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Reflections  >  Witchcraft and Quakerism  >  Chapter Six

Witchcraft and Quakerism:

A Study in Social History

By Amelia Mott Gummere


Q, with a black cat insideUITE the most striking connection of mediaeval thought with the Quakerism of to-day, however, is to be found in the recent Life of Whittier, by Colonel T. W. Higginson.[1] It is important that attention should be drawn to a misstatement which unintentionally does gross injustice to a woman of quite another temperament. We are told that in speaking of the poet Rosetti and his extraordinary ballad of "Sister Helen," Whittier confessed himself strongly attracted to it because he could remember seeing his mother, "who was as good a woman as ever breathed," with his aunt, performing the strange act on which the ballad turns, and melting the waxen figure of a clergyman of their time, that its soul might go to its doom in Hell! Colonel Higginson says, "The solemnity of the affair made a deep impression on Whittier's mind as a child, for the death of the clergyman in question was confidently expected. His 'heresies' had led him to experience this cabalistic treatment."


    The aim of the mystic ceremony was to destroy the soul of the person (usually a passing invalid), and it seems almost incredible that any sight or memory of human suffering should have called forth such a spirit of revenge in those seemingly gentle natures. Whittier's mother was "a beautiful and godly woman, full of a saintly peace and an overflowing human kindness which made her a very type of her religion," and the performance of even such vicarious cruelty as is here described would seem a moral impossibility. If the scene were true, we should have, in a New England Quaker family, less than one hundred years ago, a scene worthy of the middle ages. Colonel Higginson is quoting from Mrs. Fields.[2] But no reference is made to the incident in the latest and ablest biography of the Quaker poet, whose author[3] writes in a private letter, "Mrs. Fields' statement on page 52 of her little book entitled "Whittier," with reference to the strangely superstitious practice of Whittier's mother and aunt, is in all probability based upon Mrs. Fields' faulty memory. I talked about the matter both with Mr. Pickard, who married Whittier's niece, and with Whittier's three cousins at Oak Knoll, one of whom is a woman of seventy or so, and knew Whittier's mother and aunt. Both Mr. Pickard and the cousins feel perfectly sure that it is a mistake."

    No one who has read the close of Rosetti's song can ever forget it:

"See, see the wax has dropped from its place, Sister Helen,
  And the waves are winning up apace!"
"Yet here they burn but for a space, Little Brother,
(0, Mother, Mary, Mother),
  Here for a space, between Hell and Heaven."

"Ah! What is this that sighs in the frost ?"
"A soul that's lost as mine is lost, Little Brother!"
(0, Mother, Mary, Mother,
  Lost, lost, all lost between Hell and Heaven!)

    Whittier's poetic imagination bore testimony to his inheritance of an emotional sensitiveness which training and experience developed into the greatest gift to the human mind -- that of the poet. It is quite possible that this mother may have explained to her son, as a child, the practices indulged in by some of the dwellers in that neighborhood in the sterner Puritan days, when we know that such things were far from uncommon. The impression would naturally be strong on a sensitive nature. Whittier seems to have been able to enter very fully into the feeling of the days of superstition in New England, as the tinge of a mysterious spell or incantation is over more than one of his poems, and there is much in the sympathy and understanding with which he wrote, "The Witch's Daughter, or Mabel Martin," first published in The National Era, in 1857. His "Spiritualism in New England" is another evidence.


