Tag Archives: Puritans

Witching Well

Salem, Massachusetts, brings to mind images of intolerance and a culture ossified in superstition. That’s not really fair, of course. Even in the late seventeenth century the people of Salem were living during the Enlightenment and they understood enough of science to question the legitimacy of the spectral evidence of the kind that would stand in Washington DC today. With twenty direct deaths due to witchcraft accusations and many more lives disrupted or ruined, this tragic episode has perhaps unfairly cast New Englanders as credulous rubes willing to believe just about anything. If you’re like most of us, you may not be aware that other witch trials were going on around that same time period, but with differing results. Richard Godbeer’s Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692 recounts the events in Fairfield County, Connecticut in Salem’s haunted year. As in Salem a young woman began experiencing fits. Medical explanations—rudimentary as they were—didn’t explain everything away, so supernatural causation was considered. Witchcraft was suspected. Accusations were made.

In the case of Kate Branch of Stamford, as Godbeer shows, Connecticut was learning the lessons of Salem in real time. The belief in witches and witchcraft was just as real, but realizing the bad press their northern neighbors were receiving, the Connecticut Yankees insisted on more stringent evidence. Indeed, judges dismissed the jury to reconsider their decision and even overturned it based on reason. These were people who knew that human lives were at stake. They also knew that Salem was doing nothing to vindicate the cause of either Puritans or justice. We don’t hear about it so much, I suspect, because those in power did the right thing. Given present circumstances, reading about Americans who actually learned from history is encouraging. We read daily of a president woefully unaware (and proudly so) of his own nation’s history. What could possibly go wrong?

Witch hunts are sad miscarriages of justice in the best of times. In days when minorities are being scapegoated for the problems capitalism itself causes, we have to wonder if, apart from those in contemporary Connecticut, we’ve learned anything from Salem at all. Wasn’t it clear that targeting women—many of them social outsiders, and pretty much all of them recently descended from immigrants—was in itself just plain wrong? We pride ourselves on having outgrown belief in magic, and yet we go into that voting booth without a rational reason to elect a self-evident bigot and abuser of women and do it anyway. Reading, knowing where we’ve come from, prevents all kinds of tragedies. And this isn’t alternative factual history. It happened in the very shadow of the calamity of Salem, Massachusetts.

The Witch

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The Witch, by Robert Eggers, is a parable. The movie accepts, and to appreciate it the viewer must too, that there is actually witchcraft in New England. Unless the witch too is a parable. Set in the days before the Salem Witch Trials, the movie is worthy of Lars von Trier on history. William and his family are exiled from their unnamed community due to differences of religious opinion. William and Katherine are a devout couple, steeped in the Puritan belief that all people deserve Hell and those who are good have no choice in the matter. They have a family of four children, and after they set up homesteading in exile, a fifth comes along. When the baby disappears, the eldest daughter, on the cusp of sexual maturity, is blamed. Portraying well the boredom of children raised in a world with no diversion, the girl, Thomasin, tells her little sister that she is a witch. In reality, she is a fearful, sin-sick girl, frightened for her future salvation. There is a witch, but it is not she.

Tragedy follows tragedy for the isolated family. Their religion permits them to believe it can only be punishment from God. They pray, recite Bible, and work hard. Their oldest son, abducted by the witch, returns home to die. The two youngest children begin to have fits, claiming that Thomasin has confessed to being a witch. Her mother, Katherine, believes them. Her father too, convinces himself that she is a witch and urges her to confess. The paranoia grows and Thomasin accuses her two younger siblings of witchcraft, speaking to the family’s black goat as their familiar. Confused, angry, and out of hope, the father locks the children in with the goats for the night, determined to find the truth in the morning.

I won’t add any spoilers for the ending here. Suffice it to say, this is a parable. Thomasin’s very name suggests “sin,” and her doomed brother is Caleb, the Hebrew word for “dog.” His recitation of the Song of Songs is distinctly creepy. God is absent from the movie, despite the family’s constant prayers. The only voice heard is that of the Devil. This is a parable of what happens when a religion goes wrong. The family left England to exercise their religion freely and the free exercise of it turns them against each other. The only ones who seem to find peace are those who leave their faith behind. It is a movie that I’ll ponder for many days, I suspect. Less a condemnation of religion than an open probing of what it’s logical outcome might be, The Witch is one of those movies that demonstrates the ongoing power of parables.

