Archive for the ‘Witch hunts’ Category

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New book available: Living On The Edge

October 22, 2013

Living On The Edge: a book for doubting Christians

Today Christians in the Western world are typically living in a post-Christian society. Christian beliefs are met with skepticism, and people see little reason to believe. Christians are confronted with daily challenges to their faith, and often struggle to understand the relevance of Christianity to modern life. Professional surveys indicate the following reasons why young Christians lose their faith.

  • Overprotective churches
  • Shallow church experience
  • Antagonism towards science
  • Simplistic teaching on morality
  • Christianity seems exclusive
  • Not treating doubters kindly

This 600 page book (written in English), addresses those concerns, providing evidence upholding and defending Christian beliefs and values, and proving they are relevant to the modern world. It is aimed at Christians struggling with faith and re-assessing their beliefs, as well as Christians who are interested in building a stronger faith. It is also useful for Christians who want a book to show their non-Christian friends that the Christian faith is reasonable.

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Early Christian resistance to witch hunts

February 4, 2011

Between 40,000 and 60,000 people died in the witch hunts of the Early Modern period[1]. Three developments in Christian doctrine contributed: 1) a return to belief in witches, 2) changes in the doctrine of Satan, 3) the identification of witchcraft as heresy.

Belief in witches was widespread in medieval Europe,[2] and the secular legal codes of Europe punished witchcraft as a crime.[3] The Church’s influence reversed this, [4] [5] ending witch hunts.[6]

Mainstream medieval Christian teaching denied the existence of witches and witchcraft, as mere pagan superstition. [7] [8] Examples include an Irish synod in 800, [9] Agobard of Lyons, [10] Hrabanus Maurus,[11] the Canon Episcopi edited by Regino of Prüm,[12] the Council of Anse, Buchard of Worms, John of Salisbury,[13] Pope Gregory VII, [14] and Serapion of Vladimire. [15] The traditional charges and punishments were likewise condemned.[16] [17]

Christian influence failed to eradicate traditional beliefs,[18] and later developments in the doctrine of Satan proved influential in reversing the previous dismissal of witches and witchcraft as superstition. These beliefs became included in a comprehensive doctrine of Satan,[19] [20] [21] but it was not until maleficium was identified with heresy that religious trials for witchcraft could start.[22]

Doctrinal change was completed in the fifteenth century, [23] and new trials started.[24] [25] [26] Their promotion by Henricus Institoris met resistance in some areas,[27] and his ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ was less influential than previous scholars once believed.[28] [29]


[1] Fifteenth to eighteenth century.

[2] ‘One of the most persistent features of European world views, as we shall see, was the presence of humans who used magic to help or hurt their neighbours.’, Thurston, ‘Witch, Wicce, Mother Goose: The Rise and Fall of the Witch Hunts in Europe and North America’, p. 15 (2001).

[3]The earliest law codes issued by the northern invaders of the Roman Empire specify penalties for women who were believed to go abroad at night and destroy men by magic.’, Hutton, ‘The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles’, p. 257 (1993).

[4]Then these clauses were revoked, often explicitly at the insistence of churchmen. The Lombard code of 643 may serve as an example: ‘Let nobody presume to kill a foreign serving maid or female slave as a witch, for it [destruction by magic] is not possible, nor ought to be believed by Christian minds. In 789 Charlemagne imposed Christianity upon the people of Saxony, and proclaimed to them: ‘If anyone, deceived by the Devil, shall believe, as is customary among pagans, that any man or woman is a night-witch, and eats men, and on that account burn that person to death . . . he shall be executed.’12 Thus it might be argued that the spread of Christianity initially resulted in an improvement in the treatment of both religious dissenters and alleged witches.”, ibid., p. 257.

[5] ‘Likewise, the Lombard King Rothari (c. 606-52) decreed in 643 that Christians must not believe that women devour a human being from inside (ut mulier hominem vivum instrinsecus possit comedere), and therefore supposed witches (strigae) must not be killed, particularly not convicted in court.’, Behringer, ‘Witches and Witch-hunts: a Global History’, p. 30 (2004).

