This is Lee Carter, speaking for Atheists United. At this time of year, when the frost is
on the pumpkin, the thoughts of children joyfully turn to costume parties with witches
and ghosties and demons, and things that go bump in the night. But it wasn't so long
ago that everybody took witches, ghosts and demons very seriously. In Exodus 22:18,
God commands "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." And to be sure there is no
misunderstanding about it, the commandment is repeated in Leviticus 20:27 -- "A man
or a woman who is a medium or a wizard shall be put to death; they shall be stoned
with stones, their blood shall be upon them." Throughout the New Testament, Jesus is
constantly conversing with demons and explaining how to cast them out. Today,
Christians conveniently overlook these passages and try to censor those chapters of
history which demonstrate what happens when church leaders gain control over civil
Jerry Falwell recently stated that "the idea of separation between state and church was
an invention of the devil to prevent God's people from running their own country." And
it's obvious that the whole purpose of his Moral Majority is to seize control of the
government and turn America into a theocracy. Let me tell you a story about something
that had a direct bearing on why the Constitution forbids the entanglement of religion
with civil law, and why we sued President Reagan for doing just that when he signed a
law which declared the Christian Bible as the official "Word of God."
The Bible clearly spells out the basic assumptions of witchcraft, and demands that it be
stamped out. So the Christian church dutifully spent a large portion of its energy in this
pursuit during the first 1,700 years of its existence. And that brings us to little Salem
Village in the colony of Massachusetts during the year 1692. There was no religious
freedom in those days. Only Christians were allowed to live there. And Christian
doctrine specified that there was a real, anthropomorphic devil, a being whose efforts
were directed toward the working of evil. They believed the devil carried on his war
against heaven through the use of human beings. Every person won to his service was
a blow against heaven and the strength of the church. It was believed that the devil
worked in person among mankind, using all his weapons to urge humanity to his side.
He could tempt weak souls with visions of wealth, power, and success. He could trick
people and lie to them, and he could even endow some with his own supernatural
abilities, enabling them to work magic. He was assisted by numbers of demons, all of
whom were subordinate to their master but who were all permitted to transact bargains
and enroll humanity among their numbers.
In the middle sixteenth century a French scholar announced triumphantly that after years
of painstaking labor, he had discovered the precise number of the demonic army.
There were, he said, 7,409,127, commanded by 79 infernal princes who were
responsible only to Satan himself. This figure was indignantly denied about ten years
later by another French scholar, who insisted that there were actually only 7,405,920
demons, commanded by only 72 princes. A year or so later, still another scholar
entered the discussion. He explained that he had discovered the basic arrangement of
the demonic army. It was divided into legions, cohorts, companies and individuals, and
these forces totaled slightly more than the population of the entire world.
Each of these demons had a name which was brought to light by laborious research.
As late as the end of the seventeenth century an English scholar published careful
portraits of half a dozen of the chief demons. He claimed they were sketched from life.
Prominent religious people frequently had conversations with Satan and with demons.
They argued difficult religious questions, and the demons were considered excellent in
debate, although not always truthful. There were many ways of summoning them, but
the use of such magic was expressly forbidden by law. Demons could appear without
being summoned but they couldn't harm anyone so long as the proper religious
protection against them was observed. They could, however, enter into the body of a
human being and control it. This was called "possession," and the victim would behave
wildly and utterly without reason, shout curses and blasphemies, and sometimes even
endanger the lives of others. It required all the force of religious power to drive out the
demon, and many important churchmen spent long hours in argument, persuasion, and
prayer, mocked and abused by a demon who refused to leave a victim's body. The
church called this ceremony "exorcism." I'm sure many of you saw a Hollywood movie a
few years ago, called "The Exorcist," which started a whole new wave of belief in
supernaturalism. Psychiatrists now recognize that so-called "possession" is a form of
hysteria. And people who were afflicted by it behaved the way they did because
subconsciously they realized that was the way they were expected to behave. This form
of hysteria is rather contagious – spreading quite rapidly in a group of people. In
primitive societies, where people still believe in devils and ghosts, this so-called
"possession" is still quite common. It doesn't happen very often in our culture because
most people don't believe in demons anymore – although, to be sure, there are many –
like Jerry Falwell – who still believe in Satan. The twentieth century version of hysterical
possession involves those who constantly see flying saucers and talk with creatures
from outer space.
But back in 1692 the great work of the devil lay among the simple people who were
only interested in staying out of his clutches. If a farmer had a good crop he thanked
God for His blessing, and if the barn burned down then obviously that must have been
the work of the devil.
