|People and Topics||Biographical Data|
Samuel Willard played an important role in the halting of the Salem witch trials. Born in 1640 to a privileged family, Willard had a long simmering devotion to the Puritan church, a devotion he would later cultivate at Harvard College. Despite his religious fervor, Willard appears to be man of uncommon calm, as he urged caution in the accusing and trying of witches. Willard also denounced spectral evidence, claiming that the devil could impersonate even the innocent by appearing in their shape. After the trials ended, Willard was to push hard for reconciliation between the pro-Parris and anti-Parris factions of Salem Village.
Written By Dave Hendrick
Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature
An Undergraduate Course, University of Virginia
Spring Semester 2001
In evaluating those Puritan ministers involved in the Salem witch trials, we would certainly have to regard the Rev. Samuel Willard of Boston as one of the virtuous clergymen, as he was opposed to the trials and tried to influence public opinion against them in 1692. Undoubtedly, great things had long been expected of Willard, as his family lineage bespeaks that of a man destined to make an impact upon the community.
Willard was born in the town Concord, Massachusetts Bay in 1640. His place among the town's leaders was virtually assured from birth, as his father, Simon Willard, was the founder of Concord. Willard soon set out on the familiar course for young aspiring ministers, enrolling at Harvard where he would study long enough to receive his Master's Degree in 1659. Indeed, Samuel Willard could very well be remembered solely for his fiery devotion to the Puritan church, as he was well known for his vicious denunciations of any attempts to water down the Puritan tenets of predestination, irresistible grace, total depravity, and perseverance of the saints. Willard was also known for his staunch support for the continued marriage between church and state, and held strong opposition to the creeping Quaker and Baptist influences in the community. In these ways, Willard's sermons were heavily influential to men who would take up the Puritan cause after his death, Jonathan Edwards in particular. Nevertheless, it is Willard's role in the witch trials that concerns us here.
Willard's past experience seems to make him a fine candidate to speak out about the trials of the 1690s, as he played a crucial role in heading off a potential outbreak of hysteria some twenty years prior to the Salem episode. In 1671, while ministering in the frontier town of Groton, Massachusetts Bay, Willard was witness to a number of strange acts that befell one of his servants, a young girl of sixteen by the name of Elizabeth Knapp. Knapp seems to have exhibited a number of the symptoms that would be made famous by the "afflicted" girls of Salem village twenty years later. Indeed, Knapp was observed to act in a "strange and unwonten" manner, and often fell into violent fits and complained of being attacked. When Knapp eventually accused the specter of a neighbor of attacking her, Willard insisted she put an end to such accusations at once, for the neighbor was a person of "sincere uprightness before God." Also, Willard seems to have exercised good judgment in being hesitant to believe that the devil afflicted the girl, writing that "Whither shee has covenanted with the Devill or noe, I think this is a case unanswerable, her declarations have been soe contradictorye. . . . ". Although Willard was yet to denounce the idea of Satan using a person's image or specter to attack another person, here he seems to have used impeccable judgment in not rushing to conclusions about why his young woman appeared afflicted.
Willard's role in Salem also presents a man concerned that innocent people must be protected from the misinformed and vicious elements in the Puritan society. When Governor William Phips sought guidance from some of the learned clergy in the area, Willard was one of the several who signed "The Return of Several Ministers." This document acknowledged that while the devil might be responsible for the afflictions found in Salem, it urged the court to exercise great caution to prevent the innocent from being convicted. The ministers further discounted the reliability of spectral evidence by asserting that the devil could impersonate the likeness of any person, even an "innocent" without that person's permission. Although the court in Salem ignored this caution, spectral evidence was eventually called into question the trials lost their theological foundation. The work of Willard and his like minded colleagues also shows that to whatever extent clergymen in Salem may have contributed to the witchcraft outbreak, Willard and other Boston ministers tried to quell its spread.
A level-headed moderate concerning witchcraft, Willard is thought to have written a sixteen page fictional dialogue between two ministers who hold opposed points of view on the Salem trials. One minister represented the views of the Salem clergy, the other represented the Boston ministers. The dialogue, entitled "Some Miscellany Observations on our present debates respecting Witchcrafts: A Dialogue between 'S' and 'B'" is clearly the work of one who saw great injustice in the theological and legal aspects of the trials. Among Willard's chief complaints is the fact that so often a confession coupled with further accusations resulted in an acquittal, while a denial of guilt virtually guaranteed one's conviction. Among the Boston minister's key arguments in the dialogue is that "witches" who ultimately confess and accuse other witches are not to be trusted, because, after all, they're witches! When the Salem clergyman decries using too much caution, allowing many witches to go free, Boston replies that "the more horrid the crime is, the more cautious we ought to be in making any guilty of it." Boston's point being that relying on the suspect spectral evidence was no basis from which to ruin men and women's lives and cast a permanent stigma upon their family name.
Samuel Willard continued to be a tireless anti-trial activist well after the trials had passed. In 1694, he pushed for a reconciliation between the pro and anti-Samuel Parris factions within Salem village. Willard was also known to ask, in public ceremony and sermon, for God to forgive the atrocities that had taken place in Salem at the hands of overzealous townsfolk.
Peterson, Mark. "Ordinary Preaching and the Interpretation of the Salem Witchcraft Crisis by the Boston Clergy," Essex Institute Historical Collections.
Robbins, Stephen. "Samuel Willard and the Specters of God's Wrathful Lions," The New England Quarterly.