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