Friday 23 October 2020

English Preachers in the Dutch Republic: Tracing Confessional Mobility in the GEMMS Database

In 1638 Thomas Goodwin and his wife Elizabeth Prescott arrived in Arnhem in the Dutch Republic. Goodwin’s Congregationalist views had caused him to become increasingly concerned about the direction of the Church of England, leading him first to resign his post as vicar of Trinity Church, Cambridge, in 1633, and then his fellowship at St. Catherine’s College in 1638. In Arnhem, he became teacher of a congregation of 100 English exiles, who left England over objections to Laudian reforms. Alongside fellow teachers John Archer and Philip Nye, Goodwin put into practice the Congregationalist ideals that he espoused in England: a congregation of the visible saints, bound by adherence to a covenant, with discipline enforced by elders and lay members. He preached a series of sermons on Revelation 11 to this congregation in 1639, in which he argued that Laud would return the Church of England to Rome, but a second Reformation would return the Church to a pure congregational state. It was with these millenarian expectations and practical experience of congregationalism that Goodwin and his congregation returned to London in 1640. Goodwin would then play a prominent role during the Civil War and Interregnum as a member of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, Chaplain of the Council of State, and President of Magdalen College.[1]

Goodwin was one of many English and Scottish preachers who spent formative years in the Netherlands as students, temporary exiles, or long-term leaders of English-speaking communities there. Indeed, the reformations of both countries were closely intertwined from the earliest days. As scholars increasingly turn to transnational approaches in studying religious developments in early modern Europe, GEMMS database offers a useful source to trace the movement of English-speaking preachers across the Channel and observe the influence of migration to and from the Netherlands on religious developments in Britain. While GEMMS has focused on sermons preached within Great Britain, Ireland and the British colonies, a survey of the fifteen preachers with connections to the Dutch Republic in the database reveals the important role the Dutch Republic played as a space for education, experimentation in church polity, and the establishment of new religious communities.

British Churches in the Netherlands

Britain and the Low Countries have a long history of close connections. As Keith L. Sprunger, historian of the English-language churches in the Netherlands, put it, “[t]he waters separating England from the Continent, although a barrier, could serve just as well as a bridge for frequent intercourse.”[2] The Netherlands offered a haven for Protestants during the reign of Mary Tudor, while Elizabethan England was home to a growing community of Dutch rebels and refugees from the Dutch Revolt (1566-1648). It was during the Elizabethan era that English religious communities in the Netherlands really expanded. Thousands of English and Scottish soldiers were under the employ of the Dutch States General and some towns such as Brielle and Flushing were actually under English governance from 1585 to 1616. English and Scottish communities could be found in every major city in the burgeoning Dutch Republic.[3]

The religious character of these communities began to take shape in the mid-sixteenth century. One of the first English-language congregations in the Netherlands was the chaplaincy of the Company of Merchant Adventurers in Antwerp. In the 1550s it was staffed by a number of dissenters such as John Lambert, John Rogers, Bernard Gilpin, and William Cole.[4] Already in the 1550s, the English and Scottish churches in the Netherlands were dominated by dissenters. This continued to be the case throughout the reigns of Elizabeth and James I, and became even more pronounced in the 1620s and '30s as Presbyterian and Congregationalist-minded Puritans, like Goodwin, who previously conformed to the Church of England, now established new Reformed congregations in the Netherlands in opposition to Archbishop Laud’s church reforms. Many of these ministers returned to England and Scotland during the Civil Wars and Interregnum. During this time, the English communities welcomed Anglican refugees, but, with the Restoration in 1660, the communities once again became largely dissenting and Reformed. With the accession of William of Orange to the English throne in 1688 and the subsequent Toleration Act, the size of the English and Scottish communities diminished, but many congregations remain even down to the present day.

A helpful way to understand the activities of these preachers throughout the period is Liesbeth Corens’s concept of Confessional Mobility. Corens develops this concept as a way to understand the back and forth mobility of English Catholics between Britain and the Low Countries. This concept encompasses not only the more permanent term “exile,” but also the “the circular mobility of leaving and returning,” which allows her to demonstrate that English Catholics “fostered a community without borders which bridged the Channel.”[5] This concept can be usefully applied to English and Scottish Protestants in the Dutch Republic as well. In a similar way to their Catholic compatriots, they were part of a religious community that flowed seamlessly across borders. The activities of the fifteen preachers in GEMMS can be categorized in three ways: travellers for education; temporary exile and religious experimentation; and longer term settlement in the Netherlands.


While most preachers in the GEMMS database received their education from Oxford or Cambridge, many chose to head to the continent for their formation. The chief destination for most was the universities of the Dutch Republic, especially Leiden, but also Utrecht and Franeker. These institutions were especially appealing to those who were wary of the established church and the universities that supplied it with preachers. Dutch universities were thus a critical training ground for English and Scottish dissenters.

