They were New England Puritans. It’s a pity they didn’t listen to the more moderate and intelligent Christians who kept saying that witchcraft and witches is all nonsense and that there’s no such thing as a witch. Robert Calef, an English cloth maker living in Boston, corresponded with a number of ministers on the subject of supernatural evil generally, and witchcraft specifically, including with Cotton Mather. In 1700 he published ‘More Wonders of the Invisible World’, a collection of his correspondence together with his own additional comments on the subject.
The title was deliberately derived from ‘Wonders of the Invisible World’, published in 1693 by the Puritan minister Cotton Mather as a defence of the belief in supernatural evil, and as a defence of the handling of the now infamous Salem witchcraft trials of 1692 (for which Mather was largely responsible, and completely unrepentant). Calef’s work shows an excellent handling of Scripture, arguing that the devil had no power to give to a witch to perform evil, and that God would certainly not provide such power either to the devil or to the witch. This being the case, he reasoned that those accused of witchcraft were accused falsely.
Although he did not renounce a belief in satan as an evil supernatural being, Calef believed that the powers of the devil were restricted only to temptation. He argued further that the definition of a witch in the Bible was not the definition used in his own day, and that on this basis those accused of witchcraft should not be punished. His argument (that the Bible contained no instructions on detecting, trying, or executing the kinds of witches commonly supposed to exist), had been used before by a number of previous commentators, and would become an important issue in future works on the subject. Like Johannes Weyer long before him, Calef argued that bringing a witch to trial was senseless unless the co-conspirator (the devil), could also be brought to trial, rendering the entire trial a farce. So also Calef argued that the current doctrines concerning witches and witchcraft were an apostate belief derived from paganism, an argument used at least as early as Joseph Mede (1641).
Calef’s work contains letter after letter sent to various ministers, with repeated appeals sent directly to Cotton Mather asking him to justify his position from Scripture, and to address the Biblical arguments made by Calef. Unfortunately Mather refused to write a comprehensive reply, as Calef’s own letters record:
[quote]‘[to] Mr. Cotton Mather. Boston Feb. the 19th. 1693.
Reverend Sir, Having received as yet no Answer to mine of Novem. the 24th. except an offer to peruse Books, &c. relating to the Doctrinals therein contain’d: Nor to my last of January the 18th. In which I did again pray that if I err’d I might be shewed it by Scripture…’
Robert Calef, ‘More Wonders of the Invisible World’, page 37, 1700[/quote]
Cotton Mather was in fact greatly irritated by Calef’s correspondence and book (which included considerable criticism of Mather’s involvement in the Salem witchcraft trials), and eventually refused to respond to either. His father (Increase Mather), had Calef’s work burned in public, and an entry in Cotton Mather’s daily journal illustrates the strength of feeling felt against Calef by the pious Puritan supporters of the Mather family:
[quote]‘My pious neighbours are so provoked at the diabolical Wickedness of the Man who has published a Volume of Libels against my Father and myself, that they sett apart whole Dayes of Prayer, to complain unto God against him.’
Cotton Mather, journal entry of December 6, 1700[/quote]
As others before him had done (such as John Wagstaffe), Calef wrote specifically condemning the bloodshed which had been caused by the witchcraft trials, and pointed out rightly that surely the devil would be far more satisfied with such a bloody outcome than a more peaceful resolution:
[quote]‘Truly I take this to be just as the Devil would have it, so much to fear disobliging men, as not to endeavour to detect his Wiles, that so he may the sooner, and with the greater Advantages set the same on foot again (either here or else where) so dragging us through the Pond twice by the same Cat. And if Reports do not (herein) deceive us, much the same has been acting this present Year in Scotland. And what Kingdom or Country is it, that has not had their bloody fits and turns at it.
And if this is such a catching disease, and so universals I presume I need make no Apology for my Endeavours to prevent, as far as in my power, any more such bloody Victims or Sacrifices; tho indeed I had rather any other would have undertaken so offensive, tho necessary a task; yet all things weighed, I had rather thus Expose my self to Censure, than that it should be wholly omitted.’
Robert Calef, ‘More Wonders of the Invisible World’, page 4, 1700[/quote]
The argument that the witchcraft hunts and trials were simply carrying out the devil’s work for him, in causing panic, false accusations, and innocent deaths, was a recurring theme of anti-witch hunt literature.