Christianity And The Witch Hunt Era (9/12)
* 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.
In response to the Wenham trial, a number of important pamphlets and books were published attacking belief in witchcraft, the most significant of which are reviewed in the next few pages of this paper. There is no doubt that this was the turning point for English belief in witchcraft. The case of Jane Wenham was the second last legal prosecution of witchcraft in England, with the last coming only five years later:
‘In the year 1716, a woman and her daughter, – the latter only nine years of age, — were hanged at Huntingdon for selling their souls to the devil, and raising a storm by pulling off their stockings and making a lather of soap. This appears to have been the last judicial execution in England.’
‘The fear of witches ceased to be epidemic, and became individual, lingering only in minds lettered by inveterate prejudice or brutalizing superstition. In the year 1736, the penal statute of James I. was finally blotted from the statutebook, and suffered no longer to disgrace the advancing intelligence of the country. Pretenders to witchcraft, fortune-tellers, conjurors, and all their train, were liable only to the common punishment of rogues and impostors — imprisonment and the pillory.’
Charles Mackay, ‘Memoirs of Popular Delusions’, volume 2, section V, 1841
* 1712: An anonymous English physician published ‘A Full Confutation of Witchcraft, More particularly of the DEPOSITIONS Against JANE WENHAM, Lately Condemned for a WITCH; at Hertford’. The aim of the booklet (originally a private letter), is declared explicitly in the subtitle, ‘In which The Modern Notions of Witches are overthrown, and the Ill Consequences of such Doctrines are exposed by Arguments; proving that, Witchcraft is Priestcraft’.
No indication of authorship is given, except for the information ‘In a Letter from a Physician in Hertfordshire, to his Friend in London’, on the title page. The opening comments describe the author’s awareness of the difference in attitudes towards witchcraft in the country and the city, in accordance with the demographic distribution pattern of witchcraft belief found throughout history:
‘I am fully aware to what Hazards a Man of a Publick Character, exposes his Reputation to, in talking freely, much more in writing on such a Topick, especially in the Country, where to make the least Doubt, is a Badge of Infidelity; and not to be superstitious, passes for a dull Neutrality in Religion, if not a direct Atheism. And here, Sir, I cannot but envy one Privilege you enjoy in Town, which is, a Freedom of Thought and Talk, whilst we are very often reduc’d to the Necessity of swallowing the greatest Improbabilities, without the least Change of Countenance, for fear of offending any Bigot of Figure. To offer any Reason in Bar of their Perswasion, would be call’d an Attempt upon their Judgments; so that in all popular Errors, if we discover the least Incredulity, we run the Risque of being taken for Men of no Religion; or if we pretend to be implicit Believers, we play the Hypocrite with our Reason and Conscience.’
‘A Full Confutation of Witchcraft’, pages 3-4, 1712
The author declared himself to have been moved to write this work after having seen the destructive results of belief in witchcraft, manifested in the prosecution of Jane Wenham. His letter addresses his concern that the common ‘proofs’ for witchcraft were completely inadequate, and that Jane Wenham’s trial had been the subject of fraudulent evidence:
‘What I have to say upon this Head being to be compriz’d within the Compass of a Letter, I shall not enter upon a long Dissertation of the distinct Species of Evil Spirits, or the Difference the Learned make between them; but directly fall upon examining the Absurdity and Inconsistency of the late Depositions against Jane Wenham. 2dly, Shew that all our Proofs of Witchcraft, are very fallacious, and consequently ought never to extend to Life. And in the last place, That the pretended exorcisms practtised on Anne Thorn, are meer spiritual Juggles, and the very Spirit of Priest-craft.’
‘A Full Confutation of Witchcraft’, pages 5-6, 1712
The anonymous physician treats both the symptoms and accusations of Anne Thorne (supposedly afflicted by Jane Wenham by witchcraft), as nothing more than the signs of epileptic fits and mental illness. Although declaring in his opening pages his intention to avoid a dissertation specifically on the doctrinal issues regarding evil spirits, the author actually addresses the subject more than once, in a way which presents serious challenges to orthodox beliefs.
In the following paragraph he uses the same argument raised by so many before him, the question of how evil spirits can possibly have the power they are supposed to have, without being granted it by Divine intervention:
‘What a Chain of Absurdities must we admit of here. Here we must suppose God working a Miracle upon every trifling Occasion, to oblige the evil Spirits; as if Miracles were not too much to grant them, considering how strongly they are bent to do Mankind Mischief; and not only this, but likewise indulge them in several apish, ridiculous Pranks, which they continually abuse, to the Dishonour of the Creator, and the Damage of his innocent Creatures, and to sum up this Inconsistency, all to humour some poor, decripid, silly Old Woman.’
