During the 1990s Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible was widely read in British, Continental European and American Schools, introducing Miller’s own particular Hollywood-style morals at the cost of Christian truths. Here is an article originally published in the Spring of 1991 in Spectrum, a magazine for Christian teachers. A colleague by the name of Dr. David Barratt responded and I was asked to briefly reply in the following issue of Spectrum.
The Crucible and the Classroom:
An Examination of Arthur Miller’s Technique of Dealing with the Devil
The Crucible and the Curriculum
Arthur Miller is widely proclaimed as a moral writer whose aim is to bring out the good in man rather than the bad. This is perhaps why his so-called moral plays, including The Crucible, have become standard reading in American High Schools and popular set-books for British G.C.S.E. candidates. Miller’s plays are also on the reading list of most schools on the Continent and they are studied avidly in the English Departments of universities all over the world. Miller claims that The Crucible is the authentic story of the Salem Witch Trials held in Massachusets, New England in 1692. During these trials 150 suspects were imprisoned, twenty of whom were executed for committing crimes in the name of the Devil. The Crucible ought to be of interest to readers of this magazine for several reasons. Firstly, it is a play that many of our children will be confronted with at some time or other during their school or college days. Secondly, it is an attempt to come to grips with the problem of evil in man and to provide a solution to this problem. Thirdly, Miller puts the blame for much of the evil in American society at the feet of its founder Puritans and their successors whom he identifies with the right-wing enthusiasts of the McCarthian era. Fourthly Miller points the way to his idea of a ‘free’ but ‘good’ society in which a moral mentality fully opposed to Christian standards reigns.
All too often Christian parents leave the work of interpreting literature to the school’s ‘experts’. In the case of The Crucible this negligence leaves children wide open to anti-Christian influences. If parents discussed the pros and cons of such plays with their children at home, they would do them a great service. Most teachers of literature are only too happy to find pupils coming up with points of view on set books which are not found in the standard interpretations. Unfortunately moral instruction is not a major part of a teacher’s training. Thus schools may well be fully unaware of the damage such a play as The Crucible can do to the life of a young person who is striving to understand the problem of evil in the world.
The Crucible and the Salem Witch Trials
The Salem Witch Trials have been a steady favourite with authors since their occurrence in 1692. Nathaniel Hawthorn, a descendent of one of the trial judges, wrote his Young Goodman Brown; Shirley Baker wrote her Peace, My Daughters; Esther Forbes A Mirror for Witches; Lyon Phelps The Gospel Witch; Arthur Miller wrote his The Crucible and Jean Paul Satre carried on the tradition with his film, Les Sorciers de Salem. There have been perhaps as many films based loosely on the trials as there have been novels and plays. These books and films are all guilty of grossly misrepresenting what actually happened. They depict in detail, for instance, the drinking of blood, dancing naked in the moonlight and adultery galore. There is, however, no shade of evidence that any of the defendants (or their accusers for that matter) at the original trials were guilty of any of these things. Many of them were shown to have led very stable, healthy family lives. Yet Shirley Barker, in her book, even has one of the accused committing adultery with the Devil himself in bodily form. One is tempted to believe that such writers were more superstitious than the seventeenth century people whom they professed to depict. John Updike’s modern bestseller, The Witches of Eastwick shows that this superstition is still highly prevalent amongst present day authors who still delight in portraying the sordid lives of New England witches.
Arthur Miller is perhaps the most radical of all writers on the Salem Witch Trials. He tells us that, in effect, the trials were a bi-product of the adulterous conduct of a servant girl, Abigail Williams, with a married man, John Proctor. The girl accused Proctor’s wife of witchcraft in order to rid herself of a rival. Another servant girl, under the power of Abigail then accused Proctor. The latter, according to Miller, could have been saved from execution if he had been able to prove that he was an adulterer. His wife, Elizabeth, to whom Proctor had confessed his adultery, could have testified to this fact and thus saved his life. She chose, however, to lie to the court, thinking that it would be better to preserve her husband’s good name rather than his life. Miller uses this made-up story to depict the triumph of good over evil. He makes Proctor, the adulterer, his hero and his symbol of good in society. The playwright’s symbol of evil is the Puritan faith personified in Cotton Mather, the learned New England Puritan and author of The Great Works of Christ in America 1 .
Arthur Miller as a Moral Teacher
In an article entitled Morality and Modern Drama 2, Miller takes up the criticism that there is a lack of moral value in modern plays. He argues that drama and literature are highly moral in nature, showing what is “right and wrong, good and bad, high and low”. The playwright explains that the purpose of drama and literature is, however, to reform people morally, “not so much by setting forth these values as such, but by showing, so to speak, the wages of sin.”. In another essay Miller asserts that without the “perverse example” of evil people “we should not know the good3“.
Miller can argue in this way as he believes that all men have a basic concept of what is good in their minds. The writer’s task is to bring out this basic goodness in people by shocking them with evil. Thus Miller can say,
“By showing what happens when there are no values, I, at least, assume that the audience will be compelled and propelled towards a more intense quest for values that are missing 4“.
