Monday, February 14, 2011

Theonomy, History, and Freedom: Part 2: Puritans and Witch Hunts

Practically all secular humanists talk about when
it comes to the Puritans is the Salem Witch Trials.
However, according to the famous nineteenth
century historian George Bancroft, "The Puritans
... planted ... the undying principles of democratic

by Steve C. Halbrook

The American Puritans—Geneva’s theological heirs—continued in the tradition of upholding biblical sanctions.  For instance, the laws of the Massachusetts Bay Puritans as written in John Cotton’s Abstract of the Laws of New England conformed to the Bible even more consistently than Geneva, restating capital offenses “exactly from the Old Testament,” and usually patterning punishments of lesser crimes “after Mosaic norms.”[1] 
Of course, the humanists’ popular “refutation” of the Puritans is the infamous Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s.  This is a classic historical argument used for discrediting the Puritan use of biblical law.  However, this episode has been enormously blown out of proportion.  In his piece on the Salem Witch trials, Kirk House describes an historical context which today is virtually unknown.[2]  He points out that during the tragic event—which resulted in the deaths of twenty-two or twenty-three people[3]— not one of the accused likely had a fair trial.[4]  But he also raises some factors that refute the simplistic idea that the root cause was a Christian form of government. 

 Moreover, House raises the possibility that “demonic activity, up to and including possession, may have been involved.”[5]  He adds,

Such a diagnosis fits the facts as well as one of hysteria, so long as it is not rejected on presuppositional grounds.  Indeed, some aspects of the case are more easily explained by demonic activity.  Such a case is the levitation of Margaret Rule.  Taking place in Boston in 1693, the Rule case is not directly a part of the Salem situation.  Seven men, headed by Cotton Mather, Fellow of the Royal Society of London and former medical student, testified that they had seen Margaret Rule lifted from her bed to the ceiling, and that the combined strength of several men was insufficient to pull her down.[6] 

Witch hysteria is a product of pagan
humanism, and the emperor and
professing Christian Charlemagne
threatened against such paranoia
under pain of death.
Many objections to the Salem Witch trials stem from those with anti-supernatural, naturalistic presuppositions.  Such objections are strange, since if the natural world is all there is, the Puritans were simply doing what was natural and acting on natural selection in killing the accused witches.  The fact that Puritans were wrong about supernatural activities is evolution’s fault, not theirs. 

While we don’t deny that witches exist, we do affirm that societies can have unhealthy, superstitious beliefs about them, which can result in the unjust deaths of those accused of witchcraft.  But where do such unhealthy superstitions come from?  Not Christianity, but humanism.  “[T]he superstitions of magic and witchcraft began among the civilized nations of the earth, and prevailed even in Greece and Rome.”[7]  However,

In Europe the possibility of magical flights was strictly denied by the Christian Church.  Laws in early medieval penal codes already forbade the belief in strigae, the term for owl-shaped flying creatures in Antiquity.  In Greek and Roman times they were conceived as demonic creatures, capable of flying through the air, stealing children and devouring them.  Classical authors like Apuleius or Ovid clearly did not believe in their reality, but refer to a widespread belief.[8] 

Those in pagandom believed to be witches often suffered the consequences.  For example, the Saxons—who believed not only in witches, but werewolves[9]—had a practice of burning alleged witches to death.  But after being conquered by Emperor Charlemagne, Saxony instituted the death penalty against burning alleged witches.  Thus Charlemagne decreed after conquering Saxony

If any dupe of the devil believes in the pagan fashion that any man or woman is a striga and eats men, and sets fire to her because of this or gives her flesh to be eaten, or if he eats her, he is to be punished with the sentence of death.[10]

All of this refutes the accusation by humanists that historical Christianity is mired in superstitious witch-hunts.  Witch paranoia is a product of pagan humanism, and the emperor and professing Christian Charlemagne threatened against such paranoia under pain of death.  And to the extent that Christianity embraced absurd ideas about witches and promoted unjust persecution of those merely alleged to be witches, it obviously picked such ideas up from the pagan humanists.  The Bible does threaten the death penalty against actual witches (but the Bible limits the definition of what constitutes a witch [cf. Ex. 22:18; Lev. 20:27]), but one must be proven to be a witch in a court of law—not by superstitious hysteria.  Biblical law deters such hysteria in threatening the death penalty against false witnesses in capital cases. Moreover, Historian Paul Jehle comments,

Individuals came to me and said, “See, it’s Puritan laws that put the witches to death the way they did because they just copied the law out of the book of Leviticus.”  The interesting part about that is the very same laws in the Old Testament require that you have to have an eye-witness of a crime in order to put someone to death; and without two or three witnesses you can’t put someone to death.  … It is because the Puritans abandoned biblical law for nine months in New England that we had the Salem Witch Trials the way we did. If they had followed that [biblical law’s requirement of two or three witnesses], no one would have been put to death, even though there were two or three who were practicing in the occult.[11]

The Bible was the standard by which Massachusetts
Puritans ended the unjust capital punishment for theft.
While biblical law possesses safeguards protecting the accused, humanism does not, for in humanism man arbitrarily determines law for himself.  Thus Jehle adds, “Interesting to note in the Salem Witch Trials, if you … abandon God’s law, and you take up man’s law as a replacement, and [you are] not thinking the Bible has any indication for law, you pick up an hysteria—you are now guilty until proven innocent."[12]

Interestingly, according to Jehle, “ten of the twenty people put to death in New England were the leading Christians of that society.  In fact, two of the older women were the leading prayer warriors in the town of Salem.”[13]  Since humanists hate God, if humanists consistently adhere to their worldview, all leading Christians would be put to death.  So in light of the execution of leading Christians in Salem it’s difficult to understand how humanists would take issue with the Salem Witch Trials. 

