On this day in 1692, a lady named Bridget Bishop was hung by the neck until dead in Salem, Massachusetts. Her crime? Witchcraft. Hers was the first trial to reach the grand jury, out of 62 people who’d been arrested since the beginning of that year. She was the first of 18 people to die.
Among the evidence for her “crimes” was not attending church, wearing black, and refusing to deny the accusations by a middle aged man that she used witchcraft on him. Also in a really sinister act, she asked another man to dye a scrap of lace, which he speculated to be too small for anything but a poppet.
The Salem Witch Trials are notorious for the way rumor, hearsay, and “spectral evidence” were used to accuse, try, and convict townspeople, and how a theocratic local government could fuel and foment hysteria. The Calvinists of the time didn’t fool around with their God-fearin’ – they followed a fearsome god that demanded three-hour sermons and strict adherence to only the things that glorified God–if it didn’t glorify God, like, say, a tune about a girl with pretty eyes, then it didn’t get sung. And boy, did they take their witchcraft accusations seriously.
The thing is, with all this strictness, anyone who deviated the slightest bit from the norm became a target, and doubly so if one were a woman who was between husbands, or who didn’t return the affections of a powerful man, or whose husband decided one day that he was tired of doing his part to make the marriage work and needed rid of her. In the case of Bridget Bishop, accounts seem to suggest that this mature woman did not suffer fools gladly, and did not take kindly or God-fearin’-ly to being accused of haunting various men in the town or tormenting the teenage girls at the center of the hysteria.
Today, we’re fortunate to have things like due process, and verifiable evidence and a codified freedom of religion, including freedom from religion. There’s no official “litmus test” of religiosity, and religion can safely stay nobody’s business but your own. In theory. In practice, we’re still not that far off from the witch trials. I still meet people whose first or second question is, “What church do you go to?” and it’s not asked in an, “oh, tell me something interesting about yourself” manner. It’s an ongoing struggle of national self-examination to make sure that the justice system doesn’t become a judgment system.
This actually kind of relates to my last blog post–in the world of my town, a person’s church membership can bring with it a significant set of assumptions about that person’s values, morality, and where their boundaries of acceptable behavior lie. Around here, it also pretty much identifies their political bent, too (and I find that personally objectionable because a.) churches don’t pay taxes, and b.) if you get your God all over my government, don’t be too surprised if my government gets all up in your God, and then it just all becomes a hot mess and pretty soon they’re setting people on fire).
Of course, like I posted on Wednesday, what people say they value and what they actually do value can be worlds apart, and that’s just as true in this case. Devout people of all religions have a troublesome row to hoe, not just externally, but internally (my spiritual advisors have said that if faith were easy, we wouldn’t need religion) as they attempt to reconcile their belief system with a world that doesn’t always comply.
Bridget Bishop faced community censure for living her life outside the strict and narrow bounds of the religious community, and she paid an unfortunately harsh price. We’ll never know if she was deliberately hostile to the accusations that easily appear to us today as ridiculous and downright unbelievable to prove a point or to be ornery, or if that was simply her way. In her case, the society in which she lived was inflexible enough to cost her her life.