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Reflections  >  Witchcraft and Quakerism  >  Chapter One

Witchcraft and Quakerism:

A Study in Social History

By Amelia Mott Gummere


profile of witch and cat on broom

"There in a gloomy hollow Glen she found
   A little cottage built of Sticks and Reeds
 In homely wise and walled with Sods around
   In which a Witch did dwell, in loathly Weedes,
   And wilful Want, all careless of her Needes
 So choosing Solitarie to abide,
   Far from all Neighbours, that her devilish Deedes
 And hellish Arts from People she might hide
   And hurt far off unknown, whom ever she enviede."

      -   Spenser: Faerie Queen.

I (with wishbone)N many respects the Quakers stand out conspicuously free from some of the current phases of thought prevalent at the time of their rise. Among these may be mentioned the belief in witchcraft, which was as common in the seventeenth century as is ours to-day in medicine or electricity. Moreover, the English people were in a period of great spiritual turmoil, and were keyed up to a state of nervous irritability which responded to the first summons. Such conditions are familiar to all students of history.

    Periods of religious excitement followed the preaching of the Franciscan Friars in Italy, that of Luther in Germany, and of John Cotton and the Mathers in New England. The Quakers themselves, under certain conditions, were not free from a similar tendency, while a more aggravated form was found among the disciples of John Wesley. The phenomenon is not unfamiliar to-day in rural neighborhoods. The great mass of the yeoman and middle class from which the Quakers chiefly came, possessed a social atmosphere of haziness and uncertainty, lent by their limited relations to the world at large. Many of the men whose names are familiar to us in the early history of Quakerism were either by education or social position, or from other causes, superior to the class of people who constituted the main body of Fox's followers. With these latter, critical ignorance often made a medium, vague and distorted, through which, to the Quaker mystic, men were as trees walking. It was a time when many lived upon the border-land of insanity. If it was possible for an intelligent and highly educated man like John Evelyn to see in the passage of a comet across the heavens something terrifying and portentous, it is little wonder that the uneducated of his day spent their lives in superstition. There was neither political nor religious peace, and education was not a common blessing. Miracles were declared perfectly possible. The Baptists were healing by anointing with oil, and the King was "touching" for scrofula, or "King's Evil."


    Moreover, the Bible was so new that the splendid imagery of the Hebrew prophets and the fearful pictures of the Apocalypse wrought men's minds to a superhuman pitch, wherein any extraordinary happening might be accepted as possible. All the extravagance of which some of the early Quakers were undoubtedly guilty, although officially discountenanced by the sect, were, as with the Puritans, the result of an over-literal interpretation of their Bibles; for, despite the Quaker claim to the superiority of the spirit to the word, as contained in Scripture, the Quakers to a man were thoroughly versed in Bible phraseology. So also were the Puritans. Winthrop's supreme veneration for the Bible was a part of his reverent belief, not, certainly, any natural desire to seek vengeance. How many modern Quakers, indeed, realize that at the time George Fox was born, in 1624, King James' version of the English Bible had been in the hands of the common people but thirteen years? During the height of the religious excitement among the sectaries of the Commonwealth, no hallucination was too far-fetched to be believed, or to be explained upon religious grounds alone.

    Such a man as Blackstone wrote: "To deny the possibility, nay, actual existence, of witchcraft and sorcery, is at once to flatly deny the revealed word of God."

    Sir Matthew Hale, in 1665, charging the jury in a famous witch trial at Bury St. Edmunds, said: "That there are such creatures as witches, I make no doubt at all, for first, the Scriptures have affirmed so much; secondly, the wisdom of all nations bath provided laws against such persons." The verdict was "guilty," and the witch executed.[1]


    Every mischance was spoken of by the Puritans as a "judgment of God"; so and so "was a professed enemy to us, but he never prospered," says Winthrop; and the same note is sounded in the journal of George Fox. A son of Samuel Shattuck, bearer of the King's mandate of release for the Quakers imprisoned by Governor Endicott, appears in the Salem trials (case of Bishop) as a prominent witness against some of the unfortunates accused of witchcraft soon after. Years later, when all this with its results had passed into history, John Wesley bemoaned the decline of superstition, the advance of human thought and the more peaceable reign of Christ on the earth, in the following words: "It is true likewise, that the English in general, and, indeed, most of the men of learning in Europe, have given up all accounts of witches and apparitions as mere wives' fables. I am sorry for it. . . . . The giving up of witchcraft is in effect giving up the Bible!"[2] It is comforting to know that his brother Charles kept a clearer judgment on this subject, upon which they were never agreed. The more enlightened periods have been the most active in persecuting for witchcraft, and the Reformers were the strongest of the believers. Luther himself wrote: "I should have no compassion on these witches. I would burn all of them. . . . Witchcraft is the Devil's own proper work." He, therefore, threw after him his famous ink-bottle! King Henry VIII seems to have been the only person in all the long list proof against such delusions. Oxford heads of colleges sought out heretics with the aid of astrology, and many persons permanently or temporarily went mad.

