January 15, 1697 – Massachusetts Citizens Observe Day of Repentance for the Salem Witch Trials of 1692

On this day in history, Massachusetts citizens observed a day of fasting and repentance for the Salem witch trials of 1692, in which 19 suspected witches were hanged and more than 150 imprisoned. One accused witch (or wizard, as male witches were often called) was pressed to death when he failed to plead guilty or not guilty, and from four to thirteen of the imprisoned died in prison. Moreover, some of the families had their farms, equipment, and livestock seized.

“The Witch, No. 1” by Joseph E. Baker, circa 1892 via Wikimedia Commons

The repentance day was scheduled on December 17, 1696:

That so all of God’s people may offer up fervent supplications unto him, that all iniquity may be put away, which hath stirred God’s holy jealousy against this land; that he would show us what we know not, and help us, wherein we have done amiss, to do so no more.”

As an article in christianity.com recounted, the witch hysteria was marked by “groundless accusation, scapegoating, or the product of mass suggestion.” At the trials, no evidence of witchcraft was presented, nor was the usual requirement observed of at least two witnesses to substantiate any accusation.

Prominent Boston minister Increase Mather spoke out against the trials, although not against the judges, according to Professor Douglas Linder at the UMKC School of Law, “most likely because many of them were his personal friends.”

Increase Mather in 1688, when he was in London. Portrait by John van der Spriett.

Professor Linder writes:

Increase visited many of the accused in prison, and several of them recanted their confessions to him. About the time rumors began that Increase’s wife would be named a witch, he presented his ‘Case of Conscience,’ which represented a dramatic break from his former position on witchcraft. In it he publicly questioned the credibility of the possessed persons, confessed witches, and spectral evidence.”

Christianity.com notes that “Such was the prestige of Increase, that the trials quickly ended.”

Following the resolution to fast and repent, one judge, Samuel Sewell, published a written confession acknowledging his own “blame and shame.” Members of the jury said they’d been unable to “withstand the mysterious delusion of the power of darkness and prince of the air.” (I.e., the devil made them do it.) Nevertheless, they confessed their error and prayed for God’s forgiveness and guidance in the future.

In 1710, the Massachusetts legislature reversed some of the convictions, and in the following years authorities gave compensation to the families of the accused witches.

UMKC Law School has a website giving a great many details, including original documents, relating to the Salem Witch Trials, here.

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