AMERICANS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN DEVOUT believers in the highly implausible and impossible. And those beliefs, Christian and otherwise, always come in both blissful and fearful forms. Fantasyland is both a deliriously happy and nightmarishly scary place.
On the one hand, you might get eternal life, and America itself is at the heart of God’s plan for His forthcoming earthly kingdom. Fantastic. On the other hand, you’re definitely going to Hell if you’re not a Christian and probably even if you are—and God is already angry at us for bungling America. Uh-oh.
But an afterlife in Hell wasn’t the only imaginary satanic problem America’s pious Christian founders faced. The devil was already tormenting them now, right where they were pursuing their happy fantasy of building God’s kingdom. Even before the new colonies in Massachusetts were established, a Puritan minister had warned that “Satan visibly and palpably reigns” in America “more than in any other known place of the world.” What? Yes, another Puritan leader explained, as Christianity had spread through Europe during the previous fifteen hundred years, taking market share, the devil at some point arranged for a swarm of Asian infidels to cross the Pacific Ocean to America—“had decoyed those miserable savages in hopes that the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ would never come here to destroy or disturb His absolute empire over them.” The American Indians, in other words, weren’t merely unbelievers—they were Satan’s soldiers.*1 And even though the tribes were highly distinct entities, always fighting each other, they were sure to band together eventually to annihilate the colonists.
The Puritans, who had been conspiracy-fearing truth-tellers even before they turned themselves into Americans, became more fantastically so. They’d escaped one unholy conspiracy—the Antichrist and his popish confederates running the English churches—only to find themselves on the western front of the global holy war. They’d made their difficult (but thrilling!) pilgrimage from the frying pan into a terrible (but thrilling!) fire. Governor Increase Mather’s son Cotton, after his father the most famous American Puritan minister, described the “Droves of Devils in our way” as “demons in the shape of armed Indians.”
In A Narrative of Troubles with the Indians, another Harvard-educated minister and Puritan leader wrote that he’d seen from the start that the Indian troubles were a satanic plot: two chiefs in Maine he’d never met were “not without some show of a Kind of Religion, which…they have learned from the Prince of Darkness.” Even the Indian-loving liberal wimp Roger Williams was appalled by their “hideous worships of…devils.” Fortunately, the Almighty served up miracles to kill a lot of them—in the form of disease unwittingly carried by the white saints themselves. “It pleased God to visit these Indians with a great sickness and such mortality that a thousand…of them died,” the governor of the Plymouth colony gratefully recorded.
For their first sustained war on Indians, however, the colonists recruited other presumed demons to help them exterminate a tribe of definite demons, the Pequots. The Pequot War’s most famous episode was a one-day massacre in 1637 of hundreds of native people, including women and children. According to Increase Mather, his side won this war fought before he was born due “to the wonderful Providence of God.”
Over the next two generations, as the English population quintupled, exceeding the Indians’, the natives naturally grew…restless. As a result, after a half-century the settlers’ long-standing fantasy of a pan-Indian conspiracy became self-fulfillingly real: the natives finally did form a multitribal alliance to fight back. The public case for wiping out the newly militant Indians remained supernatural, however. For Christians who imagined themselves battling satanic beasts, conventional rules of war no longer applied. Yet another Harvard-educated minister, serving as chaplain to one of Massachusetts’s military units, exhorted his soldiers to “kill, burn, sink, destroy all sin and Corruption…which are professed enemies to Christ Jesus, and not to pity or spare any of them.” The year of pitiless killing from the summer of 1675 through the summer of 1676 was among the most concentrated bloodbaths in American history. And a dozen years later came another, longer war that made good on the second part of the earliest American conspiracists’ fears—that the pope’s forces (the French) and Satan’s (the Indians) would merge. Cotton Mather happened to see a cabbage root with two branches, which looked to him like swords and an Indian club—clearly a warning from God of this imminent new battle against the hounds of Hell, he preached, a “prodigious war made by the spirits of the invisible world upon the people of New-England…[by] the Indians, whose chief[s]…are well known…to have been horrid sorcerers, and hellish conjurers, and…conversed with demons.”*2
In Europe, the learned had entered The Age of Reason. In the New World, however, unreason had made a ferocious comeback.
