Witches Among US

October 31, 2004
Rev. Victoria Weinstein


Extracts from Deodat Lawson, A Brief and True Narrative (1692)

Deodat Lawson was a former Salem Village minister who returned for a timely visit in March 1692. This is part of his eyewitness account of some of the witch-craze then underway in the village, which would culminate in the death of 20 innocent people by the fall of that same year.

On the nineteenth day of March last, I went to Salem Village, and lodged at Nathaniel Ingersol's near the Minister Mr. P's house, and presently after I came into my lodging, Capt. Walcut's daughter Mary came to Lieutenant Ingersol's and spake to me, but, suddenly after as she stood by the door, was bitten, so that she cried out of her wrist, and looking on it with a candle, we saw apparently the marks of teeth both upper and lower set, on each side of her wrist.

In the beginning of the evening, I went to give Mr. P. a visit. When I was there, his kinswoman Abigail Williams (about 12 years of age,) had a grievous fit; she was at first hurried with violence to and fro in the room (although Mrs. Ingersol endeavored to hold her,) sometimes making as if she would fly, stretching her arms as high as she could and crying, "Whish, Whish, Whish!" several times. Presently after she said there was Goodwife Rebecca Nurse and said, "Do you not see her? Why, there she stands!!" And then said Goodwife Nurse offered her The Book, but she was resolved she would not take it, saying Often, "I won't, I won't, I won't take it, I do not know what Book it is; I am sure it is none of God's book, it is the Devil's book, for ought I know." After that, she run to the fire, and begun to throw fire brands about the house; and run against the back as if she would run up the chimney, and, as they said, she had attempted to go into the fire in other fits.

THE SERMON "Witches Among Us" Rev. Victoria Weinstein

Signs and wonders! Brethren, did you see the moon on Wednesday night, when our team, clearly blessed by the Lord, vanquished the ancient curse and reigned victorious? Did you see Curt Schilling shed his own blood in the quest to overcome the forces of darkness that hath overcome us for lo these eighty six years? His sock, brothers and sisters, was literally red, and he did say later that night that he felt it was God pitching through him. It was not your imagination: at exactly 11:42 that night, our church bell rang for one minute. And that was not the hand of the Lord… (it was mine!)

Welcome to New England, a place that has never completely overcome its origins as a land of magic and superstition. You saw the signs held by Sox fans – "we believe" – and "Reverse the curse" –some of you may have even engaged in a slightly superstitious practice or two to bring about a win, am I right? Not one of you?
Over in Weymouth, a reputable citizen named Alice Potenza lights a candle before every game, and sits just so in a special chair in front of her television. If she does not sit so and light the candle, the team is less likely to win. During one important game, Goody Potenza had failed to light her candle and sit in her chair and our team was behind by six. Just then, Alice's friend Paula came to call and together they ran to the TV set where Goodwife Markowitz, swiftly assessed the situation and requested some incense to wave at the set. She is a known Witch (and on a subsequent occasion I will be happy to explain the religion of Wicca to you). "We need one to go over the wall," she intoned and gestured at the TV. And sure enough, the spell was cast and a home run was hit.

You and I laugh, but it is true. To see such a coincidence today delights us. But in the 17th century, if word got around our village of Goody Potenza and Goody Markowitz and their magic-working, things might have developed in a decidedly un-delightful manner, with both ladies eventually swinging at the end of a rope on Gallows Hill.

It is All Hallow's Eve, a time when the veil between the world of the Seen and the Unseen, the living and the dead, is particularly permeable. If there is magic afoot and spirits abroad, we should be able to see them today. And they may have a thing or two to teach us. If the dead of Salem Village have anything to say to us today, it may be words of wisdom learned the most painful possible way:

Beware of thinking that evil is a force wholly outside yourselves; that it resides in some other person or people and never in you, the faithful. Beware that your closeness as a community does not turn on itself as a savage animal that eats her young. Beware of believing that evil is ever as powerful as love, and that the Devil – one of the lesser angels – is omnipotent as God. Beware of trapping your friends and neighbors in a prison between utter good and utter evil, utter guilt and utter innocence, for none of us is wholly innocent and none is utterly bad. And listen to us: Thou shalt not bear false witness.

