A Holiday for Facts and Reason

Remarks delivered at the North Texas Church of Freethought on October 4, 2009

Freethought Day is October 12th - next week Monday - which also happens to be Columbus Day, which it is every year, in fact. Freethought Day commemorates the effective end of the Salem Witchcraft Trials which, coincidentally, occurred in 1692, just 200 years after Columbus reached the Americas in 1492. : Salem Witch Trials  : search history salem witch trials

This account unavoidably omits a great deal. For example, the execution of Giles Corey, who was pressed to death with stones because he refused to plead, bringing the total killed to 20 in addition to the 19 hanged, is not mentioned. But the biggest omission is how the Salem Witchcraft Trials were finally ended. Yes, accusations were reaching into the upper levels of the Massachusetts colony's hierarchy. And this had to have had something to do with ending of the proceedings. But how the trials were ended is also the point of Freethought Day.

I had intended to talk just about that. But it happens that there are distortions about Freethought Day - about what happened October 12th of 1692 - all over the internet so I'm going to have to digress.

I first heard about Freethought Day when the Freedom From Religion Foundation was publicizing and promoting proclamations about it some years ago. This month's issue of its monthly newspaper, Freethought Today, contains nothing about it. But at the time the story went that on October 12th of 1692, then Massachusetts Governor William Phips issued an edict to prohibit the use of "spectral evidence" in legal proceedings in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. And since the convictions of the "witches" in the Salem Witchcraft Trials all depended on this "spectral evidence" - on the accusers saying that they could see, for example, devils consorting with the accused that no one else could see - this ended the proceedings.

Well, this is mostly all wrong. And yet this is the account that, as I say, is all over the internet. How nice of Wikipedia to allow anyone to offer corrections - which I did!

What actually happened is that on October 12th of 1692, Phips wrote the Privy Council of King William and Queen Mary, the co-regents that were put on the throne after "The Glorious Revolution" ended in England. Phips basically recounted the events of the Salem Witch Trials, including ridiculous allegations about people being

dragged out of their houses and carried over the tops of trees and hills for many Miles together"

He also fudged about the extent of his absences. He was frequently off fighting Indians during this time. And he used that to suggest that he wasn't to blame for any innocent people being executed. Phips mentions "spectral evidence" in this connection in referring to:

what danger some of their innocent subjects might be exposed to, if the evidence of the afflicted persons only did prevail either to the committing or trying of any of them"

Phips ended with these words:

Sir I beg pardon for giving you all this trouble, the reason is because I know my enemies are seeking to turn it all upon me ... I depend upon your friendship, and desire you will please to give a true understanding of the matter if any thing of this kind be urged or made to use of against me.

Phips might have taken action sooner if he had felt he had the support of the clerics in the community. But by October 12th he clearly did, including that of the famous Rev. Cotton Mather and his father Increase, also a minister. Cotton was not as emphatically opposed to the use of "spectral evidence" as was his father. Increase, who was largely responsible for Phips' being appointed governor, had already condemned "spectral evidence" and had preached and written that:

It were better that ten suspected witches should escape, than that one Innocent Person should be Condemned.

Cotton later regretted that he had not expressed effective opposition to the proceedings sooner, even though he apparently continued to believe in the existence of witches and witchcraft.

When the trials finally resumed under a new court set up in late November "spectral evidence," while not banned outright, was apparently discounted. Those convicted were pardoned, as were the women who had been previously sentenced to death but whose executions had been stayed because they were pregnant. This angered the chief judge, William Stoughton, so much that he resigned. Only one judge, Samuel Sewall, publicly apologized for his role in the hysteria. And he went on to become one of the earliest critics of the institution of slavery and of the treatment of Native Americans.

Now the point of Freethought Day is not that there was a specific edict banning spectral evidence. It would be nice if there were such a thing but there is not. (And if our fellow unbelievers persist in this error we stand to look as stupid as some Christians do when they claim that Jesus was born on December 25th!) Spectral evidence was recognized - perhaps for the first time - as a problem, but -

The greater point is that the Salem Witchcraft Trials were brought to a screeching halt despite their own internal logic and their consistency with the theological beliefs of the Puritans. After all, witches exist, right? They are tools of Satan, right? So they are a danger to the whole community, right? And even the Bible says they are to be put to death, right? Moreover, the methods of finding out witches were a settled matter, ever since the publication in 1486 of the Malleus Maleficarum - RIGHT??

Phips had good reason to fear that his actions in October might result in it all being "turned back" against him. And two years later he was recalled to London on charges of corruption in his administration. But in October of 1692 Phips had to stop the witchcraft trials. Because if he hadn't, things would have spiraled completely out of control. As the video shown indicated, accusations of witchcraft had begun to reach higher and higher into the hierarchy of colonial society. Phips undoubtedly felt personally threatened, not only because there were rumors that his wife was a witch, but since he had, earlier in his career, successfully located sunken treasure. And that was something that was then thought to be linked with demonic power.

Behaving reasonably - doing the right thing - because doing anything else would be disastrous - is something worth celebrating. That's what Freethought Day is about, because thinking - relying on facts and the rule of reason - is what we Freethinkers have and ought to have the highest degree of respect and devotion for. This is what everything else that we value depends on, does it not?

© 2009 by Dr. Tim Gorski