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What is the truth about the colonial witch trials?
There is, of course, no justification for what happened. A basic biblical teaching, strongly reinforced by Jesus, is to overcome evil with good. Biblically, there are divinely ordained exceptions, but, as Puritan pastors like the famous Cotton Mather pointed out at that time, there is no excuse for what was going on.
The New England witch trials should, however, be understood in the context of the time and for what they were-events driven by popular outrage. In Europe, where persecution of alleged witches began, it continued for a much longer period and in many areas was more common and horrific than in New England. In Hartford, Wethersfield and Windsor, there was a total of about 25 accused witches. This happened between 1647, when Alice Young was hanged as a witch in Windsor, and 1697, when the last witch trial was held in New England.
Some accused witches in New England were acquitted, and many others were only imprisoned. The death penalty was never carried out by burning, as happened in Europe. In New England, on occasion, accusations of witchcraft were instigated by teenage girls, and the accused often were old women living at the margins of society. Occasionally, however, those accused of witchcraft were teenagers or men. Accused witches were tried in the colonial courts that handled criminal cases. Neither civil nor church authorities initiated these cases and, as mentioned, Puritan ministers came out publicly against trying accused witches.
We still say "witch hunt" to describe any unjustified persecution of supposed evildoers. Any witch hunt requires a strong popular sentiment against witchcraft or other feared social phenomena by people gratified by their own outrage.
Witch hunts still happen. Remember, for instance, the prosecution of childcare workers in the 1980s for alleged child molestation, based on the coached testimony of children who were only a few years old. Those prosecutions were fueled by some strong popular support, but they look now like miscarriages of justice. Also, consider the plight of the Duke University lacrosse players who, in 2006, were accused of rape and reviled by many despite the significant exculpatory evidence. These and other contemporary events can help in understanding how the outrage of some people was the driving force behind New England witch trials.
Today, unfortunately, many young people learn about the New England witch trials from the novel The Witch of Blackbird Pond. This engaging bit of historical fiction, written for youth by Elizabeth George Speare, is set in colonial Wethersfield. This novel, published in 1958, presents a false picture by appealing to contemporary sensibilities like those about the evils of colonial witch hunts. However, none of its central characters or happenings is based on any real person or true event other than the fact that, in late 17th-century New England, some prosecutions for witchcraft targeted old women living on the fringes of society. Today, in this novel and elsewhere, the colonial New England witch trials are characterized as the horrific result of an intolerant religion when in fact the wrongs occurred because people (as we often do) ignored basic Christian principles.