Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Devil’s victory in Salem: Combating witchcraft without the gifts of the Spirit

 Myth as reality:

             For the average American, Puritanism is synonymous with the Salem witchcraft trials. And the most popular account of the Salem witch trials is the 1952 play by Arthur Miller, The Crucible. It is still assigned reading in many high school and college English courses.  It was also made into a movie that was seen by millions. The reality is that The Crucible is a distorted and historically inaccurate account of the trials. In it Miller presents the liberal, materialist perspective - that nothing supernatural took place in Salem. For Miller, the young girls who accused others of witchcraft faked their curse induced torments for various reasons, as in increased attention or sexual longings. Miller took the liberty to make one of the original thirteen-year-old accusers into a seventeen year old in order to play out more credibly his hypothesis of sexual longings. Miller’s presentation represents the view of most text-book histories (and sadly many Christians). [1]          

            A few things must be noted to put the trials in proper perspective. All Christian of 17th Century believed that witchcraft was real and deserving of capital punishment. The procedures used in English courts and the Puritans were much superior to many European nations, where often mob rule disposed of the accused before any sort of trial.[2]  The horror movie motif of a mob attacking a vampire and driving a stake through his heart represents an echo of this. The European mob vs. witch scenario parallels the current situation in much of Africa, where persons accused of witchcraft are often lynched by angry mobs.[3] 

            In the 1950s, when Miller researched and wrote his play, only a few scholars took witchcraft seriously, or had studied it extensively. But since the 1960’s, when Wicca and other witches “came out,” and the whole occult scene blossomed, there has developed a much better understanding of witchcraft and its history.[4]

            It is now clear that witchcraft and witch covens were common in Europe from the earliest days of Christianity. The covens were derived from the “left over” Paganism from the incomplete and haphazard way in which various European peoples were evangelized. The most extreme example of this being the Gypsy peoples, the Romani, who were never evangelized at all, and to this day regularly practice witchcraft and occultism. The early monk missionaries of Northern Europe often focused on converting local kings and tribal leaders, who then forced all their subjects to be baptized. This seemed like a good policy, and it certainly produced great numbers of baptized “Christians.” But it left resentful Pagan followers in place, baptized but unconverted, to go underground and continue their rites and religion.[5]

            Unfortunately, the Catholic Church allowed this situation to go on uncorrected for centuries. As a result, Medieval Catholics were often quite open to all sorts of divination, occult, and superstitious practices that blended with their more orthodox Sunday practices. Most churchmen looked upon witchcraft as delusion and something that could be lived with - a curious resonance with modern secular views. This parallels much Catholic practice in Latin America, where churchmen there often allow indigenous occult rituals and worship to go on without much opposition – as long as the people baptize their children and sometimes show up for Sunday services.

            In Europe, the Church’s tolerance of witchcraft began to change under the medieval papacy of John XXII (1316-1334). He had a true discernment that witchcraft was serious, and believed that its rites were “demonic sacraments” capable of real spiritual effectiveness and harm. In 1320 set up a commission to make witchcraft a “heresy” that could be dealt with by the Inquisition.[6]  This was a theological blunder, as witches are not heretics properly speaking, but non-Christians.  In any case, Catholic logic, that anyone baptized was a Christian , placed witches and sorcerers in the “Church,” and thus under the Church’s jurisdiction. The local inquisitors then attacked the problem with all of their rational, legal and investigative tools that they had used against heretics (including, of course, interrogation by torture).  But nothing in the theology or practice of the Church could be a substitute for the gift of discernment of spirits that had been largely lost to the Church since the 4th Century.[7]

            By 1484 the famous textbook guide on witch hunting, the Malleus Maleficiarum, had been compiled and published. Thus began the official witch-hunting period of late medieval Europe. No one noticed that the New Testament pattern of countering witchcraft and sorcery with the power of the Spirit by temporary immobilization, as modeled by Paul (Acts 13:6-12). More correctly, no one imagined that such a thing was possible in the Church Age. Many innocent persons died as a result of this spiritual incapacity (and real witches too). In recent decades a mythology has arisen via the radical feminists, who often have no concern for the truth, that up to nine million witches were burned from the Middle Ages to modern times.[8] This is a ridiculous and fantastic number, the real number being in the thousands – not counting mob vigilantism.

 Understanding the Salem Witchcraft Trials:

            To return to the to the Salem witch trials, we can now appreciate the tremendous work done by the recently deceased scholar, Chadwick Hansen, professor emeritus of English at the University of Illinois, in his work Witchcraft in Salem.[9] Building on the new scholarship that took witchcraft seriously, he meticulously researched the Salem trials from the manuscript evidence of the trials, and studied newer archeological findings. Yes, archeological investigations had found witchcraft paraphernalia in Salem such as voodoo like dolls stuffed with goat’s hair. His careful analysis of all the evidence showed that there was indeed true witchcraft in Salem, and that some of the executed were indeed guilty.