            And beyond all this, the reaction of secular humanists to the witch trials are extremely disproportionate, considering the record of secular humanism itself.  Michael H. Warren, Jr., writes,

Atheists are still outraged that several hundred years ago some Puritans in Salem unjustly killed about 20 people before the town repented of its actions.  That’s barely worth noticing compared to the millions killed by Stalin, all with support of American Intelligentsia.  Judging by the number of lives unjustly snuffed out, separation of atheism and State is much more urgent than separation of Church and State.[14]

Puritan critics seem particularly slow to praise the Massachusetts colony Puritans for ending the long-standing capital punishment under English common law for certain theft offenses.[15]  Herbert W. Titus writes,

The common law allowing for the death penalty for such theft offenses appeared to have been inherited from the Anglo-Saxon customary law in disregard of the restitutionary remedy provided for by the Bible.  The 1641 Body of Liberties of the Massachusetts colony limited capital punishment to only those offenses (with one exception) that were punishable by death in Israel.[16] 

Thus it was the Bible that gave the Massachusetts Puritans the standard for ending unjustly harsh sanctions for theft.  Capital punishment for theft of property is not authorized in the Bible.  Instead, thieves must pay restitution.  And so regarding the Puritans, the justice attained by ending a long-standing unjust penalty for theft outweighed the justice lost by temporarily engaging in unjust trials against those accused of witchcraft.   

Indeed, according to the famous nineteenth century historian George Bancroft, “The Puritans … planted … the undying principles of democratic liberty.”[17]  Just like Calvin’s Geneva, liberty—not a bloodbath—was the fruit of biblical law.  Lest one, by the way, regard the Puritans as some fringe colonial group in upholding multiple capital sanctions, we must point out that the average 18th century colony upheld 12 capital crimes—a number greatly exceeded in England.[18]  The Constitution and Bill of Rights were ratified when “the death penalty was widely accepted.”[19]  No bloodbath ensued, but national prosperity did.

posts in this series (part 1, part 2)   

Excerpt from the (Lord willing) upcoming book, God is Just: A Defense of the Old Testament Civil Laws: Biblical Theocracy, Justice, and Slavery versus Humanistic Theocracy, "Justice," and Slavery by Steve C. Halbrook.  Copyright © 2010 by Steve C. Halbrook.  Based on the master's thesis, God is Just: A Defense of the Old Testament Civil Laws

     [1] David W. Hall, The Genevan Reformation and the American Founding (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2003), 298.  See also Marc A. Clauson, A History of the Idea of “God’s Law” (Theonomy): Its Origins, Development and Place in Political and Legal Thought (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2006), 168-171.
     [2] Kirk House, “The Salem Witch Trials,” The Journal of Christian Reconstruction, ed. Gary North,   vol. 5, no. 2 (Winter 1978-79): 142. 
     [3] Ibid., 133.
     [4] Ibid., 150.
     [5] Ibid., 142.
     [6] Ibid.
     [7] Sharon Turner, The History of the Anglo-Saxons from the Earliest Period to the Norman Conquest: Volume 3 (Paris: Baudry, 1840), 77.
     [8] Wolfgang Behringer, Witches and Witch-hunts: A Global History (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2004), 30.
     [9] Ibid.
     [10] Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae (775-790) 6, MGH CapRegFr 1: 68-9.  Cited in Bernadette Filotas, Pagan Survivals, Superstitions and Popular Cultures in Early Medieval Pastoral Literature (Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2005), 311.
     [11] Paul Jehle in Forerunner TV, “Was Biblical Law Responsible for the Salem Witch Trials?”, You Tube.  Retrieved March 10, 2010, from
     [12] Ibid. 
     [13] Ibid.
     [14] Mike Warren, Lord of Soul and State: The Duty of Christians to Mix Politics and Religion (Christian Civilization, April 23, 2008).  Retrieved December 21, 2009, from
     [15] Herbert W. Titus, God, Man, And Law: The Biblical Principles (Oak Brook, IL: Institute in Basic Life Principles, 1994), 286.
     [16] Ibid.
     [17] Robert M. Kingdon, Calvin and Calvinism: Sources of Democracy (Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath and Company, 1970), xiii.  Cited in Hall, Genevan Reformation, ix.
     [18] Thomas J. Gardner and Victor Manian, Criminal Law: Principles, Cases and Readings (St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Company, 1980), 162, 163.
     [19] Ibid., 167.


Durandal said...


Very rich and interesting article, I didn't know that about Charlemagne and the death penalty in New England.

Can you explain what Jehle means by "leading prayer warriors" when he speaks of the two older women who were executed in the town of Salem ?

And also is it possible to elaborate on the New Englanders "who abandoned God's Lay for nine months" ?

Thank you,
A History student in Québec

"The more amusement is made by hitting me, the more hammers you wear down"
— Théodore de Bèze

Steve C. Halbrook said...

I take the abandonment of biblical law to mean that the alleged witches were not proven guilty on the testimony of 2-3 witnesses, as biblical law requires.

I take "leading prayer warriors" to mean women who were reputed, beyond others, for fervently praying to God.

Besides the video link included in one of this post's footnotes, Jehle's thoughts on Puritans and witches are available on this CD:

Hope this was helpful.

Durandal said...


So if I understand correctly, the Salem "witch" trials lasted for a period of nine months ?

Also, do we know the "profile" of the other 20 women that were executed ?

I might buy the DVD eventually.

Thank you

Steve C. Halbrook said...

Not sure if I can give you the best answer of the profiles of the executed, other than, according to Jehle, 10 were the leading Christians of that society. Again, I'd defer to the CD. Jehle seems much more knowledgeable in this area than the typical historian.