‘A Full Confutation of Witchcraft’, page 16, 1712
The author deals briskly with the alleged eye witness accounts, demonstrating the unreliability of the witnesses and the unlikely nature of their stories, identifying the flaws in her examination, and ridiculing the various tests to which Jane Wenham is subjected in order to prove whether or not she is a witch:
‘As to the Information of Susan Aylott, it’s so disjointed, and even conjectural, after her own Way of telling the Story, that it deserves no Remark.
Thomas Adams’s is likewise of the same Complexion. He, it seems, has 3 or 4 fat Sheep die of the Megrim, by feeding in too rank Pasture; and because this poor old Creature was seen in his Turnip-Field, ergo she bewitch’d his Sheep. Fair Consequences, and which, if made use of, might serve to condemn all the innocent People of a Parish, as well as the guilty, in the space of a Year.’
‘The Parson help’d her out with a leading Question…’
‘Now comes on a second-sighted Evidence, who sees Pins convey’d to Anne Thorn by an invisible Means. ‘Tis Pity there had been any more Depositions, this is so conclusive: It would puzzle a Judge whether to try the Criminal or the Evidence: For the seeing an invisible Power, looks very dangerous.
After this, these Witch-hunters make use of an infallible Secret of proving Jane Wenham a Witch, by putting some of Anne Thorn’s Urine into a Stone Bottle, tying the Cork down, and setting it over the Fire.
I presume this Experiment, was made at the Instigation of Mrs. Gardiner, who was the prime She-Undertaker in this great Affair. If the Clergy were concern’d with the Maid’s Urine, they would oblige the World with giving them a Rationale of its working such surprising Effects.’
‘A Full Confutation of Witchcraft’, pages 21, 24, 27-28, 1712
The author’s personal views on witches and witchcraft are expressed explicitly, both in the title of his booklet and throughout the work. Importantly, he addresses the question of why it is that even men more intelligent and better educated than the common people would continue to hold such beliefs:
‘Now that the Vulgar should ascribe every thing that’s a little surprizing, to Witchcraft, is no wonder; but that Clergymen, Men suppos’d to have made some Improvement in Physick, should give into the little crude Notions of Nurses and Old Women, about Things which might easily be solv’d by natural Causes, is astonishing; but there is a Vulgus amongst the learned, who, because they cannot readily assign a Cause for the Event, as being less obvious to Sense, presently conclude it preternatural. To own their Ignorance, ‘twould put them into too great a Confusion, or give them too much Trouble to search into these Causes. ‘Tis a surer as well as a shorter way, for their Reputation and Ease, to cry it up at once for a Miracle. By that they free themselves from many perplexing Queries; and intermixing the specious Pretext of Religion with it, they seem to advance God’s Glory.’
‘A Full Confutation of Witchcraft’, pages 34-35, 1712
The author’s scepticism is best seen in his insistence that witchcraft should not be punished, his disbelief in exorcism, and his attribution to sickness of symptoms commonly considered evidence of supernatural evil:
‘I think, amongst the few good Things that Lewis XIV. has done, this ought to be mention’d, that he has alter’d the Proceedings against Magic and Witchcraft, turning the Penalty of Death into Banishment, and afterwards by a Decree of the Council of State in 1672, order’d that all the Prisons in Normandy should be set open to all Persons that were detained for those Crimes.
Before we take our leave of this Subject, we must examine a little into this Exorcism by Prayer, which we have reserved for the last. This Exorcism is of a very ancient Date, practis’d amongst the People of Greece. But as it was manag’d at that time, it became scandalous. It was perform’d generally by mean and mercenary old Women, who made it their Business to go and read certain Forms of Prayer, in order to pacify Persons and Houses. This Trade of an Exorcist was accounted Dishonourable in these Days, upon the Score of its being a pious Fraud: For which Reason the Orator Æschines, Son to a Woman who had practis’d it, was ignominiously treated by Demosthenes.
And I fear our modern Exorcists will find as little Credit amongst the Judicious, especially if all the Exorcisms are perform’d like that upon Anne Thorn. Here is a poor Maid Epileptick, Hysterical, Lunatick by turns: The Priest comes and prays by her in one of her Fits, which lasts more or less, according to the Disposition of her Animal Spirits. The Fit goes off in its due Course, and this is call’d an Exorcism. I do say, any one that sprinkles Water in a Person’s Face that’s going to swoon, has a better Claim to an Exorcist, than these.’