Daniel Neal (GEMMS-PERSON-000354) is a good example of the kind of English students that Dutch universities would attract. He trained for ministry at Thomas Rowe’s dissenting academy at Newington Green, Middlesex, between 1696 and 1699. He then studied at Utrecht for two years under the tutelage of Reformed theologian Gerhardus de Vries and the philologist and historian Joannes Georgius Graevius. He studied another year at Leiden, before returning to England where he succeeded John Singleton as pastor of a Congregationalist chapel at Aldersgate Street in 1703, a position he maintained for the rest of his career as the congregation grew and relocated to Jewin Street. GEMMS contains eight sermons by Neal from this period, three of them on Isaiah 55:3, touching on the theme of a “covenant,” a central concept in much of Reformed theology.[6] In addition to his preaching, the influence of his years at Utrecht under the tutelage of Graevius are noticeable in his work as a historian, first in his History of New England (2 Vols., 1720), and then in his History of the Puritans (1723).[7]

Figure 1: Many English and Scottish preachers, including Daniel Neal, attended Leiden University. Hendrick van der Burch, The Conferring of a Degree at the University of Leiden, oil on canvas (ca. 1650-1660). Photo Credit: Rijksmuseum

Temporary Ministries

Many preachers in GEMMS had relatively brief sojourns in the Netherlands. While we do not currently have sermons from their brief time there, the experience there should not be discounted. Particularly in the 1630s and early '40s, the English and Scottish congregations in the Dutch Republic offered puritans a laboratory to put into practice theories of church governance and religious purity that they were unable to observe in England. When the political context became more favourable, these temporary exiles returned to England in large numbers, influencing policy in the halls of power and preaching their ideas from newly accessible pulpits.

The career of Thomas Goodwin fits this pattern, as does that of John Davenport, who was covered in a previous blog post. But perhaps no preacher better exemplifies the broad and borderless vision of reform of many Puritans than Hugh Peter (GEMMS-PERSON-000298). He was ordained priest in 1623, but was suspended in 1626 for praying that the queen would forsake her "idolatry and superstition" while preaching at Christ Church, London. He made a new career for himself in the Dutch Republic, first as a proctor at the University of Franeker, then as a chaplain in one of Stadtholder Frederick Henry’s English regiments, and finally as pastor of the Rotterdam English Church in 1633. He reformed the church along Congregationalist lines, requiring members to subscribe to a covenant. When the English Company of Merchant Adventurers relocated their headquarters to Rotterdam in 1635 and commandeered the English Church there, Peter left for New England where he became minister of Salem, MA in 1636. He implemented a covenant there as he did in Rotterdam and was a stringent opponent of Anne Hutchinson and her followers. He returned to England in 1641 and became an influential figure during the Civil Wars and Interregnum, preaching before Parliament and serving as chaplain to the Council of State. His support for the execution of Charles I returned to haunt him however, and he was executed on 16 October 1660.[8] For Peter and others, a temporary Dutch sojourn allowed them to practice ideas of church polity that would shape the religious landscape of England and New England for years to come.

Figure 2: Pauwels van Hillegaert, Prince Frederik Hendrik at the Siege of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, 1629, oil on canvas (1631). The Siege of 's-Hertogenbosch was a great victory for the forces of Stadtholder Frederick Henry. His besieging force included some 13,000 English and Scottish troops, including the regiment of Edward Harwood, where, according to Carla Gardina Pestana, Hugh Peter was chaplain. Peter published an account of the successful campaign in his Digitus Dei (1631). Photo Credit: Rijksmuseum

Long-term Ministries

A final group of English-language preachers in the Netherlands spent much longer portions of their careers in the Netherlands, sometimes setting down more permanent roots in the country, ministering to the many English and Scots that resided there throughout the early modern period. Robert Fleming the Younger (GEMMS-PERSON-000012) was one such preacher. He was born in Cambuslang, Lanarkshire in 1660 to Robert Fleming, the vicar there, and his wife Christian. His father was ejected for nonconformity in 1662, when he relocated to Edinburgh. Then the family moved to Rotterdam in 1677 where he was invited to become minister of the Scots Church there. The younger Robert was ordained by his father in 1688. After his ordination, he returned to England for a few years as a family chaplain at Soham, Cambridgeshire. However, he returned to the Netherlands in 1692, where he studied at Leiden University and became minister of the English Presbyterian Church there. Among his many sermons noted in GEMMS, two preparation for communion sermons were preached here in December 1692. He succeeded his father at Rotterdam in 1695, where he continued that church’s reputation as a bastion of Scottish Presbyterianism. He was a preacher of some renown as he returned to England in 1698 at the request of William III to minister at the Scots Church, Founders Hall, Lothbury, London, where he remained until his death on 21 May 1716.[9]

Figure 3: St Sebastian’s Chapel was home to Rotterdam’s Scots Church during the ministries of Robert Fleming the Elder and the Younger, from 1658-1697. From the Title page of William Steven, The History of the Scottish Church Rotterdam (1832). Photo Credit: Rijksmuseum

These examples offer a glimpse into the important role the Dutch Republic played in the careers of many English and Scottish preachers, particularly Puritans and Dissenters. By offering a repository of manuscript sermons of these preachers, GEMMS is a useful starting point for anyone wishing to examine the influence of the Netherlands on religious developments in Britain. While the number of sermons actually preached within the Dutch Republic is limited right now, this is a potential future area of expansion for the database. To that end, GEMMS welcomes contributions from sermon researchers across the globe. If you’d like to share data on English-language preachers and sermons in the Netherlands, consult our contributors page or send an e-mail to


[1] T. M. Lawrence, "Goodwin, Thomas (1600–1680), nonconformist minister," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, published online 23 Sep. 2004, https://doi-org/10.1093/ref:odnb/10996.