The troubles began in Salem Village in the home of the Reverend Samuel Parris, whose pre-adolescent daughter Betty and 11-year old niece Abigail sat and listened to the slave-woman Tituba's tales of gods and demons and wonder-working from her native Barbados. You undoubtedly know that little Betty Parris was soon thereafter taken with some kind of hysteria that spread among the local girls ; that they accused neighbors of consorting with Satan and of doing all manner of harm to them and to others in the village. You may know that a wide variety of people were swept into these accusations – from the most revered and pious citizens such as Rebecca Nurse – to the most cantankerous and truly witchy, such as Wilmott "Mammy" Reed, who freely admitted to cursing her neighbors. The supposedly afflicted were taken with fits and showed rashes, bite-marks and pinpricks as evidence of their torment at the hands of the invisible devil's minions. They claimed to have seen Satan himself, a beast with a tail, and women flying on broomsticks to meet him and give themselves to him around a fire in the midst of the woods.

Deodat Lawson, a minister in Salem Village, preached this to his congregation on March 24, 1692 in a sermon called "Christ's Fidelity the Only Shield Against Satan's Malignity:"

"You are therefore to be deeply humbled, and sit in the dust, considering the hand of God in singling out this place, this poor village, for the first seat of Satan's tyranny, and to make it (as it ‘twere) the rendezvous of devils… If you are in covenant with the devil, the intercession of Jesus is against you… The great God is set against you. … He that made you will not save you… [and] the prayers of the people of God are against you."

They truly believed it. They were faithful people. They were unreasonable people but they do not deserve to be called stupid by their descendants. They understood the world according to the limitations of their place and time. Many of the locals thought the whole situation totally insane, but their counsel was not heeded until after many had either had their reputations and fortunes ruined for life, been hanged or pressed to death, or died in prison.

At the end of it all, in that immediate area, 150 were accused and nineteen were hanged; their bodies dumped in a crevasse, as they were forbidden proper Christian burial. Rebecca Nurse's son Samuel rescued his mother's body in defiance of the law and at great peril to himself, and rowed her home by way of the Crane River to the Danvers River to the North River. I think sometimes of his nighttime journey. What did he think of Satan and witches then, and of his own neighbors, ministers and magistrates?

How could this happen? History has suggested a variety of interesting and valid possibilities: the girls to first make accusations were bored and repressed, and easily given to fits of imagination and fantasy that escalated to true communal hysteria. Ministers encouraged the hysteria by emphasizing Satan's great might. Some suggest that the girls ate bread that was moldy with ergot, a hallucinogenic fungus. Economic interests motivated some of the accusations, as the accused had their property confiscated and their assets seized. Petty revenge drove some of the accusations, and in other cases inexplicable losses, sickness and sudden death propelled people driven almost mad with grief to seek supernatural explanations and local blame for their suffering.

And of course, and this point cannot be made strongly enough, the men and women of Salem were only continuing a tradition of witch-hunting that had started in Europe as early as 1450, with a true hysteria seizing the area now known as Germany in the 1560's. For three hundred years throughout Europe, but concentrated in what is now Germany, France and Scotland, somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 men and women accused of witchcraft were tortured by both Catholic and Protestant inquisitors, and publicly executed by burning, hanging, or even less humane methods. Eighty-five percent of those accused were women, and eighty-five percent of those killed were women.

Caught between the early Church fathers who taught that women were weak, lustful, sinful and easily tempted by the Devil, and the later Protestant reformers who believed sinful woman was only safely tamed and controlled when in the role of completely obedient wife and mother, women died by the thousands. The men who died as witches were largely guilty by their association with women believed to be in league with Satan. They learned that they dare not speak on behalf of their wives and mothers and sisters.