The weakness in this naive argument is clearly seen in the interpretation that Miller gives of Moses and the Ten Commandments. Moses, according to Miller, was able to develop a technique by which he codefied what many people knew to be morally good. In his own words the writer says that the Ten Commandments were, “purely and simply a way of putting into capsule form what probably the most sensitive parts of the society were wishing could be stated so that people could memorize it and people could live by it 5.” Moses, apparently, was a mere ‘spiritual propagandist’ with a genius for giving people what they knew they needed. The writer overlooks the simple fact that whilst Moses was on Mount Sinai, the other Jews were denouncing their leader as an impostor and worshipping the golden calf. There did not seem to be much awareness of the need for the Ten Commandments amongst them. Miller, however, goes on to give further examples of such “spiritual propaganda” in the Gospels, and states that the whole Bible uses this ‘technique’. Miller implies that the use of this ‘technique’ was purely of human origin. He realises that the authors of the Scriptures claimed to have divine authority but argues that this was all part of their ‘technique of deceit’. Although Miller uses the word ‘deceit’, he objects to being thought negatively deceitful and argues that “Technique is like anything else; it is deceitful only when it is used for deceitful purposes 6” Thus the Bible is full of deceit but its message is morally acceptable as it deceives for a good purpose. Miller sees himself as standing in the same literary tradition as his (warped) view of the Bible and writing as a spiritual propagandist who is not so much concerned with the truth of his teaching but with the reforming effect it has on his audiences, readers and viewers.
Miller’s Claim to Present Historical Truths
Miller’s remarks regarding ‘technique’ and ‘deceit’ must be born in mind when viewing the genesis of his play, The Crucible, and, in fact, whenever Miller claims to be telling the truth. Thus when Miller makes such statements concerning The Crucible as:
“I believe that the reader will discover here the essential nature of one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history. The fate of each character is exactly that of his historical model, and there is no one in the drama who did not play a similar – and in some cases exactly the same – role in history 7 .”
We must ask ourselves if this is not merely Miller’s doctrine of deceit used as a technique to ‘reform’ his readers, viewers and audiences.
In his essay Journey to The Crucible Miller starts by affirming that the play is “taken from history” and that, “no character is in the play who did not take on a similar role in Salem, 1692″. The playwright tells us that, although he knew the story of the trials, he went to Salem to read the town records for the period of the trials to check on the facts. He emphasises time and time again that details he gives are “historically correct”. This claim must be looked into in detail.
The Crucible and Class-Warfare
Miller stresses the ‘fact’ that the people who came under suspicion of witchcraft were the simple souls of society who suffered under the prevalence of fanaticism created by Puritanism. This seems to be Miller’s way of back-projecting a political left-right controversy onto the Salem scene. This does not meet the historical facts. There was no class war in Salem. There were slaves, servants, wealthy land owners and Harvard graduates both amongst the accusers and the accused. Many commentators back up Miller’s theory by pointing out that most of the participants in the tragedy could neither read nor write and had to make a mark on documents they signed in lieu of a written signature. One authoress quotes Miller as saying that “most of the participants were unlettered, simple folk 8” and adds in her own words, “These values are something our society has lost, and a search for them is inherent in all Miller’s work 9“. But what are the values of ‘simple folk’ seen through Miller’s eyes? The writer presents most of the people in his play as being land-grabbing, superstitious, vindictive, revengeful, cowardly, adulterous and downright evil. If Miller is indeed looking for high moral values he would be wasting his time looking for them in his own play.
The ability to read and write was far more common in colonial times than Miller and his followers suppose 10. The records are full of references to the literacy of the accused and many of the accused’s letters are carefully preserved. The fallacy that the defendants were illiterate arises from a misinterpretation of the seventeenth-century practice of signing documents with a mark or by means of a seal. There are extant documents from the trials which bear such marks and seals. Rather than this indicating that the signatories were of an uneducated class, it indicates that they were familiar with the social decorum of their age. Even the court doctor who examined the defendants signed his reports with a mark rather than a signature. In view of Miller’s ‘technique of deceit’ it is perhaps irrelevant to the author whether the historical characters were poor illiterates or not.
The Crucible and the True Historical Context
Miller makes little attempt to fit his play into the historical context of 1692. The whole colony was in a state of rebellion following the events of the Glorious Revolution in England. On hearing that William and Mary had come to the throne, the colonialists had revolted against their Governor, Edmund Andros, who represented for them both the old regime and a too close an alliance with the Church of England. The colony then sent Increase Mather to England to ask the King and Queen for a new charter. Increase was away for four years before returning in the late spring of 1692 with the new, liberal charter in his pocket and accompanied by Sir William Phips, the new Governor. As soon as Phips arrived he was called off to deal with troubles between settlers and the Indians. Another important factor added to the unrest. Salem was a rapidly growing community of merchants and farmers. The merchants lived in what came to be called Salem Town and the farmers lived in Salem Village, now called Danvers. There was great rivalry between these two fractions. Kirk House in his The Salem Witch Trials 11 points out how the accusers (women, children and servants) were on the village ‘side’ whereas the accused were those in sympathy with the policies of the town.