[2] Keith L. Sprunger, Dutch Puritanism: a History of English and Scottish Churches of the Netherlands in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Leiden: Brill, 1983), 3. This overview section is largely based on this work.

[3] Sprunger, Dutch Puritanism, pp. 5-6.

[4] Sprunger, Dutch Puritanism, p. 14.

[5] Liesbeth Corens, Confessional Mobility and English Catholics in Counter-Reformation Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), pp. 2-3.

[6] I do not mean to say here that covenant theology came to England via the Dutch Republic. Rather, a Reformed education in the Netherlands could reinforce that theological bent. For a very brief (if a little dated) overview on some of the literature on covenant theology, see Lyle D. Bierma, “The Role of Covenant Theology in Early Reformed Orthodoxy,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 21:3 (Autumn 1990), pp. 453-462. For a more recent analysis of the use of the concept in seventeenth-century England, see Naomi Tadmor, “People of the Covenant and the English Bible,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Sixth Series, Vol. 22 (2012), pp. 95-110.

[7] Laird Okie, "Neal, Daniel (1678–1743), Independent minister and historian," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, published online 23 Sep. 2004, https://doi-org/10.1093/ref:odnb/19817. Other preachers that fit in this category in GEMMS database include John Burgess (GEMMS-PERSON-000226), William Wishart (GEMMS-PERSON-002066), Francis Rous (GEMMS-PERSON-002637). 

[8] Carla Gardina Pestana, "Peter [Peters], Hugh (bap. 1598, d. 1660), Independent minister," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, published online 23 Sep. 2004, https://doi-org/10.1093/ref:odnb/22024. Apart from Goodwin and Davenport, preachers with similar careers in the Netherlands include John Shower (GEMMS-PERSON-000008), Thomas Gouge (GEMMS-PERSON-000413), and Sidrach Simpson (GEMMS-PERSON-002867).

[9] M. J. Mercer, "Fleming, Robert (c. 1660–1716), Presbyterian minister and religious writer," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, published online 23 Sep. 2004, https://doi-org/10.1093/ref:odnb/9711. Other preachers who had long-term ministries in the Netherlands include John Spademan (GEMMS-PERSON-000058), Henry Hickman (GEMMS-PERSON-001517), John Herring (GEMMS-PERSON-000490), Thomas Marshall (GEMMS-PERSON-002071).

~ David Robinson

Monday 14 September 2020

A Commemorative Royalist Fast Sermon for Archbishop Laud: Celebrating GEMMS Sermon #20000

 GEMMS’s 20,000th sermon record is a remarkable manuscript, an anonymous Royalist fast day sermon allegedly delivered before the court of Charles I at St. Mary’s Church, Oxford, in commemoration of Archbishop William Laud’s execution which took place on 10 January 1645.[1] Modern scholarship has tended to focus on the overwhelming number of Parliamentary fast sermons in print and manuscript, as records relating to Royalist fast sermons in this era are scarce by comparison.[2] No printed Royalist fast sermons from the first two months of 1645 are extant; however, to date, GEMMS has uncovered manuscripts of three Royalist fast sermons, all of which were delivered in February 1645.

Figure 1: Image of Lauds execution in John Vicars, A Sight of ye Trans=actions of these latter yeares, &c. (London, 1646), p. 25.

Two of these Royalist fast sermons can be attributed to Jeffery Sharpe (c. 1612–1675).[3] The status of these two sermons is debatable, owing to the inconsistencies in Sharpe’s ecclesiastical career and personal life during the Civil Wars and Interregnum. Although he was ejected from several posts during the 1640s, he became rector of Colmworth, Bedfordshire and private chaplain to the newly converted Parliamentarian William Cecil (1591–1668), second earl of Salisbury, in 1650. Furthermore, he was married to the daughter of John Whincopp (d. 1647), one of the Assembly of Divines. Nonetheless, other sermons by Sharpe within this manuscript, on the subject of the proscribed Christmas and Easter feasts, testify to his Royalist allegiances during the 1640s. Choosing Amos 4.12 as his text for these two fast sermons (‘Therefore thus will I do unto thee, O Israel: and because I will do this unto thee, prepare to meet thy God, O Israel’), Sharpe expounded on the providential nature of God’s punishments, with the intention to promote both personal and national reform. These two sermons by Sharpe present many of the typical characteristics of fast day sermons in both the Parliamentary and Royalist traditions.[4]

Figure 2: A Fast daies Sermon preached upon the Fast day in February 1644 by Jeffery Sharpe, Bodleian Library, MS Rawl. E. 157, pp. 13536.

