Angels & Demons   ·   History   ·   Paranormal

Salem Witch Trials: A True American Horror Story

Published by

Tom Thiessen Website

Tom is married to Nikki and has 4 energetic kids. He studied philosophy at Fort Lewis College in Durango, CO and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. He studied theology at Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY. He planted Gospel Church Durango in 2011 where he currently serves as a pastor and trains church planters. Tom is an editor at Gospel.Vision and has personal interests and things that make him relatable, etc.

The Salem Witch Trials have captured the American imagination for over 300 years. The tragic events have inspired a handful of documentaries and Hollywood films, as well as piles of articles and scholarly treatments. The common perspective on those events is a story of religion gone wild, of Puritans tragically acting on their superstitious beliefs while others pay with their lives. Because our current intellectual system is largely a naturalistic one, our culture demands some kind of natural explanation to account for the well-documented symptoms that kicked off the events. Proposed solutions range from a mini-ice age, and class warfare, to an infestation of hallucinogenic mold growing on the local rye supply.1

“What I found is a true American horror story.”

Having been exposed to many modern accounts of the events with an obvious naturalist bias, I have been driven to do the work of a historian and go back to the original sources. What I found there is much more interesting than superstition or chemical poisoning. What I found is a true American horror story.

I don’t mean horror in the seemingly benign sense that many “enjoy” a horror story today. I mean a truly horrifying story, one that has been taxing to research, especially as it has called up memories of personal experiences with these kinds of horrors. My thesis is that history demonstrates the presence of demons and witches in early America, and that these dark beings were involved in the happenings at Salem. Let me be clear: I am not writing a defense of the Salem Witch Trials. A multitude of  voices at the time urged the governors of Salem to more reasonableness and caution in their trials, and the people of Salem themselves eventually apologized for the sad events. Reading the letters from concerned family members, pastors, and prisoners shows a side of the story dark in human ways. But there is more to the story.2

Historical Horror

The court documents from the Salem witch trials are quite thorough and every charge is well documented. The evidence is largely unconvincing with regard to a verdict on specific people because it is almost all based on spectral evidence. By that I mean information gleaned from tormenting spirits appearing to many in Salem who looked like and identified themselves as people from town. After reading over many of the court documents and other contemporary writings, I am inclined to believe that the community of Salem was seriously harassed by demons. The problem is that demons are terribly skilled at deceit and cannot be trusted. Acting on evidence gleaned from demons is like believing a grizzly bear wants to cuddle with you. I am not alone in this judgment, I found similar counsel from a man involved with the trials from a distance: Cotton Mather. Mather was a voice of faithful reason in the situation, often urging the Salem courts and juries not to admit spectral evidence at all, and writing and appealing strongly against bizarre practices like throwing witches in the water to see if they float. This is not because Mather was a modernist, but because his faith in the supernatural was wed with a reasonable mind.

Mather was no simple minded man, he came from a well-known and respectable family in Boston. His father, Increase Mather was appointed the president of Harvard College in 1685. Cotton was a well received scholar, a professor at Harvard, and a gospel minister in Boston (Mather, Introduction).3 He carefully documented much of the demonic horror that was going on during the 17th century in Massachusetts, his book receiving a hearty endorsement from the governor of Boston, William Stoughton. Having presented a small glimpse of the thoroughness and reasonableness of some of the evidence, let me summarize the horrors found within the historical record.

Eyewitnesses of the Horror

The sheer quantity of first-hand accounts and eyewitness testimony of demonic activity in the documents surrounding the Salem witch trials is staggering. I will sketch a crude map, and anyone who is interested can wander into the jungle themselves, following the links in the bibliography. Everything is free and can be accessed online with a click, but you might not like what you find.

One court document included the original wording of a new law that was passed in Salem as a result of the activity in question. It lays out legal ramification for anyone who would participate in,

“Invocation or Conjuration of any evil and wicked Spirit, Or shall consult, covenant with Entertain, Employ, feed or reward any evil and wicked Spirit to or for any intent or purpose; Or take up any dead man woman or Child, out of his, her, or their grave, or any other place where the dead body resteth, or the Skin, bone or any other part of any dead person to be Employed or used in any manner of Witchcraft, Sorcery, Charm or Inchantment, Or shall use, practice or Exercise any Witchcraft, Inchantment charm or Sorcery, whereby any person shall be killed, destroyed, wasted, consumed, pined or lamed in his or her body, or any part thereof.4

What was going on in Salem that there had to be an official law like this passed?