On the whole the Salem town records give a more positive description of the values and beliefs of the time than those found in The Crucible. The judges were certainly not the evil men Miller makes them, indeed they were very conscientious men. Their great mistake was not to follow the advice of Puritans such as Cotton Mather. They tried to solve theological problems by legal means. Some of the accused showed almost incredible bravery and a godly Biblical faith. When one reads the town records one quickly obtains a view of both the accused and the accusers as real children, men and women with real moral problems. A few such as George Burroughs, we cannot help almost loathing because of his perjury and bragging. Others such as old Rebecca Nurse win our greatest respect for their piety. The figures Miller presents us with, on the other hand, are spectral figures with no real flesh and blood. He uses names merely as a mouthpiece for his own brand of propaganda. This is nowhere made clearer than in the case of Miller’s two main characters. The real Abigail was only eleven years old in 1692. Sensitive to the scandalous implications of making his ‘heroine’ an eleven-year-old whore, Miller makes her seventeen. One can go through the Salem Records with a small tooth-comb and never find any other evidence than that Abigail was a silly little girl with none of the ‘grown-up’ perversions which Miller attaches to her. Proctor, according to Miller, was innocent of witchcraft. This is confirmed by modern interpretations of the records. Miller, however, besmirches the memory of a brave man who was wrongly condemned by making him guilty of an equally horrible sin. If Miller had read the contemporary records, as he professes, he must know that adultery was seen by the English law prevalent in Massachusetts as more grevous than witchcraft. If one confessed to witchcraft one was reprieved, if one confessed to adultery one had to pay the penalty – death. The real Proctor was a God-fearing man who asked Cotton Mather to join him in prayer before being executed. Eye-witnesses say that Proctor prayed in stalwart faith, asking God to forgive his accusers 12. Miller makes a non-church-going sceptic out of Proctor.
The Salem Witch Trials were conducted by an Oyer and Terminer Court holding the legal powers of the day. This court was held according to English law and an English lawyer, Mr Newton was present to act as King’s attorney. Dalton’s Justice, which was the accepted legal guide of the day, was used as a basis for examining both the accusers and the accused. Thus formal indictments were made and a jury was elected which heard both sides put their cases. Before the accused were brought to court, petitioners were listened to and the accused were questioned over a period of months. Miller has his witches sentenced to death only a matter of days after being accused.
According to English law witchcraft was not ipso facto a crime. Courts tried witches for the crimes that they were presumed to have committed through the agency of witchcraft. Thus Burroughs was arrested for apparently boasting that he had murdered one of his previous wives by means of wizardry. He was also charged with brutality against other women. Torture was allowed in order to gain confession. John Proctor wrote to Increase Mather complaining that three of the defendants, including his own son, had been tortured. Giles Cory, who refused to plead, was tortured to death. This is brutal and inhumane but it was the law of the land at the time. It had nothing to do with the New England Puritans. On the contrary, it was the product of a regime, on the whole, opposed to Puritanism. New England, because of its Puritan inheritance, can be shown to have had far fewer witch trials than European communities of a similar size. There were also more reprieves than condemnations. The records show that the Mathers made themselves unpopular by condemning torture as a means of obtaining evidence.
Miller rules these essential and historical features of the trials ‘out of court’ and presents the judge as arbitrarily forcing people to testify against the accused or be held in contempt of court and sentencing people to be hanged or even crushed to death without a glimmer of a fair trial.
On reading the many reviews, criticisms and comments on Miller’s The Crucible, a Christian will be amazed to read how Miller’s system of historical deceit is accepted as the done thing in drama. Phillip Walker’s words in his Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”: Tragedy or Allegory? sum this view up when he writes dogmatically:
“Such departures from fact, undertaken as they are for the purpose of personifying conflict, are, of course, not only excusable, but are representative of sound dramaturgy. The only criticism that can be leveled justly in this regard is that Miller did not go far enough 13“.
This might be dramaturgically acceptable but for two factors. First Miller takes such pains to explain that he is telling the ‘essential’ truth. Secondly, he uses the good names of real people and makes them guilty of crimes they did not commit. Present day New Englanders are very proud of their pioneer ancestors. It may be that Miller is attacking what he feels is their smugness. Whatever Miller’s reason, he is following the maxim of many a totalitarian government or dictatorship – if you are going to tell a lie, make it a big one if you want it to be believed. In following this maxim Miller goes far too far.
Cotton Mather, Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Theocracy
Whilst Miller was writing The Crucible he was obviously smarting under the humility of being criticised for ‘un-American practice’. He was eventually condemned for such practice by the McCarthy courts. It is ironical that part of Miller’s defence was to show that he did not “warp the truth” 14. Miller, however, appealed against the court’s verdict and won his case. Miller, who at times suggests that he is using The Crucible as an analogy of McCarthianism, does not give his cardboard Puritans the same legal leniency and justice which he received at the hands of McCarthy. No mercy is shown and no right of appeal is allowed. The number of appeals granted and sentences squashed at the Salem trials, however, was far, far higher than the number of convictions. In denouncing McCarthyism by denouncing the Salem Court, Miller shows himself to be the least tolerant of the lot.
