The Men of Science & The Witches

So how is the new legislation that was designed to replace the Fraudulent Mediums Act working out? Have we actually seen any increase in prosecutions? I supported it fully in principle, but as always am hesitant about how it will work out in practice… If there is one thing that deeply concerns me, it’s when supposedly rationalist scientists turn their attention to witchcraft, superstition and religion. My reason is that I have read rather a lot of history, and I am unwilling to ignore its lessons.

Witchcraft and World War Two

Let’s start in England back in 1956. While the Pope was busy promulgating the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the UK government had weightier concerns. In the last days of the Second World War a British medium named Helen Duncan had been prosecuted for Witchcraft and imprisoned, and had died shortly afterwards as her health deteriorated. Her supporters were keen to claim it was because she was giving away secrets of British losses in seances — HMS Barham I believe, whose sinking was supposedly classified — her detractors pointed out she was already caught out in fraud long before that date. Whatever the cause, the persecution of witches was clearly out of step with enlightened post-war Britain, and something needed to be done. Spiritualists could now rightfully fear religious persecution — and after all, Spiritualism was a religion in its own right. The need to do something was clear. So in 1956, the British Government repealed the Witchcraft Acts, and replaced them with the Fraudulent Mediums Act, which remained in force till last year. This piece of legislation was somewhat redundant — it merely made obtaining money fraudulently by deception in a spiritualistic manner illegal. Very few prosecutions have been brought under it, as fraud and obtaining money by deceit are already illegal regardless of the context, and as the Act requires the approval of the home Secretary or Director of Public Prosecutions to bring a case. As soon as Witchcraft was legal, Gerald Gardner brought out High Magick’s Aid, Wicca was born, and everything got more complex.

Religion, Scam, Mumbo Jumbo or Occultism?

As the legislators found out, its quite hard to distinguish between what is a religion, and protected by UN Charter of Religious Freedom, what is a scam, and what is occult practice. Is there much difference? Any difference? Yet the British Government made a rational choice. In 1948 Orwell wrote 1984, and the idea of Thought-Crime sickened many. This is where I and Sam Harris of the New Atheists totally disagree – well we disagree on many things, but God comes high on the list-  I believe that people have the right to hold whatever beliefs they wish, but that behaviours should be subject to law. Harris apparently does not.  We do not in my opinion need laws limiting religious freedom – we need laws that protect people from criminal and anti-social behaviour, which may curtail active expression of those religious beliefs. You can believe what you want about the value of virginity, but that does not give you the right to wear a purity ring to school. As Lou Reed sang, “Between thought and expression, there lies a lifetime…”

So if you want to believe you can talk to the dead, and try to convince others, such is your right. If you however defraud or injure others in pursuit of your mediumship, you go to prison. Actions, not beliefs can be legislated for. It is when people lose sight of this fundamental distinction I get worried, and from what I have seen Sam Harris has.

The truth about the Witchfinder General

We have all heard of the Witch Trials I am sure – and i am going to briefly describe a couple of them, Salem, and the work of the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins. I’ll keep it short. Let’s start with Matthew Hopkins. Pretty much everyone knows he was a religious fanatic, a Puritan Zealot who hanged and tortured little old ladies for fun and profit, till an angry mob “swum” him and lynched him. Problem is, it’s all rubbish. We don’t know much about Hopkins, but we do have his book,  The Discovery of Witches . I have read the original, and what we find is very interesting. Firstly, Hopkins was no Puritan. We can tell this because he was eventually denounced by a Puritan minister named John Gaule who bravely denounced him for persecuting innocent folks. The idea he himself was a Puritan is founded on nothing more than the fact a minister of Great Wenham was named Hopkins, and some scholars thought he might be his father.   What we do know is that he did not like the Rev. John Lowe, who may well have had Catholic sympathies, and who was hanged.

Secondly, Hopkins was a lawyer, and an educated man, quite probably university educated. Thirdly, his reign of terror was completely extra-legal – it took place in the chaos of the English Civil War, and the legality of proceeding was dubious – the older Elizabethan Witchcraft law required two previous convictions before it was punishable by death, and you were not killed for thinking you were a witch, but rather for capital crimes you claimed to have committed by witchcraft. The law of James I, an educated and inquisitive fellow with an obsession with witches, had become rather harsher, but torture was still illegal, and indeed Hopkins very quickly gave up on it once this was pointed out. His career after all attracted constant condemantion and controversy, throughout.

