2.2. Cotton Mather and the apocalypse of the witches

2.2. COTTON MATHER AND THE APOCALYPSE OF THE WITCHES

The Puritan colonial writings expressed the belief that human actions and historical events reflect the divine plan and that the world is hopeless. Human beings are completely depraved (due to Adam’s fall), God’s will is absolute, and mankind cannot be saved through good deeds, but only through God’s grace. Regardless of our actions, only a group of people have been chosen to receive divine grace and to have eternal life in Heaven, while the rest of humanity is condemned to suffer the eternal torments of Hell. God’s decision regarding every person’s fate cannot be known nor influenced. Due to Hebraism and Calvinism, the Puritan God had the features of Yahweh: testy, vengeful, jealous and fear-inspiring – very different from the merciful and loving God portrayed by Jesus. God and his worship in the church was the core of the Puritan life. The church dictated the dark and sober garment, the members were expected to live according to a strict moral code, and they believed that all sins – from sleeping in the church to food theft – are severely punished by Providence. Men and women sat separately in the church, and the presence to the extremely long and boring ceremonies was compulsory. The religious rigidity created a tight Puritan society, within which both Satan and God had important roles in everyday life. In this limited and religiously oriented society, power and esteem were not measured in money, but in biblical knowledge. And the champion of this domain was undoubtedly Cotton Mather, one of the most popular apocalyptic speakers of all time.

Mather was the preacher of the first Puritan church of Boston and a man of extraordinary theological training. The prolific writing and the literary omnipresence, assured through more than 450 publications, made Mather a fearsome force in the spiritual and secular problems of the period. No other American took the word of God more seriously than him. Yet, despite his erudition, Mather’s thinking was limited to the borders of the inept Puritan mindset. His writings largely treated the same theme: the unfolding of the final acts of history. His most important work, Magnalia Christi Americana (roughly, “The Glorious Works of Christ in America”), was meant to be an ideological continuation of the Bible and of God’s intervention in history and in the New World. For example, Mather compared the Great Puritan Migration with the Egyptian Exodus, both being the product of an invisible force. Likewise, the travels in America of prominent leaders such as John Elliot, John Winthrop or his father Increase Mather were likened to the travels of Noah or Abraham. In Nehemiah Americanus Mather likens Winthrop with the biblical hero Nehemiah. And, as Nehemiah rebuilt Jerusalem, Winthrop was depicted as the founder of the American Jerusalem.

Other writings, especially his journals, seem to depict the final siege of the forces of darkness upon the world of men, signaled through various contemporary apocalyptic signs. For example, the earthquake in 1663 was due to the breaking of the sixth seal from Revelation 6:12-13. The terrible epidemics and the diseases of the time could have been the works of the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse, Death. The famine that struck Boston could have been seen as the anger of the third horseman, Famine. In 1682 another natural event polished Mather’s point of view: the appearance of Halley’s Comet. Mather dedicated the sermon Heavens alarm and the later sign to this magnificent occurrence. The Puritan theologian was also the witness of two wars. The first one took place in 1675 between the Puritans of New England and the native tribe Wampanoag. In 1689 another war erupted, when the Puritans had to confront their northern neighbors, the French, in one of the many conflicts meant to determine the dominant nation in the United States of America. The struggles of the colonists could have been seen as the rise of nation against nation from Matthew 24:6-7, brought by the second horseman, Conquest. The Amerindian savages that were organizing raids in the cities could have been seen as the materialization of the first horseman, War. Probably because of these conflicts some colonists began to see the Amerindians as the acolytes of the devil. This association is particularly interesting because at the same time the Amerindians were also believed to be the Lost Tribes of Israel. Reverend William Hubbard described two Wabanaki sachems (leaders) as practicing “a kind of religion, which no doubt but they have learned from the Prince of darkness (by help of some Papist in those parts) that can transform himself into an Angel of Light.”974 The shamanistic practices of the natives were linked to European witchcraft, and the devil began to have the image of a dark-colored man.975 The multitude of tragedies forced Mather to take refuge in the biblical study, being very concerned about how the forces of darkness act in the final days.976

The early generations of colonists saw themselves abnormally susceptible to the influence of the devil. By interpreting the Bible literally, the everyday life of the common Puritan was characterized by a continuous struggle between good and evil. Satan, they believed, had selected the easiest targets – women, children and madmen – to continue his despicable work. It was believed that if a man’s name is written in Satan’ s black book, then that man gains an invisible bewitched form and becomes a tool of the devil. The Puritans, as the new chosen people of God, expected a fierce retaliation from the devil to thwart their plans.977 The imminent return of Christ had to be preceded by a global devilish assault, a pronounced spiritual decline, followed by an extraordinary outpouring of the spirit and a spiritual revival.

This was the colonial climate in 1688, when the four children of the mason John Goodwin in Salem, a village close to Boston, contacted o strange disease. They synchronously experienced pains, spasms, slurred speech and seizures – the typical symptoms of demonic possession. Mather, who saw in this case a good opportunity to explore the spiritual realm, successfully treated them with fasting and prayer. He put the unusual occurrence on paper and published it in 1689 as Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions. His conclusion was that the symptoms had been caused by a wizardly stratagem.978

In January 1692 Abigail Williams and Elizabeth Parris, followed by other girls in Salem, were touched by a similar disease. For anyone who was familiar with Mather’s writings, Salem seemed to be the target of a massive spiritual attack. This frightful prospect started …


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