The 20,000th sermon within the GEMMS database, on the other hand, is a fascinating piece of prose contained within its original limp vellum gilt-tooled binding. This manuscript (MS 261) is housed at St John’s College, Oxford, which also holds Archbishop Laud’s diary and correspondence. Written in a single seventeenth-century cursive hand, it is a witty and sustained attack on foes within and without the Church of England, peppered with vivid bestial imagery which relates to these enemies and the nation as a whole. Most significantly, it is a sermon preached ‘to the deare Memory’ of Laud, who is described as the ‘only Martyr wch ever the Protestant was Formally guilty of’ (f. 2r). As a rare survival of a Royalist perspective upon the execution of Laud and the keeping of fasts more generally, this sermon is a crucial archival discovery which has not, thus far, featured in the current historiography of this critical event in the English Civil Wars.

Figure 3: A sermon preach’d in St Maries Oxon. Feb 10. 1644,
St John’s College Library, Oxford, MS 261, f. 1r.

Why has this valuable document been ignored by scholars? This sermon is not included in the most recent published catalogue of St John’s College manuscripts.[5] The manuscript’s provenance remains a mystery, and the specified date of the sermon on the title page appears to contradict its occasion. The sermon was apparently preached on ‘Feb: 10: 1644 [old-style dating]: being the Monethly ffast Day’; however, 10 February 1645 was a Monday, which was neither a regular preaching day nor a fast day. Further clues are offered within the sermon itself, with the preacher’s mention of the Treaty of Uxbridge which had been ongoing for twenty-one days. From this, it is possible to attach a tentative date of Thursday 19 February to the sermon, which still conflicts with the specified occasion as fast days did not tend to fall on Thursdays either. Moreover, the preacher’s chosen text of 1 Corinthians 15:32 seems curiously at odds with an event which advocated abstinence (‘If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth it me, if the dead rise not? let us eat and drink; for to morrow we die’).

Figure 4: A sermon preach’d in St Maries Oxon. Feb 10. 1644,
St John’s College Library, Oxford, MS 261, f. 2r.

Further contradictions occur within the body of the sermon itself. Pointing towards the builders of idols in his congregation, the preacher condemns the worshipping of the golden calf in the King’s chapel in a criticism of Laudian ceremonial, which would appear to counter the memorial purpose of the occasion (f. 30v). According to the preacher, such ‘Intestine Vipers’ (f. 31v) hinder any chances of peace being restored to the Church. It is clear, however, that the preacher is ultimately arguing that the act of idolatry constitutes inappropriate behaviour for a fast day. Earlier in the sermon, the preacher had lamented the destruction of this ‘faire Living temple’, expressing the following sentiments: 

What hopes can the Branches have when the Axe is layd to the Root of the Tree? The Axe wch struck off his Head, had long before been Cutting downe ye Carved works of Gods House […] (f. 14r).

Throughout the sermon, emphasis is placed upon similarly damning accounts of the ‘beasts’ which posed a danger to the fate of the nation. Laud is likened to the figure of Paul, as it is described that, just as Paul fought beasts in Ephesus, so Laud had battled with ‘Unreasonable and yett Humane Beasts’ (f. 4v). Rebellion itself, collectively represented by all of the competing Reformed factions, is styled the ‘Reformed Antichrist’ (f. 10v). There is even a reference to ‘Satyres’ (f. 11v), a pun on the flurry of printed graphic satires which heralded the downfall of the archbishop.[6] Accordingly, the preacher does not shy away from graphic imagery. After having offered the three ‘heads’ of the sermon, the preacher completes his introduction by stating that it is fitting to ‘mourne and lament the 4th’ (f. 6v); that is, the lost head of Laud. The preacher’s considerable rhetorical skill is also worthy of mention. Which auditor could remain neutral after hearing the plosive alliteration of ‘Satan’s black & Bloody Banner shatter’d to pieces and torne to shivers’ (f. 30r)?

In addition, the preacher takes this opportunity, in the midst of his censure of an array of figures, to provide an appraisal of the negotiations at the Treaty of Uxbridge. He advises the negotiators to proceed peacefully, using their ‘skill to string and Tune a Commonwealth to a right key’ (f. 15v) as the sweet singers of Israel. On the other hand, if the likes of the ‘Caledonian Boare’ (i.e. the Scottish Covenanters, f. 15r) will not listen to these harmonious instruments, then the negotiators must show no mercy in their fight for righteousness. After all, ‘[t]he English Breed have been good hunters of the Boar’ (f. 15v). In a trope commonly used within both Parliamentarian and Royalist fast sermons, Israel and England are thus aligned as counterparts.[7] Such rhetorical parallels, along with Paul and Ephesus/Laud and London, are sustained through to the sermon’s application, which in its culmination of a litany of cutting gibes against both nation and state would certainly have stirred up an emotional response. Whether the effect would have been a positive one is another question.