So what kind of fellow comes over in The Discovery of Witches? It certainly is not a religious fanatic. It’s a man who has a lawyers attitude of investigation, and is keen to refute his critics. He poses questions and answers them, and is keen to try and substantiate his claims with evidence — it’s interesting reading.

Hopkins was attacked by a bear, and with many other witnesses believed he saw imps and demons. What the heck was going on? Whatever the truth, he strikes me as rational…

Also it is worth noting that the conviction rate at Hopkin’s Assizes was about 33% — they were by no means show trials, and the majority of those accused were released — and those who were hanged see to have almost all confessed. Why?Were they actually witches? Did they believe they were witches? Was it just coercion? What was going on?

So how did Hopkins come unstuck? Because the Reverend John Gaule, an outspoken Puritan Minister denounced him from the pulpit for superstition, and for preying on the innocent and misguided. As a result a Parliamentary Enquiry was held, and the (Puritan) Oliver Cromwell with his (fanatically Puritan) Rump Parliament denounced Hopkins, and ordered him to cease and desist. He retired back to Mistley, where he died in 1646 or 47 of consumption, within a few months of Parliament shutting him down. So the story of Hopkins is quite the reverse of the myth: not a vicious religious fanatic puritan, but an educated man who seems to have made a genuine attempt to come to grips with phenomena he thought were witchcraft, and who was quite rightly shut down by Puritans before his investigations became even more genocidal. So much for the Witchfinder General…

Salem: home of the educated, not redneck loonies

OK, so what about Salem? Many readers of this forum are American, and everyone knows the Salem witch trials were caused by sexually repressed ignorant Puritans, right? Well Congregationalists, and in the spirit of Puritanism. The bare bones of the story from the children’s accusations through mounting hysteria to the trials and executions are too well known to bear repeating here, as is the sad postscript as the town realised the tragedy of its mistake and apologized to the victims, too late for many And since Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 19th century writings we have all known that Salem was the ultimate expression of the darkness in the Puritan soul, and the ignorance and superstition therein. Ignorance and superstition like that of …

Cotton Mather, FRS, BA. 1678 (Harvard College), A.M. 1681; honorary doctorate 1710 (University of Glasgow), author of 450 books and pamphlets, instigator of Smallpox Innoculation in the 1721 Boston epidemic, perhaps one of the keenest scientific minds of his time?

Increase Mather, BA Harvard 1656, MA Trinity College Dublin 1659, Hon. Degree Harvard (STD) 1692, Acting President, then Rector, then President of Harvard University. Best known for his sensible dictate at Salem that “It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than that one Innocent Person should be Condemned”.

Trial Judge William Stoughton BA Harvard 1650, MA New College Oxford, 1652, colonial chief magistrate, the first Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, and later Governor of Massachusetts.

Magistrate Samuel Sewell, another Harvard man who wrote The Selling of Joseph (1700), for instance, he came out strongly against slavery, making him one of the earliest white colonial abolitionists.

Magistrate Bartholomew Gedney, a doctor.

Magistrate Thomas Danforth, Treasurer of Harvard, Deputy Governor of Mass, President of Maine, later Deputy Governor of Maine, etc, etc

Magistrate Col. Nathaniel Saltonstall, BA Harvard 1659. He appears ot have resigned as he disagreed with the trials.

John Hale, Prosecution, BA Harvard 1657. Later changed his mind after his wife was accused. “It cannot be imagined that in a place of so much knowledge, so many in so small compass of land should abominably leap into the Devil’s lap at once”

Samuel Willard, Minsiter of Religion, who denounced the Trials. BA Harvard 1659, President of Harvard after Increase Mather

Notice a recurring theme? Salem was not some backwater lost in the New England woods, where primitive Puritans played out a savage holocaust in ignorance. As someone has remarked it is rare to find so many future members of the Royal Society, distinguished scientists all, as were  found at Salem that year. Salem in fact was far from a bastion of ignorance — it attracted some of the greatest minds of the age. So what the hell happened? Quite simply, there was no existing model to explain what was occurring – and to some extent we are even more perplexed today. I don’t believe anything “paranormal” or “supernatural” has to have been involved – but I do believe that a body of highly intelligent men decided to go with the evidence of their senses, and their considered judgment, and executed innocent people. What I believe most firmly however, was that this was no religious scandal, as the 19th century anticlericals who shaped many of our modern view of history believed. The Salem Witch trials were presided over by men of learning, and men of scientific distinction, not religious bigots…

It is all too easy to forget that fact. Maybe there are lessons here for us today?


About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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