—This oddly worded law seems to apply to enslaved or indentured people.

11. “If any man rise up by false witness, wittingly and or purpose to take away any man’s life, he shall be put to death.”

—This hearkens back to the sections on freemen’s rights and judicial proceedings, where committing perjury in court is punished.

#12 is about treason: “If any man shall conspire and attempt any invasion, insurrection, or public rebellion against our commonwealth, or shall endeavor to surprise any town [or] fort therein, or shall treacherously and perfidiously attempt the alteration and subversion of our frame of polity of government fundamentally, he shall be put to death.”

—It’s telling that this law equates an actual, physical invasion or rebellion with attempting to alter the colonial government. The Puritans of Massachusetts believed passionately in their proto-democracy, which they had created basically out of whole cloth, on their own, and it was  a powerful component of their identity. They would fight and, later, die to protect the liberties they had established for themselves, and anyone who threatened them was a traitor.

So ends the section on capital punishment. Now to the final section, “A Declaration of the Liberties the Lord Jesus hath given to the Churches”. Notice that these liberties are given by Jesus, as opposed to the 97 other liberties in the body, which are given by the General Court. This interesting division of labor means that the liberties in this section are purely theological; they describe how Congregational churches in Massachusetts operated. Four years after the Body was published, in 1645,  minister John Cotton would spell out the basics of Congregational doctrine in The Way of the Churches of Christ in New England… a book that led to a codification of church law known as the New England Way. For now, the Body gives a brief overview of purely church law, outside civil law.

95. 1. “All the people of god within this jurisdiction who are not in a church way, and be orthodox in judgment, and not scandalous in life, shall have full liberty to gather themselves into a church estate, provided they do it in a Christian way, with due observation of the rules of Christ revealed in his word.”

—One of the things Puritans railed against in England was that every citizen was required, mandated, to attend their local church, no matter how sinful they were. They were required to take communion, even if they did not believe in God, or blasphemed God. The Puritans wanted their churches to be voluntarily populated by believers only. This liberty states that the godly have the opportunity to go to church, and to gather together to found churches. Only the godly may do this, which means the churches stay pure and membership remains voluntary.

The next eight liberties all deal with the freedom and independence of each congregation to govern itself: “full liberty to exercise all the ordinances of god,” “free liberty of election and ordination of all their officers [ministers, deacons, etc.]”, “free liberty of admission [and] dismission…of their officers and members”, “no injunctions are to be put upon any church”, “every church of Christ has freedom to celebrate days of fasting and prayer”, “the elders of churches have free liberty to meet… for conferences and consultations about [church] questions”, “liberty to deal with any of their members in a church way”, and “liberty to deal with any magistrate, deputy of court or other officer whatsoever that is a member in a church way”.

These liberties do not mean that a congregation was above the law, free to do whatever it wanted. They mean that there would be no over-arching church governing body—no bishops, no regional or national conferences, no governing body of ministers who decided policy for all churches. Unlike the Catholic or even the Anglican churches, the Congregationalist church did not have a small group of high-level officials assigning ministers to churches, settling church disputes, or disciplining churches or ministers. Each church was in complete control of its own affairs. The congregation chose their minister and officials, and each church disciplined its own members. Earlier in the Body it is made clear that when it comes to breaking civil law, no church member, minister, or official is above the law—they can’t get out of their due punishment because of their church standing. But these liberties are about church self-government, covering strictly religious issues. Just as an earlier liberty said a minister can be charged with breaking civil law and punished, so here the last of these liberties states that civil officers (politicians) can be charged with breaking church law and be punished.

