Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Witch hunts

On this date in 1692, during the witch hysteria in Salem, Massachusetts, five people -- one woman, four men -- were hanged. Among them was George Burroughs, a clergyman, who confounded the witnesses by faultlessly reciting the Lord's Prayer on the scaffold, something a witch was supposedly unable to do. Bystanders claimed to see the Devil standing beside him and whispering the prayer into his ear to help, which was absurd since the Devil could certainly not recite the prayer.

At the insistence of the accusers and of the Rev. Cotton Mather, present on the occasion, Burroughs nonetheless was sent to his death.

One may make of that what one will. It was perhaps not the best moment for religion in the Americas. One regrets to say that the mentality at work in Salem in 1692 has not disappeared from our midst. The same lack of consistent logic remains at work among many who denounce in the name of God those whom they dislike and distrust for reasons that escape close examination.

A version of this historical incident was incorporated into the movie of The Crucible, only there others who were accused recited the prayer as they were hanged. Arthur Miller's play, of course, about the Salem hysteria was written in response to the anti-communist hysteria that gripped this country during the McCarthy era. The actual event of the prayer and its incorporation into the drama always struck me as a Protestant parallel to the Discalced Carmelite nuns of Compiegne, who went to the guillotine during the French Revolution singing hymns. That dramatic episode is the culmination of Poulenc's opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites.