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Reflections  >  Witchcraft and Quakerism  >  Chapter Four

Witchcraft and Quakerism:

A Study in Social History

By Amelia Mott Gummere


W, pair of upturned horseshoesE have seen that Massachusetts, very early in her career, made a witchcraft law; the Plymouth Colony declared against witches in 1636, discriminating, in 1671, with great care against the confusion of real cases, with those of the Indian wizards, who remained undisturbed in their rites.[1]

    Rhode Island never had a witchcraft trial, although she made the usual tribute to the age by giving the subject place on her statute books. New Hampshire had a few cases of witchcraft; the earliest, in 1656, was that of Jane Welford, who, when brought before the special court of Dover and Portsmouth, was allowed to go on her good behavior. Afterward, 1669, she brought action for damages against her accusers, and received five pounds and costs,[2] Several minor cases came up at the time of the Salem trials, apparently out of sympathy, in neighborhoods bordering on Massachusetts. The law of 1680 prescribed death for any Christian, "so-called," who should be a Witch -- "that is, hath, or consulteth with, a familiar Spirit." The law, disallowed in England, was never enforced in New Hampshire, and no witch was ever put to death there.

    No witch was ever burned in Virginia. But Grace Sherwood, young and comely, we surmise, won from a relenting justice the order that her condemnation to the ducking-stool was to be "in no wise without her consent, or if the day should be rainy (!) or in any way to endanger her health!"[3]


    Quaker Pennsylvania was free from such an act until 1718. In this year, an old English law was revived.[4] "Be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, that another statute made in the 1st year of the reign of King James I, chap. 12, intitled An Act against Conjuration, witchcraft, and dealing with evil and wicked spirits shall be duly put in execution in this Province and of like force and effect as if the same were repeated and enacted." This long act involved also a return to the severe laws of the old criminal code. It was in no sense a Quaker law. The death of William Penn and the confusion of the struggle on the subject of Affirmation caused the people, in order to secure the favor of the Sovereign, to copy the laws of the mother country, and this was among them. Governor Gookin's insistence on the abandonment of the Colonial law of affirmation threatened Quaker political existence, which, in fact, did not end until 1756. Exemption from oaths was obtained for such as had scruples against them, along with the passage of the above law. There is, however, no record of any trial for witchcraft while this was in force.

    The only witchcraft trial in the province of Pennsylvania occurred before the Council, previous to the organization of the Provincial Court, on December 27, 1683.[5] Only one of two old women, both of them Swedes, seems to have been tried. Yeshro Hendrickson's name disappears. Margaret Mattson lived upon her husband's plantation on the Delaware, near Crum Creek, in Ridley township, now Delaware County. She remained for long in local legend, the "Witch of Ridley Creek." At her trial she appeared before William Penn, his Attorney General, a Grand Jury of twenty-one persons, all apparently English, and a Petit Jury of twelve persons, one of whom was a Swede. One Councilman, Lasse Cock, was also a prominent Swede. The case was heard, all the formalities gone through with, and the verdict rendered the same afternoon, as follows: "Guilty of having the Comon Fame of a Witch, but not Guilty in manner and Forme as Shee stands Endicted." There were various accusations of a vague sort against the poor woman, as that she had bewitched calves, geese, cattle and a few persons. Her own daughter testified that she was in league with the Devil, But the sober sanity of the Quaker Jury brought in an eminently safe verdict. Tradition has it that William Penn said to her: "Art thou a witch? Hast thou ridden through the air on a broomstick?" When the poor, confused creature answered, "Yes," he said that she had a perfect right to ride upon a broomstick, that he knew no law whatever against it, and promptly ordered her discharge. This was the only witchcraft trial ever before the Pennsylvania Courts.

    A thorough search of the meeting records among Quakers would probably result in some interesting minutes upon this whole subject. In Pennsylvania, in 1695, it came to the knowledge of Chichester and Concord Monthly Meeting that two young persons of the latter township were engaged in studies and practices regarded as dangerous by the Friends. The matter was treated with great gravity by the meeting. The two were accused of following "Astrology and other arts and sciences, as Geomancy and Chiromancy and Necromancy, etc." It was debated "that the Sence of this meeting is, that the study of these Sciences brings a Veile upon the understanding and a death upon the life." We cannot too strongly note that this was at the very moment when Massachusetts was thrilled with the Salem horrors, and martyrs like Rebecca Nourse, far superior to her cruel judges, had been put to death for vile and flimsy superstitions. The meeting ordered the young men, as well as their father, to be spoken to officially upon the subject. The conference took place:

    "Philip Roman and his brother Robert, friends of Chichester, seemed to disown that it mentioned, except the Astrology. Much was said to them, but it was not received. At last they proposed to the meeting, if they thought well of it, to confer with Nicholas Newlin and Jacob Chandler, and if they could convince them that it was evil, they would leave it." The meeting accepted the offer of the young men. At the next meeting (January, 1696), the committee reported that they had conferred with the young men, and there had been "many arguments on both sides -- at length, Philip concluded with us that he did not know that he should use that art of Astrology again, for he had denied several that came to him to be resolved of their questions already. Robert promised the same, but with this reserve -- unless it was to do some great good with it, From which belief of some great good, we could not remove him." This was not satisfactory to the meeting. Philip was required "to give forth a paper to condemn his practice of resolving questions in Astrology, concerning Loss and Gain, with other vain questions." The meeting gave out a similar paper against Robert.

    But this business did not end with the meeting. An offence so serious as the practice of Geomancy could not escape the vigilance of the Grand Jury, particularly as the foreman lived in the same neighborhood with the parties. In bringing the matter to the notice of the Court they say:

    "We, the grand Inquest by the King's authority, presents Robert Roman of Chichester for practicing Geomancy according to hidden and divining by a stick. WALTER MARTIN, Foreman."

    With the view of effectually eradicating the evil, it became necessary to destroy the implements of mischief by another presentment, which is thus recorded:

    "We, the Grand Inquest by the King's authority presents the following books: Hidon's Temple of Wisdom, which teaches Geomancy; and Scott's Discovery of Witchcraft; and Cornelias Agrippa's teaches Secromancy. WALTER MARTIN, Foreman."

    Upon which "the Court orders as many of said Books as can be found be brought to the next court."

    The following minute records the closing scene of this ludicrous judicial procedure:

    "Robert Roman was called to answer the presentment of the Grand Jury the last Court; he appeared and submitted himself to the Bench. The order of the Court is that he shall pay five pounds for a fine and all charges, and never practice the arts, and behave himself well for the future, and he promised to do so, whereupon he is discharged for this time."[6]

    This was the action of the Court. Meantime, the Friends did not suffer the matter to drop. The subject was carried up to the Quarterly Meeting, and a Testimony which is believed to be unique, was published by that meeting early in 1696:

    "Whereas the meeting being acquainted that some persons under the profession of truth, and belonging to this meeting, who professing the art of Astrology, have undertaken thereby to answer questions and give Astronomical Judgments concerning persons and things, tending to the dishonor of God, and the reproach of Truth and the great hurt of themselves and those who come to inquire of them; and, Whereas, it is also reported that some professing truth among us seems too much inclined to use and practice Rabdomancy, or consulting with a staff, and such like things, all which have brought a weighty exercise and 'concern upon this meeting, as well because of the reproach, that is already brought upon the truth hereby, as also to prevent, as much as in us lies, its being further reproached by any among us that may attempt to follow the like practices for time to come:

    Now, therefore, being met together in the fear of the Lord, to consider not only the affairs of Truth in the General, but also that it may be kept clear of all scandal and reproach by all that profess it in this particular; as also to recover, if possible, any who, for want of diligence and watchfulness therein, have not only brought reproach thereto, but have also hurt their own souls, darkened their understandings, hindered themselves as to their inward exerclse and spiritual travel toward the land of rest and peace; which, as we all come in a measure to be possessed of, shall feel great satisfaction and sweet content in our condition, as God by His good hand of Providence shall be pleased to order it. Whether we have much of this world or not; whether we get of it or not; whether we lose or not lose, every one being in his place, using his or her honest and Christian endeavors; we shall be content with the success of our labors without such unlawful looklng of what the event of this or that or the other thing may be; by running to inquire of the stargazers, or monthly prognosticators, which of old could not tell their own events (neither can they at this day). For we read, that when God pronounced His judgments against Babylon and Chaldea, how the prophet in the Zeal of the Lord called upon such men in a contemptuous manner, saying, 'Evil hath come upon thee, thou shalt not know from where it riseth.' 'And,' said he, 'let now the astrologers and star-gazers, and monthly prognosticators stand up and save thee from these things that shall come upon thee.' 'Behold,' said he, 'they shall be as stubble, they shall not deliver themselves,' etc.

    "And further, we may read how the Lord strictly commanded His people, saying, 'There shall not be found among you any that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter of familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer; for all that do these things are an abomination to the Lord.' So that, upon the whole, we do declare against all the aforesaid or any such like practices; and do exhort all, not only to forbear practising any of those things themselves, but also that they discountenance the practice thereof in all those whomsoever it doth appear; and, forasmuch as we understand that those among us that incline to those things are chiefly some youths, who, being unacquainted with the enemy's mysterious workings and devices, whereby he allures their minds to seek and aspire after such knowledge, which, when they have attained all they can, is at best but uncertain and fallable, as they themselves confess, and, therefore, is but knowledge falsely so called; we do, therefore, in the fear of God, caution, warn, and exhort all parents, who, if at any time they see, or otherwise understand, their children do practice, or are inclined to practice any of those things, that speedily thereupon they use their utmost endeavors, not only like Eli of old, to forewarn them, but also to restrain them. And further, it is the sincere and Christian advice of this meeting that, when any among us have been found acting in any of those things, that Friends of the particular Monthly Meeting where such dwell, do use their utmost endeavors, in the way and order of the Gospel practiced among us, to bring such person or persons to a sense of their wrong practices therein; and that they do, for the clearing of Truth, and also for the good of their own souls, condemn what they have already done as to these things; and that, for time, to come, they lay them aside, and practice them no more.

    "And also, that they bring in all books that relate to those things to the Monthly Meeting they belong to, to be disposed of as Friends shall think fit; and, if any shall refuse to comply with such their wholesome and Christian advice, that then the Friends of said respective Monthly Meetings do give testimony against them; and so Truth will stand over them, and Friends will be clear.

    "Let this be read in all Monthly Meetings, and all such First-day Meetings where and as often as the Friends of the respective Monthly Meetings do see service for it."[7]

astrology signs with corresponding months and parts of body

Chapter Five ...>>

Notes and Links

[1] "Saint Benedict is reported to have cured a Brother who was possessed of the Devil by thrashing him soundly. It is to he regretted that the Protestantism of the New Englanders prevented their knowing and experimenting with the Saint's specific, which, in all ages of the world, has been admitted to be wonderfully efficacious!"

[2] F. B. Sanborne. "New Hampshire," p. 220.

[3] Mrs. Rogers. "The Mother of Washington and Her Times." p. 43.

[4] This law may be found in Dallas, Vol. I, entitled, "An Act for the Advancement of Justice," etc., and was passed by the Pennsylvania Assembly, 31st May, 1718. Section II is quoted.

[5] The record of this trial may be found in Colonial Record2 of Pennsylvania, Vol. I.

[6] Dr, George Smith, "History of Delaware County," p. 193.

[7] A. Michener, "Retrospect of Early Quakerism," p. 366.

Chapter Five ...>>