Cotton Mather’s account of the Salem witch trials, 1693

Cotton Mather’s account of the Salem witch trials, 1693

Cotton Mather, a prolific author and well-known preacher, wrote this account in 1693, a year after the trials ended. Mather and his fellow New Englanders believed that God directly intervened in the establishment of the colonies and that the New World was formerly the Devil’s territory. Cotton Mather’s account of the witch trials reinforced colonial New Englanders’ view of themselves as a chosen generation of men.

The Salem witch scare had complex social roots beyond the community’s religious convictions. It drew upon preexisting rivalries and disputes within the rapidly growing Massachusetts port town: between urban and rural residents; between wealthier commercial merchants and subsistence-oriented farmers; between Congregationalists and other religious denominations—Anglicans, Baptists, and Quakers; and between American Indians and Englishmen on the frontier. The witch trials offer a window into the anxieties and social tensions that accompanied New England’s increasing integration into the Atlantic economy.

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A transcribed excerpt is available.


Wherefore The devil is now making one Attempt more upon us; an Attempt more Difficult, more Surprizing, more snarl’d with unintelligible Circumstances than any that we have hitherto Encountered; an Attempt so Critical, that if we get well through, we shall soon Enjoy Halcyon Days, with all the Vultures of Hell Trodden under our Feet. He has wanted his Incarnate Legions to Persecute us, as the People of God have in the other Hemisphere been Persecuted: he has therefore drawn forth his more spiritual ones to make an attacque upon us. We have been advised by some Credible Christians yet alive, that a Malefactor, accused of Witchcraft as well as Murder, and Executed in this place more than Forty Years ago, did then give Notice of, An Horrible PLOT & against the Country by WITCHCRAFT, and a Foundation of WITCHCRAFT then laid, which if it were not seasonably discovered, would probably Blow up, and pull down all the Churches in the Country.  And we have now with Horror seen the Discovery of such a WITCHCRAFT!



The Diary of Samuel Sewall, 1674-1729

Selected excerpts from Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Vol. 5, Series 5, 1878, pages 358 – 464.

April 11th 1692. Went to Salem, where, in the Meeting-house, the persons accused of Witchcraft were examined; was a very great Assembly; ëtwas awfull to see how the afflicted persons were agitated. Mr. Noyes prayíd at the beginning, and Mr. Higginson concluded. [In the margin], VÊ, VÊ, VÊ, Witchcraft.


May 24th 1692. First general Council, Saltonstall, Major Gedny, Walley, Hutchinson, Lothrop, Alcot, Sewall took their Oaths together, presently after Major Appleton took his. Justices of the Peace were nominated for the Province.


July 20th 1692. Fast at the house of Capt. Alden, upon his account. Mr. Willard prayíd. I read a Sermon out of Dr. Preston, 1st and 2d Uses of Godís Alsufficiency. Capt. Scottow prayíd, Mr. Allen came in and prayíd, Mr. Cotton Mather, then Capt. Hill. Sung the first part 103.Ps., concluded about 5. aclock. Brave Shower of Rain while Capt. Scottow was praying, after much Drought. Cous. Daniel Gookin sups with us, and bespeaks my marrying of him tomorrow.


July 30, 1692. Mrs. Cary makes her escape out of Cambridge ñPrison, who was Committed for Witchcraft.


Augt. 19th 1692. This day the Liet. Governour, Major Phillips, Mr. Russel, Capt. Lynde and my self went to Watertown. Advisíd the Inhabitants at their Town-Meeting to settle a Minister; and if could not otherwise agree, should first have a Town-Meeting to decide where the Meetinghouse should be set. Many say Whitneyís Hill would be a convenient place.

This day [in the margin, Dolefull! Witchcraft] George Burrough, John Willard, Jno Procter, Martha Carrier and George Jacobs were executed at Salem, a very great number of Spectators being present. Mr. Cotton Mather was there, Mr. Sims, Hale, Noyes, Chiever, &c. All of them said they were innocent, Carrier and all. Mr. Mather says they all died by a Righteous Sentence. Mr. Burrough by his Speech, Prayer, protestation of his Innocence, did much move unthinking persons, which occasions their speaking hardly concerning his being executed.


