In 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, my seven-times great grandmother, Susannah North Martin, was tried for practicing witchcraft, she was convicted, and she was hanged. In total, twenty were executed, most of them women. But Susannah and the others could have avoided their grisly fates. Shortly, I’ll explain how, but first, what caused the Salem Witch Trials?
Many Puritans left England in the 1630s and sailed to the Massachusetts Bay Colony to create a new and perfect society based on the principles of the Bible. Their goal, as communicated by their leader, John Winthrop, was to create a community that would be a model to the world, what Winthrop called a “city on a hill.”
The Puritans were British citizens and like their countrymen on the other side of the Atlantic, they believed in witches. And witchcraft wasn’t a side issue—it was very much a part of life. To understand what happened in 1692, it helps to view it in context of the larger believe system prevalent at the time.
If you have read or heard the story of Job in the Bible, you will be able to understand how Puritans viewed life. In this Old Testament story, Satan visits God, and God asks what Satan has been up to. Satan says he has been visiting the earth. God asks if Satan happened to see Job, a mortal of whom God is extremely proud. God believes Job is a particularly loyal subject. Satan is amused by this and in effect says Job only worships God because of the good life God has provided for him. The implication is no one worships God except for selfish reasons.
God disagrees. Job is a very prosperous man, but nonetheless, God thinks his loyalty is genuine. To prove it, God permits Satan to destroy all of Job’s material wealth and to kill Job’s children. And, as if that wasn’t harsh enough, Satan is allowed to give Job a disease that causes Job severe and unrelenting pain.
To make a long story short, Job suffers and complains but remains loyal to God throughout the ordeal. It wasn’t easy, but Job passed the test that God had allowed Satan to subject him to. In the end, Job’s wealth is restored and new children are born to take the place of the old.
Puritans saw Job’s story as an example of what life was about and believed they were constantly being tested in the same way. For them, God was all-powerful and could smash the devil at any time and in any place, but God did not because Satan served a useful purpose—testing people.
If you think about it, in the world of 1692 many things happened that lacked explanations. Children suddenly got sick and died. Animals suffered mysterious ailments. Strange noises were heard, or ghostly visions were seen in the candlelight. The Puritans of New England envisioned themselves as being engulfed in what one writer of the time, Cotton Mather, referred to as a “world of wonders,” a universe of invisible spirits surrounding them—as real as the material world they could see, touch, and feel. The two realms, visible and invisible, coexisted and often intersected. When Puritans encountered harmful events that otherwise seemed inexplicable, they often assumed a malevolent witch had caused them.
Today, in the twenty-first century, you may wonder about the purpose of life. You may even wonder if there is a purpose, in which cause you need to read my book, ANSWERS: Why You’re Here, How It Happened, What to Do About It.
But in seventeenth century Massachusetts, every Puritan was certain. Life was a test—a test of obedience that the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, had failed. Because of their misstep, their descendants, which of course included the Puritans, had to undergo a similar test.
That being the case, how could Susannah, and the others who were accused of witchcraft, have avoided execution? Puritans were Christians, and although they had different ideas about a lot of things than Christians do today, one tenet was the same. As every Christian knows, if one confesses a sin and recants, one will be forgiven.
The bottom line is that all Susannah and the others had to do was admit to practicing witchcraft and recant. But they didn’t. Susannah maintained her innocence to her death as did 19 others because to do otherwise would have been to bear false witness, a mortal sin they believed would result in a one-way ticket to you know where.
I have no doubt all twenty of them arrived in heaven.
The Salem Witch Hysteria is a fascinating, true story. If you’re interested in it, read my book, God, Salem & Satan: How New Evidence Will Change How You View All There.
Click here to see it on Amazon. It’s available in Kindle ebook and in trade paperback.