‘A Full Confutation of Witchcraft’, pages 35-36, 1712
The author’s booklet being well received, he published another in the same year. This booklet was addressed specifically at overturning the belief in witchcraft, using arguments ‘From Scripture and Reason’, and again appealing to the case of the Jane Wenham:
‘THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF WITCHCRAFT, Plainly proving, From Scripture and Reason, That there never was a WITCH; and that it is both Irrational and Impious to believe there ever was. In which the DEPOSITIONS AGAINST Jane Wenham, Lately Try’d and Condemn’d for a WITCH, at Hertford, are Confuted and Expos’d.’
‘The Impossibility of Witchcraft’, title page, 1712
‘UPON the repeated Solicitations of many Letters from my Correspondents, who have approv’d of the following Papers, and been urgent for Publishing them together in one Pamphlet for the General Good, they make their Appearance after this Manner.’
‘The Impossibility of Witchcraft’, page 2, 1712
This work takes the unusual step of addressing the historical treatment of witchcraft in various countries, making the case that witchcraft was not always punished (still less punished with death):
‘But because some have been pleas’d to observe, That it is a very odd Thing that our Laws Impower Judges to put People to Death For Witchcraft, if there is no such Thing as a Witch in the World; and others affirm, That the Records of Justice are full of Instances, in all Ages, of the Truth of Witchcraft, which, in their Opinion, amounts to a Demonstration. I shall, for the Satisfaction of the First, have Recourse to such Laws as have been Enacted here in England concerning it, as also those that have been made in Foreign Countries; and to quiet the Minds of the last, shew them how far off their Surmises are from any Thing that bears the Face of Reality.’
‘The Impossibility of Witchcraft’, page 2, 1712
The author points out that the first law in England with which witches could be prosecuted was not made until the reign of Henry VIII, and was later repealed by Parliament. He notes that there was no Common Law against witches, and demonstrates that English laws against witches were periodically passed and repeated, proving that witchcraft was not always held to be a crime:
‘…his Statute was afterwards repeal’d in several Reigns, viz. Ed. 6. Cap. 12. 1 Mar. Cap. 1. which perhaps those Two Parliaments never would have done, without making another against Witches, if they had believ’d there were any such Creatures; this Repealing being a Kind of Legal Toleration for Witches, there being no Common Law whereby to punish them. But what Reason the Parliament had to make this first Statute against Witches, or what Inducement the next Two Reigns had to repeal it, or what Motives the succeeding Reigns to make more severe Laws against them, may be worth Enquiry, considering that Witchcraft has always been the same in all Ages.’
‘The Impossibility of Witchcraft’, page 3, 1712
The author makes a similar historical argument regarding laws against witchcraft in Europe, noting that the Catholic Church did not begin to prosecute witches until the 14th century, and even then only by associating them with heresy, rather than prosecuting them as practitioners of witchcraft.
He also suggests that the motivation for prosecuting witches was less religious than political, and identified the advantages which the higher clergy gained from such prosecutions:
‘We are likewise inform’d, That the first Persons who were condemn’d for Witches, suffer’d in the Year 1300, when Frederick the Second made a Law for Burning of Hereticks; and that the Inquisitors having judg’d the Crime of Witchcraft to be Heresy, and that to be a Witch was the same Thing to the Pope, as to be a Traytor to a Temporal Prince; they did in Rome, Spain, &c. condemn, by that Law, suppos’d Witches as Hereticks, because Witches had renounc’d their Baptismal Vow, and ador’d Satan: And this they did to Establish the usurp’d Dominion of the Pope, and for their own Profit, they having a Share in the Goods and Estates of such Persons so condemn’d: And probably this Law, and the Example of the Inquisitions have been the chief Grounds that other Countries, in particular, England, did afterwards make Laws of the same Tendency, and punish’d Witches in like Manner, ever since; till the Statute of De Heretico comburendo was repealed.’
‘The Impossibility of Witchcraft’, page 4-5, 1712
The purpose of this historical survey may not be immediately apparent, but it is in fact a carefully built foundation in a powerful argument which the author would use against current views of witchcraft. The author observed that witches had not been prosecuted in the past, and were rarely prosecuted even in the present, despite having existed from the earliest times.
