Salem Witch Trials

Artistic depiction of the Salem Witch Trials

It surprises some folks to learn that as a Christian, I am strongly against the union of church and state; my opposition is firmly rooted in my knowledge of history, one that proves that from time immemorial, unspeakable horrors have been committed by so-called Christians in the name of Jesus Christ. 

While "time immemorial" in this vein encompasses quite a bit of history in the two millennia since Christ was crucified under the rein of Tiberius Caesar in Roman Judea, with church-state separation thrust in the American public eye recently due to the reversal of Roe vs. Wade, and the threats to same-sex marriage and contraceptive rights—all pet projects of the Christian right—it is important to show why men like Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and the 3rd President of the United States, and James Madison, the author of the Constitution and the 4th President of the United States, were adamant that church and state remain separate in their newly formed nation. 

Now, the majority of us were taught in our earliest history classes that the Pilgrims crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower in the early 1600's to pursue religious freedom. At the time the Anglican Church, founded less than a century earlier by England's King Henry VIII after he broke with the Catholic Church due to his desire to have his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, annulled so that he could marry his second wife, Anne Boleyn, was overtly hostile to other branches of Christianity. Thus, the Pilgrims decision to leave, which was soon followed by thousands of Puritans who wished to be free from forced Anglican doctrine.

The problem was that one group's true faith soon became the next group’s true repression, which was shown by English colonizers who were quick to spread the "good news" not by words, but by violent force in many instances against their Native American neighbors and their enslaved African workers. 

By the late 1600's, the Massachusetts Colony was filled with protestant zealots who controlled each facet of government in every town, village, and hamlet. Amid this backdrop stood Rev. Samuel Parris, the ordained minister for Salem, Massachusetts who would be thrust into historical infamy in 1692 for his role in what would become known as the Salem Witch Trials. 

Rev. Parris was a land and slave owner who was father to one daughter, Elizabeth Parris, and uncle to Abigail Williams, the two girls who accused Parris's enslaved servant, Tituba, of practicing witchcraft. 

While Tituba initially denied the charges, after enduring a savage whipping from her master, the “Rev.” Parris, she "confessed" to teaching the girls tales from voo doo and other Afro-Caribbean religious practices that the white Christians in the colonies, the ones doing the actual evil acts of enslaving, beating, killing, and land stealing, deemed "Satanic."

Since Tituba "confessed" under the durress of the whip, her life was spared but in time, nearly 200 others in Massachusetts Colony, mostly women, were accused of witchcraft; 20 were executed by hanging. 

While the trials would be condemned in the early 17th Century, and a formal apology issued by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts two centuries later in 1957, the damage was done in terms of lives lost, and the establishment that one group's religious practices (Christianity) were "righteous," while all others were suspect. 

I have long since concluded that "what" or "who" determines the “true faith” from a “cult” often turns on the will of the majority, which is why Christianity, a faith that some non-believers submit is akin to cannibalism due to "eating the body of Christ" (bread) and "drinking his blood" (wine or grape juice), remains the majority religion in America, while traditional African and Caribbean religions that have similar spiritual elements and separate ancestral worship habits, are considered "sacrilege" and have been condemned during Colonial, Early Republic, and recent American history!

By the time Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and James Madison the Constitution in 1787, they both were fully aware of religious oppression in Europe—and the legacy of religious repression at Salem and elsewhere in the colonies.

Such is why Jefferson wrote:

"Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word "Jesus Christ," so that it should read "a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion." The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of it's protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination..."

Madison echoed similar sentiments, writing:

"Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical (church) and civil (state) matters, is of importance. And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together..."

Understanding the historical issues with the church ruling government here in the United States, why, then, the push by modern religious conservatives to pursue a course that has led to misery, death, and runs contrary to warnings from the "Founding Fathers" to avoid a theocracy?

Well, switching political genres, perhaps Karl Marx said it best when declaring that "Religion is the opiate of the masses!"

I interpret Marx's words to mean that far too many people of faith are easily manipulated by leaders who invoke "the one true faith" as their reasoning for whatever their personal political predilections may be at a given time—no matter how oppressive the outcome, and no matter how little influence God has had in fashioning their personal whims.

Lest we forget…

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Chuck Hobbs is a freelance journalist who won the 2010 Florida Bar Media Award and has been twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary.

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