[6] ‘Indeed, in those parts of western Europe which were the home of, or taken over by, Germanic tribes, it seems that the Church ended a tradition of hunting and killing witches.’, Hutton, ‘The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles”, p. 257 (1993).

[7]Certainly the early Church cannot be held responsible for the mass burnings of heretics which commenced seven centuries after its installation in power, or the great witch hunt which began eleven centuries later. During that long interval, Christendom itself changed.’, ibid., p. 257.

[8]Clearly, there was an increase in sceptical voices during the Carolingian period, even if we take into account an increase in surviving sources.’, Behringer, ‘Witches and Witch-hunts: a Global History’, p. 31 (2004).

[9]Likewise, an Irish synod at around 800 condemned the belief in witches, and in particular those who slandered people for being lamias (que interpretatur striga).’, ibid., pp. 30-31.

[10]A Crown witness of ‘Carolingian scepticism’, Archbishop Agobard of Lyon (769-840), reports witch panics during the reign of Charlemagne. In his sermon on hailstorms he reports frequent lynchings of supposed weather magicians (tempestarii), as well as of sorcerers, who were made responsible for a terrible livestock mortality in 810. According to Agobard, the common people in their fury over crop failure had developed the extravagant idea that foreigners were secretly coming with airships to strip their fields of crops, and transmit it to Magonia. These anxieties resulted in severe aggression, and on one occasion around 816, Agobard could hardly prevent a crowd from killing three foreign men and women, perceived as Magonian people. As their supposed homeland’s name suggests, the crop failure was associated with magic. The bishop emphasized that thunderstorms were caused exclusively by natural or divine agencies.’, ibid., pp. 54-55.

[11] ‘Hrabanus Maurus, Abbot of Fulda, wrote several attacks, including ‘On the magical arts’, much of which was derived from Isidore of Seville, on those who believed that magicians and sorcerers could accomplish anything that depended on their power alone.’, Jolly, Raudverre, & Peters, ‘Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: the Middle Ages’, p. 201 (2002).

[12] ‘One of the most important ecclesiastical documents of the Middle Ages was the Canon Episcopi, ca. 900, which defined witchcraft as Devil-worship, but declared it to be nothing more than a foolish idea.’, Guiley, ‘The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft, and Wicca’, p. 50 (2008).

[13] ‘Witchcraft beliefs however were not always endorsed by the upper levels of society. They were condemned as superstitious by the Council of Anse in 990 and by Buchard of Worms a few years after, as when John of Salisbury dismissed them as the imaginings of ‘a few poor men and ignorant women, with no real faith in God.’, Moore, ‘The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe 950-1250 ‘, p. 133 (2007).

[14] ‘In 1080 Harold of Denmark (r. 1076-80) was admonished not to hold old women and Christian priests responsible for storms and diseases, or to slaughter them in the cruellest manner. Like Agobard before him, Pope Gregory VII (r. 1073-85) declared in his letter to the Danish king that these catastrophes were caused by God alone, that they were God’s punishment for human sins, and that the killing of the innocent would only increase His fury.”, ibid., p. 55.

[15] ‘Witches were executed at Novgorod in 1227, and after a severe famine in the years 1271-4 Bishop Serapion of Vladimire asked in a sermon: ‘you believe in witchcraft and burn innocent people and bring down murder upon earth and the city… Out of what books or writings do you learn that famine in earth is brought about by witchcraft?‘, ibid., p. 56.

[16] ‘A capitulary of Charlemagne (747-814) for the Saxons in 787 imposed the death penalty on those who, like pagans, believed that a man or woman could be a striga, one who devours humans, and burned them.”, ibid., p. 30.

[17] ‘A decree of King Coloman of Hungary (c. 1074-116, r. 1095-1116) against the belief in the existence of strigae (De strigis vero que non sunt, ne ulla questio fiat) suggests that they were thought to be human beings with demonic affiliation: witches.’, ibid., p 32.

