It all started with a charter from King George I in 1629. This charter was intended to create the “perfect” community for a splinter group of puritans in Salem Town, Massachusetts. Little did anyone know that this “perfect” community would become the most ignomious example of the proliferation of evil within a community.
It Started With A Baby Sitter…
Salem Town began as the result of an Edict of King George I of England in 1629. The purpose of this splinter group was noble: to create a “model” community where holiness would dominate and the people of God would prosper.
This little experiment would have gone largely unnoticed would it not have been for a nine-year-old preacher’s daughter, Elizabeth Parris and her baby-sitter, Tituba, a slave from Barbados.
In retrospect it must have seemed a foolish thing for the pastor to have a Barbadonian slave. Especially a puritan pastor. Her background was anything but Christian. To her peril, she shared stories of her past, her self, and her experiences with little Elizabeth. This sharing also include stories of witchcraft, spells, and occultic practices such as voodoo.
Elizabeth’s nine-year-old fascination was piqued. Though careful not to tell any adults in this puritan community, she started invited her girlfriends—one at a time—to hear Tituba’s tales. The more stories they heard, the more afraid they became. The guilt they had for listening to the forbidden stories of the demonic started to affect them. Behavioral changes including screaming, crying out uncontrollably, throwing things and other violent behaviors including convulsions.
The parents were visibly shaken by the sudden changes in their daughters. The community doctor examined them. There were no physical symptoms of disease, he concluded. Something else was causing these bizarre behaviors. That something else, they concluded, was witchcraft. Only witchcraft could cause such convulsions.
Having determined it was the work of a witch, this bewitching “whodunit” started. Because of the high anxiety of the parents and the colony, the witch hunt ended as quickly as it began. After all, the girls had been with Tituba. Since she was not “one of them,” the only logical conclusion was that she was the witch.
Higher Anxiety And Trials
But the witch hunt didn’t stop with Tituba. The citizens just knew that evil this evident couldn’t be the work of just one witch. They considered a woman named Sarah Good, the irascible, temperamental beggar. Surely she must be a witch. Sarah Osborn, who married an indentured servant contrary to the strict rules of the puritan colony, must also be a witch. After all, how could she not be? And so, they determined, there must be three witches.
The three women were brought before the tribunal. Two judges, one of them Jonathan Ha[w]thorne, the great-grandfather of Nathaniel Ha[w]thorne, presided. The pre-trial proceeding commenced. But there was one problem. What evidence did they have? How could one prove that one was a witch?
The current laws could not—and would not—help them purge the community of the evil which lurked within. The standards of evidence would certainly not be admissible to court. After all, what kind of evidence proves that one is a witch?
In their search they looked in the witches handbook, the Maaleus Malefecarum. There they found the evidential standard that would work, the “Specter. A specter could be anything—a bird, a spirit, or anything else. But whatever the specter was or in what form it appeared, it would only be visible to the accuser. The specter was visible to no one else—including the accused.
Nine girls, including the parson’s daughter, Elizabeth, were called to testify. Testify they did. The told of “spectral” evidence. To make their testimony more believable, they demonstrated wild, uncontrolled shows of emotions. The onlookers, seeing the bizarre behavior of these “good” girls, could only come to one conclusion. They had seen the specters. Their testimonies must be true.
Anxious onlookers responded in horror. The gravity of the charges against the three women demanded that they be guilty. How could they not be? Though there was little or no real evidence, the only standard of evidence they needed—spectral evidence–pointed to the unmistakable conclusion: they were guilty. They were all witches.
The soon-to-be-terminated trio were sentenced…to death. There was no appeal. No second chance to go to neighboring villages and towns with more sophisticated judicial resources and a more honorable system of jurisprudence. The three would die.
But before the execution was carried out that March of 1692, Titibula dealt her accusers with an even graver claim. The specters indicated to her that there were a total of nine witches in Salem.
Six more? Who could they be?
The mystery, the anxiety and the fear swelled into an uncontrolled frenzy of paranoia. Titibula’s words opened up Pandora’s box. “There’s a traitor living in this community!” the townspeople cried.