Having outlawed any kind of over-arching church governing body, the section clarifies in the next liberty that churches can, if they wish (“with the consent of the churches”), send their ministers and elders to meet once a month to spend a day “in public christian conference about the discussing and resolving of any such doubts and cases of conscience concerning matters of doctrine or worship of government of the church as shall be propounded by the brethren of that church, with leave also to any other brother to propound his objections or answers for further satisfaction according to the word of god.” That is, while ministers can’t hold meetings in which they mandate church policy, they are allowed to gather once a month to debate and come to agreement on issues facing their church members. Crucially, those church members are also allowed to attend these meetings, to speak, and to object publicly if they don’t agree with the solutions the ministers arrive at. This is to help prevent the trampling of individual congregations’ rights—“no thing may be concluded and imposed by way of authority from one or more churches upon another, but only by way of brotherly conference and consultations.” If church A comes up with a solution it likes, but church B doesn’t like it, church B cannot be forced to go along.

In the next liberty, the civil authorities are asked to respect these ecclesiastical liberties, and to allow “full power and liberty to any person that shall be denied or deprived of them, to commence and prosecute their suit”.

Wrapping up, Liberty 98 states that every law in the Body be “read and deliberately weighted at every General Court that shall be held within three years, and such of them as shall not be altered or repealed they shall stand so ratified.” It’s very like the Puritans of Massachusetts to take six years to write up the Body of laws, six years of writing to the towns to get their draft laws, and sending drafts back to the towns to be approved, and then to say, Now that we agree on these laws, there’s still a three-year trial period to confirm that we’re all on board with them. If any General Court failed “or forget” to read them each year, every Assistant would be fined 20 shillings, and every deputy 10 shillings.

And so we come to the end of the 1641 Body of Liberties. In the next and final post, we’ll recap its significance, in its own time, and for us today.

Next time: summing it up

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Puritan justice—a fair day in court

Posted on August 20, 2012. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , |

Part 3 of our series on the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties takes us to section 2, which focuses on judicial proceedings. It’s the longest section of the Body: 40 of the 100 laws in the Body are contained here. As Puritans enjoyed leisurely writing, we’ll paraphrase each of the laws, but if you’d like to read the whole Body of Liberties, and the codes of law that followed it and incorporated it, you can find it in libraries or for sale online under the title The Colonial Laws of Massachusetts: reprinted from the edition of 1660, with the supplements to 1672, containing also the Body of Liberties of 1641.

Liberty 18 allows people to post bail so they don’t have to stay in prison while they await trial.

Liberties 19 and 20 address midconduct by judges, establishing fines for “miscarriage” by a justice and censure for those who demonstrate misconduct in court (“demean themselves offensively in the Court”).

Liberty 22 sets fines for false claims and nuisance lawsuits. This ties in with Liberty 24, which states that if you bring a suit against someone and then are found to be at fault yourself, your suit will be dismissed, and with Liberty 37, which reiterates fines for false claims (“false complaint or clamor”).

Liberty 26 is interesting because it says that if you are unfit to plead your own case in court you can ask someone to represent you. When you study the Puritans you quickly learn that they were a litigious people, constantly bringing suits to court, and often very complex ones, but you might fail to register that there were no lawyers in Puritan Massachusetts. Many of the Puritans, including founder and governor John Winthrop himself, had been lawyers in England. But in their new world, they did not have lawyers. Everyone argued their own case in court. The Puritans had seen and bewailed the corruption of the English court system, and protested the use of legalese that average people could not understand. In Massachusetts, they rid themselves of both problems by getting rid of lawyers. Liberty 26 allows people to have someone else plead a case for them—with one significant detail: that person can’t be paid for his service (“Provided he give him no fee or reward for his pains”). There would be no professional lawyer class in Massachusetts if the original settlers had their way.

Liberty 30 says jurors can be challenged by both plaintiff and defendant in any case. “And if his challenge be found just and reasonable by the bench, or the rest of the jury, as the challenger shall choose it shall be allowed him [to have a new jury called].” This is a liberty no one had in England.