There are a number of manuscripts in the GEMMS database which never made their way to the printing press, most likely because they were too radical and provocative in their condemnation of the religious politics of the day.[8] Standing apart from the more conventional Royalist productions, which commonly argued for the necessity and lawfulness of kings and bishops, or in favour of tithes and subsidies for their support, this memorial sermon for Archbishop Laud falls into this incendiary category. Owing to its dubious dating, and the fact that no contemporary commentary or reception history seems to survive even for such a controversial sermon based at a significant pulpit in the centre of Oxford, it is quite possible that this text was a ‘phantom sermon’ that was never actually delivered.[9] During a time in which such a figure of authority as Laud could be abandoned by the King, there was no guarantee that this anonymous preacher would be protected by Royalist forces, a fact which was underscored bitterly within the sermon itself.[10] This manuscript, which may therefore only have circulated amongst a very restricted readership, stands as a legacy to the religious writing culture of the Royalist underground. This discovery paves the way for further research into the uncensored voices which may have never materialised in the pulpit.



[1] St John’s College Library, Oxford, MS 261 (GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-001324), is discussed in more detail in Anne James and Jeanne Shami, Remembering the Dead: The Role of Manuscript Sermons & Sermon Notes in Researching Early Modern Memorial Practice (London: The Congregational Memorial Hall Trust, 2019).

[2] A highly selective list of scholars’ contributions would include Hugh Trevor-Roper, ‘The Fast Sermons of the Long Parliament’, in Hugh Trevor-Roper, Religion, the Reformation and Social Change (London: Macmillan, 1967), pp. 294–344; Tom Webster, ‘Preaching and Parliament, 1640–1659’, in The Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon, ed. by Peter McCullough, Hugh Adlington and Emma Rhatigan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 404–20; Ann Hughes, ‘Preachers and Hearers in Revolutionary London: Contextualising Parliamentary Fast Sermons’, Transactions of the RHS, 24 (2014), 57–77; Ann Hughes, ‘Preaching the “Long Reformation” in the English Revolution’, Reformation, 24.2 (2019), 151–64.

[3] Bodleian Library, MS Rawl. E. 157 (GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-000138). See James and Shami, Remembering the Dead, pp. 16–17.

[4] Alec Ryrie, ‘The Fall and Rise of Fasting in the British Reformations’, in Worship and the Parish Church in Early Modern Britain, ed. by Natalie Mears and Alec Ryrie (Farnham and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013), pp. 89–108.

[5] Ralph Hanna, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Western Medieval Manuscripts of St John’s College Oxford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). Thanks to Debora Shuger for alerting Jeanne to the existence of this manuscript sermon related to the death of William Laud.

[6] Helen Pierce, ‘Anti-Episcopacy and Graphic Satire in England, 1640–1645’, The Historical Journal, 47.4 (2004), 809–48; Rachel Willie, ‘Sensing the Visual (Mis)representation of William Laud’, in What is an Image in Medieval and Early Modern England?, ed. by Antoinina Bevan Zlatar and Olga Timofeeva (Tübingen: Narr Francke Attempto, 2017), pp. 183–210.

[7] Achsah Guibbory, ‘Israel and English Protestant Nationalism: ‘Fast Sermons’ during the English Revolution’, in Early Modern Nationalism and Milton’s England, ed. by David Loewenstein and Paul Stevens (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2008), pp. 115–38.

[8] A much later example is an autograph anti-Catholic manuscript sermon on the Hanoverian succession, preached at Horninghold Church, Leicestershire, by the ardent Tory Humfrey Michel (c. 1650–1722) (The National Archives, SP 35/2/45 (GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-001034)). This sermon may have been seized at the time of the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion.

[9] Anne James and Jeanne Shami, Remembering the Dead: The Role of Manuscript Sermons & Sermon Notes in Researching Early Modern Memorial Practice’, International Congregational Journal, 18.2 (forthcoming, 2020) [reprinted with some additions and revisions]. For the term ‘phantom sermon’, see Keith A. Francis, ‘Sermon Studies: Major Issues and Future Directions’, in The Oxford Handbook of the British Sermon 1689–1901, ed. by Keith A. Francis and William Gibson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 611–30 (pp. 620–21). See also Rosemary Dixon, ‘Sermons in Print, 1660–1700’, in The Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon, ed. by Peter McCullough, Hugh Adlington and Emma Rhatigan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 460–79 (p. 461); Hannah Yip, ‘Silent Preaching: Laypeoples Manuscript Sermons, c. 1530  c. 1700’, <> [accessed 30 August 2020].

[10] St John’s College Library, Oxford, MS 261, f. 9v.

~ Jeanne Shami and Hannah Yip

Friday 28 August 2020

“Evil Angels among us”: Sermons and the Salem Witch Trials

On 21st August 1692 at the First Church in Cambridge, MA, Increase Mather (1639-1723) preached a dramatic sermon on Psalms 119:20, “My flesh trembleth for fear of thee; and I am afraid of thy judgements”.[1] The American Antiquarian Society Library, Mss. Octavo Vols. B holds the auditor’s notes for this sermon, and many others delivered at Cambridge from 1690-1694.[2]

Throughout the sermon Mather forcefully reminds the congregation of the “the Reasons th[a]t God ought to be feared on the account of his Judgements”. They “are a sign of God’s anger. They tell us that holy God is sorely displeased”.[3] He brings this close to home for his New England congregation:

Let us consider w[hat]t God has been doing to new England in these 4 years last past. A Sword, sickness and fire has been raging and laying us waste and how is it at this day?

