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The Witch Trials

by Rick Wade

Some critics like to portray the Christian Church as the great persecutor of the weak and helpless. A popular vehicle for this myth is the story of the witch trials in Europe and America in the 16th and 17th centuries. Philip Sampson says that this story “relates that many millions of women throughout Europe, mainly the elderly, poor and isolated, were tortured by the church into confessing nonexistent crimes before being burnt to death.”{18} The story of the witch trials provides a handy illustration for the myth that that the church actively persecutes those who aren’t in agreement. “The history of Christianity is the history of persecution,” said one writer,{19} and this is seen in no bolder outline than in the story of the witch-hunts. Furthermore, this story provides a good example of the supposed women-hating attitude of the church since the vast majority of witches tried were women.

There is no denying that Christians were involved in the trial and execution of witches. But to paint this issue as simply a matter of the powerful church against the weakest members of society is to distort what really happened.

Before considering a couple of facts about the trials, the bias of the critics who write about them should be noted. For most, there simply is no such thing as a supernatural witch, meaning one who can actually draw on satanic power to manipulate nature. If this is true, it must be the case that there is some natural explanation for the strange behavior of those charged with witchcraft, and the church was completely unjustified in prosecuting them. But this is a naturalistic bias; it ignores the fact that “most people of the world throughout most of its history have taken supernatural witchcraft to be real.”{20} Modern writers like to think that it was the dawning of the Age of Reason that brought about the end of the witch trials, but today this is seen as mere hubris, “the prejudice of ‘indignant rationalists’ [who were] more concerned to castigate the witch-baiters for their credulity and cruelty than to understand what the phenomenon was all about.”{21} It was the centralization of legal power that brought the trials to an end, not a matter of “Enlightenment overcoming superstition.”{22}

This leads us to ask who and why these charges of witchcraft were brought in the first place. What we find is that this “was not principally a church matter, nor was the Inquisition the prime mover in the prosecution of witches,” as is often thought. It was ordinary lay people who typically brought charges of witchcraft, and mostly women at that!{23} The primary reasons were not bizarre supernatural behavior or heretical beliefs, but the tensions brought about by a loss of crops or the failure of bread to rise. “People commonly appealed to magic and witchcraft to explain tragedies and misfortunes, or more generally to gain power over neighbors.”{24} Even kings and queens saw witchcraft as a very real threat to their thrones and well-being. The Inquisition actually supplied a tempering influence. Historian Hugh Trevor-Roper said, “In general, the established church was opposed to the persecution” of witches.{25} Likewise, the Protestant churches were not the real aggressors in the witch trials. John Calvin believed that witchcraft was a delusion, the cure for which was the Gospel, not execution.{26}

Estimates of executions in the millions are grossly exaggerated. Recent studies estimate about 150–300 per year, making a total of between 40,000 and 100,000 who were executed over a period of 300 years. While “this is an appalling enough catalog of human suffering,” as Sampson says,{27} it pales in comparison to the slaughter of innocent people in the 20th century, resulting from the excesses of modernistic thinking. “Genocide is an invention of the modern world,” says one writer.{28} Compare the numbers slaughtered under Nazism or Stalinism to that of the witch trials. If the witch trials demonstrate the danger of religion to society, the slaughters under Hitler and Stalin demonstrate the much greater danger of irreligion.

Modern writers like to think that it was the dawning of the Age of Reason that brought about the end of the witch trials, but today this is seen as mere hubris. It was the centralization of legal power that brought the trials to an end, not a matter of “Enlightenment overcoming superstition.”{29}


From the days of the early church we have been called upon to defend not only our beliefs but also the activities of individual Christians and the church as a whole. In his book, 6 Modern Myths About Christianity and Western Civilization, Philip Sampson has given us a tool to better enable us to do that today. I encourage you to read it.

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