Augt. 25. Fast at the old [First] Church, respecting the Witchcraft, Drought, &c.


Monday, Sept. 19, 1692. About noon, at Salem, Giles Corey was pressíd to death for standing Mute; much pains was used with him two days, one after another, by the Court and Capt. Gardner of Nantucket who had been of his acquaintance: but all in vain.


Sept. 20. Now I hear from Salem that about 18 years agoe, he was suspected to have stampd and pressíd a man to death, but was cleared. Twas not remembered till Anne Putnam was told of it by said Coreyís Spectre the Sabbath-day night before the Execution.


Sept. 21. A petition is sent to Town in behalf of Dorcas Hoar, who now confesses: Accordingly an order is sent to the Sheriff to forbear her Execution, notwithstanding her being in the Warrant to die to morrow. This is the first condemned person who has confessíd.


Thorsday, Sept. 22, 1692. William Stoughton, Esqr., John Hathorne, Esqr., Mr. Cotton Mather, and Capt. John Higginson, with my Brother St., were at our house, speaking about publishing some Trials of the Witches. Mr. Stoughton went away and left us, it began to rain and was very dark, so that getting some way beyond the fortification, was fain to come back again, and lodgd here in Capt. Henchmanís Room. Has been a plentiful Rain, blessed be God. Mr. Stoughton went away early in the morn so that I saw him not. Read the 1 Jno 1. before went to bed.


Oct. 11, 1692. Went to the Funeral of Mrs. Sarah Oliver, widow, aged 72. years; buried in the new burying place; a very good, modest, humble, plain, liberal Matron. Bearers, Sam. Sewall, Major Jno Walley, Capt. Joshua Scottow, Capt. James Hill, Capt. Jacob Eliot, Capt. Theophilus Frary. Scarvs and Gloves.

Read Mr. Willardís Epistle to Mr. Matherís book, as to Cases of Conscience touching Witchcraft.


Satterday, Oct. 15th Went to Cambridge and visited Mr. Danforth, and discoursed with Him about the Witchcraft; thinks there cannot be a procedure in the Court except there be some better consent of Ministers and People. Told me of the womanís coming into his house last Sabbath-day sennight at Even.


Oct. 26, 1692. A Bill is sent in about calling a Fast, and Convocation of Ministers, that may be led in the right way as to the Witchcrafts. The season and manner of doing it, us such, that the Court of Oyer and Terminer count themselves thereby dismissed. 29 Nos, and 33 yeas to the Bill. Capt. Bradstreet and Lieut. True, Wm Huchins and several other interested persons there, in the affirmative.


Nov. 22, 1692. I prayd that God would pardon all my Sinfull Wanderings, and direct me for the future. That God would bless the Assembly in their debates, and that would chse and assist our Judges, &c., and save New England as to Enemies and Witchcrafts, and vindicate the late Judges, consisting with his Justice and Holiness, &c., with Fasting. Cousin Anne Quinsy visited me in the Evening, and told me of her childrenís wellfare. Now about, Mercy Short grows ill again, as formerly.


Monday, June 12, 1693. I visit Capt. Alden and his wife, and tell them I was sorry for their Sorrow and Temptations by reason of his Imprisonment, and that was glad of his Restauration.


Fourth-day Augt 12, 1696. Mr. Melyen, upon a slight occasion, spoke to me very smartly about the Salem Witchcraft: in discourse he said, if a man should take Beacon hill on ës back, carry it away; and then bring it and set it in its place again, he should not make any thing of that.


7r 16. Keep a day of Prayer in the East end of the Town-House, Govr, Council and Assembly. Mr. Morton begun with Prayer, Mr. Allin prayíd, Mr. Willard preachedóIf God be with us who can be against us?óSpake smartly at last about the Salem Witchcrafts, and that no order had been sufferíd to come forth by Authority to ask Gods pardon.


Copy of the Bill I put up on the Fast day; giving it to Mr. Willard as he passíd by, and standing up at the reading of it, and bowing when finished; in the Afternoon.