Behold his anger is not turned away, his hand is stretched out still. [Th]e heavens are brass over our heads, and ye Earth iron under our feet; and a famine is threatend. The Angell of [th]e Lord is sent out, [th]e plague of Egypt is set among us by letting loose Evill angels among us. We may fear w[ha]t yet God has behind: all w[hi]ch may make us fear.[4]

These “Evill Angels” had a particular resonance in the culture of hysteria that engulfed the Massachusetts Bay Colony at the time. The Salem witch trials were ongoing. Two days earlier, on 19th August, five people including Reverend George Burroughs had been executed on charges of witchcraft. This followed trials in which both Increase Mather and his son Cotton Mather had played a part.

Figure 1: Sermon on Psalms 119:120 by Increase Mather, American Antiquarian Society Library, Mss. Octavo Vols. B, pp. 138, 142.

Salem Witch Trials

The witch trials are one of the most well-known events of early American history. Between February 1692 and May 1693 men, women, children and animals were accused of witchcraft and prosecuted. More than 150 people were arrested, and 19 were convicted and hanged. One man was pressed to death for refusing to plead (Giles Corey, made famous by Arthur Miller in The Crucible) and at least four of the accused witches died in prison. Accusations of witchcraft began when two young girls living in Salem Village, Betty Parris (9) and Abigail Williams (11), began to experience violent fits. Three people were arrested initially: Sarah Good, a homeless woman; Sarah Osborne, who was not a regular attender at church; and Tituba, a woman from the West Indies who was enslaved by Samuel Parris. Tituba was accused of telling the girls tales of demonic sexual encounters. Following these arrests, accusations snowballed as those who were arrested confessed to witchcraft and implicated others. At the end of May 1692, more than 60 people were in custody, posing a problem for the newly elected governor.[5]

Figure 2: Belgii Novi, Angliae Novae, et partis Virginiae, Jan Jansonn (Amsterdam, 1651).

Politics in Massachusetts

A new charter for the Province of Massachusetts had been approved in 1691, putting in place a new governor, William Phips. Increase Mather had been instrumental in petitioning for this new charter and for Phips’s appointment. After James II had revoked the Charter of Massachusetts in 1686, there had been a number of changes in the administration of the area, which had removed control from clergy like Mather. The 1687 Declaration of Indulgence, which prohibited discrimination against Catholics, stirred up intense opposition in the Province. Mather travelled to London, petitioning the King and publishing works to build popular support for a charter that preserved the rights of the previous one. [6] One of the first acts of the new governor and council on 27th May 1692 was to address the large numbers “thronging” the jails, by nominating county judges and sheriffs and instigating a Special Court of Oyer and Terminer (literally translated “to hear and determine”) to oversee the cases.[7] 

The Mathers and Witchcraft

The exact role that Increase Mather and his son, Cotton Mather (1663-1728), played in the witch trials has been a source of debate over the centuries.[8] Much of the primary evidence regarding the trials comes from works that they themselves wrote, and, as public opinion swiftly turned against the witch trials, it seems likely that they used these texts to distance themselves from the failures of the trials. However, it is clear that both Increase and Cotton wrote widely about the dangers of witchcraft before the trials began, potentially sowing the seeds for the panic that took over in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Figure 3: Increase Mather by John Sturt, after Jan van der Spriet (Spriett) line engraving, late 17th century © National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG D30916.

Increase Mather was one of the most powerful and well-known clergymen in New England. In 1681, when he became president of Harvard College, he began work on his book Remarkable Providences (1684), which put forward a doctrinal belief in the existence of witchcraft. Remarkable Providences also recounted several “things preternatural which have hapned in New-England”:

a remarkable relation about Anne Cole of Hartford. Concerning several Witches in that Colony. Of the Possessed Maid at Groton. An account of the House in Newberry lately troubled with a Daemon… And of one in Portsmouth in New-England lately disquieted by Evil Spitits. The Relation of a Woman at Barwick in New-England molested with Apparitions, and sometimes tormented by invisible Agents.[9]

Increase provided three arguments to prove that there were witches, and gave evidence of the existence of demons and possession. He provided his readers with a list of signs of possession. Some were cognitive: if a person “does speak with strange Languages, or discover skill in Arts and Sciences never learned by him”, and others physical: “when the Belly is on a sudden puft up, and instantly flat again”.[10] He cited theologians including Luther, Beza and Melanchthon, and the notorious guide to witch-hunting, Malleus Maleficarum (1498). Witch trials had gone into steep decline in Europe in the preceding decades. Mather’s work reframed and revitalised the concerns for a New England audience.