            Hansen’s landmark work comes short only in not affirming that supernatural events really did happen at Salem. Rather he believed that witchcraft worked because it victims had “faith” in the power of witchcraft and responded psychosomatically to the claims and curses of local witches. This is a step forward from the traditional 19th and 20th Century views that it was all fake, and that Cotton Mather, the judge, was a cruel fanatic, and the judicial system ridiculous – the view of Miller’s The Crucible.

            But even Hansen admits that the documents reported certain events that are hard to reduce to psychosomatic behavior. The victims were often forced by unseen hands into bodily contortions not humanly possible. This is a far cry from Miller’s “The Crucible,” where easily faked gasping and shouting signifies the victims’ torments. In fact, unnatural contortions have been a constant sign of demonic activity. The film “The Exorcists” shows this dramatically when the inhabiting demon twists the possessed person’s head 360° - an unforgettable scene in the picture. At Salem there were records of victim levitations, and inexplicable marks on the victim’s bodies, again, as pictured in “The Exorcist.” All of this is truly representative of paranormal events that happen during severe possession or demonic attack and exorcisms.[10] 

            Perhaps Hansen was reluctant to call the witches at Salem demonically empowered out of prudence. Doing so would have discredited his fine work within academic circles and much of the public. As it is, his work has revolutionized the understanding of the Salem trials, and has influenced subsequent scholarship.[11]

            A major factor that made the Salem trials so awful was the breakdown of proper rules of evidence. Both Catholic and Protestant witch investigators of the period understood that “spectral evidence” was inadmissible evidence. Specifically, at Salem the girl victims claimed that their attacks began and were continued by ghost-like apparitions of real persons in the locality. Churchmen had long known that Satan can disguise himself as an “Angel of Light” ( 2 Cor. 11:14) and of any person.  Thus, that a ghost looking just like “Mrs. A” who attacks the victim does not prove that Mrs. A is really behind the attack. It might be just an attempt by the demonic to create confusion and accuse an innocent person.

            Cotton Mather, the leading cleric of the area wrote to Judge John Richards, one of the judges of the trials that spectral evidence was deceitful and treacherous, and admissible evidence must be from other sources, as in the physical evidence of witch paraphernalia or especially confessions.

And yet I most humbly beg you that in the management of the affair in your worthy hands, you do not lay more stress upon pure specter testimony than it will bear. When you are satisfied or have good plain legal evidence that the Demons which molest our poor neighbors do indeed represent such and such people to the sufferers. Thought this be a presumption, yet I suppose you will not reckon it is conviction that people so represented are witches to be immediately exterminated. It is very certain that the Devils have sometimes represented the shapes of persons not only innocent but very virtuous…[12]

            Unfortunately, in the course of the trials, and in the very court room, the young victims were constantly attacked, forced into contortions, etc. -  and the authorities panicked. The victims’ piteous cries seemed too hideous to disregard, and several persons were convicted by spectral evidence alone.[13]

 Is there a Biblical response to witchcraft?

            But even if all of the wisdom of Catholic and Protestant anti-witch procedures had been followed, the trials would have all fallen short of New Testament standards. Specifically, there was no congregation in Massachusetts, or anywhere else in Christendom for that matter, that could function as any of Paul’s Spirit-empowered congregations as described in 1 Cor. 12-14. Such a congregation would include persons gifted in exorcism and healing, and with the gift of discernment of spirits. That latter gift, exercised by tested and reliable persons, would have at the very least avoided the errors of false spectral evidence. Other members of the congregation would have used tongues to wage spiritual warfare, etc. This was impossible at the time as the Protestant doctrine of cessationism, central to its theology, had declared the gifts of the Spirit as non-existent in the post-Apostolic church, and the practice of the gifts of the Spirit  as heretical or vain “enthusiasm.”[14]  It would take the rise of Pentecostalism at the dawn of the 20th Century before cessationism was seriously challenged in the Protestant world. Only at that time would congregations began forming in which all of the gifts of the Spirit were present on a regular basis.  Even today, a century after the birthing of Pentecostalism, such congregations are rare. That is, the majority of Pentecostal and charismatic churches in the “First World” often have substantial healing and deliverance ministries, but do not systematically teach or cultivate discernment of spirits.[15]

 But there is another level of dealing with sorcery and witchcraft described in the New Testament that is thus far beyond the practice, or even the imagination of many Spirit-filled Christians. It is described in Acts 13: 6-12.

They [Paul and Barnabas] traveled through the whole island [of Cyprus] until they came to Paphos. There they met a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus, who was an attendant of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus. The proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God.  But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said,  “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind for a time, not even able to see the light of the sun.”

Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand.  When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord.

            Paul simply commanded  a temporary immobilization upon the sorcerer. This is inconceivable in terms of present day theologies, even “full-Gospel’ ones, and certainly there are many caveats and questions never asked by theologians and commentators. But the biblical model is there, and as America goes further into its “post-modern” era and witchcraft becomes bolder, Christians may have to think further about it.  In any case, the limitations of contemporary theology are not the main issue of this posting. Rather I wanted to clarify why the so called Puritan “failure” or “scandal” at Salem was not what many Christian imagine. Certainly it should not hamper their appropriation of the great and valuable works of Puritan theologians and writers.