Map and Territory

MapsHeavenMapsHellAt first glance the Puritan divines of early New England should seem to be as far from horror films, on the cultural divide, as phenomena can be. After all, academics long ago declared “genre fiction,” and particularly Gothic and horror fiction, to be lowbrow at best, and generally of no cultural worth. The amazing success of scary movies only underscores this point. Edward J. Ingebretsen (S.J.), however, begs to differ. His wonderfully insightful book, Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell: Religious Terror as Memory from the Puritans to Stephen King, is a surprising study of how religion and terror share much that is essentially human. On this blog I have, from time to time, claimed that religion and horror are close cousins. In fact, they may be siblings. Since studies of Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards are often produced by Reformed, or at least Protestant, theologians, it may be that a Catholic thinker will catch aspects often overlooked. The Puritans, with their Calvinistic underpinning, had a worldview that holds much in common with standard horror fare. Ingebretsen suggests that to map Heaven, you must also map Hell.

The map conceit works well as the reader navigates through unconventional ways of thinking. The fears of the Puritans included the fear of God, and those who read or watch horror have noticed that nothing scares like the divine. It may not be on the surface, however. Even those not accustomed to deep digging can, upon a few moments’ reflection, see that the Gothic writers of the American canon have drawn repeated from this well. Many literary experts (well, some) celebrate H. P. Lovecraft’s atheistic rationalism, but enjoy his tales of the old gods nevertheless. His modern heir, Stephen King, is quite open about the potential fear of religion. He even blurbed the back cover of the book.

As society grows continually more secular, the religious impulse will not disappear. Sublimation, the process of changing states, may hide what is happening from the casual eye. A close look shows, however, that the same fears Mather and Edwards unleashed on witch-addled, spider-fearing New Englanders, have come back to us in pulp and celluloid. Religion has its earliest roots in a kind of holy fear, it seems. The innovative human mind, however, with its drive to rationalize, devised mythologies that make fears seem plausible. Those mythologies are relatively easy to believe. Everybody likes a good story. Stories, with all their twists and turns, can leave you lost in the woods. It’s good to have a map. I would suggest Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell. You may still be scared, but you may feel more sophisticated for it.

Word of God in Bulk

Bay_Psalm_Book_LoCThe Salem witch trials were still half a century in the future. The Puritans, hoping for religious freedom, had come to Massachusetts. Despite prevailing attitudes toward the religious, the Puritans were keen on learning and began printing books. The first book printed in English in North America was the Bay Psalm Book. You see, the Psalms have a particularly important place in Christian (and Jewish) worship. In fact, much of what would later develop into the daily offices in the Church of England, adapted from the breviaries of the Roman Catholic Church, were services that started essentially as vehicles for reciting the Psalms. It is fair to say that Christian worship might have never taken on the elaborate forms that it has without the underlying recitation of the Psalter. The Bay Psalm Book, printed in 1640, is now the most expensive book ever sold at auction. According to the New York Times, one of the eleven known Bay Psalm Books has just sold for over 14 million dollars. The Bible has a way of continuing to surprise us.

As someone who has more Bibles than your average layperson, I find it isn’t difficult to think that Bibles are fairly common. They are. I actually switched to The Green Bible in my classes out of the ecological concern that there have been over six billion Bibles printed. The Gideons give them away, and even the Christian heavy metal band Stryper used to throw handfuls of Bibles into the crowds. Chances are, in the United States, you are not physically far from a Bible at any given moment. So why would someone pay 14 million dollars for one? The answer goes deeper than the suggestion that the Psalms contain timeless truths—you can get those free on the internet anytime—but that it is part of our heritage. We are who we are, in part, because of the “Bible believing” founders of our culture. Survival was not taken for granted in the mid-seventeenth century. The Bible was a pillar of certainty in dangerous times.