Despite Increase’s belief in witchcraft, he also cautioned against aggressive forms of trial, writing “it must moreover, be sadly confessed, that many innocent persons have been put to death under the notion of Witch-craft, whereby much innocent blood hath been shed”. He spoke out against “superstitious and magical ways of trying Witches”, such as trials by water or blood-letting.[11] Increase declared “it is to be lamented, that Protestants should in these dayes of light, either practise or plead for so Superstitious an Invention, since Papists themselves have of later times been ashamed of it”.[12]

Much of the evidence presented at the trials was “spectral evidence”, with people claiming to have seen apparitions of the “witch” who was afflicting them. There was a theological debate regarding this, with the Court holding that the Devil needed to be given permission before using someone’s form. That meant that if a victim claimed to have seen the apparition of a particular person, it was accepted as evidence that they were complicit with the Devil. The court sought the opinion of several ministers, including Increase, on this matter. The ministers responded with a fairly ambivalent letter, which Cotton Mather would later claim to have been responsible for drafting.[13] In places the letter argued against the use of spectral evidence:

Presumptions whereupon persons may be Committed, and much more, Convictions whereupon persons may be Condemned as Guilty of Witchcrafts, ought certainly to be more considerable, than barely the Accused Persons being Represented by a Spectre unto the Afflicted; inasmuch as 'tis an undoubted and a Notorious Thing, That a Daemon may, by Gods Permission, appear even to Ill purposes, in the Shape of an Innocent, yea, and a vertuous man. Nor can we esteem Alterations made in the Sufferers, by a Look or Touch of the Accused to be an Infallible Evidence of Guilt; but frequently Liable to be abused by the Devils Legerdemains.

However, the letter closed, “nevertheless, we cannot but humbly Recommend unto the Government, the speedy and vigorous Prosecution of such as have rendred themselves obnoxious”.[14] The warning against “spectral evidence” was couched in praise for the prosecution’s work. The Court later ruled that spectral evidence was inadmissible.[15]

Figure 4: Cotton Mather by Peter Pelham. c. 1860 restrike of 1728 original. Washington, DC, Smithsonian, National Portrait Gallery, S/NPG.75.5.

Cotton Mather also published a number of pamphlets expressing his belief in witchcraft, including Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions (1689) which detailed his “oracular observations” of the children of John Goodwin, a Boston mason. Goodwin’s six children had been affected by witchcraft after his eldest daughter had an argument with their washerwoman, accusing her of stealing linen. Mather claimed that the washerwoman’s mother, “an ignorant and scandalous old Woman” whose own husband claimed she was a witch, “bestow’d very hard Language upon the Girl”. The eldest daughter fell into fits, followed by her siblings. Cotton vividly describes their afflictions:

 One while their Tongues would be drawn down their Throats; another while they would be pull'd out upon their Chins, to a prodigious length. They would have their Mouths opened unto such a Wideness, that their jaws went out of joint; and anon they would clap together again with a Force like that of a strong Spring-Lock.... They would at times ly in a benummed condition; and be drawn together as those that are ty'd Neck & Heels; and presently be stretched out, yea, drawn Backwards, to such a degree that it was fear'd the very skin of their Bellies would have crack'd. They would make most pitteous out-cries, that they were cut with Knives, and struck with Blows that they could not bear.[16]

Cotton even took the eldest daughter of the family into his house and experimented with ways to bring her out of these fits, reading the Bible to her.

In a work written after the trials, Robert Calef argued that Cotton Mather’s writings set the stage for the witch trials: “his Memorable Providences, as conduced much to the kindling of those Flames, that…threatened the devouring of this Country”.[17] Increase Mather is said to have burnt Calef’s book, which also attacked him, in the courtyard at Harvard. However, it should be noted that Calef’s attacks on the Mathers came in the context of political controversy regarding the involvement of the clergy in law and politics, and may have exaggerated the extent of their involvement as public favour turned against the witch trials.[18] On the flyleaf of Cotton’s copy of Calef’s book he wrote: “Job XXXI. 35, 36. My desire is that mine adversary had written a Book. Surely I would take it upon my shoulder, and bind it as a crown to me. Co: Mather”.[19] Calef’s account, corroborated by others, also states that Cotton spurred on the crowd at the execution of Rev. Burroughs and four women on 19th August. Burroughs had abated some suspicions by repeating the Lord’s Prayer, a feat which was thought impossible for a witch: 

Mr. Burroughs was carried in a cart with others, through the streets of Salem, to execution. When he was upon the ladder, he made a speech for the clearing of his innocency, with such solemn and serious expressions as were to the admiration of all present; his prayer (which he concluded by repeating the Lord's Prayer) was so well worded, and uttered with such composedness as such fervency of spirit, as was very Affecting, and drew tears from many, so that it seemed to some that the spectators would hinder the execution.

The accusers said the black man [Devil] stood and dictated to him. As soon as he was turned off [hanged], Mr. Cotton Mather, being mounted upon a horse, addressed himself to the people, partly to declare that he [Mr. Burroughs] was no ordained Minister, partly to possess the people of his guilt, saying that the devil often had been transformed into the Angel of Light. And this did somewhat appease the people, and the executions went on.[20]


The Trials and Sermons

Although the various documents relating to the trials have been pored over by generations of scholars, manuscript sermons can give us some new insight into how the Mathers and others tried to mould public opinion. Increase Mather’s sermon from 21st August 1692, coming in the very middle of a series of executions, reminds his New England congregation of the civilisations that God had destroyed for sinfulness, such as “Sodom and Gomorrah”. These biblical precedents “were writ for our instruction”. Increase states that in these passages, “[th]e author takes notice of some severe judgement w[hi]ch befell some ungodly men who imagined their policy and Religion would preserve them; and yet God melted [the]m like d[ust?]”.[21] Despite these warnings, he also preaches of the importance of moderation, criticising both those who are complacent and those who are overly terrified:

1.    Those are to be reprehended who live securely, and neither fear not feel any judgm[en]t. he is like [th]e horse [th]at rusheth into battle; and mocketh at fear.
Thus [?] the [th]at arrows of Death fly over their heads yet regard th[em] na[ugh]t.