The fear of the unknown among them proliferated throughout the community. Who could the witch be? How would I know? Could it be me? Is it me? What if it is me…and I don’t know it?
Soon the terror-struck community’s paranoia turned neighbor against neighbor. There was a traitor in their midst! The evil must be removed! But who were the evil ones? Who were those bearing the evil among us? They must be removed…and quickly!
But were there just six more? If Titibula was a witch, surely she couldn’t be trusted, could she? The anxiety said, “No!” The spectral evidence said, “No!” The terrifying fear and the haunting sense of evil which permeated the entire town said, “No!” Even their perfectionistic, highly anxious religiosity said, “No!”
The conclusion was inescapable. The vengeance of evil was among them. There must be more witches. But how many more…and who were they…and how could they find them?
By the fall of 1692, things had become outrageous. “Witch-finders” covertly sought out witches based on the gossip they accumulated. Suspicious fear had so overwhelmed the community that even the most casual conversation became feared. Family members and friends were suspected of being witch-finders or possessed by the witches themselves.
Their anxiety aroused uncertainty the ever-growing unrest might have political consequences. The King might revoke the colony’s charter. What would they do then? Where would they live? This only increased their anxiety-driven certainly that witches were everywhere. Witches were in the woods, the devil was in the surrounding Massachusetts wilderness. The witches were among them.
As reports of “spectral sightings” increased and hysterical accusations proliferated, more witches were tried, condemned and executed. But the more witches they tried, the more out of control things got.
So they set out to find—and try—more witches. Even after their execution, the community would not let the alleged witches be buried. There were considered total pariahs. They were merely put in shallow graves…so as to wipe them off the face of the earth. Not only were the trial proceedings not recorded, neither were their deaths. Whether guilty or not, the record of those condemned was stricken from reality.
Executions were held each month that summer—June, July and August. Even those like Rev. George Burroughs, who demonstrated at his execution that he could recite the Lord’s Prayer perfectly (it was believed that witches and those possessed could not do so), were mercilessly killed with the rest of them.
The Fire Begins To Burn Out
By the fall of that year, the witnesses’ testimonies became far-reaching and dramatically exaggerated. The people finally began to question their testimonies of spectral evidence. The accusations had gone out of control. People as far away as Boston were being considered as witches.
The girls accusations had gone too far. The “Spectral sights” had gone wild beyond even the most wildest imagination. And those accused now included the trial judges, including Governor Phipps.
Finally, on October 29th, spectral evidence no longer allowed. Without the necessary standard of “evidence” for trying witches, the witch hunt ended. In all 200 of the 500 townspeople were accused. Though no one was burned at the stake twenty-four lost their lives, nineteen by hanging, four died in prison, and one was crushed to death under a pile of rocks for not entering a plea of “guilty” or “not guilty” as his accusers demanded.
The aftermath of the Salem witch trials was far reaching. This event, more than any other, shaped the American system of jurisprudence. Realizing that it would be better that 10 suspected witches be released than one innocent one be condemned, it was decided that everyone would be considered innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around.
On January 16, 1693, the Salem community held a rite of public fasting and forgiveness for the horror which occurred in their midst…by their own hands. The 12 jurors at the signed a plea of forgiveness. Public apologies were made.
But, of the nine children who presented the accusations and saw the alleged specters which sent people to their grave and the community into extreme anxiety, only one child, Anne Putnam, formally apologized. The other eight remained silent.
Justice for the wrongfully condemned came…nearly two-hundred and fifty years later. In 1957, the wrongful sentences of those executed because of the spectral testimonies of the nine girls was reversed.
Lessons About Anxiety From Salem Town
The Salem witch trial is certainly an interesting piece of history. But perhaps its greatest value is that it is an important case study of the effects of organizational anxiety. The events in this colonial setting provide a remarkable paradigm for what happens in high levels–and specifically Level IV and V—of conflict.
1) Virtually any system of beliefs, theological or otherwise, becomes anxious when confronted with non-indigenous content. This content, whatever it’s origin, may cause such anxiety that the non-indigenous content will be attributed to the demonic—whether it is or not.