It is obvious that Miller associates the efforts of McCarthy to clean up America with the strivings of the earlier Puritans to establish a Theocracy in New England. Thus one of Miller’s aims in writing The Crucible was to show that, “a political, objective, knowledgeable campaign from the far Right (McCarthianism) was capable of creating not only terror, but a new subjective reality, a veritable mystique which was gradually assuming even a holy resonance” 15. Seemingly oblivious to the historical data, Miller back-projects ‘far-right’ politics onto the Puritans – in spite of their Whiggish views – and up-dates the Puritan longing for holiness to his contemporary scene. He describes how the whole country had a feeling of being ‘born anew’ under McCarthy as if he were speaking of McCarthy as a Puritan leader. It would seem that as it was politically dangerous to attack the ‘far right’ at the time, Miller looked back at the ‘neutral’ past for a similar event which could be used via analogy to point a finger of criticism at his own political enemies. He then decided that the Puritans were a fair equivalent of the Ellis Island interrogators of his day and that their Theocracy was a direct parallel to the ‘holy mystique’ of McCarthyism.
Miller believes that the Salem Witch Trials so antagonised decent minded people against the harsh Puritans, whom he says caused them, that they sounded the death knell of the Theocracy in New England. He thus hoped that a reexamination of the trials according to his principles of interpretation would help to rid the world of McCarthy. In the play he thus depicts the Puritans as symbolising stubborn dogmatism and superstition and their opponents as being enlightened. It is true that the Salem files give us at times a bleak view of superstition prevalent in 1692. The New England colonies, however, were inhabited by a very mixed population from the start. When the Massachusetts Bay Company was founded most of the power was put into the hands of stockholders, merchants and freemen 16 who were not required to share the Puritan faith. The idea that all the early colonists were Puritans and thus they must have been extremely narrow-minded in matters of politics and religion is a myth many present-day North Americans believe. This is most likely because school textbooks in the States propagate this error 17. In 1692 there were Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, various non-conformist groups, Quakers, Roman Catholics, Deists, Unitarians, free-thinkers, Devil-worshippers and sceptics living sideby side. There was also an important minority of Continental Europeans who had brought with them their various faiths. Many of the accusers and the accused were almost outsiders to the Church. There was also a real shortage of well-qualified, godly ministers at the time. Many churches had to make do with unordained pastors such as George Burroughs or ministers such as Samuel Parris who had been unsuccessful in business and turned in later life to the ministry as a second calling. Many church members were even questioning the office of a pastor and setting up their own meetings with women speakers after the fashion of Anne Hutchinson 18. Several decades before the Salem Trials visits to ‘wise women’ had become commonplace for many seeking guidance. These women, who often claimed to have supernatural and even diabolical powers, had a real hold on the more gullible members of society.
Contrary to the view that the Theocracy died with the Salem Witch Trials, which Miller and his ilk propagate, the theory of the Theocracy incorporating all members of society was not held by the Mathers at all. They knew quite well that where wheat grew there would also be tares. If the Mathers erred at all as pastors, it was not because of any fanatical adherence to a belief that New England was a Calvinist Theocracy. On the contrary, they were prepared to accept as church members people who were unsure of their salvation and who were even not prepared to take part in the Lord’s Supper. They even campaigned for full social and political franchise for non-church members. It was Cotton Mather’s father, Increase Mather, who introduced the so-called Half-Way Covenant into the Boston area. This was a form of church membership which allowed people ‘of good faith’ to become members without being requires to give evidence of their conversion. It is thus interesting to note that John Richards, one of the judges at the Salem Trials, opposed both the Mathers’ Half-Way Covenant and their more enlightened treatment of witchcraft 19. This shows again how wrong Miller is in viewing Puritan pastors as being ultra-conservative ‘bosses’ and supressing a reform-minded proletariat. The judges at the trials looked on the Mathers as being too progressive, too moderate and too lenient.
One of the many drawbacks of the introduction of the Half-Way Covenant was, however, that superstition actually increased in Salem rather than decreased. The Boston churches, dominated by the Mathers, on the whole, preserved a congregation of believers. Elsewhere, and especially in Salem, it was not the case. The Salem churches were going from bad to worse, spiritually speaking. They were, in fact, already on the verge of Deism and Unitarianism by the time of the trials.
Why Pick on Cotton Mather?
Miller is quite clear in his mind about who was the seventeenth century McCarthy and confessess:
“There is and will always be in my mind the spectacle of the great minister, and ideological authority behind the persecution, Cotton Mather, galloping up to the scaffold to beat back a crowd of villagers so moved by the towering dignity of the victims as to want to free them 20.
Miller thus sees Mather as the man, who, in the blindness of ‘absolute evil’ was responsible for sending twenty people to their deaths and propagating a wave of fanatical terror unique in the history of North America. So as to emphasise that it was from men such as Mather that this reign of terror came, and in order to link him with McCarthy, Miller writes of ‘theocratic prosecution 21“.
