European Witch Hunts and the Christian Church: The Conclusion

Today’s post is the third and final installment of a series, but it can be read as a stand-alone article. For more background information, you can find the first installment HERE and the second HERE.

Was the Church Ultimately Responsible for the Horrors of the European Witch Hunts?

There are many different theories about the root causes of the European witch hunts. Some historians cite impetuses such as misogyny, government attempts at social control, mental illness, and socio-economic conflict.[1] Taken in isolation, each of the many theories is insufficient, but some of them possibly played a contributing role. The one that often receives the greatest amount of attention is the theory that the Church was ultimately to blame for the witch hunts and the associated failures of justice. A careful examination of the available evidence shows that this theory sorely lacks explanatory power.

Prior to the witch-hunting era, during the Middle Ages, the common Christian view was that witchcraft was an illusion and that witches didn’t actually exist.[2] “Magic” was a common practice, but seldom regarded as misconduct.[3] According to Pavlac, “It took the arguments of theologians, a number of inquisitors’ manuals, and a series of papal bulls…to contradict [the] traditional Christian idea, and identify witchcraft with a dangerous heresy.”[4] But even though Pope Innocent VIII presented a bull in 1484 that allowed the Inquisition to pursue witches, there is debate on whether or not many church authorities saw witches as a legitimate danger and took advantage.[5]

The Protestant Reformation ensued just a few decades after Innocent VIII’s bull, and papal authority was renounced by the Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anglicans. Nevertheless, all four of the major western branches of Christianity participated in the persecution of witches.[6] Major figures of Protestantism spoke out strongly against the practice of witchcraft. For instance, John Calvin, in his Sermon on Deuteronomy, said, “Let us note that if we want to be taken for Christians, Witchcrafts, enchantments, and such other similar things must be no more tolerated among us than Robberies and Murders.” Martin Luther wrote quite a lot about witches, demonology, and sorcery, citing personal experiences with demonic powers and his own mother’s experiences with a “witch” neighbor who allegedly killed her own children.[7] He said, “There is no compassion to be had for these women; I would burn all of them myself, according to the law, where it is said that priests began to stone criminals to death.”[8] It should be recognized, then, that all branches of Christianity bore some responsibility. What needs to be addressed is how much responsibility.

It has been theorized that the conflicts arising from the Reformation resulted in the different branches of Christianity attacking one another with witch hunts.[9] It is true that sniffing out hidden heretics was a concern of the Church and helped facilitate the witch hunts.[10] However, the problem with this religious conflict thesis is that it was very rare for someone from one branch to accuse someone of another branch of witchcraft; rather, the accuser and the accused were usually from the same faith persuasion.[11]

Some claim that the witch trials were brought about, endorsed, and conducted by powerful religious fanatics. It is crucial to recognize, however, that church authorities were, by and large, the lenient ones in the witch trials.[12] According to Stark, “…the various Inquisitions…were far more likely to acquit or to give mild sentences than were the secular courts….[I]n places where the authority of the Inquisitions was greatest, such as in Italy and Spain, most accusations of witchcraft were dismissed without trials, and very few of those convicted were executed.”[13]  Pavlac agrees, stating that of the 100,000 people caught by the Inquisition, only around 3,500 were found guilty, and only few dozen suffered the death penalty.[14] Furthermore, higher authorities, both civil and ecclesiastical, often overturned or suspended convictions of witchcraft made by local juries and officials.[15] It is noteworthy that the ecclesiastical courts were the most reluctant to use torture to extract confessions and were leading advocates of the discontinuance of that practice.[16] According to Pavlac, the Spanish Inquisitors do not deserve to be branded as crazed, merciless witch hunters; he says:

The remedies they proposed…emphasized preaching according to the Canon Episcopi; close attention to Catholic worship and sacramental; and building churches on sites of alleged Devil worship, rather than torture and death…In cases of witchcraft, inquisitors often restricted the confiscations of property from the condemned…reviewed cases more carefully for second convictions; and demanded more than the testimony of another accused witch for arresting, much less convicting a person.[17]

