Over the past year, my sister April and I have each been engaged in a separate project. Our projects looked nothing alike on the surface, but recently intersected in an entirely surprising and unexpected way. My sister, our family genealogist, took a DNA test and has been chasing down the leads to possible relatives and ancestors offered by Ancestry.com as part of the results of that test. While she did that, I was working on a booklet for Catholic Answers, as part of its 20 Answers series: 20 Answers: Witchcraft & The Occult. That booklet was published just last month.
Did the Church burn witches?
One of the questions I tackled in the booklet was “Did the Church burn witches during the Middle Ages?” The short answer is no. The Church, as an institution, did not authorize the execution of witches. Individual Catholics did, however, at various times take part in the execution of witches, along with Protestants who also took part in witch hunts. The larger question, though, was how to discuss with modern witches and pagans what they call “the Burning Times.” I wrote:
It is important to avoid making them [modern witches] defensive. Many neo-pagans identify with the victims of the European and North American witch hunts and sincerely believe that Christians would reinstate them if they could. What may help to defuse a potentially explosive conversation is empathy.
Acknowledgment of the witch’s concerns ought to leave nothing to argue about the witch hunts. That is when you can begin to make the case that Christianity should be judged on its own merits and not on the evils committed by some of its adherents.
At the time I wrote about how neo-pagans identify with the victims of the European and North American witch hunts, I had no idea where April’s research would lead her.
Climbing the family tree
A few weeks ago, Ancestry alerted April to the possibility of an ancestor who lived in the mid-ninteenth century. April was able to confirm the relation to this ancestor through birth and marriage records. Since this ancestor was direct, April then promptly began working on that branch of the family tree.
She discovered that this person was the direct descendant of a man named Reuben Sawyer, a Massachusetts landowner and minuteman who fought at Lexington and Concord. Finding out we are the direct descendants of an American patriot was exciting, so April kept digging into Reuben’s ancestry. It turns out that Reuben’s great-grandmother was Rebecca Towne Nurse. Rebecca Towne Nurse was best-known as one of those executed for witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials. She is April’s and my 9th great-grandmother.
I asked April how sure she was of this connection to Rebecca. After all, the further back you go in history, the harder it is to be certain of exact ancestry, especially when the ancestor is a notable historical figure. (Many people like to be able to say they are related to someone famous.) April said the DNA link led her to the Sawyer ancestors, the Sawyers led her to Rebecca, and our links to the Sawyers and to Rebecca are supported in the marriage and birth records of the New England colonies.
“Until DNA,” April told me, “all genealogy has relied on church, governmental, and family records of who is related to whom. In cases like Rebecca’s, her notoriety has inspired hundreds of genealogists to dig into her family history, so [our] link [to Rebecca] is well-proved.”
Finding out about this ancestor inspired me to do some digging of my own into Rebecca’s life. Her story is well-known and well-documented, with the transcripts of her trial available online. She was featured in The Crucible, an award-winning play on the Salem witch trials written by Arthur Miller.
In 1692, Rebecca Nurse was a 71-year-old mother and grandmother. In contrast to others who had been accused of witchcraft, and who had been outcasts of various types and thus vulnerable to suspicion, Rebecca was considered a pious churchgoer and an upstanding citizen of Salem Town. Her community was shocked that she would be accused of witchcraft and they rallied to her defense. Nearly forty members of the community signed a petition on her behalf attesting to her character.
Rebecca’s trial, which began at the end of June 1692, was a farce. She was forced to represent herself. Since Rebecca had a hearing impediment, she could not understand all of the questions put to her. The young girls who accused her attended the trial and would go into fits, which they claimed were brought on by exposure to Rebecca. The one advantage Rebecca had was that many in her community testified on her behalf.
In the end, the jury acquitted Rebecca. But then the jury reversed their verdict and convicted her. Based upon her family’s pleas and the overwhelming evidence of her good character, the governor granted her a reprieve—then changed his mind. Rebecca was hanged on July 19, 1692.
Rebecca’s case is credited with being the beginning of the end of the witchcraft hysteria in Salem. The community realized that if a woman who was considered a good Christian wife and mother, and a pillar of her community, could be executed on charges of witchcraft, then it could happen to any of them.
Witch hunts, past and present
Witch hunts have been in the news again lately. The term sometimes is appropriated as a colorful descriptor for any kind of perceived persecution. While it is true that analogies can sometimes be drawn between historical events and modern problems, thought should be given to make sure the analogy chosen is accurate and fitting. When it is not an accurate analogy, we risk trivializing the historical event and the experience of those who were caught up in it.
In the case of the Salem witch hysteria, the first victims of the accusers were social misfits or outcasts, or were in a position of servitude. In other words, they were vulnerable and powerless. They could be accused without serious repercussion for the accusers because they did not have the social standing to fight back. When the accusers were emboldened by that success, and then turned on established members of the community, as they did to Rebecca Towne Nurse, the community suddenly realized that they too were at risk and put a stop to the hysteria.
Salem was a Christian community: the accusers and the accused, the clergy, the families and the community—all of them were professed and practicing Christians. Had they remembered their Bible, and Jesus’ warning that what we do to the weak, vulnerable, and powerless is in reality done also to him (Matt. 25:31–46), then perhaps the hysteria would never have begun in the first place.
At her trial, Rebecca Towne Nurse said, “I can say before my eternal Father I am innocent and God will clear my innocency [sic].” Those accused in the Salem witch hysteria eventually were found to be innocent of witchcraft. Their story will stand as a moral warning to Christians of the horrors that can occur when fear is allowed to distort reason and to override Christian compassion and charity.