Yes, interpretations of the Bible have led to horrendous results. There is no point in denying the guilt. Hermeneutics, however, is a human activity. The Bible gives as well as takes away. Some of us may never have a million dollars to spend. Many people don’t have enough to eat. Specialists tell us that some 45 million Bibles are printed each year. Bibles are big business. In the words of Big Dan from O Brother, Where Art Thou? “Sales, Mr. McGill, sales! And what do I sell? The Truth! Ever’ blessed word of it, from Genesee on down to Revelations! That’s right, the word of God, which let me add there is damn good money in during these days of woe and want! Folks’re lookin’ for answers and Big Dan Teague sells the only book that’s got ‘em!” David M. Rubenstein, the buyer of the book, intends to send it around to libraries to display. Although I’ve spent over forty years studying the Bible, it takes the skills of a man from an investment firm to earn enough money to buy one. And I wonder if that’s Big Dan I hear laughing, or perhaps it’s just the sound of Puritans singing in the wilderness.

England’s Christian Gift

As much a part of the holiday season as Santa Claus and baby Jesus, the Salvation Army bell-ringers are out in full force. As I drop a quarter in the bucket, I ponder the strange lineage of this denomination. When the cheerful holiday shopper convivially donates spare change, few, I suspect, know that they are supporting a church. The Salvation Army is one of the bewildering number of denominations to spring from English Christianity. The Church of England, small in the United States, but imperial in much of the world, grew amid a religious unrest that spun off countless dissenters. We all know the story of Henry VIII and his not-so-merry wives. His political move to focus the official religion of England on the crown led to the Puritan resistance. Puritans left England for the Netherlands, and then on to America where they flocked to New England to develop into Calvinistic Congregationalists.

Meanwhile back in Amsterdam, some of the English Separatists evolved into Baptists. Baptists were also congregational in polity and also found the religious freedom of America to be appealing. (Now they select our elected officials.) The Puritans had helped develop the Presbyterian movement as well, with dissenters in Switzerland. Still at home in Britain, the Church of England waffled between Catholicism and Protestantism for some time. The evangelical fervor that emerged with the Wesley family led to the Methodist Church, which remained attached to the Church of England until its founder’s death. In America the Methodist Church grew rapidly. During the era of religious revivals the Adventist movement grew out of Methodism, as did the Church of the Nazarene, the Holiness movement, and Pentecostalism. All of them today are major denominations. Even the Anabaptists tip their wide-brimmed hats in the direction of the English dissenters. The Plymouth Brethren, inventors of the Rapture, were another English-derived denomination, as were the Wesleyan Churches.

What does all of this have to do with the Salvation Army? The Salvation Army was founded in London by a Methodist minister, William Booth, and his wife Catherine. The movement adopted quasi-military mythology and ranks, and soon grew into a church of its own that supported what would later become the Social Gospel cause. Known primarily for their charitable works, they are yet one more splinter from the tree of English Christianity. Perhaps the Christmas tree is an appropriate analogy for the Christianities to spring from Henry VIII’s loins. Like the pine’s many branches, each with its ornaments, Christianity in England sent its twigs in all directions. Counted together, the descendants of English Christianity far outnumber any other Protestant grouping. Just a thought to share while waiting for the quarter to drop.

Lesson of Salem

I married a witch. I suppose I ought to clarify that a bit. My wife is descended from Rebecca Nurse’s brother Jacob. Rebecca Nurse was one of those unfortunately hanged as a witch in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. My family has been spending the last couple of days touring Salem, seeking to get in touch with our heritage. Yesterday we had the rare opportunity to tour the home of Rebecca Nurse which, remarkably, still stands over 300 years after the tortured events of the late seventeenth century. Our tour guide was impressively knowledgeable about the witch hysteria. She noted that in the Puritan (Reformed) mindset, with no science to speak of, evil could only be explained by the Devil. If misfortune came, the Devil was to blame. Even after the “witches” were exonerated (too late to save 20 lives), it was understood that the Devil incited the girls to make their false claims against their ultimately and penultimately righteous neighbors. Without the Devil none of this made sense.