[18] Study after study has shown how, all over Europe, ordinary people regularly appealed not to their own consciences, or to the conscience of the Church, but to local practitioners skilled in healing, divination, and astrology for help with their everyday problems. They did this frequently in cases of suspected maleficium, but any kind of misfortune, anticipated or experienced, could justify a visit to the ‘cunning’ man or woman.’, Clark, ‘Thinking With Demons: the Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe’, p. 457 (1999).

[19]Early Christian theologians attributed to the Devil responsibility for persecution, heresy, witchcraft, sin, natural disasters, human calamities, and whatever else went wrong. One tragic consequence of this was a tendency to demonize people accused of wrongs. At the instance of ecclesiastical leaders, the state burned heretics and witches, burning symbolizing the fate deserved by the demonic.’, Hinson, ‘Historical and Theological Perspectives on Satan’, Review and Expositor (89.4.475), (Fall 1992).

[20] ‘Trevor-Roper has said that it was necessary for belief in the Kingdom of Satan to die before the witch theory could be discredited.’, Larner, ‘Crime of Witchcraft In Early Modern Europe’, in Oldridge, ‘The Witchcraft Reader’, p. 211 (2002).

[21]Christian theology underwent a major shift of attitude only during the thirteenth century. In his Summa contra Gentiles, Thomas Aquinas (1255-74) not only confirmed Augustine’s semiotic theory, according to which spells, amulets or magical rituals indicated a secret pact with demons, but gave the impression that sorcerers, through the support of the devil, could physically commit their crimes.’, Behringer, ‘Witches and Witch-hunts: a Global History’, pp. 35-36 (2004).

[22] ‘Sorcery was, however, still subject to secular law and secular courts, since the main indictment was maleficium. Subsequent inquisitors like Nicolas Eymeric (c. 1320-99), inquisitor of Aragon, in his Directorium Inquisitorum of 1376 equated sorcerers with heretics because both were supposed to adore the devil. Sorcery, or witchcraft, was thus redefined as a spiritual crime, subject primarily to ecclesiastical courts, and the Inquisition in particular.’, ibid., p. 36.

[23] ‘We are reasonably confident today that the ‘classical’ doctrine of witchcraft crystallized during the middle third of the fifteenth century’, ibid., pp. 18-19.

[24]By the end of the fifteenth century, scattered trials for witchcraft by both secular and ecclesiastical courts occurred in many places from the Pyrenees, where the Spanish Inquisition had become involved, to the North Sea.’, ibid., p. 19.

[25] ‘In Switzerland, the rustic ‘forest cantons’ of the original Confederation apparently remained unaffected by witch trials until after 1560.’, Behringer, ‘Witches and Witch-hunts: a Global History’, p. 19 (2004).

[26] ‘the first known witch-hunt in the kingdom of France began in the northern Pyrenees in the spring of 1562’, ibid., p. 21.

[27] ‘Germany was emphatically not the centre of this activity; Institoris encountered enormous hostility in the Austrian Alps, and absolutely no evidence exists that the publication of his Malleus started any chain of trials anywhere in the Empire.’, ibid., p. 19.

[28]In its own day it was never accorded the unquestioned authority that modern scholars have sometimes given it. Theologians and jurists respected it as one among many informative books; its particular savage misogyny and its obsession with impotence were never fully accepted.’, Monter, ‘The Sociology of Jura Witchcraft’, in ‘The Witchcraft Reader’, p. 116 (2002)

[29] ‘The effect that the book had on witch-hunting is difficult to determine. It did not open the door ‘to almost indiscriminate prosecutions’ 50 or even bring about an immediate increase in the number of trials. In fact its publication in Italy was followed by a noticeable reduction in witchcraft cases.’, Levack, ‘The Witch-Hunt In Early Modern Europe’, p. 55 (2nd edition 1995).