The devil's methods were simple. He, or one of his demons, approached a human
being with offers which were made as appealing as possible. If the victim were poor,
he was offered vast wealth. If he was dissatisfied, he was offered power, love, or
These temptations often proved so irresistible that the victim agreed to forsake his
church and become a member of the devil's church. He was then given what was called
a "familiar." The familiar might appear to be only an ordinary pet, like a cat, dog, bird,
or whatever, but it was actually a demonic agent. The familiar served as both a servant
and a spy. He performed whatever task the witch ordered, but also reported back to
the devil regularly on the progress of his protégé.
Once the victim had been fully initiated as a follower of the devil, he was known as a
"witch" or a "wizard." Usually, a witch is thought of as a woman and a wizard as a man,
but in the records the words were used interchangeably. And in some circles a male
witch was called a "warlock."
Witches were supposed to be afraid of water, and of any truly religious item. Although
they sometimes came to church in order to avoid suspicion, the service was extremely
uncomfortable for them and they secretly mocked the words and gestures. A witch was
not able to pray. So one of the great tests of witchcraft was to require the witch to say
The Lord's Prayer. In the Black Mass of the devil's church, it was said backwards, and
a witch could not, however she tried, say it correctly. Unfortunately, many people were
burned at the stake because during an examination they became so frightened they
forgot the words.
At a trial for witchcraft it was best to make the accused confess, if possible, that she
had deliberately chosen to follow the devil, and that she had signed his great black
book in which were recorded the names of all his people. The more information she
could give, the better – especially the names of other witches. In Europe very refined
methods of torture were used by the church fathers to extract confessions. If the witch
confessed, she might or might not be allowed to live, but all her property was
confiscated and she was an outcast of society, condemned to wander as a beggar for
the rest of her days. Church fathers were rather upset if someone died from torture
without confessing because that left open the possibility that the defendant might have
been innocent. But it didn't really matter because ecclesiastical law held that is was
better to execute a hundred innocent people than to let a single guilty one escape.
Puritans felt that torture was somehow not truly Christian. The Europeans, of course,
believed Puritans were not truly Christian – which is why they were forced to come to
America in the first place. At any rate, there were other methods of detecting witches
besides confession. The most important clue was called "spectral evidence." If the
specter, or vision of another person appeared to one afflicted by sorcery, then the
person whose likeness was seen was unquestionably a witch, whether that person
knew it or not. The judges reasoned that only a person in league with the devil could
send a ghostly form to trouble innocent people. And if the person accused protested
that he knew nothing about it and had no acquaintance whatever with the devil, that was
even worse. It was assumed that his apparition had signed the devil's book for him.
Sometimes when people were accused, and heard that their spirits had been doing
witchcraft without their knowledge, they were frightened enough to believe it. Then they
were encouraged to think back as carefully and closely as possible for some small
incident which might show that, without knowing it, they had encountered and
encouraged the devil. Dreams were very popular for this. A violent nightmare,
particularly one about being chased by some indescribable monster, was the clearest
possible indication that the devil was after you. Many confessions hinged on such
Since witches were supposed to be able to work magic, the possession of anything
that looked like a magical device was very good evidence. This is why many scientists
were accused of witchcraft. Or a doll, for instance, was evidence. Images of the human
form were forbidden, because a skillful witch could fashion a rough little doll to
represent an enemy, and cause the enemy great harm merely by hurting the doll.
Even words could be evidence. A threat against someone might be remembered and
brought out against an accused person. Witches were able to put curses on people,
and a witch who wished evil to someone was of course responsible if that person
came to harm. A witch in England was found guilty because in quarreling with a
neighbor she said some words under her breath, and sure enough, just ten minutes
later her neighbor's wagon broke an axle.
Anyone who defended, sympathized with, or said a good word for the accused was
automatically suspected. It was assumed that no one would help a witch unless they
were also in league with the devil. So the hysteria became self-perpetuating.
Life in Salem Village wasn't easy at the best of times. Gaiety and merrymaking were
regarded as irreligious. On the Sabbath, there was a long service in the morning and
another in the afternoon. Dancing was never permitted. Singing must never be frivolous
or praising of earthly love. Children were taught that if they knew the Bible thoroughly,
that's all that was necessary – all practical, immediate problems could be solved by
consulting it, and by prayer.
The Puritans did not celebrate Christmas or Easter because these holidays originated
with the pagans long before Christianity adopted them, so they were thought to be
festivals of the devil's church. Children were not allowed to have any toys, because they
were considered frivolous. And little girls were specifically forbidden to play with dolls
because of their use in witchcraft.