    A little later, Sir Thomas Browne's well-known words express the public sentiment: "I have long believed and do now know, that there are witches; they that doubt them do not only deny them, but spirits, and are obliquely and upon consequence, a sort, not of infidels, but of atheists."[3] Richard Baxter sustained Cotton Mather in his arguments in favor of the existence of witches in a treatise "On the Certainty of a World of Spirits"; and in America the height was reached in 1693.


    A year or two before, the Puritans at Salem had turned upon their own people the persecutions they had inflicted upon the Quakers; and even the excesses of those Quakers whose religious excitement had led them over the borders of sanity, do not furnish a parallel to those of the Salem people themselves. But a clear line of demarcation must be drawn between the Puritans of Salem and all others. In the Old Colony there were but two cases tried, witnesses cross-examined, the testimony scanned and charges found "not proved." In this respect they are nearly as clear as Pennsylvania, and the deeds of Salem must not be charged to the entire community. In 1669 there was much tendency to suicide in the neighborhood, due to the hardness of the Calvinistic doctrine, preceding the Salem outburst. It is not true, as has been recently asserted, that suicide is an evidence of culture. The Dutch in Manhattan were free from witchcraft persecutions when the Quakers first went there, and the sensible Hollanders laughed at the credulity. This was also the attitude of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. The blight of 1665 that extinguished all hope of wealth from the growth of wheat in Massachusetts, was attributed by the common people, not to witchcraft, but to the vengeance of God for the execution of the Quaker martyrs. These Quakers, however, were victims of Boston, not Plymouth, and the accusations of witchcraft were made by the inhabitants of the former town.

    It was impossible in a community of the intelligence of New England for any witchcraft creed long to survive. Many more persons were executed in a single county in England than was the case in the whole of America. English laws influenced all the executions in New England, where broader and generally superior standards of living, and the application of higher moral aims, made such lapses as that of the witchcraft persecutions in Salem the more conspicuous. Professor G. L. Kittredge, in the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society (Vol. XVIII), ably and successfully defends the Puritan forefathers at Salem for sharing in the errors of their time, proving that their exceptional quality lay in the virtue of a prompt acknowledgment by judge and jury of their mistaken course, rather than in the crime of condemning twenty-eight persons to death for a cause, which, in England and on the continent of Europe, was responsible for the death of thousands.[4]


    Mr. Lecky tells us that the most free from the spirit of persecution on this question at all times has been the Anglican Church. Continental Catholicism and English Puritanism wielded so much more power than what is now the Established Church, that it may have simply lacked the opportunity to manifest its sentiments. However this may be, there is a striking contrast in the moderation of the higher clergy upon this point, although exceptions may be found. Thomas Chatterton's Horoscope All the vast field of art also shows the prevalence of superstitious beliefs, as in the ghastly pictures of the Dance of Death. The study of alchemy, the horoscope, and earlier forms of what later developed into scientific research, show the first instances of men devoting themselves voluntarily to the Devil. The multiplying glass, the concave mirror and the camera obscura, were new in the seventeenth century; and as the law against witchcraft remained in force, exhibitors of these curiosities were in some danger of sentence to Bridewell, the pillory or even the halter. Modern science demands of its votaries a humble mind. No scientist has ever pronounced the final word as did those old astrologers and alchemists, who, to their admirers, were a sort of demigods or seers. Mammon, in "The Alchemist," is made by Ben Jonson to say:

  "For which I'll say unto my cook, 'There's gold; --
    Go forth and be a knight.'"

    The higher critics, however, had appeared. So long before as 1392, one Walter Brute had declared Popish exorcisms absurd; in 1577, John Weir, physician to the Duke of Cleves, challenged the existence of witches, and declared the accused unbalanced in mind and deserving of pity; in 1585, Reginald Scott wrote his "Discoverie of Witchcraft," in reply to which the "Daemonologie" of King James was written in 1597. But Scott was a century in advance of his age, and his book was publicly burned. Finally, Bekker, in his "Bewitched World," gave the death-blow to the superstition.

alchemy distiller

Chapter Two ...>>

Notes and Links

[1] Campbell. "Lives of the Chief Justices." I, 565.

[2] Journal of John Wesley, 1768.

[3] Religio Medici. Ed. 1672. p. 24.

[4] In the original "Old South" Church, Boston, Judge Sewall made public confession and repentance for the part he had taken in the Salem Witchcraft Trials.

Chapter Two ...>>