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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

On the Witchcraft Trials

Jan 19, 2015

A common tactic of critics of Christianity (be they atheists or Muslims or whoever) is to drag up various episodes from the past and claim that Christianity is just as bloody a religion as any other. So if you are pointing out the bloody history of political atheism, or Islam, they will think they can silence you by mentioning the crusades, and so on.

One of the areas they will mention are the witchcraft trials, especially in Salem at the end of the 1600s. They will say: “See, your religion is evil and violent and must be rejected as a result”. But as with all such objections, the charges being thrown around are often quite different from what we find in reality.

Thus a number of considerations need to be kept in mind as we discuss this issue. The critics really need to be challenged here, and not allowed to get away with reckless accusations, many of which just do not hold water. So let me deal with a few important considerations here.

witchcraftFirst, it must be said that much of this was not something biblical Christians can condone, and we simply have to say sorry for getting it wrong. Killing such people is not something commanded in the New Testament, and it was indeed a blemish on church history.

But some important provisos and qualifications need to be mentioned. In his important book, For the Glory of God, historian and sociologist of religion Rodney Stark offers this summary statement:

“Few topics have prompted so much nonsense and outright fabrication as the European witch-hunts. Some of the most famous episodes never took place, existing only in fraudulent accounts and forged documents, and even the current ‘scholarly’ literature abounds in absurd death tolls.”

The numbers mentioned have been all over the place. Various critics claim that the church killed millions of people as witches over the centuries. Some even claim ten million were killed. But some of the most recent estimates put the number of people killed for witchcraft at about 150 to 300 per year throughout all of Europe and North America, three quarters of whom were women.

Over a period of about 300 years, this comes to 40-100,000 people. Jeffrey Burton Russell is one authority on all this. Along with Brooks Alexander he wrote A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics, and Pagans. In his more popular volume Exposing Myths about Christianity he says this:

“The facts, as established by serious historians, show that the total number of alleged witches executed over two and a half centuries was about sixty thousand. About a third were men. Few of the executions were ordered by inquisitions; most were ordered by local authorities, and many of them were mob lynchings.”

Of course some 60,000 killed is still a lot of people. But it is nothing like the usual figures thrown around of many millions. And compare this with the deaths committed in the name of atheism. Soviet, Chinese and Eastern European communism is estimated to have killed 100 million people in the twentieth century.

Hitler’s campaign saw the death of 6 million Jews in a decade. Pol Pot of Cambodia killed around 3 million people in a year or two. And one can also contrast this with other societies which were indeed barbaric and bloodthirsty. The pre-Columbian Aztecs sacrificed about 15,000 people each year (out of a much smaller population base than Europe).

Moreover, it was often the case that lay people were leading the charge here. Church leaders were far from being usually involved in leading such activities. As historian Hugh Trevor-Roper said in The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, “in general the established church was opposed to the persecution [of witches]”

Or as Jonathan Burke puts it:

Historical facts demonstrate that the witch hunts were uncharacteristic of Christianity as a whole, though a belief in witches and witchcraft was common. The infamous ‘witch burning era’ is in fact confined to just 250 years of Christian history, and whilst large scale panics took place in many countries, it was rare for local church authorities to organize and initiate actual hunts.
The overwhelming majority of witch hunts and accusations were initiated by the common people, many of whom retained pagan superstitions which local Christian teachers often did little or nothing to correct (and sometimes encouraged). But the Christian attitude and response to witchcraft was by no means uniform across Europe, and church authorities in different countries (sometimes even in different regions), treated the issue in a variety of ways.

Similar things can be said about the Salem witch trials. There just were not that many of them. And many of the Christian leaders – Puritans included – were opposed to them. It was often ministers who opposed the trials. Cotton Mather for example went so far as to say it was “better that ten suspected witches should escape, than that one innocent person should be condemned”.

Also, while religious leaders believed in witches, so did everyone else of the day. As David Marshall writes in The Truth Behind the New Atheism, even “atheists and skeptics, such as Thomas Hobbes and Jean Bodin advocated the killing of witches, the latter of whom wanted it done in the slowest possible fire.”

And if the death penalty for this activity seems severe, a bit of historical context is needed. As Stark comments, “keep in mind that capital punishment was the usual penalty for all significant offenses – even at the height of the witch-hunts, many times more thieves and robbers than ‘witches’ were being executed.”

It can also be pointed out that Christians still believe that there really are such things as witches. Putting them to death today may not be the answer of course, but it was not a case of superstition and myth. Witches do exist, and can do real evil. Even today we read about Satanic cults and covens operating in the Dandenongs in Melbourne, for example, with reports of ritual abuse and murder. As Philip Sampson writes in Six Modern Myths:

Most people of the world throughout most of its history have taken supernatural witchcraft to be real. This does not necessarily mean that they have been gullible and superstitious. The Inquisitors of the sixteenth century believed that supernatural witches existed, but they were also well aware that some of those accused of witchcraft were simply ill or confused. Many people today believe that witches exist….