For our ancestors, dreams, hallucinations, revelations and all sorts of incredible experiences, were inextricably mixed up with facts. "Impressions" to-day have a scientific explanation. The old Quaker historian, Sewel,[4] tells us that in 1702, Galenius Abrahams asserted that "nobody" at that day "could be accepted as a messenger of God unless he confirmed his doctrine by miracles." Hence, with the early Friends, visions and apparitions by night form a large element in the convincement and experience of many of them. Beginning with Fox and continuing with Story, Bownas, Hoag, Savery, Woolman, Hunt, Grellet, there is a really extraordinary list of these relations. At the time of their occurrence they were devoutly believed by the subject to be of divine origin. Perhaps it will not do even yet to relegate them to the pathological position where, doubtless, most of them belong, for it is matter of history that they accomplished a notable object in the impressions made upon the minds of the people. Some of them were of a prophetic character, while others were subjective, like one of Woolman. He is careful to tell us that he was not ill at the time. "Thirteenth fifth month, 1757. Being in good health and abroad with Friends visiting families, I lodged at a Friend's house in Burlington. Going to bed about the usual time with me, I awoke in the night, and my meditations as I lay, were on the goodness and mercy of the Lord. in a sense whereof my heart was contrited. After this I went to sleep again; in a short time I awoke; it was yet dark and no appearance of day or moonshine; and as I opened my eyes I saw a light in my chamber, at the distance of five feet, about nine inches in diameter, of a clear easy brightness, and near its centre the most radiant. As I lay still, looking upon it without any suprise, words were spoken to my inward ear which filled my whole inward man. They were not the effect of thought, nor any conclusion in relation to the appearance, but as the language of the Holy One spoken in my mind. The words were Certain Evidence of Divine Truth. They were again repeated exactly in the same manner, and then the light disappeared."[5]

    In many respects, this vision and its narration are the most remarkable in the long list. It possesses a different quality from any of those even of Fox; and while there is an earthly or physical touch in the dreams of nearly all the others, this of John Woolman would seem to belong upon the same plane with some of the visions of the saints in the Church of Rome, and is another point of resemblance between Woolman and St. Francis of Assisi.

    There are interesting accounts of Eli Yarnall, a Quaker, who lived in the neighborhood of Philadelphia, and who, as a child, had what was called the gift of "second sight," being able to tell the location of things that were lost, to see the approach of one yet a long way off, and in various ways to possess occult powers. The gift did not remain with him in after years, but his youthful services were in great and awe-struck demand. His mother did not permit him to "divine for money," lest he should thereby lose the gift which she deemed heaven-derived. The idea was not new, even among the Friends, for John Woolman speaks of a case of a rare gift of healing lost by taking a reward.[6]


    No real survival of the witchcraft idea can be found among the Quakers to-day. The students of folk-lore, upon whose domain we have trespassed, will tell us of recent grave crimes among the central Pennsylvania Germans, due to lingering superstition. But we must study the Quaker in his environment to understand him properly, and must give him infinite credit for maintaining his sturdy common-sense during periods when all the rest of the world seemed to have taken leave of its senses. No Quaker has ever been known to write a treatise in favor of witchcraft, although there are a few against it. A Yorkshire Quaker[7] wrote with the following as the title to his book, "Witchcraft Cast Out From the Religious Seed and Israel of God, and the Black Art, or Necromancy, Inchantments, Sorcerers, Wizards, Lying Divination, Conjuration and Witchcraft, Discovered," etc. "Written in Warwickshire the ninth month 1654, as a Judgment upon Witchcraft and a denial, testimony and declaration against Witchcraft, from those that the world reproachfully called Quakers."

    Indeed, if the direct power of the Devil was to be allowed in cases of witchcraft, as by church and state it was, because Scripture assurance could be quoted that it once existed, why could not the Quaker have been permitted his beautiful faith in the immanence of that divine Spirit, belief in which is the main strength of his creed? It was a strange inconsistency of the human race that two hundred years ago gave immunity from punishment to those who exalted the reign of the Devil, and persecuted the only people that preached a message of earthly, as well as heavenly, peace.

sun dial divided into 24 segments

Notes and Links

[1] T. W. Higginson. "John Greenleaf Whittier." English Men of Letters Series.

[2] Mrs. James T. Fields. "Whittier." p. 52.

[3] Professor George R. Carpenter. "John Greenleaf Whittier." American Men of Letters Series.

[4] Sewel's "History of the Quakers." Vol. II, 366, 368.

[5] The Journal of John Woolman. p. 98.

[6] See Watson's "Annals of Philadelphia and PennsylvanIa. Vol. I, p. 273. I. Woodbridge Riley, in "The Founder of Mormonism" (p. 187) describes the "seeing stone" used by Joseph Smith the younger, in 1825. It was "a green stone, with brown irregular spots in it. It was a little larger than a goose's egg, and about the same thickness." It was covered with a hat when in use.

[7] Richard Farnsworth, of Balby, Yorkshire, 1655, the "witchcraft year."