In Salem, Massachusetts some very heinous events took place in the years of 1692 and 1693. Namely, the execution of 20 people (and the death of 5 more not by execution) for being witches. To Christians this is a blot in our history. To Atheists and other critics of Christianity this is a historical event that is frequently brought up to showcase the plagues of religion on our civilization. But whether you’re Christian or not, much of what the lay person knows about the Salem witch trials are actually incorrect or at best heavily exaggerated.
What we refer to as the “Salem Witch Trials” was actually a series of trials and hearings in the counties of Essex, Suffolk and Middlesex, Massachusetts. Hundreds of people were convicted and imprisoned, of which nineteen were hanged, one oddly crushed with large stones, and five additional died in prison. There are many myths about the trials that are indeed false; the witches being burned alive, that hundreds/thousands were killed or that all the accused were women, all of which being folk lore and not based in fact.
When people look back at the Salem Witch trials they incorrectly think it was all about religion. That Christianity is responsible for the tragic event. But the only thing Christianity had to do with the trials is that the people (both accusers and victims) were Christian. That’s it. A historical study of the event reveals there to be serious social, psychological, and political contributions that lead to this event. Religion’s role in this event can only be considered a role if recognized as irresponsible or misused religion. To examine that, we have to ask what the Bible says about the issue.
Here is where we seem to find a great divide between the Old and New Testament. The Old Testament speaks of killing witches and sorcerers in Exodus 22:18and Leviticus 20:27. But then we see in the New Testament that when Paul was confronted with scorers and witches they burned their books and confessed their sins (Acts 19:19). In Acts 8:9 Simon the sorcerer is rebuked by Peter, but not executed. And yet both Paul and Peter were Jews that knew of the OT scripture. So why didn’t Peter or Paul kill the witches as the OT instructs.
The Laws given in Exodus and Leviticus were for the nation of Israel, a theocracy. During this time, the witches and sorcerers in the surrounding lands were not what we think of today when we think of witches. They were in fact very inhuman, often sacrificing infants among other immoral acts. So this law was obviously for the best interest of the nation of Israel. However, Israel would fall from power over time, and during the era of Jesus and the Apostles there was no entity that could carry out such laws. Such laws simply no longer applied. And with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus we were from that point on free from the old laws and instead reconciled through God’s grace (Romans 6:14).
The manner in which the trials themselves were carried out was also unbiblical. The trials were rife with mass hysteria, slander and gossip. There was no substantial evidence presented to convict the accused, and that which was presented was strictly circumstantial and hearsay. The victim of course could not be trusted since witches were liars anyways, right? All the trials and the people that took part in them were guilty of denying the Bible’s teachings in their actions. It is obvious that these “Christians” were certainly not following the teachings of Christ.
“Nothing in the New Testament would condone killing a witch or sorceress. But devout Christians who settled Massachusetts in the 1600s were bent on preserving a pure religion, and they were willing to exile- and, in a few cases, execute- people who would not confirm.”
-J. Stephen Lang, Religious Author
Yet this historical event remains the one of the bread and butter examples for critics who want to demonize Christianity overall. They often miss the point that there has, are and always will be self-proclaimed Christians that do very un-Christian things. But their actions do not render Christianity harmful IF Christianity does not command it, which we find the Bible does not in this case. Besides, for every one event in history in which Christians did wrong, I can find ten in which non-Christians did worse; for example the Chinese PRC, the Soviet mass murders , or the Mao Zedong regime. So it really doesn’t prove anything accept that all men and women are sinners and in need of God’s grace.
J. Stephen Lang, “1001 Things You Always Wanted To Know About the Bible,” (Barnes & Noble, Inc. New York:NY 2010) Pg. 107