According to the court documents, most of the accused were released. Those who were charged had evidence of them making a deal with the devil by formally signing an agreement with him, being baptized into Satan, and practicing witchcraft against others to their severe harm. Among those convicted was Mary Esty, who was executed for witchcraft. In her court proceedings there is a long list of witnesses who testified to seeing a spirit in her likeness choking, tormenting, and harassing them. One man testified of a rock wall shaking and something hitting him on the shoulder.Bridget Bishop was also executed after lengthy testimonies including bizarre charges like her ghost appearing to people along with demons that took the shape of black pigs and a monkey with chicken feet. Many of these apparitions were said to have a variety of physical effects on people and objects. Apparently after visitations from this spirit, healthy babies would be found dead in their cribs. Several testified that in Bridget’s physical presence, young children without a history of problems were suddenly seized and thrown down violently onto their faces.6

Cotton Mather compiled lots of examples of witchcraft and demons himself, but his eyewitness accounts are the most significant. Mather spent time with a family tormented by demons and even took some of the children into his home to care for them and observe the bizarre phenomena.

Sometimes they would be Deaf, sometimes Dumb, and sometimes Blind, and often, all this at once. One while their Tongues would be drawn down their Throats; another-while they would be pull’d out upon their Chins, to a prodigious length. They would have their Mouths opened unto such a Wideness, that their Jaws went out of joint; and anon they would clap together again with a Force like that of a strong Spring-Lock. The same would happen to their Shoulder-Blades, and their Elbows, and Hand-wrists, and several of their joints. They would at times ly in a benummed condition and be drawn together as those that are ty’d Neck and Heels;’ and presently be stretched out, yea, drawn Backwards, to such a degree that it was fear’d the very skin of their Bellies would have crack’d. They would make most pitteous out-cries, that they were cut with Knives, and struck with Blows that they could not bear. Their Necks would be broken, so that their Neck-bone would seem dissolved unto them that felt after it; and yet on the sudden, it would become, again so stiff that there was no stirring of their Heads; yea, their Heads would be twisted almost round; and if main Force at any time obstructed a dangerous motion which they seem’d to be upon, they would roar exceedingly. Thus they lay some weeks most pittiful Spectacles; and this while as a further Demonstration of Witchcraft in these horrid Effects, when I went to Praver by one of them, that was very desireous to hear what I said, the Child utterly lost her Hearing till our Prayer was over. (Mather, Section V)7

It was soon discovered that the neighbor of the children was an unashamed witch, and all kinds of horrendous stories follow about her. For example, in court the following scene unfolded:

Order was given to search the old womans house, from whence there were brought into the Court, several small Images, or Puppets, or Babies, made of Raggs, and stuff’t with Goat’s hair, and other such Ingredients. When these were produced, the vile Woman acknowledged, that her way to torment the Objects of her malice, was by wetting of her Finger with her Spittle, and streaking of those little Images. The abused Children were then present, and the Woman still kept stooping and shrinking as one that was almost prest to Death with a mighty Weight upon her. But one of the Images being brought unto her, immediately she started up after an odd manner, and took it into her hand; but she had no sooner taken it, than one of the Children fell into sad Fits, before the whole Assembly. This the Judges bad their just Apprehensions at; and carefully causing the Repetition of the Experiment, found again the same event of it. They asked her, Whether she had any to stand by her: She replied, She had; and looking very pertly in the Air, she added, No, He’s gone. And she then confessed, that she had One, who was her Prince, with whom she maintained, I know not what Communion. For which cause, the night after, she was heard expostulating with a Devil, for his thus deserting her. (Mather, Section VIII)8

The girl that stayed with Cotton would cover her ears if he prayed or read the bible, and cry out that her spirit visitors were screaming so loud she couldn’t hear. She would report that if she could only steal something or get drunk she would be better. She would sometimes be jerked towards the fireplace in an instant such that it took two grown men to hold her back.

Elsewhere Mather compiles eyewitness accounts of people being bitten by demonic specters leaving observable marks, witches afflicting people in specific parts of their bodies by moving that part of their own body, and demons fleeing from certain passages of Scripture read out loud. Oddly similar experiences were confirmed with ministers in other countries dealing with similar problems (Mather, 202-211).9

The Biblical Witness to these Horrors

The events of the Salem witch trials may trouble Christians, but they should not surprise us. If our reaction is one of skepticism and outright dismissal, it means our minds have not been sufficiently renewed by the Bible, but rather have been well trained by our modern schools. Remember the demonized man who had supernatural strength?

When Jesus had stepped out on land, there met him a man from the city who had demons. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he had not lived in a house but among the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him and said with a loud voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” 29 For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many a time it had seized him. He was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the desert.) 30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion,” for many demons had entered him. 31 And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss. (ESV, Lk 8.27-31)10

Or how about the boy who would be thrown into the fire by a demon?

And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. 18 And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” 19 And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23 And Jesus said to him, “ ‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” (Mk 9.17-23)

Do you remember the witch of Endor who successfully summoned Samuel’s spirit up from Sheol to talk to King Saul (1 Samuel 28:1-25)? These are historical accounts of real witches and demons. They are not relics of a superstitious past or a dark age, but are accounts of things alive and active today. I once met a wizard on the streets of Durango, Colorado who was certain that Yahweh is real and all powerful. He said he was sure because he deals with spirits and powers all the time. He begged me not to pray that God’s Spirit come near to him, because he was terrified of his power and he didn’t want to serve Jesus.