One of the most puzzling factors of Miller’s anti-Puritan stand is his view of Cotton Mather which so clearly contradicts the historical evidence. In this connection one must also ask why Miller uses the names of the real accusers and the real accused in his play, as also the names of the junior ministers such as Parris and Hale, but refrains from naming the more influential Increase Mather, Cotton Mather and the senior Salem Pastor, John Higginson. Was this because it would have been more difficult to re-write history if Miller had used the names of well-known historical figures but easier to use the ‘technique of deceit’ with almost unknown characters 22?
No colonial figure, excepting perhaps Benjamin Franklin, has been written about more than Cotton Mather. His name is probably as familiar to North American school children as Cavaliers and Roundheads are familiar to the British. Cotton was, however, still in his twenties in 1692 and still very much a secondary figure to his father, Increase, aged fifty-three. He still had not been called to a church of his own. Neither of the Mathers held any legal position in Salem or anywhere else. We know from the carefully kept records that they had certainly nothing to do with the accusations and idictments against those suspected of witchcraft. Nor were the Mathers Salem ministers. Boston, where both men laboured, was, in those days, a journey of several hours on horseback from Salem. Neither Increase nor Cotton were ever present at the trials though Cotton visited Proctor when he was jailed for a short time in Boston. Cotton may also have visited Burroughs in Salem. Both Increase and Cotton denounced the court’s method of accepting evidence. Godly people were being accused of witchcraft on the grounds that their spectral forms had attacked other villagers. The judges, led by the Vice-Governor, Stoughton, however, believed that the Devil could never use the spectre of a godly person for his own ends. Thus he believed that when people appeared in spectral form their real bodies must be in league with the Devil. Increase pointed out that such a view was quite contrary to Scripture and common sense. Cotton Mather protested strongly against the superstitious view of the court that innocent people could say the Lord’s Prayer but those possessed by the Devil could not. The court refused to accept the Mathers’ arguments. One wonders thus how Miller can point to Cotton Mather as being the instigator of superstitions and malpractice shown by others.
As the prisons filled with suspects and the accusations of the presumed bewitched grew wilder and wilder, Increase published his famous Cases of Conscience, actually leaving the mere theological ground and raising the question as to what evidence in court could be taken as final in witch trials. Increase argued that evidence against witches must be analysed in exactly the same way as evidence analysed in the case of people charged with other crimes. He denounced force used to bring about a confession such as ‘ducking’ and rejected the evidence of single accusers. At least two witnesses must be in agreement about any evidence given, he maintained. Increase went so far as to say that he would “rather judge a witch to be an honest woman than an honest woman to be a witch” and added for good measure that “It were better that ten suspected witches should escape, than that one innocent person should be condemned”. It must be added that the Mathers were the first to publicly question the methods of the court. In Miller’s version of the trials the pastors were unable to deal with the problem and referred the matter to the court. It was the court, however, in the original trials which proved unable to cope with the situation and they turned eventually to the Mathers and the other Boston clergy for help. This help, when it came, proved so much contrary to the superstitions of the judges that it was rejected.
In his Introduction to the Collected Plays Miller argues that Proctor’s ‘liberated cast of mind’ which he demonstrated by, for instance, inventing machines, was contrary to ‘the concept of man’ taught by the Puritans lead by Cotton Mather. Because of this supposed fact, the playwright finds Mather guilty of ‘absolute evil’ 23. Miller seems to be basing his argument on the assumption that scientific research would have been taboo to a Puritan. Mather himself, however, was a keen scientist and member of the Royal Academy. If Proctor were an inventor 24, he would have found a very sympathetic friend in Cotton Mather who was extremely interested in any new scientific invention. Mather is on record as pioneering, for instance, inoculation, an enterprise which almost cost him his life. In 1721 there was a severe outbreak of smallpox in the colony which caused many deaths. Mather sought to combat it with the latest scientific knowledge. His suggestion that the colonists should be inoculated, however, was greeted with fierce horror and the mob tried to lynch the pastor. Apparently the inhabitants thought that once they were inoculated with cow-pox serum they would develop horns and hoofs and start to moo. It is interesting to note that Thomas Hobbes is often used as an example of a ‘modern’ minded man who was opposed to the anti-learning of the Puritans. Yet Hobbes was refused admission to the Royal Academy because of the poverty of his research (he had tried to square the circle), whereas Mather was accepted because of the high standard of his scientific work.
Though Miller claims to have studied the Salem Town records whilst doing research for The Crucible, it is obvious that these are not the main source of his ideas. It is equally obvious which main sources Miller did use.