In a time of widespread abject poverty and plagues, when fear and superstition were the primary emotional experience, the hungry old widow who looked at you unkindly if you refused to fill her begging bowl was the first to die. Her face, hollowed and tightened by age, suffering and nutritional deficiencies, became the very image of Satan's trusted consort. Quick to go along with her to the stake was the midwife or local healer, with her knowledge of the mysteries of life and death, and her herbal remedies that could ease the pain of child-bearing – a pain that, as the clergy liked to remind her, God had decreed in Genesis – "in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children!"

I will spare you more details of this obscene period in European history, which occurred, amazingly enough, concurrently with the time we call the Renaissance. The violent and literally insane beliefs and practices of the witch-hunters and inquisitors are not fit to be spoken in a house of worship, but it is irresponsible to talk of the Salem episode without placing it in its proper context. Salem Village lost 20 of its neighbors. In the 16th century, two villages in Germany were left with one female resident apiece after a craze swept through their community.

Please God, is there any good news in all of this?

First, this: sometimes it takes cruel and fanatical episodes in our history for us to remember that, although we humans may express our connectedness in perverse ways, we are indeed all interwoven in a shared life that is both physical and metaphysical. This is not magic. It is the spiritual reality in which we live and move and have our being. What our neighbor thinks or feels affects us. One's curses and another's blessings have the power to make us feel that we dwell in psychic threat or in mutual goodness. When hatred and fear moves through a community, it sweeps through like fire, burning indiscriminately and doing swift and lasting damage and destruction. Human nature has not changed so much in three to four hundred years that we cannot still take serious and sober heed of this.

The good news is that we are chastened by this, and we have learned, and therefore we bear a tremendous responsibility to guard against projecting our own shadow sides onto any person or people, and to call attention to it when it happens among us or in the wider world. New Englanders, I think, are especially called to this responsibility, which is the honor we pay our ancestor spirits. Today in this congregation sits Prue Miller, whose great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother was Susannah Martin, who died upon the gallows at Salem Village on July 19, 1692. These people belong to us.

A final word on the Reverend Deodat Lawson, who also belongs to us. After his tenure in Salem Village, Rev. Lawson had a short pastorate, from 1694 to 1698. The congregation he served was this one.

Our parish record shows that the Reverend Lawson was absent from church for months at a time – inexplicably -- and he was finally dismissed on recommendation of nearby church Elders (I imagine that the congregation was then, as it is now, a people so generous of spirit that they needed a prodding from neighbors to dismiss this negligent pastor!). I hope it is not unkind of me to admit my gratification that Lawson's tenure with this congregation was not long nor was it commendable. It is not for us to forgive or excuse him. He is our brother too, we grieve his ignorance and the damage that he and other so-called upright religious men and women did. From him we take humility; the sure knowledge that no matter how far along in spiritual progress or in human understanding we feel ourselves to be, the work is not done, perfection never achieved. We are never safe from causing grievous harm through ignorance and projection.

We wish with all our hearts that his soul and all of Salem Village's victims and accusers shall rest in harmony with the Divine, in the peace that passeth understanding. To them, we pledge our continued efforts against religious hysteria in all forms, and to preach and live the good news that all living beings are one; that they partake of one spirit and that the divine aspect of that spirit is Love. Whatever mercy there is in creation, may it be granted them, and to us too. Blessed be. Amen.

For these men and women, executed in Salem Village between June 10 and September 22, 1692, we pledge our faithful commitment to tolerance and rationality in religion, and to live in the bonds of fellowship and love for their sake and ours. May they rest in the peace that passeth understanding:

Bridget Bishop
John Willard
Sarah Good
Giles Cory
Elizabeth Howe
Martha Cory
Susannah Martin
Mary Easty
Rebecca Nurse
Alice Parker
Sarah Wildes
Mary Parker
George Burroughs
Ann Pudeator
Martha Carrier
Margaret Scott
George Jacobs
Wilmott Reed
John Proctor
Samuel Wardwell