Monday, March 21, 2016

Witchcraft and Religious Delusions by J. V. Coombs 1904

Witchcraft and Religious Delusions by J. V. Coombs 1904

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The delusion of witchcraft originated from the twin sisters, ignorance and superstition. Its hideous form did not grow up in a day. Once there was a great gulf between the sorcery of the pagan and the mysticism of the Christian. Gradually the deformities of paganism and the myths of Christianity paved the way for the witchcraft mania.

The mysterious was everywhere. The mountains, valleys, and air were full of goblins damned. The circle of belief began to enlarge. At first the ignorant and superstitious were annoyed by demons and ghosts. Then the delusion that the air was full of evil spirits to do harm to men, seized the common people. Finally it became an epidemic delusion. The educated, statesmen, philosophers, preachers and judges became advocates of witch trials. The people were divided into two classes: witches and witch-finders. The sleep of reason brought about these conditions. Men did not think. It was universally accepted that there were witches and wizards sending calamity, disease and death upon those people whom they despised. They never stopped to question the common notion that the witches went raising storms, blighting health, haunting houses and killing children. Blackstone, the greatest legal mind of the world said: "To deny witchcraft is to deny the Word of God and the testimony of the ages."

Chief Justice Matthew Hale, one of the greatest judges of all ages, sentenced women to death for witchery.

Francis Bacon, Richard Baxter, Sir Walter Raleigh, Dr. Thomas Brown, John Calvin, Luther, Wesley, King James, and indeed all the preachers, lawyers, physicians, and judges arrayed themselves against witches. John Wesley protested against the repeal of the law against witchcraft. He said, "To give up witchcraft is in effect giving up the Bible." King James and all the potentates of Europe hastened to enact laws against witchcraft. The death penalty was to be inflicted upon all witches and wizards. For two hundred years Europe went wild. Reason was asleep, and judgment dethroned. They charged witches with every crime. Witches caused epilepsy, insanity, pestilence, raised storms, bewitched cattle and children, drank with devils, ate with ghosts, debauched themselves with the devil, and consorted with Satan for the purpose of torturing and tormenting men. According to the superstitions of that day these devil-servers met often in the devil's council, called the devil's Sabbath, because it was held on Saturday, the Sabbath. In this council they made hell-broth which would drive men into stupidity or insanity. Here they met to receive instructions from Satan. He taught them how to do the devil's work and to plan mischief. Here upon the throne he heard the reports of those who had gone forth to do his bidding. Witches and wizards vied each other in trying to tell who had done the most meanness. The devil flogged all who could not relate deeds of evil. Some of the witches came to the council on broomsticks, others were carried on the backs of devils. In leaving their homes they went out through the key hole and returned through the chimney. Lest this obscene hag should be missed, the devil delegated an imp to assume her shape and occupy the bed until she returned. In this council the new members were initiated. They swore allegiance to Satan, and bartered away their souls, for which the devil gave them power to bewitch man and beast. They were required to kiss the devil. The devil sometimes tested the loyalty of his subjects, by pretending to be dead; then all the hags and harpies, and goblins set up an awful wail that shook the mountains. The one that made the most hellish noise was rewarded by having the devil hug her. Everybody believed in these secret meetings of the demons. Laws were enacted to put to death all who attended. Tests were instituted to detect those who had been in council with these demons and ghosts. They threw the woman accused into a tank of water, if she sank and drowned she was innocent, and should receive a Christian burial. If she floated, she was guilty and should be burned to ashes.

In Holland they tossed the accused into the sea. If innocent the person would sink to the bottom. If guilty they would swim to shore, only to meet death at the hand of the executioner.

