A dark period in early American history, the Salem witch trials were a series of hearings and trials to prosecute people accused of witchcraft in the counties of Essex, Suffolk, and Middlesex, Massachusetts, between February 1692 and May 1693. Hundreds of people were arrested, imprisoned, and tried for the crime of witchcraft, and nineteen of them were hanged. One was crushed under heavy stones, and at least five more died in prison. Numerous social, religious, psychological, and political reasons have been put forth as contributing factors to the bizarre events, but one thing is certain: the Salem Witch Trials were not biblical from a number of perspectives.
Some proponents of this kind of action have pointed to Old Testament commands like Exodus 22:18, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” or Leviticus 20:27, “A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or is a wizard, shall surely be put to death,” as justification for the trials. They would say that, since God commanded death for anyone found guilty, then we are obligated to carry out those commands today. If that were the case, then we would have difficulty understanding what happened in Acts 19:19. As Paul ministered in Ephesus, many who had practiced witchcraft brought their books and burned them, confessing their sinful deeds. Instead of stoning these people, Paul welcomed them when they confessed and repented of their sins. Likewise, Simon the Sorcerer in Acts 8:9 was not stoned, but was rebuked by Peter.
Why didn’t Peter and Paul obey God’s commands from the Old Testament? First of all, the Law was given to the nation of Israel as the basis of a theocracy. Israel was the only nation in all of history to legally and politically come under the direct authority of God. He did not originally establish a king to rule over them but declared Himself to be their only true king (1 Samuel 10:19). By the time of Jesus and the apostles, Israel was no longer a sovereign nation and could no longer carry out all of the laws God had given them. When Jesus was presented for crucifixion before Pilate, the Jewish leaders had to get permission from the Roman governor to carry out their plans. Second, in this church age, we are no longer under the Law but under grace (Romans 6:14). This doesn’t give an excuse to sin, but it does open the door of mercy to anyone who will confess and forsake his sin, no matter how grievous that sin is.
Another reason the Salem witch trials were unbiblical is the manner in which they were carried out. The historical accounts of the trials make it pretty clear that most of the accused were really the victims of mass hysteria, petty jealousy, or gossip. Little evidence was produced to verify the charges leveled, and that which was produced was hearsay or circumstantial. In most cases it was one person’s word against another, and once the charge was made, the victim’s word was rejected. Those responsible for the trials were in most cases probably guiltier of sin than those who were accused. Lies, gossip, and slander were the rule of the day, and God was certainly not honored in anything that was done there. First Corinthians 13:4–7 stands as an indictment on those who carried out the Salem witch trials, showing that they did not have the love of God within them.