2) The degree of anxiety which the non-indigenous content produces is dependent on numerous factors. Such factors may include the perception of the organization’s relative strength, the leaders’ ability to cope with anxiety, the degree of perfectionism required to maintain the organization’s identity and, among other things, the degree to which an organization evinces dysfunction.
3) The degree of anxiety is also dependent on the theological system’s ability to communicate confidence in the face of fear. This does not mean that a theological system must not have absolute beliefs. What it does mean is that, insofar as the church is Christian, it must maintain an absolute belief and predominance of the Gospel in every aspect of its life.
4) As anxiety increases within an organization, the standard of truth verification becomes increasingly more subjective. The corollary of this is that the more subjective an anxious organization becomes, the less “relevant” objective truth becomes. In extreme anxiety, the “truth” is simply ignored making it difficult for anyone to really know what is going on, what happened, or what will happen.
5) As the anxious organization becomes more vulnerable to hearsay, this vulnerability intensifies the potential for behaviors which specifically increase anxiety. Chief among these is triangling. As the triangling increases anxiety, the heightened anxiety often dramatically increases the triangling.
5) Since triangling always involves a perceived protagonist and antagonist, triangling always requires one toward who to project anxiety. As anxiety increases, the triangling increases. This may result in irrational and severely intense projection attacks: blaming, shaming, scapegoating, etc. These attacks can be against individuals, groups, sub-groups, the powerful, the weak, etc.
6) Once anxiety escalates and the concomitant anxious behaviors arise, there is virtually nothing that can stop the tragic consequences. People will get hurt. Reputations will be destroyed. Fellowship and relationships will be threatened. Organizational values will be ignored and often jettisoned.
7) As anxiety increases, organizations can deal with the potentially destructive consequences of anxiety in two basic ways.
* The first way is through prevention. When all involved parties are able to overcome their anxieties and “come to the table,” their reconciliative actions are often able to prevent the devastation high anxiety often causes.
* The second way organizations deal with destructive anxiety is to increase the levels of anxiety. Ever-increasing levels of anxiety serves as a denial mechanism which masks the damage. As increased levels of alcohol effectively “numbs” anxiety and denies the damage done, increased levels of anxiety become quasi-addictive. Since ever-increasing levels of anxiety require ever-increasing levels of anxiety to mask the it, the addiction to anxiety will continue to escalate until it reaches frenzied levels.
8) Every organization has a peak tolerance level for anxiety. When this peak is reached, the organization becomes so intoxicated by extremely saturated, uncontrolled levels of anxiety that, like the alcoholic, it crashes with a “hangover.” This “hangover” is marked by the burning out of the conflict.
Recognizing there are no longer sufficient resources to maintain the fight, the focus of anxiety changes from trying to destroy the enemy to the anxious recognition that if the they don’t gain control of the anxiety, the destructive effects of anxiety which they encouraged will ultimately irreversibly reduce their power base. Indeed, it may destroy them, too. Unfortunately, this realization may come too late for some organizations to recover.
9) Recovery is marked by non-anxious approaches to reconcile. These efforts necessarily involve making amends, agreements, and initiatives designed for to rebuild the war-torn community. Part of this rebuilding includes restoring reputations, righting what was wrong, and restoring credibility to individuals and the community as a whole.
10) Some of the damage resulting is irreparable. Other damage can, with a great deal of efforts, be repaired, renewed or refashioned. In either case, there will be a time of mourning over the loss. During this time individuals must be directed through healthy processes of recovery.
11) One of the important tasks of the final stages of this recovery is to restore those relationships which are possible to reconcile. Those who have been wronged—but not able to be reconciled—must be remembered, honored, exonerated and grieved. The wrongs cannot be undone. But somehow the wrongs must be righted. Depending on the circumstances this may take months, years, decades or, in some cases, centuries.
12) The healing from the recovery may be short-lived or relatively enduring depending on what adaptations the organization has made to deal with anxiety. If healthy adaptations are made, the organization begins to realize healthy growth as it utilizes these healthy adaptations.