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Horrors Today?

Before I wrap up I want to address a likely objection forming in your mind. You may wonder why we don't see much of this today. When the gospel was first coming to North America, and the gods who once ruled here were being toppled by the universal Kingship of Jesus, they fought back hard. They fought openly and plainly, and as always, they fought dirty. But they were not ultimately able to stand. As a result, many of them were driven off, possibly sentenced to the pit to await final judgment. Others went in to hiding.

C. S. Lewis imagines how the demons reason about their current strategy of hiding, it reads from the perspective of two demons talking to each other:

Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. Of course this has not always been so... when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and skeptics...I do not think you will have much difficulty in keeping the patient in the dark. The fact that “devils” are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook method of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you. (Lewis, 7)11

What to Do with these Horrors

What should we conclude about all of this, and how should it affect us? Should we explain it away and tell ourselves it doesn't exist? Should we open a witch hunt and resume the excesses of Salem? Should we hide in fear? No, rather we should embrace Jesus and his Spirit of Holiness, and we should stand against demons wherever we find them. But we shouldn't fight with nooses and swords, not even the sword of the government. We fight with more powerful weapons than these: with the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We believe it, we stand on it, we speak it, and we wield it directly against dark spirits when necessary. The spirits and their wizards tremble before the Father of lights, the kingship of Jesus, and the Spirit of holiness; and we who belong to Christ carry his authority and power with us.

We should also give thanks that we live in a time and place where the imperfect but valiant efforts of many before us have been occasions for Christ to advance the rule of his Kingdom over the necks of hosts of dark spirits. As Mather wrote,

"The New-Englanders are a People of God settled in those, which were once the Devil's Territories; and it may easily be supposed that the Devil was exceedingly disturbed, when he perceived such a People here accomplishing the Promise of old made unto our Blessed Jesus, That He should have the Utmost parts of the Earth for his Possession...Having obtained Help from God, we continue to this Day. Wherefore the Devil is now making one Attempt more upon us; an Attempt more Difficult, more Surprizing, more snarl'd with unintelligible Circumstances than any that we have hitherto Encountred; an Attempt so Critical, that if we get well through, we shall soon Enjoy Halcyon Days with all the Vultures of Hell Trodden under our Feet." (Mather, Section 2, p. 14)

We should maintain the ground that has been gained, not by hanging trials, but by the proclamation of the gospel of God's grace. We should not be caught up in fascination with horror and the dark spirits, nor be fooled by their current deception of telling us they are spirits of light. Jesus is the light, and his eternal day is on the horizon. The night is passing away, the nightmare is quickly fading from memory, the cool breeze of the eternal morning blows sweetly in from Zion.

  1. Saxon, Vicki. "What Caused the Salem Witch Trials?" JSTOR Daily, Accessed 14 May 2018.
  2. "Petitions from relatives of prisoners and Others: October 1692-January 1693." Salem Witch Trials: Documentary Archive and Transcription Project, Accessed 14 May 2018.
  3. Mather, Cotton and Increase Mather. The Wonders of the Invisible World. Urbana, Il, 2009. Accessed 14 May 2018.
  4. "A Bill Against Conjurations, Witchcraft, and Dealing with Evil and Wicked Spirits - December 1692." Salem Witch Trials: Documentary Archive and Transcription Project, Accessed 14 May 2018.
  5. "Mary Esty Executed September 22nd 1692." Salem Witch Trials: Documentary Archive and Transcription Project, Accessed 14 May 2018.
  6. "Bridget Bishop Executed June 10, 1692." Salem Witch Trials: Documentary Archive and Transcription Project, Accessed 14 May 2018.
  7. Mather, Cotton. Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions. Famous Trials, Accessed 14 May 2018.
  8. Mather, Cotton. Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions. Famous Trials, Accessed 14 May 2018.
  9. Mather, Cotton and Increase Mather. The Wonders of the Invisible World. Urbana, Il, 2009. Accessed 14 May 2018.
  10. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
  11. Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape Letters. HarperCollins: New York, NY, 2001.
  12. Mather, Cotton and Increase Mather. The Wonders of the Invisible World. Urbana, Il, 2009. Accessed 14 May 2018.

Published by

Tom Thiessen Website

Tom is married to Nikki and has 4 energetic kids. He studied philosophy at Fort Lewis College in Durango, CO and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. He studied theology at Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY. He planted Gospel Church Durango in 2011 where he currently serves as a pastor and trains church planters. Tom is an editor at Gospel.Vision and has personal interests and things that make him relatable, etc.

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