The Jan. 2015 edition of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research dedicated its entire edition to the issue of witchcraft and its real presence in the contemporary world. The link is HERE

A news report for Al-Jazeera shows how mob recently murdered a woman in rural India on the suspicion of witchcraft. HERE


The noted Pentecostal scholar Dr. Jon Ruthven wrote a very positive review of my latest book, Agnes Sanford and Her Companions: The Assault on Cessationism and the Coming of the Charismatic Renewal. You can access it HERE.

The book may be purchased on Amazon, either print or inexpensive Kindle HERE You can purchase the print version at a discount from the publisher HERE

My wife has written a funny and inspiring story of how she transited from a cessionist and Baptist to a Spirit-filled Believer. The book has many stories of our three decades of ministry together.  It may be purchased HERE.

Watching God Work: The Stuff of Miracles by [DeArteaga, Carolyn Koontz]

NOTE: This posting is an excerpt of a longer article entitled, "Puritanism: A legacy disdained by historians and sullied with the Devil's victory in Salem," in Pneuma Review, 16, #3 (Summer 2013

[1] See the discussion of Miller’s distorted analysis fully described in: David C. Downing’s excellent articles, “The Mystery of Spirit Possession”  parts 1 and 2, Books and Culture, Jan. 1, 1997.
[2] Jeffrey Burton Russell, “Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany,” Church History, 76 #2 (June, 2007) 411-413.
[3] Peter Jenkins, “Notes From the Global Church,” Christian Century, 125 (Dec. 2, 2008), 45.
[4] See the multiple works by Jeffrey Burtan Russell, especially his Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1972).
[5] Russell , Witchcraft
[6] Isabel Iribarren, “From Black Magic to Heresy: A doctrinal leap in the pontificate of John XXII,” Church History, 75 (March 2007), 32-60.
[7] Many of the saints and mystics had the gifts of the Spirit, including discernment of spirits, although that Pentecostal terminology was not used. See the classic work by the Jesuit theologian Augustin Poulain, The Graces of Interior Prayer. (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1910), modern editions available. Unfortunately, the gifts of the Spirit were unknown in normal parish life, nor were they understood as a repeatable and normal gifting for Christian life, as in discerning witchcraft.
[8] Irving Hexham, “The Invention of Modern Witchcraft,” Books and Culture  (Jan./Feb. 2004).
[9] Chadwick Hansen, Witchcraft in Salem (New York: G. Braziller, 1969). Available in paperback. Hansen passed away in 2011.
[10] William Blatty’s “The Exorcist,” both movie and book, was not just an imaginary “horror” story and movie, but a carefully researched work based on real cases. The prime case that William Blatty used as his model was of a fourteen year old boy, and took place in 1948. Blatty had access to the extensive notes left by the prime exorcist, a Jesuit priest, just as in the movie. See: Dr. Clifford Wilson’s account in his, Crash Goes the Exorcist (Burnt Hill: Word of Truth, 1974), chapter 1, “The Background –A real life story.”  Like Regan in the movie, the boy in question cursed in ancient languages, and had writing appear on his skin. The horrific head turning did not occur in the boy’s case, but has happened in other severe cases of possession, and can be documented in the literature of Catholic exorcisms. See: William Peter Blatty, I’ll Tell Them I Remember You (New York: W.W. Norton, 1973). For an Evangelical perspective on extreme phenomenon of the possessed, see: Merrill F. Unger, What Demons Can Do to Saints (Chicago: Moody Press, 1977), 132-133. On the reality of demonic spiritual phenomenon really happening in the Salem Witchcraft trials see the more recent study: Larry Gragg’s, The Salem Witch Crisis (New York: Prager, 1992), Chapter 1, “Mists of Darkness.”
[11]On the central role of Hansen’s work see: R.D. Stock, “Salem Witchcraft and Spiritual Evil: A Century of Non-Whig Revisionism,” Christianity and Literature, 42 #1 (Autumn 1992), 141-156.
[12] Cited in Hansen, Salem,  p.132.
[13] For a details discussion of this misuse of spectral evidence see: Dean George Lampros, “Season of Anguish: The formal Proceedings conducted During the Salem Witchcraft Hysteria of 1692,” Westminster Theological Journal, 56, (1994) 303-327
[14] On the tragedy of cessationism, see my Quenching the Spirit (Lake Mary: Creation House, 1996) and Jon Ruthven, On the Cessation of the Charismata (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993).
[15] In my four decades of living and ministering in charismatic and Pentecostal churches in the United States I have seen only a few congregations that operated in all of the gifts of the Spirit. The literature indicated that churches in the “Third World” where witchcraft is often ever present, do much better on discernment of spirits – they have to!