In September, 1692, the trial judges approached Mather as a ‘neutral’ public figure and asked him to write an official interim report on the trials of five who had been condemned as witches. The five cases were of those who had, to the satisfaction of the court, professed to committing crimes by means of magical skills and having dealings with the Devil. The report was to be used for presentation to the then absent Governor and was incorporated in his report of the trials to England. Mather agreed to the undertaking. This report came into the hands of a Boston weaver and sceptic named Robert Calf who detested the Puritan faith for which Mather stood. Without gaining either Mather’s permission or the court’s, Calf published the report merged with his own very one-sided version of the more spectacular cases of alleged witchcraft and linked the whole with Cotton Mather’s name. Calf’s extended ‘report’ was obviously meant to wound the Mathers personally and bring them into disrepute. Calf, who used the name ‘Calef’ 25 in his writings, even went to the extreme of claiming that father and son had behaved indecently to a young female victim of witchcraft whilst she was helpless in bed and in full view of a host of onlookers. Calf developed quite a knack of rooting out supposed ‘unpublished sayings’ of Cotton Mather and supplementing them with his own base commentaries as in his More Wonders of the Invisible World, which was supposed to be a sequence to Cotton’s Wonders of the Invisible World. Calf eventually wrote a contrite letter to Mather. This, together with the fact that Calf was commonly known to be a liar, stopped Mather from taking a court action against his opponent. When Calf wrote libellously against another minister, Samuel Willard, he was told that the only answer he would get was Proverbs 26:4 which reads “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him”. As Miller refers to points mentioned by Calf alone, such as Cotton’s alleged beating back of the mob which was about to free George Burroughs, it must be deduced that he has read and used that author.
Cotton Mather was very lenient regarding other denominations. In this he followed his father who was instrumental in bringing into being the union of Presbyterians and Congregationalists known as the United Brethren. If a denomination’s Christology and doctrine of the atonement were in order and its members lived a Christian life, Mather was only too pleased to have fellowship with them. He was, however, a vowed opponent of Unitarians because of their low view of Christ. The following generations in Salem witnessed, however, a Unitarian takeover.
A nineteenth century pastor of the Unitarian Church in Salem, Charles W. Upham, gave a series of lectures on the trials in 1831 and eventually published his Salem Witchcraft. Knowing that Cotton Mather detested Unitarianism, Upham severely criticised the Puritan and blamed him for being the instigator of the trials. The ‘proof’ he gives is highly speculative and of a quaint logic. It would have been very strange, we are told, if Mather, with his reputation for managing everything, had not been present at the trials. It can thus be safely ‘supposed’ that he was there. As we must suppose that he was there and yet did not stop the trials, he must have not only condoned them but also encouraged them. Thus Upham can conclude that Cotton Mather was “the leading champion of the judges 26“.
Upham’s portrayal of Mather is a parody of the man. This has been generally recognised by critics who have accused Upham of ‘twisting history’. Many entries on Upham in encyclopaedias add remarks such as “supported the wrong arguments” when describing his views. Upham, needless to say, leans heavily on Calf and constantly quotes him as his authority. It is obvious that Miller has followed Upham’s view of Mather rather than allow Mather to speak for himself from his works 27. Upham gives Cotton Mather the full blame for the trials by arguing that the entire government of the colony and the judges were his ‘creatures’. This does not fit the facts. Of the 28 Councillors in office in 1692 only three were members of the Mather’s church. Of these three, one, Governor Phips was away fighting the Indians throughout most of the trials and when he came back at the end of 1692 he reprieved all the accused. Another member, judge John Richards, as already mentioned, fought against his pastor’s views and threatened to split the church on the Half-Way Covenant debate. There are letters extant in which Mather urges Richards to drop judging the accused on the grounds of spectral evidence. Richards remained unconvinced. If the Governor were Mather’s ‘creature’ this would only speak for Mather. Richards’ stance against Mather shows that he was certainly not his pastor’s ‘creature’.
Miller obviously uses the Reverend John Hale of Beverly in his play to present his view of Cotton Mather 28. It is Upham, however, who first links the two closely together. He refers to Hale’s part in the trials in such words as “If any surmise is justifiable” or “I should be inclined to suggest”. In other words, the Unitarian has little but speculation to offer concerning Hale. Miller makes Hale a key figure as Upham does. Yet the playwright goes further than Upham and professes that his Hale is ‘essentially’ historical.
Proctor was just one of many accused in the Salem Witch Trials. Why did Miller pick on him as his ‘hero’? The Salem records do not single Proctor out in any noticeable way. Upham, however, does, claiming that he knows of ‘local traditions’. This is exactly the claim that Miller makes. It is obvious, however, that what Upham has learnt via ‘local traditions’ describes Proctor in the highest possible terms. He stands out for Upham as an honourable, noble, brave man. Miller dishonours him.