At times, witch hunts have been offered as an example of the alleged warfare between science and religion, with historians framing the situation as Catholicism against the rationalism that further emerged as the Middle Ages waned.[18] There are serious flaws with this idea. First of all, the height of witch-hunting occurred during the Enlightenment, the centuries hailed for their great scientific progress.[19] Second, the Spanish inquisitors, not the scientists of the day, were the first to express serious doubt about the reality of satanic witchcraft.[20] In fact, some of the more famous scientists of the Scientific Revolution, such as Isaac Newton and Giordano Bruno, practiced various forms of magic and sorcery.[21] Other scientists, such as Robert Boyle, actually encouraged the witch hunts.[22] It is true, however, that the spread of scientific ideas curtailed a strict, literalistic reading of Scripture, which probably did help to end the hunts.[23]

Another church-related accusation, usually made by anti-Catholics, is that the Catholic clergy were persecuting witches as an outworking of their repressed sexuality.[24] In other words, they were so subconsciously frustrated by their celibacy that they suffered an aggression-inducing fear of women. Stark responds, “We are not told, however, why priests were driven to such extremes by their repressed sexual drives only in this area, which would seem to be an instance of the fallacy of using a constant to explain a variable.”[25] A related claim is that priests trying to coerce women to have sex with them, or to punish those who refused them, would use witch accusations as a threat or punishment.[26] This isn’t outside the realm of possibility, but the fact is, witchcraft charges typically came from female neighbors of the accused, almost never from priests.[27]

If the religious leaders of the witch hunt period had systematically insisted upon the existence of witches and the necessity of hunting them for the sake of prosecution, many more people would have been victimized by the hunts than the numbers testify.[28] There were regions of Europe that never experienced witch hunts at all, and in the places where hunts occurred, they were short-lived.[29] In addition, there is historical evidence that secular and even antireligious persons of the time vehemently supported witch persecution.[30] English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1599-1679) is one example of a virulent anti-theist who supported the punishment of witches.[31] Another is Jean Bodin, a 16th century atheist intellectual and writer who firmly believed in demonic spirits, sat as judge in multiple witch trials, endorsed slowly burning convicted witches alive, and penned a book that was instrumental in invigorating the European hunts.[32]

It is indisputable that the witch persecutions could not have occurred without the approval and cooperation of secular officials, since only a few small places had government leaders who also served as the religious authorities.[33] In other places, secular leaders, advised by the clergy, made the decision on whether or not to hunt witches.[34] Furthermore, the first significant intellectual opposition to the hunts came from Spanish inquisitors, from superstitious individuals that had believed in witches themselves, and from a Jesuit who had personally participated in witch-burning.[35] The Jesuit, Father Friedrich von Spee, was particularly influential in this regard. He served as the confessor of the accused on many occasions in Wurzburg, a city that hosted a markedly ferocious episode that entailed mass executions.[36] He came to understand the horror of tortured confessions and authored an indictment, Cautio Criminalis, in 1631.[37] The book was produced in sixteen editions and many translations over the following century; it became highly influential in moderating and ending the trials.[38]

 Conclusion

The witch hunts and executions that took place in Europe from roughly 1400-1800 were undoubtedly a tragedy.  An accounting of all the contributing elements and their respective effectuality will likely never be fully elucidated, but it can be said for certain that the causes were many and complex. Careful analysis of the historical evidence reveals that although some theological teachings of the time provided fertile soil for the witch hunts and actions of ecclesiastical authorities and prominent religious figures may have even facilitated them, responsibility cannot be attributed exclusively to the Church or religious belief in general. Ecclesiastical authorities were the more lenient, and dissenting voices that helped end the hunts first came from the Christian corner.


[1] Brian Pavlac, “Ten Common Errors and Myths about the Witch Hunts, Corrected and Commented” http://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/witcherrors.html

[2] Pavlac

[3] Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003): 205.

[4] Pavlac

[5] Pavlac

[6] Pavlac

[7] Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters, Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001): 262-263.

[8] Kors and Peters, 263.

[9] Pavlac

[10] Stark, 234.

[11] Pavlac

[12] Stark, 220.

