The Rev. John Hale returned home from the victorious campaign to capture Louisbourg, Nova Scotia for Great Britain in 1690 to discover a witch crisis was about to erupt in his hometown. Hale was at that point a respected, senior leader as long-tome pastor of the church in Beverly, Massachusetts.
Governor William Phips had asked the 54-year-old pastor to accompany the campaign to Canada as chaplain to make sure the militiamen maintained their morals, and Hale willingly agreed. Harvard-educated, Hale was no stranger to cases of witches, but he had never encountered the witch fever that was about to sweep over Massachusetts’ north shore.
It was January, 1692 when the witch hysteria first erupted in Salem. Salem’s new minster, Samuel Parris, had moved in from Boston, where the witch trial of Ann Glover in 1688 had titillated the popular imagination about witches. Parris called upon the senior minister, Hale, to evaluate a case of several girls who exhibited symptoms that he feared resembled the work of a witch.
Hale accepted the assignment. Hale had long discouraged dabbling in the occult and had participated in witch trials as an expert. His first brush with witchcraft had been watching the execution of Margaret Jones in Charlestown in 1648.
After looking into the matter, Hale concluded, as had Parris, that witchcraft was at work in Salem. Hale and the other town leaders began actively seeking the source of the bewitchment. The mass hysteria grew out of control and 20 people were executed, some thanks in part to Hale’s testimony before Governor Phips finally put a stop to the Court of Oyer and Terminer and its executions.
As the witch accusations continued flying, Hale suddenly had a change of heart, however. His wife, Sarah, fell under suspicion. A young girl reported seeing Sarah Hale as a specter or spirit. The minister’s wife had tormented her by pinching and choking her.
Hale hid his wife away from arrest. By November 1692 when the charges were made, the court had stopped trying witches and the witch crisis was already passing. To many, including her husband, the charges against Sarah Hale were ludicrous. She was a popular and virtuous woman, and the allegations against her helped even die-hard supporters of witchcraft to conclude that the trials had been a tragic mistake.
Hale would write an analysis of the trials, attempting to explain for posterity what had happened. In his Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft, Hale concluded that Satan had managed to work a trick against the Puritans by creating the impression that upstanding people were witches. Though he conveniently excused the judges and witnesses against the witches from blame, including himself, he did include a plea for forgiveness in his study:
“Such was the darkness of that day, the tortures and lamentations of the afflicted and the power of former precedents that we walked in the clouds and could not see our way. And we have much cause to be humbled for error on that hand, which cannot be retrieved. So that we must beseech the Lord, that if any innocent blood hath been shed, in the hour of temptation, the Lord will not lay it to our charge, but be merciful to his people who he hath redeemed and that on the day when he shall visit he will not visit this upon our land, but blot it out, and wash it away with the blood of Jesus Christ.”