In the year 1692 a group of girls, ranging in age from nine to nineteen, had formed a
secret club. And every day they gathered in the kitchen of the local minister, a
Reverend Parris, to listen to the stories of his Indian slave Tituba. Tituba was brought
up in the Spanish West Indies in a voodoo faith. Later she was converted to
Christianity, but she could never understand the fine distinction between the white
magic of Christianity and the black magic of voodoo. So the youngest of the group,
little Elizabeth Parris, the minister's daughter, became frightened about what they were
doing. One of the older girls, however, said that if Elizabeth told on them, they'd put a
curse on her. Elizabeth was sure that by letting Tituba read her palm she had
condemned herself to eternal damnation. But she was too frightened of the others to
tell anybody what was bothering her.
The winter was long and hard, and the only thing the girls had to look forward to were
their sessions with Tituba. But they began to feel more and more guilty about listening
to her stories. After a while they began to act strangely. Sometimes they didn't answer
when spoken to; they were jittery; they often cried without reason; and when they
laughed they sometimes couldn't stop.
One night Elizabeth Parris called her father to come help fight off the terrible creatures
she saw crawling on her bed. And when the reverend came she didn't recognize him.
For days she wouldn't eat, and she sat for hours staring into space, occasionally
screaming in terror at some creature that only she could see. Finally the reverend
called a doctor; and the doctor announced that she was possessed by a demon! The
news spread like wildfire. That meant there was a witch in the village! And when the
other girls heard about it they too went into hysterics. A delegation of ministers was
sent for to help drive out the demons and to discover the identity of the witch. Under
their constant cross-examination, one of the girls blurted out the name of Tituba. But
before Tituba could be arrested, the girls named two other women, whom nearly
everybody in the village disliked anyway. So a trial was held for Tituba, Sarah Goode
and Sarah Osburn. Sarah Goode and Sarah Osburn were convicted on the grounds of
spectral evidence, plus the fact that they had been irregular in their church attendance.
Tituba seemed to enjoy all the attention she was getting, so she readily confessed,
making up a very imaginative story about how the devil had forced her to join his
church. Tituba's evidence went on and on. No matter what was suggested to her, she
agreed with enthusiasm, and every new fact was supported by the wild antics of the
children. A few educated people in the village denounced the trials as a ridiculous
charade. So, naturally, warrants were issued for their arrest. The jury found the first
defendant not guilty, whereupon the judge told them to reconsider their verdict.
Thereafter they didn't even bother to deliberate; anyone accused was automatically
guilty. The accusations and cases of possession began to spread all over New
England. Over 300 people were thrown in prison. They ranged from a four year old girl
to an eighty year old invalid routed from her sickbed. Nobody knows how many died
there. The trials lasted from February until September, and twenty people were
executed. None of those who confessed were executed, but they lost all their property
and were forced into exile. The turning point was the execution of a wealthy and
educated man named Giles Cory. He was so contemptuous of the whole affair that he
refused to speak a word in his defense, even though he knew the penalty was death.
His heroism was sobering. A number of slander suits were filed, and suddenly
"spectral evidence" became a very unpopular doctrine. The ecclesiastical court was
dissolved and the jail doors were opened. But Salem Village was ruined. Many years
later, several of the girls admitted that they were only pretending to be possessed in
order to protect themselves from punishment. And thus ended the last witchcraft trial in
America. But in Europe they continued, and by the end of the eighteenth century, more
than two million people had been executed for witchcraft by the Christian church.
Christians today usually try to dismiss those eighteen hundred years as a "temporary
aberration" – the result of ignorant hypocrites who were not "truly" Christians. But the
basic concepts of witchcraft follow directly from Christian doctrines, and it's the
modern Christians who are being hypocritical when they say they believe every word of
the Bible, but not in witchcraft. As Voltaire said, "As long as people continue to believe
in absurdities, they'll be capable of atrocities." These kinds of trials were still being
conducted in various parts of Europe when our founding fathers declared that never
again would Americans be subjected to laws based merely on someone's overactive
imagination. So the next time you hear some religionist say "This nation has got to turn
back to God," just remember what it was really like "back" in those days.
"Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it," said philosopher
If you'd like to join us in our fight against superstition and anti-intellectualism, write to
Atheists United in Los Angeles.
Be listening next week at this same time for another commentary by Atheists United –
The Rational Minority.
The Witches of Salem