IN ADDITION TO deploying Indians (and Catholics) against them, the early Americans understood that Satan might also enlist traitors among the good white English people themselves. Today most of us think of witches as a kind of independent magical species—a folk superstition, not part of the Christian scheme. And for the thousand years or so that Catholics ran Christianity, the church agreed: witchcraft officially didn’t exist during the Middle Ages. But as soon as Protestantism emerged, so did alleged witches and witch hunts.
Once the Puritans were in their wonderful and horrifying new promised land, fulfilling God’s plan and fighting Satan, witches were probably inevitable. In the 1640s the Puritans in Connecticut and Massachusetts began indicting a couple of people each year for witchcraft. But they fined and banished and acquitted more witches than they hung, thus proving to themselves their moderation. That early hysteria over sorcery subsided, and for two generations New England wasn’t executing witches.
But then in 1689, at the conclusion of decades of religious struggle back in England, parliament passed the Act of Toleration, which obliged the Puritans in America to allow their fellow Americans to believe and practice almost any version of Protestantism. The grandchildren of the original great dissenters now had to permit some dissent—and therefore to become just one more Christian sect among burgeoning Christian sects. Some of them detected Satan’s hand in this existential demotion. But…witches: witches didn’t need to be tolerated. Young Reverend Cotton Mather had recently published an essay describing the slippery slope of faithlessness: once you started disbelieving in witches, what was to stop you from disbelieving in God? The year the Toleration Act became law, he published another book, Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions, about a recent episode of witchcraft and enchanted children in Boston.
Mather’s handy guide was a bestseller, and one of its readers was the minister of the First Church in Salem, the New England Puritans’ oldest. In the winter of 1691, his nine-year-old daughter began acting strangely—screaming, barking, burning up with fever. After other girls displayed similar “distempers,” the cause became clear—witchcraft—and some sorceresses were identified: the minister’s Caribbean servant, plus two other local women, one very poor and the other a nonchurchgoer. More girls turned weird, a few other women were accused, then men, then dozens more people.
Cotton Mather, the golden-boy witch expert in Boston, weighed in. He declared that “spectral evidence,” tricky as it was, should be allowed at the trials—that is, prosecution witnesses’ accounts of their dreams and supernatural visions of ghostly witches and demons. After the first convicted witch was hung, Mather suggested the court use spectral evidence carefully, but it continued to be prime evidence, and he encouraged the judges in their “speedy and vigorous prosecutions.” Most of the several dozen accusers were girls. In four months more than two hundred trials produced dozens of guilty verdicts, mostly of women, and at least twenty witches and sorcerers (and two satanic pet dogs) were executed. A few others died in jail. The total population of the towns of Salem and Andover was only 2,400.
Our contemporary understanding of the Salem episode has been shaped significantly by The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s 1953 play. Which is too bad, because The Crucible doesn’t mainly portray early Americans’ beliefs in magic as sincerely mad. Rather, the play’s villains, accusers, and judges, are cynically and selfishly using the witchcraft panic as a pretext for exercising power. No doubt there was cynicism among accusers, girls who pressed cases they probably knew were false, and among defendants who confessed to save themselves. But my strong hunch is that the Salem trials were not mainly a willful sham. I’m sure Cotton Mather believed the nonsense he wrote. And many or most of the other principals in Salem in 1692 surely believed what they said. The girls did have dreams and hallucinations they thought had been induced by witches and sorcerers. The judges did think they were battling Satan. And many among the fifty people who confessed to witchcraft believed they really had made personal pacts with the devil—such as the accused witch who, at trial, asked Satan out loud to whisk them away from their Puritan tormentors.
As the madness reached its peak that summer, the Reverend Increase Mather, a leader of the colony, returned from a trip to England and promptly hit the brakes. After eight witches and sorcerers were hanged in Salem in one day, the most so far, he wrote a tract called Cases of Conscience and had it approved by the Puritan clerical association. Presently his friend the governor disbanded the Salem witchcraft court.