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Series: Christianity And The Witch Hunt Era

May 11, 2007

The series on Christianity and the witch hunt era is almost completed. Here are the introductory articles:

* Article 1: Introduction and major arguments against common myths regarding the witch hunt era

* Article 2: The witch hunts were not ended by the rationalist ‘Enlightenment’

The next articles demonstrate that the witch hunts were uncharacteristic of historical Christianity. These articles are separated into different historical eras, describing Christian skepticism of beliefs in witches and witchcraft, as well as Christian protests against witch hunts, unjust trials, torture, and the death penalty:

* Article 3: 634-1539

* Article 4: 1540-1610

* Article 5: 1611-1627

* Article 6: 1631-1676

* Article 7: 1691-1695

* Article 8: 1649-1711

* Article 9: 1711-1720

* Article 10: 1720-1788

* Article 11: 1794

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Article: Christianity And The Witch Hunt Era (11/12)

May 7, 2007

* 1794: William Ashdowne published ‘AN INQUIRY INTO THE Scripture Meaning of the Word SATAN, AND ITS SYNONIMOUS TERMS, The DEVIL, or the ADVERSARY, and the WICKED-ONE’, an enlarged edition of his previous pamphlet ‘An enquiry into the scripture meaning of the word Satan’ (1770).

Ashdowne addressed specifically the ‘angels which sinned’ in 2 Peter 2:4, and Jude 6, arguing that these were the ten unfaithful messengers sent to spy out the land of Cannaan, punished by death and reserved for judgment at Christ’s return. In his exposition he made the following important points:

* That the Greek and Hebrew word translated ‘angel’ simply means ‘messenger’ and can refer either to a heavenly being or a mortal man

* That the ‘chains of darkness’ in Jude are a reference to dead men being held in the grave (Ashdowne provides examples from Psalms and Proverbs of chains being used metaphorically in this way)

* That the only ‘evil angels’ in Scripture are the ‘destroying angels’ of Psalm 78:49 (obedient angels sent by God to punish Egypt)

Ashdowne demonstrated a familiarity with previous expositions of the subject, showing that there was a recognised continuity of authors and works opposing the previously unchallenged ‘orthodox’ beliefs:

‘The Notions concerning Dæmons, about our Saviour’s time, have been collected, from the best authorities, by Dr Lardner, in his Tracts; by Dr Newton, in his Dissertations on Prophecy; and lately by Mr Farmer, in his Dissertations on Miracles: It only remains, that we should search the Scriptures, and point out some Errors in the application of known Truths.’

William Ashdowne, ‘‘AN INQUIRY INTO THE Scripture Meaning of the Word SATAN, AND ITS SYNONIMOUS TERMS, The DEVIL, or the ADVERSARY, and the WICKED-ONE’, page 40, 1794

Article here.

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Article: Christianity And The Witch Hunt Era (10/12)

May 6, 2007

* 1680-171?: Sir Isaac Newton wrote extensively on the subject of the devil, demons, witchcraft, and ghosts, his views gradually developing over a long duration. The first signs of his abandonment of the ‘orthodox’ position are found in his writings of the 1680s, whilst his latest and most mature comments on the subject are dated to some time after 1710.

Newton’s views appear to have commenced with his unorthodox reflections on the serpent in Genesis 3, in the 1680s:

‘The first example of this kind comes from another prophetic manuscript, Yahuda MS 9, which dates from the 1680s and thus helps establish a terminus a quo for Newton’s departure from the orthodox view. In this manuscript Newton moves beyond mere description to conscious explication. The first reference to a serpent in the Bible is found in the account of the first human sin committed in the Garden of Eden, and it is to this account that Newton turns when tracing the original of the serpentine imagery of the “spirit of error”. Newton saw the serpent that tempted Eve to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as symbolic of the fleshly lust for her husband that filled her heart.’

Stephen Snobelen, ‘Lust, Pride, And Ambition: Isaac Newton And The Devil’, page 5, November 2002

At this time Newton also expressed a disbelief in the existence of evil spirits:

‘Newton argues:

The spirits of God of fals Prophets & of Antichrist are [in 1 John 4] plainly taken not for any substantial Spirits but for ye good or evil dispositions & true or fals perswasions of mens minds; & the spirits of all men who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is called in the singular number the spirit of Antichrist, & said to be come into the world as if it were an evil spirit wch was to reign therein & deceive all the followers of Antichrist. And such an evil spirit is the Dragon in the Apocalyps.’

