Abuse Victims Falsely Portrayed as Witches
Matthew 12:22-25 (ESV) Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.
Recently I began reading the introduction to a book written long, long ago by Cotton Mather (born 1663) which is an account of the trials of several witches who had been tried in New England, some of whom were executed. Here is what I was reading when, as happens so often now when I read books, a parallel to the plight of abuse victims in the church jumped into my head. Please do not assume that I am claiming that the paragraphs which I quote here from the introduction to Cotton Mather’s book are completely accurate in all they say about the Puritans. My main point lies separately from those issues. These trials were however contrary to Scripture which plainly instructs Christians not to pull up the tares now, but leave that work to the angels of God on that great future day of judgment. To use force and effect some kind of inquisition now is inevitably going to end up destroying some of the wheat (genuine believers or the yet unconverted elect). See Matthew 13:24-30.
There was at this time in Boston a distinguished family of puritanical ministers of the name of Mather. Richard Mather, an English non-conformist divine, had emigrated to America in 1636, and settled at Dorchester, where, in 1639, he had a son born, who was named, in accordance with the peculiar nomenclature of the puritans, Increase Mather. This son distinguished himself much by his acquirements as a scholar and a theologian, became established as a minister in Boston, and in 1685 was elected president of Harvard College. His son, born at Boston in 1663, and called from the name of his mother’s family, Cotton Mather, became more remarkable than his father for his scholarship, gained also a distinguished position in Harvard College, and was also, at the time of which we are speaking, a minister of the gospel in Boston. Cotton Mather had adopted all the most extreme notions of the puritanical party with regard to witchcraft, and he had recently had an opportunity of displaying them.
In the summer of the year 1688, the children of a mason of Boston named John Goodwin were suddenly seized with fits and strange afflictions, which were at once ascribed to witchcraft, and an Irish washerwoman employed by the family, was suspected of being the witch. Cotton Mather was called in to witness the sufferings of Goodwin’s children; and he took home with him one of them, a little girl, who had first displayed these symptoms, in order to examine her with more care. The result was, that the Irish woman was brought to a trial, found guilty, and hanged; and Cotton Mather published next year an account of the case, under the title of “Late Memorable Providences, relating to Witchcraft and Possession,” which displays a very extraordinary amount of credulity, and an equally great want of anything like sound judgment. This work, no doubt, spread the alarm of witchcraft through the whole colony, and had some influence on the events which followed. It may be supposed that the panic which had now arisen in Salem was not likely to be appeased by the interference of Cotton Mather and his father.
The execution of the washerwoman, Bridget Bishop, had greatly increased the excitement; and people in a more respectable position began to be accused. On the 19th of July five more persons were executed, and five more experienced the same fate on the 19th of August. Among the latter was Mr. George Borroughs, a minister of the gospel, whose principal crime appears to have been a disbelief in witchcraft itself. His fate excited considerable sympathy, which, however, was checked by Cotton Mather, who was present at the place of execution on horseback, and addressed the crowd, assuring them that Borroughs was an impostor. Many people, however, had now become alarmed at the proceedings of the prosecutors, and among those executed with Borroughs was a man named John Willard, who had been employed to arrest the persons charged by the accusers, and who had been accused himself, because, from conscientious motives, he refused to arrest any more. He attempted to save himself by flight; but he was pursued and overtaken. Eight more of the unfortunate victims of this delusion were hanged on the 22nd of September, making in all nineteen who had thus suffered, besides one who, in accordance with the old criminal law practice, had been pressed to death for refusing to plead. The excitement had indeed risen to such a pitch that two dogs accused of witchcraft were put to death. A certain degree of reaction, however, appeared to be taking place, and the magistrates who had conducted the proceedings began to be alarmed, and to have some doubts of the wisdom of their proceedings. Cotton Mather was called upon by the governor to employ his pen in justifying what had been done; and the result was, the book which stands first in the present volume, “The Wonders of the Invisible World;” in which the author gives an account of seven of the trials at Salem, compares the doings of the witches in New England with those in other parts of the world, and adds an elaborate dissertation on witchcraft in general. This book was published at Boston, Massachusetts, in the month of October, 1692.
Mather, Increase; Mather, Cotton (2012-05-16). The Wonders of the Invisible World Being an Account of the Tryals of Several Witches Lately Executed in New-England, to which is added A Farther Account of the Tryals of the New-England Witches (Kindle Locations 18-47). . Kindle Edition.
Now, as I read these paragraphs I was compelled to think, first, of how the enemies of Christ accused Him of being a witch. Perhaps you have never heard it put quite that way before, but in fact (as in the Scripture quoted above) these enemies did accuse Him of being a practitioner of the black arts, a servant using the power of the prince of demons. Christ refuted that inane charge of course with the famous ‘a house divided against itself cannot stand.’ Second, I thought of how the very same tactic is used by the abuser against his victim, and often the abuser enjoys similar success in convincing others that the victim is the evil one.
Thus the victim is portrayed as a witch. Her accuser points to all of her devilish incantations by which she has alienated others from him. Her allegations against him are lies. She has charmed and deluded others with her spells. And so her burning is called for.
But it turns out that the so-called witch is no witch at all. Things are quite the other way round. And we Christians should know this. We have it in God’s Word that this is how our enemy operates. He accuses the righteous of being wicked. He calls light darkness and darkness light. His emissaries portray themselves as sons of Abraham, but our Lord pronounced the truth about them:
John 8:44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.
Apparently many people in New England so long ago were drawn into the delusion and for a time called for the burning of witches. We look down upon them and wonder how they could have been so foolish. Yet how many victims of evil today are caricatured as practitioners of darkness and driven away from their churches by the mob? And all the while Satan’s angels remain in the pew behind their facade of angelic light.