Tuesday, September 8, 2015

American scholars often ignore anti-Catholicism when they write American history: A comment on Stacy Schiff's New Yorker essay on withcraft in Puritan Massachusetts

"Men occasionally stumble over the truth," Churchill is said to have remarked,  "but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened."

I thought about Churchill's observation as I was reading Nancy Schiff's essay about witchcraft in Puritan Massachusetts that appeared recently in the New Yorker.  I am sure it was a very learned scholarly exercise. After all, Schiff won the Pulitzer Prize for her book on Cleopatra. And I'm sure everything she wrote in the witchcraft article is accurate.  Nevertheless, Schiff stumbled over some important truths and picked herself up as if nothing had happened.

Early in her article, Schiff writes about the apparent bewitchment of the Martha Goodwin, the daughter of a Boston stonelayer. Cotton Mather got involved and discovered a witch. As Schiff wrote:
The cause of Martha's affliction was identified soon enough. The witch was the mother of a neighborhood laundress. On the stand, the defendant was unable adequately to recite the Lord's Prayer, understood to be proof of guilt. She was hanged in November, 1688 on Boston Common. (p.48)
Schiff failed to mention the name of the woman who was hanged: Ann "Goody" Glover," a Gaelic-speaking Irish woman who was probably a former slave who had been captured during Oliver Cromwell's Irish holocaust (1649-1653).  According to writer Brian O'Neel, Ann Glover was Catholic and her family were probably the only Catholics in Boston at the time. O'Neel quotes a scholar who concluded that Catholicism was equated with witchcraft among some of the Puritan preachers.

At her trial, Goody Glover was able to recite the Lord's Prayer in the Irish tongue but not in English; therefor she was judged a witch. As Schiff records, Glover was hanged in Boston Common in November 1688, after being taunted on her walk to the scaffold by Puritan bigots.

In short, Ann Glover was a Catholic martyr, and the circumstances of her death should have been stated more fully by Schiff.  Surely the good Ms. Glover deserved to be identified by name and recognized for what she was, a faithful Irish Catholic. And Cotton Mather deserved to be described as what he was--a Harvard-trained anti-Catholic bigot (among the first of many).

Schiff also wrote that when the Puritans established a legal code in 1641, the first two capital offenses were idolatry and witchcraft.The Puritans considered Catholicism to be the chief form of idolatry, so the Puritans basically made Catholicism a criminal offense. Certainly the Puritans made their anti-Catholic animus clear the following year, when they passed a law making it a capital offense for a Catholic priest to be inside the boundaries of the colony.

Our higher education elites are in a frenzy to purge any positive reference to historical figures who do not meet today's standards of political correctness. Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson have been purged from their former glory as founding lights of the Democratic Party. The University of Texas has exiled its statue of Jefferson Davis to an obscure space; Robert E. Lee may be removed from New Orelans' Lee Circle.

And perhaps that is a good thing.  But let's not take half measures. Let the Puritans be vilified for what they were--anti-Catholic bigots, along with President John Adams, Lyman Beecher, Horace Mann and dozens of other famous 19th century Protestant American who despised Catholicism.  Horace Mann still has an insurance company named after him, along with numerous public schools.

Surely, religious bigotry is as hateful as racism. And if the intellectual elites have not unmasked the anti-Catholic bigots in our history books, perhaps it is because they are anti-Catholic bigots themselves.
Cotton Mather on a good-hair day


Brian O'Neel, 150 North American Martyrs You Should Know (Cincinnati, OH: Servant Books, 2014).

Nancy Schiff, "The Witches of Salem," New Yorker ( September 7, 2015), 46.