This being the case, some explanation for why they were prosecuted so forcefully in the 400 years between 1300 and 1700 had to be found. This was an excellent observation, and is an issue identified by modern historians as the great mystery of the witch hunt era. The witch hunts are so clearly a historical aberration in the record of Christianity, that a complex explanation for them has to be found.
As the author identified, the reasons for prosecuting witches could not be simply legal, since witches had supposedly existed from the earliest times, and yet certain countries did not pass laws against them until very late, and some of these laws were periodically repealed and reinstated. Similarly, the reasons for prosecuting witches could not be simply theological, since ecclesiastical laws had historically been very lenient even towards those known to be witches.
The author’s suggestion that the witch hunt era was the product of the Spanish Inquisition and a desire on the part of the Roman Catholic Church to extend its influence and benefit materially from the property of the condemned, was a natural conclusion for an English Protestant to draw, and an explanation which persists to this day. However, it has been seen that the historical evidence clears the Spanish Inquisition of the charge of originating the witch hunt era, and that the Inquisition was in fact the official church organisation most responsible for suppressing the superstition of witchcraft and ensuring the just treatment of those accused of being witches. Nor can this rather simplistic suggestion explain the vast diversity of experiences with witchcraft which occurred throughout the witch hunt era (the very diversity which defies modern historians to attribute the witch hunts to a single primary cause).
However, it is still significant that the author made such an attempt to address the difficult subject of the anomalous rise of the witch hunts (indeed, significant that he actually realised them to be anomalous), and equally significant that he used it as an argument not only against the prosecution of witchcraft, but also against the very belief. This was an important advance in criticism of the witch hunts, and systematized an approach which had only been used previously in an incomplete way.
* 1718: Anglican clergyman Francis Hutchinson published ‘An Historical Essay Concerning Witchcraft’, directed specifically towards Richard Boulton’s ‘A Compleat History of Magick’ (1715), which has been called ‘The last serious attempt in English to defend the belief in witchcraft and magic’ (University of Glasgow Library, Special Collection exhibition 11 February to 20 March, 1985).
Hutchinson expressed his concern over certain traditional beliefs regarding witchcraft and supernatural evil, as well as criticizing various methods of investigation and trial. He also wrote scathingly against the work of the Frenchman Jean Bodin, whose 17th century work on witchcraft had been so influential in both England and North America.
‘I think it a Point very certain, That tho’ the sober Belief of good and bad Spirits is an essential Part of every good Christian’s Faith, yet imaginary Communications with them, have been the Spring both of the worst Corruptions of Religion, and the greatest Perversions of Justice. How many miserable Creatures have been hang’d or burnt as Witches and Wizzards in other Countries, and former Ages?
In our own Nation, even since the Reformation, above a hundred and forty have been executed, if my Book hath any Truth in it, very much upon the Account of one ill translated Text of Scripture.’
Francis Hutchinson, ‘An Historical Essay Concerning Witchcraft’, pages 2-3, 2nd edition, 1720
Pre-empting theological criticism, Hutchinson demonstrated that his arguments were by no means novelties, and had been raised by well respected ministers for over a century:
‘Dr. Morton, Bishop of Litchfield and Coventry, discovered the Villanies of the Boy of Bilson, and particularly his pissing thro’ Ink, and sav’d the Life of the Woman that was under Condemnation. See the Sixth Detection of Impostors.
Dr. Harsenet, when he was Chaplain to Archbishop Bancrost, and who was himself afterward Archbishop of York, both disproved and ridiculed these Follies with greater Freedom than I have ventur’d to make use of. And that any that shall be disposed to find Faults, may see that the Notions in my Book are neither new, nor contrary to the Doctrines of our Church, but well agreeing with the Opinions of the greatest Men that have been of it; I will quote at large some Passages out of his Declaration of Popish Impostures.’
Francis Hutchinson, ‘An Historical Essay Concerning Witchcraft’, page 9, 2nd edition, 1720
Hutchinson lists the titles of a number of well known books defending a belief in witchcraft, and describes how such works merely foster and encourage the witch hunt craze. He expresses his determination to counter these books, which he characterizes as being the source of ‘sore Evils’:
‘These Books and Narratives are in Tradesmen’s Shops, and Farmer’s Houses, and are read with great Eagerness, and are continually levening the Minds of the Youth, who delight in such Subjects; and considering what sore Evils these Notions bring where they prevail, I hope no Man will think but that they must still be combated, oppos’d, and kept down.’
