The concept of “witches” has fascinated people for centuries. Growing up in the Bible belt, I was taught that witches were evil – and certainly not a figure to dress up for at Halloween. I was told they resembled the worship of the occult or “satan” and should not entertain anything related to witchcraft.
The fear of witchcraft is prevalent in the evangelical church.
But, how did we get here?
As a child, this brought about a conundrum for me, as my grandmother (a Jesus loving, deeply spiritual woman) practiced all sorts of crystal work and tarot card readings. This interesting link in my heritage, brought about my own curiosity into the roots of what many consider to be pagan witchcraft and it’s connection to the Christian church.
Throughout years of study, what I’ve found is fascinating.
We can trace the fear of witches all the way back to Europe many centuries ago….
In England, there were good witches and bad witches. Many of the good witches, were termed “white witches” or “blessed witches”.
They were part of many communities throughout Europe in a time when formal medical treatment (although very rudimentary at the time), was unavailable to most of the public. These white witches practiced many herbal and folk-remedies to cure diseases and often brought about genuine healing for their clients. In our terminology today, we may just as well have called them “healers”. Of course, their powers were seen as magic and were often asked to foretell the future or identify one’s enemies (local gossip certainly helped with their answers).
Whether or not they truly possessed divine power, is unsure, but what is certain is many of these white witches were valuable to their communities. Offering healing through plants, rocks and herbal remedies (anyone like essential oils? You can thank the white witches for their groundbreaking work).
But what about the black witches?
Well, folklore believed that because all witches held power, some could use their power to bring death and illness instead of healing. But, deciphering who was a white witch or a black witch, usually depended on local gossip. Often plagues or sicknesses were blamed upon a witch who had presumably turned evil or made a pact with the devil. But, all accusations were made from speculation of course. It is true that one man’s white witch could have just as easily been another man’s black witch.
And then the church enters the scene…
During this time, many Christians began to take up the belief that the devil could impart people (witches) with power, in exchange for their loyalty. This fear of the “devil pact” made it’s way all throughout Europe and eventually to Salem, Massachusetts, where in 1692 and 1693 more than 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft.
This is where witchcraft evolved into heresy.
And, as many Christians know, heresy is not a fun thing to be accused of.
Scientific historian Henry C Lea believed that, “Transforming witchcraft into heresy, clerics had encouraged the slaughtering of innocent victims, many of whom confessed under torture to crimes they had never committed”
Uhggg. Absolutely heartbreaking.
One of my favorite professors to listen to is Harvard professor, David D Hall. He has done extensive work on this subject and has many publications of research that are simply fascinating. In one of his publications he writes,
“The emergence of a complex demonology that turned witches into heretics and magic into something understood as threatening to religion….out of this potent combination came a new understanding of witches as engaged in a conspiracy against the Christian church”
And, this is where all hell breaks loose (literally).
When you bring together a lethal combination of fear of the devil, heresy, and a group supposedly conspiring against the church, you create a potion more powerful than any witch’s spell. When you demonize a group of people in the church’s eyes, you are weaponizing an entire institution against them.
That is essentially what the church did.
According to professor and author of Witchcraft at Salem, Chadwick Hansen said, “the clergy whipped the general populace into a state of mass hysteria with their sermons and writings on witchcraft”
In this hysteria, any random person could be accused of witchcraft. The people were brought to believe that the devil could be possessing any person at any given time.
This brought about sheer terror, especially because of who was doing the accusing.
According to Hall, “These inquisitors…were an elite group, the bishops, magistrates, and lawyers who were set apart from the people by literacy and social rank”
The words of those who sit in power, holds much weight to those beneath them. Their fears manifest in the hearts and minds of the people. This is what happened in Salem.
Many historians believe that had the peasants been left to themselves, they never would have conducted mass witch hunts.
This is exemplified in the people who were accused of witchcraft. Most were women (ratio of 4:1). Most were considered to be in “mid-life” and a common thread between the majority of them was that many had experienced a loner-like existence, or had been involved in civil conflicts. In essence, they were already the “outcasts”.
In a brilliant article on women in history it reads, “Many of the accusers came from a traditional way of life tied to farming and the church, whereas a number of the accused witches were members of a rising commercial class of small shopkeepers and tradesmen. Salem’s struggle for social and political power between the older traditional groups and the newer commercial class was one repeated in communities throughout American history.”
Does this sound familiar?
The ever-present struggle between those in power and the rising oppressed is nothing new. History continues to bring us here, time and time again.
As a nation, we still punish people who we fear are different than us.
As a church, we still punish those who we feel are “of satan”, or who we believe pose a threat to our religious way of life. Just like sermons taught that witches were in a conspiracy against the Christian church, so sermons continue today about other minorities having an “agenda” against the church.
Same story, different characters.
The behavior in those trials is the same behavior we see modeled today.
Today’s behavior is simply more humane.
We may not prosecute people in a legal court for being different. However, we certainly play judge and jury in our prayer meetings, social gatherings and communities. We may not execute people physically, but we certainly execute their reputation, social status or place in our community.
We no longer burn people at the stake – we simply burn them on social media.
Yet, history continues to offer us an opportunity to learn….
After the Salem trials and executions many publically repented. On January 14, 1697, the General Court ordered a day of fasting and soul-searching for the tragedy of Salem. However, it would take 200 more years before Massachusetts would formally apologize for the events in 1692.
We could take a nod from our ancestors…
Today, I pray that instead of cringing when you see a witch on Halloween, you might instead ask the Spirit to show you who you might be damning to hell simply because they are different – simply because a sermon said they were inhabitants of the work of the devil.
I was told my grandma practiced witchcraft. I was told to denounce any tie to her for my own spiritual health. I must say, none of those people knew the incredible woman that she was. No one in my church knew her gift of hospitality, care for the sick and the poor and openness to the outcast. No one knew that she was in fact very much a healer.
God is present everywhere. It is simply up to us, to open our eyes to see it.
New England Quarterly, David D. Hall, “Witchcraft and the Limits of Interpretation”, Volume 58, No 2 June 1985