Ever since, Cases of Conscience has been regarded as the great turning point in the restoration of reason in colonial America. Its title seems appealingly liberal, and its most famous line makes us think Salem was a completely anomalous moment of temporary insanity: “It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person should be condemned.” But the seldom-quoted complete title of the book is a giveaway: Cases of Conscience concerning evil SPIRITS Personating Men, Witchcrafts, infallible Proofs of Guilt in such as are accused with that Crime. It’s an explanation of how Satan actually works, filled with secondhand tales of evil magic from around the world, such as a new report of “a Venetian Jew” who knew “how to make a Magical Glass which should represent any Person or thing according as he should desire.” For Increase Mather, the problem in Salem was that Satan had bewitched some of the accusers into making false accusations—the devil made the good people do it. As the historian Edmund Morgan has written, “In 1692 virtually no one in New England…disbelieved in witches.”
Although the special witchcraft court adjourned, the chief judge from Salem was also the chief judge of a replacement court. And although to his great disappointment spectral evidence was no longer admissible, for months his new court continued trying people for witchcraft, and he signed the death warrants for three more convicted witches. The following year he was elected governor of Massachusetts.
Increase Mather never fully condemned the Salem episode, and his son backpedaled hardly at all. Although mistakes were made, Cotton eventually admitted—decades later, deep into the eighteenth century, in the lifetime of his neighbor Ben Franklin—he did not stop defending the witchcraft trials and executions.
THE BIG PIECE of secular conventional wisdom about Protestantism has been that it gave a self-righteous oomph to moneymaking and capitalism—hard work accrues to God’s glory, success looks like a sign of His grace. But it seems clear to me the deeper, broader, and more enduring influence of American Protestantism was the permission it gave to dream up new supernatural or otherwise untrue understandings of reality and believe them with passionate certainty.
Science was being invented at the time. Like science, Protestantism was powered by skepticism of the established religious paradigms, which were to be revised or rejected—but unlike science, the old paradigms were to be replaced by new fixed truths. The scientific method is unceasinglyskeptical, each truth understood as a partial, provisional best-we-can-do-for-the-moment understanding of reality. In their travesty of science, Protestant true believers scrutinized the natural world to deduce the underlying godly or satanic causes of every strange effect, from comets to hurricanes to Indian attacks to unusual illnesses and deaths. For believers in the new American religion, the truth was out there: everything happened for a purpose, and the purpose wasn’t so hard to suss out.
This country began as an empty vessel for pursuing fantasies of easy wealth or utopia or eternal life—a vessel of such spaciousness that an assortment of new fantasies could be spun off perpetually. That had never happened before. Ordinary individuals took the initiative and improvised a country out of a wilderness, reshaped the world. That had never happened before, either. In just a century, the (white) American population grew from a few thousand to a million people, and it continued doubling every couple of decades. This improbable and peculiar new place thrived. The dream—that is, any of several and then dozens and finally hundreds of coexisting American fantasies—seemed to be coming true.
*1 Not many decades earlier the founder of Protestantism had literally demonized an ethnic group of infidels. In On the Jews and Their Lies, Martin Luther wrote of “the unbearable, devilish burden of the Jews….Wherever they have their synagogues, nothing is found but a den of devils.” In order “to save our souls from the Jews, that is, from the devil,” he recommended burning all synagogues and destroying Jews’ houses, and that even “safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jew.”
*2 God, like Satan, could also employ the Indians to do His hideous bidding. After a few years in Rhode Island exile, Anne Hutchinson moved south to New Netherland, building a house in what’s now the Bronx. Local natives promptly slaughtered her and six of her children. It was an epic irony, given that Hutchinson’s dovishness toward Indians had been another point of contention in Massachusetts. The Hutchinson massacre, those New England leaders reckoned, was perfect divine punishment—God smiting “this great imposter, an instrument of Satan.”