‘When one Mr. Burroughs, a Clergyman, who some few Years since was hang’d in New-England, as a Wizzard, stood upon his Tryal, he pull’d out of his Pocket a Leaf that he had got of Mr. Ady’s Book, to prove that the Scripture Witchcraft were not like ours: And as that Defence was not able to save him, I humbly offer my Book as an Argument on the Behalf of all such miserable People, who may ever in Time to come be drawn into the same Danger in our Nation.’
Francis Hutchinson, ‘An Historical Essay Concerning Witchcraft’, pages 17, 18-19, 2nd edition, 1720
Hutchinson’s use of the previous body of literature against the belief in witchcraft was masterful, and he quotes skilfully from the likes of Weyer, Harsnett, and Ady to prove that objections to the belief in witchcraft (and prosecution of suspected witches), have long been made by intelligent, God fearing and well respected Christian men.
A review of chapter headings from the contents page provides an outline of Hutchinson’s key arguments:
* ‘I. HOW very many Cases may be resolv’d by Nature and Art, without having recourse to the
Agency of Spirits.’
* III. Contains Observations upon those Matters of Fact ; tending to prove, that the great Numbers of Witches in some Ages above others, have been wholly owing to the different Principles and Notions of the several Times and Persons ; together with two Schemes of the several kinds of Principles that have had such different Effects.’
* ‘V. Is an Account of nineteen hang’d in New England 1692. In this Chapter is shewn the
Invalidity of Confessions, and the Vanity of the Spectral Evidence, and the great Confusion and Misery that follows such Prosecutions.’
* ‘X. Is the Case of Jane Wenham of Walkern, in Hertfordshire. In this is shewn how impossible it is for the most innocent Persons to defend themselves against such fantastick Evidence, if it be allow’d of as legal Proof. In this Chapter is shewn that our Royal Society in England, having been the first of that sort that hath been founded in Europe, for discovering the true Knowledge of Nature, our Nation hath been the first in these latter Ages, that clear’d itself of such Supersitions.’
* ‘XI. Answers the Cases of Teats, Marks, Charms, Want of Tears, and Swimming.’
* ‘XII. Enquiries into the true Sense of Scripture, and shews what kind of Witchcrafts they were that are spoken of here.’
* ‘XIII. Shews, that it is a vulgar Error to think, that the Laws of all Nations have been like ours.
* ‘XV.Contains a Collection of seven notorious Imposters detected.’
Francis Hutchinson, ‘An Historical Essay Concerning Witchcraft’, pages 20-22, 24-25, 2nd edition, 1720
As these chapter headings demonstrate, Hutchinson launched what were now the standard arguments against the belief in witchcraft, combining Scriptural arguments, arguments from logic and reason, arguments from historical experience, and legal arguments (especially with regard to the matter of tests for witchcraft, confessions extracted under duress, and the use of invalid forms of evidence).
The great value of this work, as with Bekker’s ‘The World Bewitched’ and the anonymous ‘A Full Confutation of Witchcraft’, was the systematic way in which the arguments had been combined into a single well articulated case. Moreover, Hutchinson’s work went further to challenge even the ‘orthodox’ beliefs concerning the devil and ‘evil angels’:
‘…will first premise, in Way of Caution and Guard, That we are not to think, that where-ever we find the Word Angel or Devil in Scripture, we are immediately to think it speaks of a good or evil Spirit really acting in Person.’
‘I may add farther, That where the Words Satan and Devil are actually made use of, they do not certainly assure us that it was a Devil, and not a bad Man that is intended in such Places. The Word Satan, in its first Signification, is only Enemy or Adversary; and in the Old Testament, it is always translated so, unless some strong Reason, and the Circumstances of the Place determine it to mean an evil Spirit, 1Sam. 29. 4. The Lords of the Philistines would not suffer David to go with them, for fear, lest in the Battle, he should prove Satan, or an Enemy to them. In the Second Book of Samuel, David uses the same Word of his own Brethren; Ye Sons of Zerviah, Why are ye this Day become Satan or Adversaries to me. In the 109th Psalm, Ver. 6. Set thou an ungodly Man to be Ruler over him, and let Satan stand at his right Hand. But if the Word Satan be put in English, as the late learned Bishop Patrick puts it in his Paraphrase, it is then to be understood in this more natural Sense: Let the worst Man that can be found be appointed to hear his Cause, and let his most malicious Adversary plead against him.’
‘So the Word [Greek omitted] or Devil, in its proper Sense, signifies only Slanderer or false Accuser. 2 Tim. 4. 1, 2, 3.’
