Increase Mather, “Cases of Conscience Concerning Witchcraft”

 

 

 

Increase Mather, Harvard president # 6 (1685-1701) — His belated response to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, in which he opposed the acceptability of “spectral evidence” in finding some of the accused of being witches.
Cases of Conscience Concerning Witchcraft  (1693)

If it were possible to join in the congregation of those who attended the fiery sermons preached by Salem’s puritan ministers in the late seventeenth century, the audience would have heard something like “Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits.” Increase Mather, then president of Harvard College in Cambridge and minister of North Church in Boston, wrote this fascinating history in 1693, one year after the Salem Witch Trials. It demonstrates both the importance of religious devotion at that time and the acute paranoia that results from separating people into two categories: good or evil. The language here is both strong and accusatory, and it is obvious that the good and pure members of Salem society tolerated no evils or evildoers. The people tormenting Goodman Brown in Hawthorne’s short story seem to make Increase Mather’s case for him.

Cases of Conscience Concerning Witchcraft

The First Case that I am desired to express my Judgement in, is this, Whether it is not Possible for the Devil to impose on the Imaginations of Persons Bewitched, and to cause them to Believe that an Innocent, yea that a Pious person does torment them, when the Devil himself doth it, or whether Satan may not appear in the Shape of an Innocent and Pious, as well as of a Nocent and Wicked Person to Afflict such as suffer by Diabolical Molestations?
The Answer to the Question must be Affirmative; Let the following Arguments be duly weighed in the Balance of the Sanctuary.
Argu. I. There are several Scriptures from which we may infer the Possibility of what is Affirmed.
I. We find that the Devil by the Instigation of the Witch at Endor appeared in the Likeness of the Prophet Samuel. I am not Ignorant that some have asserted that, which, if it were proved would avert this Argument, Viz. that it was the true and not a delusive Samuel which the Witch brought to converse with Saul. Of this Opinion are some of the Jewish Rabbis (a) and some Christian Doctors (b) and many late Popish Authors (c) amongst whom Cornel. a Lapide is most elaborate. But that it was a Demon representing Samuel has been evinced by Learned and Orthodox Writers: especially (e) Peter Martyr, (f) Baldainus (†) Lavater, and our Incomparable John Rainolde. I shall not here insist on the clearing of that, especially considering, that elsewhere I have done it: only let me add that the Witch said to Saul, I see Elohim, i.e. A God; (for the whole Context shows, that a single Person is intended) Ascending out of the Earth. I Sam. 28. 13. The Devil would be Worshipped as a God, and Saul now, that he was become a Necromancer, must bow himself to him. Moreover, had it been the true Samuel from Heaven reprehending Saul, there is great Reason to believe that he would not only have reproved him for his sin, in not executing Judgement on the Amalekites; as in Ver. 18. But for his wickedness in consulting with Familiar Spirits: for which Sin it was in special that he Died. 2 Chron. 10. 13. But in as much as there is not one word to Testify against that Abomination, we may conclude that it was not Real Samuel that appeared to Saul. And if it were the Devil in his likeness the Argument seems very strong, that if the Devil, may appear in the Form of a Saint in Glory, much more is it possible for him, to put on the Likeness, of the most Pious and innocent Saint on Earth. There are, who acknowledge that a Demon may appear in the Shape of a Godly Person, But not as doing Evil. Whereas the Devil in Samuel’s likeness told a Pernicious Lie, when he said Thou hast Disquieted me. It was not in the Power of Saul, nor of all the Devils in Hell, to disquiet a Soul in Heaven, where Samuel had been for Two years before this Apparition. Nor did the Spectre speak true, when he said, Thou and thy Sons shall be with me; though Saul himself at his Death went to be with the Devil, his Son Jonathan did not so. Besides, (which suits with the matter in hand) the Devil in Samuel’s shape confirmed Necromancy and cursed Witchery. He that can in the likeness of Saints encourage Witches to Familiarity with Hell, may possibly in the Likeness of a Saint afflict a Bewitched Person. But this we see from Scripture Satan may be Permitted to do.
And whereas it is objected, that the Devil may appear indeed in the Form of Dead Persons, but that he cannot represent such as are living; The Contrary is manifest. No Question had Saul said to the Witch, bring me David who was then living, she could as easily have shown living David as dead Samuel, as easily as that great Conjurer, of whom Wierus speaks, brought the appearance of Hector and Achilles and after that of David before the Emperor Maximilian.
And that evil Angels have sometimes appeared in the likeness of living absent persons is a thing abundantly confirmed by History.
I. It is possible that the Persons in Question may be Possessed with Cacodemons. That bewitched Persons are many times really possessed with evil Spirits, is most certain. And as Mr. Perkins observes, no man can prove but that Witchcraft might be the cause of many of those Possessions, which we read of in the Gospel. And that Devils have been emitted into the Bodies of miserable Creatures by Magicians and Witches, Histories and Experience do abundantly testify. Hierom (h) relates concerning a certain Virgin, that a young man, whose Amours she despised, prevailed with a Magician to send an evil Spirit into her, by means whereof she was strangely besotted. It is reported (i) of Simon Magus that after he had used a Hellish Sacrifice, to be revenged of some that had called him a great Witch, he caused infernal Spirits to enter into them. Many confessing Witches have acknowledged that they were the cause of such and such Persons being Possessed by evil Angels, as (k) Thyraeus and others have observed. Now no Credit ought to be given to what Demons in such, as are by them Obsessed, shall say. Our Savior by his own unerring Example has taught us not to receive the Devil’s Testimony in anything.

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