Indeed, with the New Age Movement in full swing in the West, and a widespread return to various alternative spiritualities including Neopaganism and the occult, witchcraft is back with a vengeance. Consider the sobering 2004 volume by Brooks Alexander called Witchcraft Goes Mainstream.

Discussing the media explosion about witchcraft in the 1990s, he says this:

In short order, Witchcraft was transformed into a pop-culture phenomenon, and “Wicca” became a teenage fad that didn’t fade, but turned into an enduring trend.
Those developments swelled the ranks of Neopaganism far beyond its own “structure” (such as it was), which was based on the various self-proclaimed Witchcraft groups and other organizations making up the active core of the movement. Suddenly, all of that was overshadowed by happenings in the popular media. Suddenly, there were tens of thousands of (mostly young) people running around calling themselves “witches,” and taking their ideas about what that means, not from a tradition, or a teacher of tradition, but from the internet, or a movie, or a TV show. The movement had become a mass movement almost overnight, and it was quickly growing beyond anyone’s ability to control, or direct, or even to measure.

So there are still plenty of people today heavily into witchcraft. Christians certainly believe in the reality of the supernatural. And they believe that there are good and evil spirits, angels and demons, and so on. Therefore real spiritual discernment is imperative, even in the postmodern West today.

How we deal with such matters is a matter of much thought and prayer. Obviously not everything found in the Old Testament carries over into the New. The civil laws given to Israel cannot be holus bolus dragged into modern times, even though the general moral principles behind them remain.

While a passage in the Old Testament like Exodus 22:18 can be cited (‘You shall not permit a witch to live’), such a command for the death penalty for witchcraft is not found in the New Testament. So those who claimed to be Christians doing this were acting against their own faith, and not in line with it.

Thus when Christians did such things back then, they were in the main wrong to do so. Christians today acknowledge that much of this was incorrect and improper. But allowing the atheists and other critics to radically distort the reality of what actually occurred and why is not something we should just accept.

For more on this, a lengthy and detailed set of online articles looking at this topic fairly thoroughly can be found here: bibleapologetics.wordpress.com/christianity-and-the-witch-hunt-era-17/

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10 Responses to On the Witchcraft Trials

  • Surely the point about the lynching of witches is what you alluded to only briefly; that there was in the vast majority of cases a total lack of Biblical (Old Testament) due process. This was especially evident in the use of trial by ordeal at the time. If the person drowned, they had been innocent. If they survived, they were a witch. Trial by ordeal is found only once in the Bible and it needs a miraculous intervention to prove guilt, not innocence. Secondly, the lack of a search for proper evidence, in other words, not adhering to the Biblical (Old Testament) rule for two or three witnesses.

    In requiring each Old Testament law to be specifically restated in the New Testament, do you not forget that the Old Testament was inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that all the laws were given to the ancients by God himself? Can it not fairly be said that our Lord Jesus, as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, wrote the Old Testament?

    If we are to disagree with Old Testament laws, we need to ask if Christ was wrong to put them in place in the first place. But to concentrate on the lack of due process in the witch trials helps us avoid that hostage to fortune.

    But otherwise, good insights, especially on the rise of neo-paganism and how witchcraft is going mainstream. Many of us are concerned by events such as ‘Witchfest’ which is held annually in Croydon in the UK and the springing up of high street and internet shops supplying witchcraft paraphernalia. It is a challenge to the church. People are hungry for the spiritual – a more confident church would be satisfying that hunger.

  • Thanks Stephen. That God (Jesus) is the author of the Old Testament law is not in dispute – at least by me. But that of course is not the issue here. The real issue is the question of continuity and discontinuity between the Testaments. That vexed, complex and nuanced question has been the subject of great debate for centuries, filling entire libraries. Christian thinkers and theologians can and do disagree on this.Thus I am not foolish enough to try to satisfactorily resolve that issue here. But your points about OT due process are well taken thanks.

  • Nearly ten years ago I unwittingly stepped into a den of atheists (a discussion in a blog’s comments) and was told that “witches were hunted and burned”. When I pointed out that this was not the norm, another critic rejected that something that (they said) “was practiced daily for a thousand years” and had 50,000 victims could be described as anything except the norm.

  • I have been accused of belonging to a violent religion by someone siting the crusades. The girl was a proclaimed Wicca and she had a pacifist, hippie type of personality. I have been accused of being the same type of person and I empathized with her position. I didn’t know what to say at the time and I really appreciate the articles you are writing. The comments you are stimulating are equally enlightening. Although I am pacifist in nature, I believe in defense of the faith, and I believe that the only thing needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. It’s a relief to understand the truth about this topic. I own up to the failings of Christianity and the wrongs done in the name of Christianity. But, mostly, I own up to my humanity. I am not good and that’s why I need the saving grace of God through Christ’s sacrifice. Claiming to be good because of my rejecting any association with something evil is deluding myself. My ability to witness to others is dependent on being able to get this point across. Whether I am convincing enough or I am just able to plant a seed, God will do the rest. Those are my thoughts inspired by the article and by some additional research. Keep up the good work! I am fascinated by your articles. Thanks Bill, but, mostly, thank you God.