Cotton Mather’s Methods of Dealing with Witchcraft
Cotton’s method of dealing with the problem was practical and direct. He studied all the records of witchcraft he could obtain from Europe and the New World. He paid particular attention to the methods used by witches and those used to assist their victims. He made a particular study of cases in Sweden where prayer, counselling and intensive care had led to cures. He then decided to take into his care those people who were considered bewitched and nurse them into spiritual, bodily and mental health. Mather’s first case was in 1688 when he was only 25 years of age. Four children had been influenced greatly by an elderly Irish Roman Catholic who professed to have dealings with the Devil. The children became very violent, had terrible fits in which they completely lost possession of their senses and were often in great pain. The Irishwoman was condemned and executed but she boasted at her execution that the children would continue to be bewitched as the Devil had other helpers who would take over from her. When Cotton heard about the victims he visited them, discussed their case with them and prayed with them after putting them on a special diet. He appealed to the whole Church to aid them in prayer and care. As the eldest girl was in too bad a state to be cared for adequately by her poor farther Mather took her to live with his own family. One of Cotton’s methods was get the girl to read good books. These included not only Puritan works but also Quaker devotional literature and even a book of jokes! All the children were cured through Mather’s care and this encouraged the pastor to repeat the experiment as other cases arose. He was always successful. This was well known by the Salem judges, but when in 1692 Mather offered to take in six of the ten persons then charged with witchcraft and nurse them at his home the judges refused permission. This negative action on the part of the judges moved A.P. Marvin in his The Life and Times of Cotton Mather 29 to write that if Mather’s methods had been “studied and imitated, it is possible, if not probable, that the whole awful tragedy of blood, in 1692, would have been averted”.
In a collection of sermons preached between 1688 and 1692 Cotton Mather gives four reasons for the high state of superstition prevalent in the colony. These are:
a. “The neglect and contempt of a well-formed education”.
b. “Slothful, careless, quarrelsome delay of destitute churches to furnish themselves with officers appointed by the Lord Jesus Christ for their edification”.
c. Lack of respect for those appointed to govern the colony 30.
d. “The fourth and worst of all is the lamentable want of regeneration 31 in the rising generation”.
From the age of 25 to his death in 1728 Mather strove to find solutions to these problems. Most of the initial accusations concerning witchcraft had come from young girls, women and slaves. It was apparent to Mather that the education of these people had been greatly neglected, a neglect he linked with the amount of superstition they showed. The pastor thus set in motion a thorough- going educational programme for these sections of society. As youth in general was rebellious and without purpose, Mather founded youth clubs to cater for their spiritual and physical welfare. The Puritan realised that there was a dearth in good books so he wrote some 450 of his own to combat this. A mere glance at the variety of books the Puritan produced shows what an enlightened mind he had. His volumes range from fact to fiction, from poetry to scientific dissertations. He wrote learned Latin tombs for the classisists and published works in Spanish and French (He was fluent in seven languages). Numerous monographs for doctors and chemists came from his pen as also biographies, histories, books on the family, books of fables, helps in personal witnessing, handbooks for teachers, guides for pastors and textbooks for pupils. All this apart from the huge amount of exegetical writing which he produced.
Mather did much to maintain a high standard of teaching in the churches both in providing ministers with good books and seeing that good men found needy churches. This brought with it, however, the complaint that Mather wanted to obtain control of other churches than his own.
There has been much criticism of Mather’s style which is claimed to be pseudo-learned and pedantic. Such criticism is one-sided and thus unfair. Mather wrote for just about every social group and educational level in existence. He wrote in a learned way for the learned and in a most simple, even childlike, way to the simple and childlike. Many of his topics such as advice regarding the opposite sex and education for women were far in advance of his age. It is the stubborn refusal of modern writers such as Arthur Miller to accept that Puritans such as Cotton Mather were so forward-looking which make them appear narrow minded, insular and bigoted in comparison. A close study of the facts shows that apart from being a man of God and a fine Puritan Christian, Cotton Mather was one of the most learned and progressive lights of his age.
Abounding in Sin is No Antidote for Sin
Arthur Miller’s theory of showing sin at its worst, thus compelling his audiences to revolt from it and turn over a new leaf, is too naive for words. The only possible answer to Paul’s question, “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” is Paul’s own answer, “God forbid”. The tragedy is that as more and more churches are turning to drama as a modern means of ‘preaching’ the Gospel, Miller’s methods are coming into vogue amongst believers. Christian broadcasting stations are deserting the preaching of the Word and reverting to performing plays as a means of evangelisation. Sunday by Sunday converted Christians are acting the part of unsaved sinners in stage-pulpits, fully oblivious to the words of Scripture, “How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” A recent visit to a ‘very evangelical’ Baptist Church confirmed this development. A group of fifteen-year-olds performed a sketch in which they pretended to be married men making adulterous comments on various women of their acquaintance. Another sketch featured two elderly ladies. One played the part of King David talking openly to a journalist about his sex-life. The other played the part of the journalist getting a scoop about how David had seduced Bathsheba. No Christian application or interpretation was given. In a subsequent conversation the pastor defended these sketches on the grounds that they frightened people off from the world. He did not realise that the hours of rehearsing that the church members had put in, were hours spent poisoning their minds. He did not know that ‘acted’ sin was still real sin. Professional actors realise this and thus they strive so hard to ‘live the part’. This is made plain in the latest film version of John Updike’s book The Witches of Eastwick, starring Jack Nicholson. In this film, which we do not have to see to condemn, Nicholson plays the part of the devil. Of his role the famous actor says:
‘I play the devil and I don’t want to play him safely. I want people to think Jack Nicholson is the devil, I want them to be worried 32.
