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"Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" (Ex. xxii. 18).
"If there had been no witches, such a law as this had never
been made. The existence of the law, given under the
direction of the Spirit of God, proves the existence of the
thing... that witches, wizards, those who dwelt with
familiar spirits, etc., are represented in the sacred
writing as actually possessing a power to evoke the dead, to
perform supernatural operations, and to discover hidden or
secret things by spells, charms, incantations, etc., is
evident to every unprejudiced reader of the Bible."—Dr.
Adam Clarice, Commentary on the above passage.
Thus wrote the great Methodist theologian. His master, John Wesley, had previously declared, "It is true that the English in general, and, indeed, most of the men of learning in Europe have given up all accounts of witches and apparitions as mere old wives' fables. I am sorry for it, and I willingly take this opportunity of entering my solemn protest against this violent compliment which so many that believe the Bible pay to those who do not believe it. I owe them no such service. They well know (whether Christians know it or not) that the giving up witchcraft is in effect giving up the Bible." [Journal, May 25, 1768, p. 308? vol. iii., Works, 1856. The earlier volumes of the Methodist Magazine abound with tales of diabolical possession.]
That Wesley was right is a fact patent to all who have eyes. From the Egyptian magicians, who performed like unto Moses and Aaron with their enchantments, to the demoniacs of the Gospels and the "sorcerers" of the fifteenth verse of the last chapter of Revelation, the Bible abounds in references to this superstition.
Matthew Henry, the great Bible commentator, writing upon our text, at a time when the statutes against witchcraft were still in force, said: "By our law, consulting, covenanting with, invoking, or employing, any evil spirit to any intent whatsoever, and exercising any enchantment, charm, or sorcery, whereby hurt shall be done to any person whatsoever, is made felony without benefit of clergy; also, pretending to tell where goods lost or stolen may be found, or the like, is an iniquity punishable by the judge, and the second offence with death. The justice of our law herein is supported by the law of God here."
The number of innocent, helpless women who have been legally tortured and murdered by this law of God is beyond computation.
In Suffolk alone sixty persons were hung in a single year. The learned Dr. Zachary Grey states that between three and four thousand persons suffered death for witchcraft from the year 1640 to 1660.
In Scotland the Bible-supported superstition raged worse than in England. The clergy there had, as part of their duty, to question their parishioners as to their knowledge of witches. Boxes were placed in the churches to receive the accusations, and when a woman had fallen under suspicion the minister from the pulpit denounced her by name, exhorted his parishioners to give evidence against her, and prohibited any one from sheltering her. A traveller casually notices having seen nine women burning together in Leith, in 1664.
"Scotch witchcraft," says Lecky, "was but the result of Scotch Puritanism, and it faithfully reflected the character of its parent."
On the Continent it was as bad. Catholics and Protestants could unite in one thing—the extirpation of witches and infidels. Papal bulls were issued against witchcraft as well as heresy. Luther said: "I would have no compassion on these witches—I would burn them all." In Catholic Italy a thousand persons were executed in a single year in the province of Como.
In one province of Protestant Sweden 2,500 witches were burnt in 1670. Stories of the horrid tortures which accompanied witch-finding, stories that will fill the eyes with tears and the heart with raging fire against the brutal superstition which provoked such barbarities, may be found in Dalyell, Lecky, Michelet, and the voluminous literature of the subject. And all these tortures and executions were sanctioned and defended from the Bible. The more pious the people the more firm their conviction of the reality of witchcraft. Sir Matthew Hale, in hanging two men in 1664, took the opportunity of declaring that the reality of witchcraft was unquestionable; "for first, the Scripture had affirmed so much; and, secondly, the wisdom of all nations had provided laws against such persons."
Witch belief and witch persecutions have existed from the most savage times down to the rise and spread of medical science, but nothing is more striking in history than the fact of the great European outburst against witchcraft following upon the Reformation and the translations of God's Holy Word, This was no mere coincidence, but a necessary consequence. "It was not until after the Reformation that there was any systematic hunting out of witches," says J. R. Lowell.
If the Bible teaches not witchcraft, then it teaches nothing.
Science and scepticism having made Christians ashamed of this biblical doctrine, as usual they have sought a new interpretation. They say it is a mistranslation; that poisoners are meant, and not witches. Now, in the first place, poisoners were really dealt with by the command, "Thou shalt not kill." In the second place, not a single Hebrew scholar of repute would venture to so render the word of our text. Its root, translated "witch," is given by Gesenius as "to use enchantment." Fuerst, Parkhurst, Frey, Newman, Buxtorf, in short, all Hebrew lexicographers, agree. Not one suggests that "poisoner" could be considered an equivalent. The derivatives of this word are translated with this meaning wherever they occur. Thus Exodus vii. 11, "the wise men and the sorcerers." Deuteronomy xviii., 10,11, "There shalt not be found among you anyone that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard or a necromancer." 2 Kings ix. 22, "her witchcrafts." 2 Chronicles xxxiii. 6, Manesseh "used enchantments, and used witchcraft, and dealt with a familiar spirit and with wizards." Isaiah xlvii. 9 and 12, "thy sorceries." Jeremiah xxvii. 9, "your sorcerers." Daniel ii. 2, "the magicians, and the astrologers, and the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans." Micah v. 12, "And I will cut off witchcrafts, and thou shalt have no soothsayers." Nahum iii. 4, "witchcrafts." Malachi iii. 5, "I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers." The only pretence for this rendering of poisoner is the fact that Josephus (Antiquities, bk. iv., ch. viii., sec. 34) gives a law against keeping poisons. As there is no such law in the Pentateuch, Whiston tried to kill two difficulties with one note, by saying that what we render a witch meant a poisoner. The Septuagint has also been appealed to, but Sir Charles Lee Brenton, in his translation of the Septuagint, has not thought proper to render our text other than, "Ye shall not save the lives of sorcerers."
But apart from texts (of which I have only given those in which occurs one word out of the many implying the belief), the thing itself is woven into the structure of the Bible. Not only do the Egyptian enchanters work miracles and the witch of Endor raise Samuel, but the power of evil spirits over men is the occasion of most of the miracles of Jesus. The very doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible, so cherished by Protestant Christians, is but a part of that doctrine of men being possessed by spirits, good and evil, which is the substratum of belief in witchcraft.
Even yet this belief is not entirely extinct in England; and Dr. Buckley says that in America a majority of the citizens believe in witchcraft. The modern Roman Catholic priest is cautioned in the rubric concerning the examination of a possessed patient "not to believe the demon if he profess to be the soul of some saint or deceased person, or a good angel." As late as 1773 the divines of the Associated Presbytery passed a resolution declaring their belief in witchcraft, and deploring the scepticism that was general. In the Church Catechism, explained by the Rev. John Lewis, minister of Margate in Kent—a work which went through many editions, and received the sanction of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge—a copy of which lies before me, published in 1813, reads (p. 18): "Q. What is meant by renouncing the Devil?—A. The refusing of all familiarity and contracts with the Devil, whereof witches, conjurors, and such as resort to them are guilty."
Let it never be forgotten that this belief which has not only been the cause of the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent women, but has sent far more into the worst convulsions of madness and despair, is the evident and unmistakable teaching of the Bible.