  • Good apologetic articles. I agree with Steven on the trial part, the OT is clear in ‘finding people guilty’ first.

    Those who did these things had no idea and were not correctly reading the Bible, they were people who were ‘responding to fear’ rather than ‘responding to Scripture’. Thus, when this one comes up, I don’t accept blame on the Christian faith because you cant get and shouldn’t get it from a proper reading of Scripture.

    When you look at the laws and practices of other Nations in OT time, you would want to be a part of Israel and the civil and moral laws God gave them any day.

    Context is needed, without a proper understanding of the practices and laws of other Nations at the time, we only compare Israel to what we have today.

    How about being a part of a Nation and ‘avoiding these nasty laws God gave Israel’, which demanded that your first born be sacrificed to a false god named ‘Molech’. A stone statue with a fire in its belly to heat the open arms was set up, and you would throw your baby onto the arms of it and watch it melt…..oh yer, Israel and God are bad aren’t they…pfffttt.

    People need to get educated before they speak! Here’s another thing to consider, when we look at the OT penalties given to Israel, what were they given for? How about today’s penalties in various Nations? Lets take Indonesia for instance and the Bali 9. Is Indonesia ‘too hard’ for giving the death penalty? The facts are, and regardless of whether the punishment is deemed ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, the penalty is always the hoped DETERRENT!

    Does bringing drugs into Indonesia have a repercussion? Yes of course, instead of 9 people dying because they disregarded the penalty and took their chances, MANY people can die of overdose, others will die because they get killed fighting over it, families can be broken up, money for food is used for drugs and the list goes on regarding what having drugs in the country can do to a country and their citizens.

    Thus, any good government sets high penalties because they are aware that certain acts have high incident rates which harm a Nation and its people.

    Whether the punishment is right or wrong has nothing to do with it, the punishment is always a hoped deterrent. Its not meant to be fair, its meant to scare the pants of us to make us not do the crime!

  • An interesting collection of (mostly) useless information is The Noticeably Stouter Book of General Ignorance by John Lloyd & John Mitchinson. On page 112 is the question: “What happened to most people accused of witchcraft in England?” Answer: “They were acquitted.”
    Witchcraft was not a religious, but a secular crime – but only if someone was harmed by it. Three quarters of those arrested were acquitted.
    It is also noteworthy that the notorious Spanish Inquisition essentially ensured that the great witchcraft panic did not reach Spain. The Chief Inquisitor is on record as saying, in effect: What a load of rubbish! We never heard of witchcraft until these ridiculous accusations started turning up.

  • Unfortunately witchcraft is real and the occult, but the Christian thing is to preach Christ an convert a sinner. This is what happened to one former witch. This is a story told by a Pastor who had the opportunity to be talking to a former witch, who had been lead to Christ by a member of the church and had been part of a ritual sacrifice of a young child. As a result of the conversion the person wanted to go to the police to tell the truth. The police who were well versed in such crimes were very willing to take details down and they were impressed by the accuracy. Unfortunately nothing was done about it because of “spiritual wickedness in high places” that made sure the investigation went nowhere because many high people would have been caught out. Sad.

    Another story is from a Missionary we support on one of the Pacific islands, where witchcraft is still predominant. He had a confrontation with a witch doctor and the next time he went to see him people had heard about the previous confrontation and told the missionary to go get, but when he finally meant the witch doctor, he went on his knees to apologise about hi8s behaviour and as a result he got to preach the Gospel to him. I’m not sure if he believed, but the opportunity to preach would have been lost had he confronted him, like many people wanted him to do.

    These shows how Christians should react to someone who could be a witch. In fact that is the response we should to any unbeliever.

  • Thanks Bill for three balanced and well researched articles. I’ll print them off and memorise the basic facts, so that I’m ready next time the recurring slurs you mention are trotted out again.

  • If Wikipedia is accurate, even pagans don’t like witches:
    “Punishment for malevolent sorcery is addressed in the earliest law codes preserved; both in ancient Egypt and in Babylonia it played a conspicuous part. ”
    “The pre-Christian Twelve Tables of pagan Roman law had provisions against evil incantations and spells intended to damage cereal crops. In 331 BC, 170 women were executed as witches in the context of an epidemic illness. Livy emphasizes that this was a scale of persecution without precedent in Rome. In 184 BC, about 2,000 people were executed for witchcraft (veneficium), and in 182–180 BC another 3,000 executions took place, again triggered by the outbreak of an epidemic.”

    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Witch-hunt

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