If unhealthy adaptations are made, or if no adaptations are made at all, the organization will merely perpetuate their anxieties. When the next anxious-trigger occurs, the organization will go through the same cycle again. Each time it does, the organization becomes weaker and less able to overcome the results of the vicious cycle of anxiety.
Hope…Even In The Witch Hunt?
There are certainly many other lessons from this incident in Salem town. But perhaps the most important are that no matter how difficult or destructive the conflict, there is also the possibility for hope. Even when leaders are virtually powerless to stop the escalating, senseless, self-sabotaging and destructive dynamics of Level IV and V conflict, the possibility for renewal is always present.
Unfortunately, sometimes the opportunity for renewal comes at a great price. Whether one should pay the price is one of the most difficult leadership decisions a minister can make. The conflicts experienced can be over many things. But, in many cases, the most important issue which often arises is the calling of the pastor.
In these times it is absolutely imperative that pastors remember the reason that the ministry is not a “job” but a calling. It is because the testimony of Scripture is that in God’s sight, the prophetic ministry was never for ‘hire or fire,” it was for as long as God had ordained.
Pastors: Objects In The Witch Hunt
The reason God extends the call to ministry is not because He needs spokesman for the good times, the prosperous times, the happy times. He needs them for the bad times, the time of conflict, the times of spiritual uncertainty. No time is this more apparent that during the “witch hunt.”
The faithful prophets of scripture are not remembered because of the good times, prosperous circumstances, and crowd pleasing messages. They are remembered because they were the objects of witch hunts. The prophetic tradition is such that each one experienced remarkable risk—even death—to maintain the full exercise of their call…even to a stubborn and rebellious people (Isaiah 1:2-3 et al).
* The prophet Samuel risked treason by anointing David King while Saul was
* Daniel had to stand up to Nebuchadnezzar and the fiery furnace,
* The three men, Shadrack, Meshach, and Abendnego, faced the fiery furnace,
* Isaiah and Jeremiah preached to nations that ultimately rejected them and
* And many other men and women of faith (Abraham, Queen Esther et al) simply had
to remain faithful to God’s calling even when they did not know the outcome or
where they should go.
What’s Your Calling?
While experiencing ministry duress, Paul told Timothy,
“Fight the good fight of faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Timothy 6:12-14 NIV).
In the difficult circumstances to which Timothy ministered, Paul’s advice was not to leave, escape or run. Instead, it was to remain firm, honor God’s calling, make the good confession…and do so without spot. Whatever the circumstances in ministry, that is God’s highest calling for pastors.
One mega-church pastor threatened with unjust removal sought advice of his pastor-father. “Should I stay? Or should I defend the call.” His father’s response was simple.” After 30 years of ministry I learned one thing. If God has given you a call, the most important thing you can do is to uphold and defend it.”
Whether you minister in Salem Town or anywhere else in the world, there will be times when your calling will be tested. It is the experience of virtually every minister called by God. No matter how difficult or intense the conflict, don’t focus on the pain. Focus on the call. That’s what that mega-church pastor did. That’s what many others have done too.
There are numerous strategies that can be implemented to preserve and protect one’s calling and the ministerial office in even conflicted congregations. Some of these involve negotiation, some are directed toward the end that the minister seek another call, while others are directed toward restoring the pastor’s ministry in the same location. But, whatever the strategies used the most important focus must always be around two questions:
* What is the best way to uphold the ministerial office in this
* “What’s God’s calling for you?”
Uphold The Office
When the witch hunt is on, what can you do to uphold the ministerial office in your ministry? Recognize the process. Understand how the anxiety permeates. Become aware of the ramifications of the emotional processes which ensue. Perhaps most important to ask, however, is “What can I do to hold firm to God’s calling for me?
Hold firm to your calling. Make the good confession. And, in spite of the circumstances, do so “without blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Timothy 6:14 NIV).
Thomas F. Fischer
Factual information above based on “History’s Mysteries: The Salem Witch Trials” with Arthur Kent produced by The History Channel.
Ministry Health contains hundreds of in-depth articles to help support pastors and church professionals toward healthier ministries.