Samuel Sewall, sensible of the reiterated strokes of God upon himself and family; and being sensible, that as to the Guilt contracted, upon the opening of the late Commission of Oyer and Terminer at Salem (to which the order for this Day relates) he is, upon many accounts, more concerned than any that he knows of, Desires to take the Blame and Shame of it, Asking pardon of Men, And especially desiring prayers that God, who has an Unlimited Authority, would pardon that sin and all other his sins; personal and Relative: And according to his infinite Benignity, and Soveraignty, Not Visit the Sin of him, or of any other, upon himself or any of his, nor upon the Land: But that He would powerfully defend him against all Temptations to Sin, for the future; and vouchsafe him the efficacious, saving Conduct of his Word and Spirit.


Sixth-day, Novr 19. Mr. Higginson coms as far as Brothers to see me; which I wonderíd at. Mr Hale and I lodged together: He discoursíd me about writing a History of the Witchcraft; I fear lest he go into the other exream. Came home with the Majr General, diníd at Madam Paiges; there found Hancock, Allen, and Sam. Haugh. Found all well, Laus Deo. At Col. Paiges was told of the Death of Mrs. Thatcher. When came home, Mr. Cooke told me of the death of Mr. Hooker of Farmington.


May, 3. I went not to court in the morning because of my Letters. Dr. Mather sends me Mr. Daniel Nealís History of New-England: It grievs me to see New Englandís Nakedness laid open in the business of the Quakers, Anabaptists, Witchcraft. The Judges Names are mentioned, p. 502. My Confession, p.536. Vol. 2. The Good and Gracious God to be pleased to save New-England, and me and my family!




Background on Hutchinson:

Smart, outspoken and opinionated, Anne Hutchinson was the daughter of an English minister, well versed in the Bible and devoted to the teaching of the popular preacher John Cotton. In 1634, Anne and her family arrived in Boston, where her husband built a house directly across the street from the renowned and respected three-time governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop .

Trained as a midwife and nurse, Hutchinson began to hold small meetings in her home to discuss John Cotton’s sermons. Soon the meetings were attracting up to 60 people — men and women. For a woman to engage theological discussions posed a subtle challenge to the patriarchy that governed the Bay Colony. From across the street, John Winthrop characterized Hutchinson as “a woman of haughty and fierce carriage, of a nimble wit and active spirit, and a very voluble tongue, more bold than a man.”

Hutchinson gave Winthrop ample reason to worry. In the fall of 1636, she accused Puritan ministers of making salvation dependent on an individual’s good works rather than on divine grace, which was contrary to Puritan teaching. The ministers denied this charge, arguing that good works are evidence of conversion and salvation, not the grounds of salvation. They argued that they were therefore not teaching a Covenant of Works.

Hutchinson persisted, arguing that assurance of salvation came from a mystical experience of grace — “an inward conviction of the coming of the Spirit.” She believed that by teaching that good works were evidence of true conversion and salvation, ministers were still preaching a Covenant of Works rather than a Covenant of Grace.

Hutchinson went further, claiming that God had communicated to her by direct revelations and declaring that she was capable of interpreting the Scriptures on her own.

Hutchinson’s charges constituted a frontal attack on the spiritual authority of both the church and society. For Puritans, the ultimate source of authority was the Bible as it was interpreted by duly authorized ministers. Hutchinson’s claim that she possessed the authority to interpret the Bible challenged this basic principle. Even more galling was her claim that she received immediate revelations from God. Her challenge to official doctrine threatened to tear the Massachusetts Bay Colony apart.

In November 1637, Hutchinson was brought before the General Court, the colony’s principal governing body, on charges of sedition. Winthrop questioned her closely, but she eluded his grasp. The court adjourned.

The following day Hutchinson changed her position. She freely acknowledged that God spoke to her directly. This claim constituted blasphemy. Now the court had grounds to punish her. The assembly voted and handed down its judgment: banishment.

Anne and her husband, William, found refuge in Roger Williams’ colony in Providence, R.I. Hutchinson’s experience speaks to a persistent question: What is the source of religious authority? Is it the individual or the community? Who decides? How much dissent can a religious community tolerate? What are the limits, if any?