Liberties 32-35 are protections of individual liberty. The first allows a defendant whose goods have been seized to recover them, and the last forbids a court to seize crops that would be spoiled and ruined by the time a defendant is able to recover them. The other two make imprisonment a last resort (“no man [shall be] arrested or imprisoned upon execution of a judgment… if the law can find competent means of satisfaction otherwise from his estate”) and punish constant nuisance litigation (“vexing others with unjust frequent and endless suits”). The image many people have of scores of Puritans languishing in prison, victims of irrational laws or charges of witchcraft, are unfounded.

In fact, you may be noting that we are a good way into the Body without one mention of witchcraft, which many Americans today take to be the only crime Puritans acknowledged or cared about. We will see that there is only one mention of witchcraft in the entire body, and it is a passing mention. The Puritans, as we’ve mentioned elsewhere, believed in witchcraft but very rarely believed someone was a witch. Their courts were scenes of countless arguments over land, boundaries, and livestock, but rarely over witchcraft.

Liberty 36 allows for appeals by defendants found guilty in court, Liberty 41 demands a speedy trial (“…cases shall be heard and determined at the next Court”), and Liberty 42 says no one may be tried twice for the same offense—a pillar of our own justice system.

Liberties 43, 45, and 46 forbid cruel and unusual punishment—no whippings of more than 40 stripes, and no torture to force a confession… in most cases. If someone was found guilty of a capital crime, and it seemed clear he had partners in that crime, then that person might be tortured to give up the names of his partners, “yet not with such tortures as be barbarous and inhumane.” It’s not clear what a humane torture may be, but it is clear that the Puritans knew what they meant, and drew a line between humane and inhumane torture, for they reiterate in the next Liberty, 46, “For bodily punishments we allow amongst us one that are inhumane, barbarous, or cruel.”

Liberty 48 established a Sunshine policy, stating that every inhabitant of the colony had the right to “search and view” all court records, and to request written transcripts for a small fee.

Jury duty is covered in Liberties 49 and 50, saying no one can be forced to serve for more than two years in a row, and that all jurors will be chosen by the freemen of their towns (and not by the government in Boston).

The section wraps up with Liberty 57 saying that if there is a suspicious sudden death in a town, the constables of the town will summon a 12-person jury to carry out an inquiry, and present their findings and conclusions at the next Court.

Judicial proceedings were so important to the Puritans for a few reasons. As we’ve mentioned above, they chafed at the inefficiency and corruption of the legal system in England, and they wanted to create a truly just system in their own society in America. They also had a practical necessity for a clear, fast-moving legal process because they were constantly embroiled in lawsuits over land. As new settlers came in, people moved from place to place, bought land, left land in wills, etc., disputes over borders and plots, who had rights to use common land and wood lots, and a plethora of other issues came up continually. If justice did not move swiftly, violence could break out, as people took the law into their own hands. That’s why the Body sets up clear laws and clear procedures for bringing cases to court, and enforces swfit justice—every case being heard at the next Court session being held.

Note the practicality of these judicial liberties and you’ll find the myth of the rigid, all-powerful, and unjust Puritan court is exploded. These Puritan courts had juries elected by freemen, whose members could be challenged and dismissed by defendants in court. The judges could be fined and removed for miscarriage of justice. People had the right to appeal. People’s goods could be seized, but had to be returned to them if they were found innocent, and imprisonment was to be a last resort, not the norm. Many of the liberties of 1641 were new to the western world, and many clearly influenced the Founders of the United States, and are tenets of our own judicial system today.

We’ll turn next to “Liberties more particularly concerning the freemen”, or, more protections of individual liberty, as well as the divisions between church and state.

Next time: more liberties of the freemen

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Did the Puritans believe in witchcraft?

Posted on March 20, 2009. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

Part 3 of our Truth v. Myth series on the Salem Witch trials asks this question: did the Puritans believe in witchcraft?

I will go out on a limb with an absolute statement to say that every discussion of Salem, no matter how scholarly, includes at some point the assertion that the Puritans believed in witches, witchcraft, the devil, the spirit world, etc. To them, say the articles, the spiritual world was as real as the flesh-and-blood world around them, and their deep belief in Satan and his power over the earth made it easy as pie for the Puritans to believe in witchcraft and persecute innocent people as witches.