[13] Stark, 220.

[14] Brian Pavlac, Witch Hunts in the Western World. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2009: 153.

[15] Hall, David, “Middle Ground on the Witch-Hunt Debate” Reviews in American History 4.2 (1998): 345-352.

[16] Stark, 205.

[17] Pavlac, 153.

[18] Stark, 220.

[19] Stark, 221.

[20] Stark, 221.

[21] Stark, 221.

[22] Stark, 222.

[23] Sommerville, Online Course Materials, University of Wisconsin, Madison. ttp://faculty.history.wisc.edu/sommerville/367/367-131.htm

[24] Stark, 219.

[25] Stark 219.

[26] Stark, 219.

[27] Stark, 220.

[28] Pavlac,  5.

[29] Pavlac, 5.

[30] Stark, 222.

[31] Stark, 222.

[32] Stark, 222.

[33] Pavlac, “Ten Common Errors and Myths about the Witch Hunts, Corrected and Commented.”

[34] Pavlac

[35] Stark, 283.

[36] Stark, 285.

[37] Stark, 285.

[38] Stark, 285.

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DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Melissa Cain Travis

Melissa Cain Travis serves as Assistant Professor of Apologetics at Houston Baptist University. She earned the Master of Arts in Science and Religion from Biola University, graduating with Highest Honors. She is certified in Christian Apologetics by Biola, and received her B.S. in biology from Campbell University. She is the author of the Young Defenders series, illustrated storybooks that teach the fundamentals of Christian apologetics to young children. The first book, How Do We Know God is Really There? was released in spring, 2013. The second, How Do We Know God Created Life? will release in March 2014.

  • tildeb

    The one that often receives the greatest amount of attention is the
    theory that the Church was ultimately to blame for the witch hunts and
    the associated failures of justice. A careful examination of the
    available evidence shows that this theory sorely lacks explanatory
    power.

    This series highlights the central problem of apologetics: carefully selecting and highlighting only that evidence that supports an assumption of what’s true rather than what is true, namely, that the numinous is real, that it has real effect, that it is a causal agent in the world. Religion can be viewed as a logical extension of superstitious thinking, of assigning agency with intention to unexplained events based in a belief in the proposition without sufficient warrant to command rational assent. Religious belief comports and is fully compatible with superstitious thinking. Superstition, in other words, is what religion does.

    The Malleus Maleficarum found a willing audience and was distributed by the Church that empowered agents with the Church’s authority and blessing to act on its behalf with local – and to be very clear – subordinate authorities (gratuitously labelled as ‘secular’) . Granted, the Church later rescinded this authority for this particular odious papal bull, but widespread belief in the supernatural it described as a causal agent in the world was never, ever, and still is not challenged but directly supported by religious belief in general and the Church in particular (it’s hard to deny when there are ongoing courses and seminars by catholic universities to ‘teach’ exorcism and produce more ‘exorcists’!). This belief in the supernatural is the required ingredient to facilitate witch hunts – hunts, I may add, that are still carried out today, still causing real victims real harm in real life today, still carried out under the banner of religious cleansing today. To pretend that religious belief itself was not then and is not now a central instigator of these crimes is to overlook the role of trees in making forests. Cut down belief in the supernatural and you will effectively eliminate the cause for hunting witches, no? Shifting partial blame for these hunts to ‘secular’ considerations is a sleight-of-hand move all too common in apologetics that seeks to excuse the inexcusable – harming others in the name of superstitious nonsense – using whatever means and methods are most effective regardless of fair treatment of their truth value.

    • Melissa

      Take note that all of my sources except for one are themselves atheists. I recommend reading their texts for a better understanding of the dynamics of this period in human history.

      • tildeb

        Nevertheless, we can assuredly point directly to the Church to be the central instigator of the (European) witch hunts then as now (African) and its religious belief in spirits and demons the prominent factor in promoting superstitious belief in unseen agencies of dark power and magical influence. To deny this by trying to promote other, even though far lesser, considerations is to deny the overwhelming evidence in its favour, whether authored by atheists or believers in spirits and demons.