The Salem Witchcraft Trials

by Peter Charles Hoffer

My research in the development of rationalism has led me to zero in on the early 18th century as the turning point when rationalism took hold in Western civilization. In particular, it had always seemed to me that the Salem witchcraft trials marked a decisive turning point in the English world. The realization that hysteria had caused the deaths of innocent people triggered a revulsion against superstition and gave a big boost to the status of rationalism. At least, that’s what I’ve always thought. This book disabused me of that belief.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t the book itself that provided the revelation -- it was a discussion on the role played by Increase Mather, father of Cotton Mather (where did they get those first names?). Both of these religious leaders played a major leadership role in Puritan society in Massachusetts. Cotton was a fire-breathing dogmatist, but Increase was more thoughtful. In particular, Increase Mather wrote a pamphlet discussing the Salem witchcraft trials, now known as “Cases of Conscience”. In it, Increase Mather argues that “spectral evidence” (basically, superstitious claims by supposed victims of witchcraft) be dismissed. People were sent to the gallows because some wicked girls feigned pain in their presence. The histrionics of these girls, combined with a great many social conflicts in the community, led to the orgy of killing. Mr. Mather did not go so far as to reject the entirety of superstition -- he agreed that the Devil was at work in the community, that there really were witches out there, and that they deserved to be hanged. His only reservation was that the evidence used to condemn people was too flimsy: he wanted nothing less than direct witnessing of witchcraft in action or the confession of the accused.

[An interesting side note: Mather argued that it would be better if ten real witches went free than one innocent person be condemned. This concept was later embraced in English, and subsequently American, law, for all criminal cases.]

What strikes me Mr. Mather’s writing, though, is the logical structure he uses to present his arguments. He numbers his arguments, and presents them in a logical sequence that builds to support his larger thesis. Although the work is shot through with religious nonsense, it nevertheless demonstrates a striking respect for the value of hard logic. There’s no question in my mind that Mather’s eyes were already fixed on the ideal of rationalism, even if his feet were still mired in the mud of superstition.

Of course, rationalism had never disappeared from Western civilization after the destruction of Greek civilization; it had flickered in monasteries and places of learning all through the Dark Ages, grown in the Church in the Middle Ages, and penetrated more deeply into the population during the Renaissance and the Reformation. But it had long been confined to an intellectual elite, and Increase Mather was a member of the intellectual elite of his day.

Nevertheless, Mr. Mather published his work for the general public; the fact that he expected it to have some influence indicates that there was already a solid deference for rationalism in the public mind in Massachusetts in those years. From this I conclude that rationalism was well-ensconced in English minds before the 18th century. But Newton published the Principia in 1687, just a few years before the Salem witchcraft trials. I had long felt that Principia was a major turning point, but it is now obvious to me that whatever happened in English society to elevate the status of rationalism took place well before then.

Oh, yes -- the book itself. All in all, it’s dreary reading, because the behaviors it describes are so disgusting. It’s like reading about the trench warfare of World War I: full of futility, anger, and death, with nothing to redeem it. It’s not the book that’s bad, it’s the history. I suppose that I could recommend it to somebody who is depressed by the state of modern American society. Things were so much worse back then.