Every misfortune was caused by a witch, and every sick child or animal was bewitched. Everybody was on the alert, looking for witches, for they began to roam about dusk. Some came forth rattling their chains, which meant they had escaped from purgatory. Witches were responsible for all calamities and sickness. A preacher had a headache. He declared he was bewitched. His devout flock went forth to find the witch. The crime was fastened upon an old woman. She confessed. She said she took her hatchet, went to his bed, and hit his skull, but that it was too hard to crack. There were hard-headed preachers then as now. This poor deluded creature was hanged for trying to crack the skull of a man. In Germany a woman was condemned because she turned an actor into an ass. The inventions of men were turned into devices of torture. The accused were placed upon the rack, cast into dark dungeons, where they were chained to the slimy wall for days. If they did not confess they were placed on the rack. The judge would then ask, "Are you guilty?" "No." "Turn the wheel again." The poor creature would be stretched until half unconscious. "Now will you confess?" "No." "Turn the wheel again." The bones were dislocated and the spirit went home to God. Sometimes the accused were tied to posts, and the hateful revolving spoon placed in front of them. Each revolution the spoon dipped closer to the eyes of the man under torture. "Will you now confess?" "I am not guilty." The next revolution touched the eye. The blood flowed; refusing to acknowledge his guilt, the accuser shouted, "Turn the wheel vigorously." Two revolutions and both eyes were cut out. In England Mrs. Balfour was accused of witchcraft. On oath she denied. They put her feet in the iron boots and heated them to white heat. She refused to lie. They brought her husband and placed him on the rack. That failed. They then brought her son, put his feet in the iron boots, wedges were placed on each side, and fifty-seven mallet strokes were delivered upon the wedges, that crushed the bones and marrow. Still she would not confess. Last her little daughter was tortured in the presence of the mother. The cursed thumb-screw was placed upon the little girl's hands. The blood burst from the veins. The mother could not endure this atrocity. She confessed and was burned to ashes, because she was a witch.

The story of the Salem witchcraft is one black spot in our history. In 1692 scores were cast into prison, and twenty persons put to death. Bridget Bishop was hanged in June; Sarah Good and Rebecca Nuse in July; George Burroughs, John Procter, George Jacobs, John Willard and others in August. The people of Salem then went mad. The jails were full of the accused. Old Giles Cory was placed upon a table, another table was placed upon him, rocks were piled upon the table and he was pressed to death.

These murders were done in the name of law and religion.

In England 30,000 were put to death for witchcraft. Holland and Germany vied with England. We are not very proud of our ancestors. In two hundred and fifty years not fewer than 5,000,000 persons gave up their lives on account of this witch mania. Most of these people were executed either upon the testimony of good witnesses, or upon their own confessions. The hallucination went so far that no one was safe, and evidence was of no value. The highly excited frenzy could see anything. Twenty witnesses testified in an English court that they saw an old woman walk out upon the sea, capsize a ship and drown all on board. The innocent old woman was put to death.

In Germany ten witnesses swore that they saw ten persons on the back of the devil, flying over the city. They recognized five persons. Upon this evidence the five were hanged. In Sweden a council of ministers gave evidence that they saw an old woman turn herself into a dog. Did these people see these spirits, hags and witches? They were honest, truthful men. Did they lie? Certainly not. Did they see the devil playing with witches? Certainly, in the same way that the drunkard sees snakes, the maniac sees his dead mother, or the spiritualist sees the spirits of the dead. They saw these witches in their mind's eye. We can see just what we are looking for. The hypnotic subject sees the bees, the drunkard fights the demons and snakes, the spiritualist sees the spirits of the dead and the deluded of the seventeenth century saw ghosts and witches. The whole excitement of witches and wizards was a delusion and a fraud. There is not a school boy in our land who does not ridicule the story of witchcraft. Millions believed in witches two hundred years ago. Today no one believes in them.

But the evidence for the witch mania is far more tangible than the fraud and delusion of spiritualism, yet hundreds in the sunlight of the twentieth century visit spiritualistic mediums, seances and fortune tellers.

Why did the accused confess? will be asked. Did they falsify? Certainly not. Epidemic alarm startled all. The common conception of the devil's council was believed by all. Everybody believed there were hags and harpies. Any body at any time might be bewitched and carried off to the assembly of witches. Alarmed and nervous women would dream that they flew through the air, and visited the council of Satan. On awakening they remembered the dreams and believed them to be realities. They remembered the hideous faces and the hell-resounding laugh of the devil. This dream became a fact to them. When our children dream that they see horses flying, we tell them it is only a dream. But in the superstitious days their dreams were facts. All dreams, hallucinations and visions were realities. Thoughts were things. The mind created the image by imagination, and declared the image to be a reality. Thought was dethroned, judgment had fled and reason had gone to sleep. Joan of Arc was put to death because the logic of the day said she was a witch. Shall we be too severe with these people? Are we free from all delusions? In wild excitement under the preaching of a magnetic orator, the singing of songs, and the praying of the people some one swoons. "If that is not the Spirit of God, what is it? I don't know. Therefore it is the work of the spirit." Go cautiously here. Is this not mere fancy and fear, instead of conversion and pardon?

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