Nicholson knows full well what Christians playing the part of unredeemed sinners in church plays refuse to accept: acting is being. Acting sin is doing sin.
One of the most disturbing factors of the immoral presentation of David’s sins referred to above was the fact that it was performed during a ‘family service’ in which many small children and youngsters were present. The pastor seemed to be of the opinion that if he had preached from the Bible instead of presenting a play the children would not have ‘got the message’. How wrong the man was. The Bible brought David back to an awareness of his sin and the Lord’s saving Grace through Nathan’s parable of the rich man who robbed the poor man of his only pet lamb 33. Was there ever a child who could not understand this simple story? How we must pray that our parents, pastors and teachers will be able to teach our young to know how to shun evil and turn to our good God in the understandable way the Scriptures show us. This is a far surer way than Miller’s deceitful dramatizations.
- Reprinted by the Banner of Truth Trust in 1979. Cotton Mather is portrayed in the play by the Reverend John Hale. ↩
- The Theatre Essays of Arthur Miller: Ed. Robert A. Martin, N.Y., 1978. ↩
- Ibid, page 158. ↩
- Ibid, page 195. ↩
- Ibid, page 197. ↩
- Ibid, page 198. ↩
- Arthur Miller’s Collected Plays, N.Y., 1977, page 224. ↩
- Taken from Theatre Essays, page 160. ↩
- Shiela Huftel in her Arthur Miller: The Burning Glass, N.Y., 1965. ↩
- In 1692 Cotton Mather required his church members to comment in writing on proposed changes in the church constitution. He receives written statements and suggestions from all but four members, two of whom asked permission to give their opinions orally. Modern American educators tend to forget that the Mathers pioneered general education. ↩
- The Journal of Christian Reconstruction, vol. v.,Winter 1978-79, No 2, page 133. ↩
- See North American Review, No CCXIII, April 1869, pp. 385-6 for an account of Proctor’s brave death. Here Cotton Mather is referred to as “a comforter and friend of the sufferers”. The words “especially Proctor” are added. ↩
- My emphasis. See Western Speech, Fall, 1956, page 223. ↩
- See extensive verbatim report of Miller’s trial in Arthur Miller: The Burning Glass. ↩
- The Theatre Essays of Arthur Miller, N.Y., 1978, page 153. ↩
- The practice of making only church members freemen came later and hardly lasted little more than a score of years. ↩
- See, for instance, American History: John A. Garraty, Harcourt Brace Janovitch, Inc, 1982, p. 52ff.. The author states that the Puritans “would not tolerate anyone whose religious beliefs differed from their own”. The evidence that the author presents concerning the work of the Puritans, however, would, in reality, point to quite the opposite. It becomes obvious when reading Garraty’s book that the Puritans were far more tolerant than other social, political and religious bodies of the day. But the clichés remain! ↩
- An early colonist who objected to the standard of ministry and set up her own house-meetings. Hutchinson taught that formal religion, church attendance and prayer were less important than leading a holy life. She tended, however, to teach that this was an either-or matter. ↩
- Although it is obvious that Cotton Mather was moved by the highest motives to ratify the Half-Way Covenant officially in 1692, it must be stressed that the decision did not merely lie with him. Mather often had to suffer under the democratic nature of his church constitution. Many members had threatened to leave the church and go elsewhere if the Half-Way Covenant were not fully implemented. Mather’s church was a one-member-one-vote organisation. Women enjoyed full membership in Mather’s church. ↩
- Theatre Essays, page 157. ↩
- Introduction to the Collected Plays, p.160. ↩
- One explanation could be that Miller is thinking of the English judge, Sir Mathew Hale who believed in making convictions based on spectral evidence. A more conclusive reason will be given below when Miller’s sources are examined. ↩
- See Theatre Essays, p. 156 ff. ↩
- Miller claims he has been told of to a family tradition to this effect. ↩
- Cotton Mather has often been criticised for calling Calf by that name rather than Calef. Calf was, however, his real name. It seems that when Calf read the proofs of his ‘report’, he discovered that his name had been spelt incorrectly as ‘Calef’. Calf kept the new name as a pen-name for obvious reasons. His wife, however, continued to sign herself ‘Calf’. ↩
- See Historical Magazine, Sept. 1869, vol. VI, Second Series, especially p. 161. ↩
- See Leonard Moss: Arthur Miller, N.Y., 1967, p.126. Moss argues that Miller “followed Upham’s explanation of factual, psychological, sociological, ethical and religious matters”. ↩
- See Miller’s long description of Hale in the first act of The Crucible. References to Hale’s interest in ‘the invisible world’, caring for the victims of witchcraft and the ‘fact’ that Hale “feels himself allied with the best minds in Europe” show that Miller is really writing about Mather. ↩
- Boston, 1892, p.127. ↩
- Mather did not mean that the government was above criticism as he shows in his essay The Deplorable State of New England. He was criticising the unwillingness in the colony to be governed at all. ↩
- Mather’s emphasis. ↩
- World and Press, No 908, Nov. 1987, page 5. ↩
- II Samuel 12:1ff. ↩