Stephen Snobelen, ‘Lust, Pride, And Ambition: Isaac Newton And The Devil’, page 6, November 2002

From this position, Newton moved to a rejection of belief in demons, using arguments similar to those proposed by Muggleton, Bekker, and Hutchinson, including the argument of accommodated language:

‘Newton’s views on demons follow a similar pattern. The traditional Christian conception of demons holds that they are fallen angels subordinate to the chief fallen angel, Satan. Not so with Newton. As with his view on the devil, Newton began to dismiss the reality of demons from the 1680s. Yahuda MS 9, the same document in which Newton treats the devil as a symbol of the “spirit of error”, demonstrates this:

From this figure of putting serpents for spirits & spirits or Daemons for distempers of ye mind, came ye vulgar opinion of ye Jews & other eastern nations that mad men & lunaticks were possessed with evil spirits or Daemons. Whence Christ seems to have used this language not only as Prophet but also in compliance wth ye Jews way of speaking: so yt when he is said to cast out Devils it cannot be known by this phra those Devils may be nothing but diseases unles it can be proved by the circumstances that they are sp substantial spirits.

For Newton, therefore, demons were figures for disordered psychotic states. The cases of demon-possession in the Synoptic Gospels do not describe the activity of literal devils, but instead reflect the (mistaken) beliefs of first-century Jews.’

Stephen Snobelen, ‘Lust, Pride, And Ambition: Isaac Newton And The Devil’, page 7, November 2002

On this basis, Newton thoroughly rejected all beliefs in witches and witchcraft:

‘Newton goes on to say that

to beleive that men or weomen can really divine, charm, inchant, bewitch or converse with spirits is a superstition of the same nature wth beleiving that the idols of the gentils were not vanities but had spirits really seated in them.’

Stephen Snobelen, ‘Lust, Pride, And Ambition: Isaac Newton And The Devil’, page 7, November 2002

Like some other expositors, Newton understood demons in the Bible to refer simply to the false gods of the heathen, inventions of men which were mere idols, taking his definition directly from Scripture, and that the ‘orthodox’ understanding of demons was an early heresy imported from paganism:

‘For Newton belief in activity by evil spirits is equivalent to the conviction that the false gods or idols of the pagans were real, independent beings; both positions are equally untrue. There is no ambiguity in Newton’s position on the reality of idols; in one manuscript he declares flatly: “An Idol is nothing in the world, a vanity, +a lye, a fictitious power.” Newton shared with traditional exegesis the identification of the false gods of the Old Testament with demons. He departed radically from the traditional view in concluding that neither demons nor idols exist.’

‘Newton laid the blame for the rise of the pagan doctrines about demons in the Church at the door of his ecclesiastical nemesis Athanasius, whom he also saw as responsible for introducing Trinitarianism and the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. In his “Paradoxical questions concerning Athanasius”, Newton contends that Athanasius advanced the notion of a conscious existence of the soul in the intermediate state between death and resurrection.’

Stephen Snobelen, ‘Lust, Pride, And Ambition: Isaac Newton And The Devil’, pages 8-9, November 2002

Later than Muggleton, but earlier than Bekker, Newton came to the same conclusion as both of them – that the devil in Scripture was never the supernatural evil being of ‘orthodox’ theology, and that all temptation comes from the lust of the heart:

‘The logical corollary to Newton’s views on evil spirits is that those who claim to be tempted by a personal devil are deluded and provoked by their own fleshly imagination. Newton’s “Paradoxical questions concerning Athanasius,” an important manuscript held at the Clark Library dating from the early 1690s, makes this clear’

‘It is instructive that in these words, which he all but admits are laden with connotations of reflexivity, Newton tackles the problem of lust without any reference to a literal, external tempter. Newton well knew the source of sin from his own contests with the demons of his soul. It was not the devil who made him do it. Unlike the monks of old, Newton’s own battles with the devil were with himself.’

Stephen Snobelen, ‘Lust, Pride, And Ambition: Isaac Newton And The Devil’, pages 10-11, November 2002

Article here.