The Rebecca Nurse homestead

Salem was founded as a utopian community free to live out its Puritan religion. It was named after Jerusalem, a city of peace (!). As our guide noted, religious freedom was not the same as tolerance; the Puritans wanted the freedom to celebrate their own religion, but were extremely suspicious of all others. One of those hanged as a witch, George Jacobs, had nearly beaten a neighbor to death simply because he was a Quaker. Rebecca Nurse, however, at 72 years old, was no threat to anybody. She was a member of a Christian community that turned on her. Condemned for charges the nearly deaf woman could not even hear properly, she was hanged for consorting with a mythical Devil.

Rev. Parris's house, where the witch hysteria began

No doubt the religion of the Puritans was a harsh religion with a God nearly as unforgiving as that of Sweeny Todd. The problems occurred, however, when the law came into the hands of religious leaders. There is an allegory and a moral to this story. Today many of the tourist attractions in Salem focus on the need for true tolerance. They no doubt come closer to the spirit of the founder of Christianity than the Puritans ever did. As I stood looking over the hole in the ground that is all that remains of Rev. Parris’ parsonage—the very location the witch hysteria began as his daughter Betty started to act odd after hearing the stories of the slave Tituba—a profound sadness afflicted me. Twenty people died and many lost all their worldly possessions because of an uncontrolled mythology of a church convinced of its own righteousness. An allegory and moral for the twenty-first century indeed. Have we yet learned the lesson of Salem?

Thanksgiving Day

This post is an excerpt from my unpublished book for young readers giving the history of American holidays:

When you think of Thanksgiving you may see visions of a big turkey dinner and a four-day weekend. If you’re like me (I hope not!) you probably think that ever since the first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621, Americans have had a big November feast every year since. This popular cozy image may be heartwarming, but it is wrong. Thanksgiving in history is a custom that goes back to the Puritan settlers. Puritans came to America so that they could practice their religion freely. They were religious people (not a great sense of humor); things had been pretty tough for them – crossing the stormy Atlantic in small ships, not knowing what to expect when they arrived, lots of people dying on the way – not an easy thing to do! Once they got here, there were no grocery stores and they hadn’t planted crops earlier in the year, they didn’t even know what would grow here. Many didn’t survive, they weren’t America-tolerant you might say.

What we think of as the first Thanksgiving involved English colonists (Pilgrims) in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans. One of the Wampanoag, Squanto, served as an interpreter – pretty big of him, considering he’d learned English from being a slave. He taught the settlers how to grow corn, which was unknown in Europe. (What the English called “corn” is what we call “wheat.” The more correct word for what we call “corn” is “maize.”) Squanto also taught the Pilgrims how to catch eels to eat – maybe he found a way to pay them back after all! The first Thanksgiving meal in 1621 followed the Pilgrims’ first successful harvest. They ate deer and some wild birds – enter the turkey! – along with their crops.

You see, both the Wampanoag and the English had traditional harvest festivals – many peoples do. “Thanksgiving,” however, has to do with, well, giving thanks. Did I mention that the Pilgrims were religious? They believed that God had successfully brought them here, so they thanked God. Not every early harvest was so great. In a bad year they had a day of mourning rather than a Thanksgiving feast. Some historians place the first “Thanksgiving” in 1923. The Pilgrims had experienced a drought. Frantically they prayed for rain, and, Flanders-like, it came. So they held a Thanksgiving. These Massachusetts Puritans held Thanksgivings in church rather than around a banquet table. For them, these irregular days of giving thanks marked the survival of difficult times, not fancy food. So they held occasional Thanksgivings, not watching football after a big meal, but praying in church. By the middle of the 1600s settlers began to have a harvest-day Thanksgiving pretty much every year, but not always on the same day. They had not set a specific date to give thanks and feast.

Puritans, you must realize, gave thanks at the proverbial drop of a buckled hat. They prayed before meals as a regular practice – something many families continue to do. To set aside a day for special prayers, like Thanksgiving, was as natural for them as women wearing bonnets. The practice of having an annual (yearly) day of giving thanks got underway in Massachusetts around 1630. Other colonies joined in, but not always at the same time. Remember, harvests come at different times in different places.

[See Full Essays for the rest of the story.]