Fasting and Repentance for Salem Witch Trials

Fasting and Repentance for Salem Witch Trials

On this date, January l5, l697. Salem and the Massachusetts Bay Colony proclaimed a day of fasting and repentance before God for the tragic error and folly of the Salem witch trials. Among the reasons for the day of fasting given by the resolution were, "so all of God's people may offer up fervent supplications unto him, that all iniquity may be put away, which hath stirred God's holy jealousy against this land; that he would show us what we know not, and help us, wherein we have done amiss, to do so no more."

The witch trials, a senseless, isolated and unbiblical miscarriage of justice, left an unfair stain on the reputation of all New England's Puritans. Over 150 suspected witches were imprisoned and nineteen were hanged during a few frenzied months of 1692. Most of the accused were women and social misfits. Sad to say, only a few of Salem's townspeople opposed preacher Samuel Parris, who encouraged the proceedings.

The hysteria began when two children had fits and claimed they were bewitched, naming people of the town whose spirits they said they had seen. The evidence presented was usually groundless accusation, scapegoating, or the product of mass suggestion. At the trials no evidence of Satan worship or the practice of witchcraft was presented. Breaking with precedent, the court did not require two witnesses, or even a showing that the accused had committed any acts. It was enough if a witness had seen a ghostly form like one of the accused.

Some Puritan clergy recognized that the real evil was in the accusers rather than those accused of witchcraft. Increase Mather spoke out strongly against the trials, calling for implementation of the Biblical principle of two or three witnesses. Such was the prestige of Increase, that the trials quickly ended. Today we look back on the whole episode as a tragic example of misdirected zeal.

Five years after the Salem witchcraft trials, the Massachusetts legislature passed a resolution that a day of general fasting be held on January 15, 1697. The resolution was adopted so God's people could offer up prayers for God to help them in their errors and keep them from repeating such sins which could only bring God's judgment on the land. Judge Samuel Sewell and those who had served as jurors in the trials all confessed their error and prayed for God's forgiveness and guidance in the future. Indeed, Judge Samuel Sewall, who had presided over many of the capital judgments, published a written confession acknowledging his own "blame and shame."

Salem village drove out Reverend Samuel Parris for his role in the trials. In 1710, the Massachusetts legislature reversed some of the convictions, and in the following years authorities gave compensation to the families of the accused witches.

Bibliography:

  1. Based on an earlier Christian History Institute story.
  2. Kennedy, James with Newcombe, Jerry. What if Jesus Had Never Been Born? Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994.
  3. Murdock, Kenneth Ballard. Increase Mather, the Foremost American Puritan. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1925. Source of the image.
  4. Pope, Robert G. "Mather, Cotton" and "Mather, Increase" in Encyclopedia of American Biography. Edited by John A. Garraty. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.

Last updated June, 2007.

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