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Article: Christianity And The Witch Hunt Era (9/12)

May 4, 2007

* 1711: The infamous trial of Jane Wenham became pivotal in the controversy between opponents of the belief and prosecution of witchcraft, and those who both believed in it and held it should be prosecuted. An elderly woman, twice widowed, Jane Wenham was prosecuted largely on the basis of accusations made by Anne Thorne, a young woman recognised by many to be mentally deranged, and who had a well known grudge against Jane, with whom she had quarrelled, and even fought physically.

It was fortunate that the presiding judge, Sir John Powell, was a man of considerable intelligence and reason, who showed himself to be utterly sceptical of the evidence and witness testimonies presented by the prosecution. His careful evaluation of the case and his obvious sympathy for the accused caused his treatment of the trial to become legendary – it is said that when told that Jane Wenham had been seen flying on a broomstick, Powell commented that there was no English law against flying. The story cannot be verified, but stands as an example of how well known and recognised Powell’s sensible handling of the case became.

Despite the appalling lack of genuine evidence, the obvious prejudice of the witnesses, and all Powell’s urging to the contrary, the jury found Jane Wenham guilty of witchcraft and Powell had no choice but to pass the formal legal sentence, which was death by hanging:

‘A case of witchcraft was tried in 1711, before Lord Chief Justice Powell; in which, however, the jury persisted in a verdict of guilty, though the evidence was of the usual absurd and contradictory character, and the enlightened judge did all in his power to bring them to a right conclusion.’

Charles Mackay, ‘Memoirs of Popular Delusions’, volume 2, section V, 1841

However, immediately after the case Powell petitioned ceaselessly for the judgment to be overturned, and finally succeeded in obtaining a royal pardon for Wenham. The case ignited a pamphlet war between those who believed in witchcraft and those who did not, and was the catalyst for a major shift in English beliefs regarding supernatural evil.

Article here.

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Article: Christianity And The Witch Hunt Era (8/12)

May 3, 2007

Before moving to the 18th century, it is necessary to review the work of two 17th century authors who also contributed usefully to the ongoing debate regarding supernatural evil. These two men were Joseph Mede and Thomas Hobbes.

* 1640: Joseph Mede, prominent Anglican professor of Greek at Cambridge University, puzzled over the accounts of demon possession in the New Testament. He noted their complete absence from the Old Testament, and wondered that such possession was so common in the 1st century, yet so rare in his own time:

‘Now, to come toward my Text; a like instance to this, I take to be that of the Daemoniacks so often mentioned in the Gospel: For I make no question, but that now and then the same befals other men; whereof I have experience my selfe, to wit, To marvell how these Daemoniacks should so abound in, and about that Nation, which was the People of God; whereas in other Nations and their writings wee heare of no such; And that too, as it should seem, about the time of our Saviours being on earth onely; because in the time before we finde no mention of them in Scripture.

The wonder is yet the greater, because it seems notwithstanding all this, by the Story of the Gospel, not to have been accounted then by the people of the Jews, any strange or extraordinary thing, but as a matter usuall; nor besides is taken notice of by any forraine Story.’

Joseph Mede, ‘S. Iohn 10.20. He hath a Devill, and is mad’, published posthumously in ‘DIATRIBAE. DISCOVRSES ON DIVERS TEXTS OF SCRIPTVRE: Delivered upon severall occasions’, pages 122-123, 1642

Mede’s conclusion was that those described as ‘demoniacs’, or possessed by demons, were in fact mentally ill:

‘To meet with all these difficulties, (which I see not how otherwise can be easily satisfied) I am perswaded (till I shall heare better reason to the contrary) that these Daemoniacks were no other then such as well call mad-men, and Lunaticks; at least that we comprehend them under those names, and that therefore they both still are, and in all times and places have been, much more frequent then we imagine. The cause of which our mistake, is that disguise of another name, and notion, then we conceive them by; which makes us take them to be diverse which are the same.”’

Joseph Mede, ‘S. Iohn 10.20. He hath a Devill, and is mad’, published posthumously in ‘DIATRIBAE. DISCOVRSES ON DIVERS TEXTS OF SCRIPTVRE: Delivered upon severall occasions’, pages 123-124, 1642

Article here.