‘And both Erasmus, and the French Protestant Translators, put the 4th of Ephesians, 27th Verse the same Way, and with much Reason: Neither give place to the Devil; that is, do not by the Sins before-named, or any other such like, give Occasion to the Slanderers to reproach our Religion.’
Francis Hutchinson, ‘An Historical Essay Concerning Witchcraft’, pages 342, 343-344, 2nd edition, 1720
Hutchinson supplies further examples of passages where ‘satan’ or ‘the devil’ is mistakenly supposed to refer to a supernatural evil being, such as John 6:7, 1 Timothy 3:7, and Luke 13:16, all of which he expounds as having reference to sin, disease, or wicked men.
Though not absolutely denying the existence of the devil and evil spirits, Hutchinson nevertheless made a strong case for accommodation of language, a standard argument used by those who did deny the existence of supernatural evil:
‘But I will not add more Instances, tho’ I might add many: For tho’ they spoke in that way, according to the Customs of that Age, it would not be prudent for us to speak in the same, since ill Use hath been made of it. When the Expressions that St. Paul had used about Faith had been perverted, St. James, by the Wisdom given to him of God, taught us to speak with more guard for the Time afterward: And since a very pernicious and bloody Use hath been made of the Phrases and Mistakes about the Devil, they are surely the soundest Christians, and soberest Interpreters of Scripture, who are sparing in the Use of it; and never introduce any Spirit, but where they find a real Effect of an invisible intellectual Agent.’
Francis Hutchinson, ‘An Historical Essay Concerning Witchcraft’, page 345, 2nd edition, 1720
As some authors had done previously, Hutchinson makes the argument that exalting the powers of the devil made him little more than a god, and twice makes the argument that pagan views of supernatural evil had been wrongly adopted by earlier Christians:
‘The Manichees therefore did not only advance their Fear and Notion of the Devil so high, as to make him strong and potent, and the first Spring of Evil; but to make his Existence natural, eternal, independent, and even divine, of as long Continuance, at least as the supreme Being.’
Francis Hutchinson, ‘An Historical Essay Concerning Witchcraft’, page 348, 2nd edition, 1720
Although acknowledging the existence of evil angels who ‘fell’, Hutchinson believes it best not to comment on them at length, other than to quote the passages of Scripture which describes them as imprisoned until the day of judgment:
‘But as a particular Knowledge of their State is not necessary to our Salvation, I shall only speak of it in the general Words of St. Jude, in the sixth Verse of his Epistle; But the Angels that kept not their first Estate, but left their own Habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting Chains under Darkness, unto the Judgment of the great Day. Whatever Loss they suffer’d in their second State, they seem to have greater coming upon them, both by this Text, and by their Question to our Savior, Art thou come to torment us before the Time?’
Francis Hutchinson, ‘An Historical Essay Concerning Witchcraft’, page 352, 2nd edition, 1720
Though stopping short of the complete dismissal of supernatural evil adopted by Muggleton and Bekker, Hutchinson’s work was still immensely useful and extremely influential. Perhaps it was precisely because he marginalised the role of the devil and evil angels without entirely renouncing belief in them that his work was so well received.
It would be uncharitable however to view this as a major shortcoming in Hutchinson’s otherwise excellent case. The fact is that Hutchinson’s work came at a time when English opinions on the subject of witchcraft were susceptible to change, and was successful in contributing significantly to that change:
‘Before concluding this chapter it will not be out of place to mention the fact that one of the most strenuous writers against witchcraft subsequently ornamented the Irish Episcopal Bench. This was Dr. Francis Hutchinson, who wrote the “Historical Essay concerning Witchcraft” in the form of a dialogue between a clergyman (the author), a Scotch advocate, and an English juror. The first edition was published in 1718, and was followed by a second in 1720, in which year he was promoted to the See of Down and Connor. As to the value of his book, and the important position it occupied in the literary history of witchcraft in England, we cannot do better than quote Dr. Notestein’s laudatory criticism.
He says: “Hutchinson’s book must rank with Reginald Scot’s Discoverie as one of the great classics of English witch-literature. So nearly was his point of view that of our own day that it would be idle to rehearse his arguments. A man with warm sympathies for the oppressed, he had been led probably by the case of Jane Wenham, with whom he had talked, to make a personal investigation of all cases that came at all within the ken of those living.
Whoever shall write the final story of English witchcraft will find himself still dependent upon this eighteenth-century historian. His work was the last chapter in the witch controversy. There was nothing more to say.”’
John D Seymour, ‘Irish Witchcraft And Demonology’, pages 222-223, 1913