As usual, the reality is not so clear-cut. The Puritans of 17th-century New England did indeed believe there was a devil who roamed the earth creating sin. Interesting work has been done showing how the Puritans who left England defined salvation as the presence of God, but over time, their New England descendants saw it more as the absence of Satan. In the difficult world of New England, where people who had never farmed suddenly had to feed their families by farming poor land, hardship and danger must have made Satan a more palpable presence than God much of the time.

Since the devil roamed the earth, looking for people to betray, there were minor evil spirits who roamed with him.  The idea that angels might be sent by God to protect people was far less popular–almost non-existent–than it would become much later in the 19th century. People had to pray for God’s strength to protect them. The Puritans saw events in their lives as evidence of success or failure to follow God’s way. In their official documents, such tragedies as losing a child, a bad harvest, fire, or epidemic were seen as God’s punishment or, as they might put it, “correction.”

But these are the official documents. We don’t have many private journals written by Puritans, but from the few we have, and from the gravestones they left, we can see that in their hearts, Puritans suffered and understood personal tragedies more or less as “the way of the world.” I don’t think there’s a lot of proof that they thought God was punishing them for specific sins when their children died. Children, sadly, were very vulnerable to disease in the time of the Puritans; no family was immune to bereavement, and it seems that when most Puritan people grieved they comforted themselves that God had called their beloved children home to Heaven so that those children would never have to suffer on Earth. There is no fire-and-brimstone lesson to be learned. It just happens.

This is the point I’m working toward: that while the Puritans did believe God intervened in human affairs, and that Satan was always present to betray people, they were also immensely practical people who understood that life was full of the real pitfalls of disease, accident, and financial disaster. They lived in the real world. These were very shrewd and practical business people whose legislative records focus exclusively on real people, their conflicts, and the intellectual solutions to problems.

Thus, when witchcraft comes up, we have to consider that while the Puritans believed in Satan and his power, they rarely felt completely sure that a human being was sharing in that power. There are many judicial records of an aggravated party accusing someone of being a witch; there is usually a pro-forma inquiry and then a logical settlement of the problem. Calling someone a witch in Puritan New England may have been like calling someone an s.o.b today—a way to insult someone, blow off steam, express your anger, and invite remediation.

That’s what makes Salem so unusual. There, in 1692, accusations of witchcraft did not wither away with the application of legal solutions. And there the whole social order was turned upside-down as children held power over adults. Young girls called adult women who were full members of their churches witches and those women were put in jail and tried. This goes against everything the Puritans believed in. To them, God gave complete authority over children to adults, and no child was allowed to make any statements in a court, or even be present. You might believe in witchcraft as a Puritan, but you were not going to let some children decide who was a witch.

Also unusual was the fact that it was fully integrated members of society who were accused and tried and executed. There were always one or two people in a town or village who separated themselves from the group, casting scorn on church-going and on the General Court, laughing at the customs of their fellows and refusing to help out in times of trouble. These people were grudgingly endured by the rest, and open to accusations of witchcraft because of their alarming ways. But even these troublemakers were rarely persecuted as witches. So to have respectable, church-going, child-raising, fully integrated, fully employed adults on trial for witchcraft was very, very unusual.  

The upshot is that while the Puritans did believe in witchcraft and evil spirits, they rarely associated any real person with those beliefs, and even more rarely persecuted people as witches. And they put a lot more stock generally in real-world problems and solutions than spectral ones. And, finally, no belief in spirits would usually lead Puritan New Englanders to overturn their entire social order to let children persecute adults. Salem cannot be explained away as just another consequence of the Puritans’ terrible and ignorant religion. It was an anomaly, it was seen as one at the time, and should be seen as one now.

Next time: a roundup of theories on the witch scare

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