2.   They are to be reproved who have only a slavish fear: for we are to fear God on [th]e account of his Goodness. Hos. 3. ult[imate]: a servile fear is hypocriticall; for fear has surprised [th]e hypocrite &c: know [th]at Divils [th]emsevles have this fear.[22]

Increase seems to be promoting a via media of fear, perhaps reflecting his own concerns regarding the increasing hysteria that was mounting in the area.  

Figure 5: Detail from Samuel Williard’s sermon on 1 Peter 5:6, American Antiquarian Society Library, Mss. Octavo Vols. B, p. 153.

Another sermon in Mss. Octavo Vols. B., by Samuel Williard on 1 Peter 5:6, warns that ‘God has been opening of the flood gates of his wrath and pouring down cataracts of his fury on us… Cons[ider] ye many sins that have procured these afflictions… because they forsook God’s covenant and in sins and sorrows meet… it is time to be humbled”.[23] This sermon was delivered at a fast on the 31st August 1692, three weeks before eight more people would be executed.

The Salem Witch Trials are often seen as a cautionary tale against religious extremism and superstition. George Lincoln Burr wrote that “the Salem witchcraft was the rock on which the theocracy shattered”, as following the trials there was suspicion surrounding key preachers including the Mathers.[24] These sermons give us a key insight into how the Mathers and other preachers stirred the emotions of their isolated and fearful congregations and a better understanding of the environment in which the frenzy of the trials took hold.

These sermons are can all be viewed via the Congregational Library & Archive’s Hidden Histories project, as this manuscript has been fully digitised: This digital resource has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

The GEMMS database currently has c.40 associated sermons for each of the Mathers and 8 sermons preached by Samuel Williard.


[1] American Antiquarian Society Library, Worcester, MA, Mss. Octavo Vols. B, pp. 138-142 (GEMMS-SERMON-020148).


[3] Mss. Octavo Vols. B, p. 140.

[4] Mss. Octavo Vols. B, p. 142.

[5] William Plouffe, Salem Witch Trials, in The Social History of Crime and Punishment in America: An Encyclopedia, ed. by W. R. Miller (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishing, 2012) pp. 1597-99.

[6] See Increase Mather, A Narrative of the Miseries of New-England, By Reason of an Arbitrary Government Erected there Under Sir Edmund Andros (London, 1688) and A Brief Relation for the Confirmation of Charter Privileges (London, 1691).

[7] Massachusetts Archives Collections, Boston, MA, Governor's Council Executive Records, Vol. 2 (1692), pp. 174-7.

[8] In 1867, Charles Wentworth Upham published Salem Witchcraft Volumes I and II which heavily criticised Cotton Mather. William Frederick Poole, a librarian and historian, sought to redeem Cotton’s reputation and wrote a critique of Upham’s book, Cotton Mather and Salem Witchcraft (1869). These debates continued into the 20th century, with George Kitterdge and George Lincoln Burr writing opposing accounts of Cotton’s role in the trials, and heavily criticising each other. For further discussion see Robert Detweiler “Shifting Perspectives on the Salem Witches”, The History Teacher, Vol. 8 (1975), pp. 596-610. 

[9] Increase Mather, An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences (Boston, 1684), p. 175

[10] I. Mather (1684), p. 171.

[11] I. Mather (1684), p. 179.

[12] I. Mather (1684), p. 286.

[13] Cotton Mather describes this letter as “drawn up, at their desire, by Mr. Mather the Younger as I have been inform'd” in his anonymously published The Life of Sir William Phips (London, 1697), p. 77.

[14] The Return of several Ministers Consulted by His Excellency, and the Honourable Council, upon the present Witchcrafts in Salem-Village. Boston, June 15. 1692”, appended to Increase Mather, Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits (Boston, 1693).

[15] Plouffe, pp. 1597-99.

[16] C. Mather (1693), pp. 3-5.

[17] Robert Calef, More Wonders of the Invisible World (London, 1700), p. 152.

[18] Richard F. Lovelace, The American Pietism of Cotton Mather: Origins of American Evangelicalism (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2007) pp. 21-3.

[19] This copy held at the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1796 Lib. 8.17, p. 1.

[20] Calef, pp. 103-4.

[21] Mss. Octavo Vols. B., p. 138.

[22] Mss. Octavo Vols. B., p. 141.

[23] Mss. Octavo Vols. B., pp. 147 – 154, quotation at p. 153 (GEMMS-SERMON-020171).

[24] George Lincoln Burr, Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648–1706 (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1914), p. 197.

~ Catherine Evans