Sunday, October 23, 2011

An Abstract of Elizabeth Reis's "Revelation, Witchcraft, and the Danger of Knowing God's Secrets," With Commentary on the Usefulness of Reis's Work to Our Enterprise, as well as that of one Conchetta Bommarino, Lately of Orlando and Also Much Concerned with the Discovery of Witchcraft in Salem in 1692

Reis, Elizabeth. “Revelation, Witchcraft and the Danger of Knowing God’s Secrets.” Women in Religion in America: Reimagining the Past. Chicago Divinity School. October 8-10, 1993. PDF.

By focusing on the role of gender and authority in the Salem witch trials, Reis argues that knowledge of the supernatural in Puritan England was often contested, especially women’s knowledge. Celestial guidance may have been desired, but absolute knowledge was considered dangerous and generally demonic in nature (2). Witchcraft in particular was dangerous because it manipulated the divine plan, and because it raised the question of what was acceptable or desirable knowledge of that plan. To know a witch was to know her damnation, which meant knowing God’s plan, which was potentially dangerous knowledge, especially because divination was the prerogative of the wealthy and educated elite (3, 21). These elite charged themselves with interpreting signs and wonders which indicated God’s pleasure or, more often, displeasure, but that while such signs were trusted, revelations were not, especially not women’s revelations (4-6). Signs were another example of Puritan belief that God would reveal all, including all sins, in due time, and in fact had to do so for repentance to take place and for the outward appearance and inward nature of the sinner to match (12-13). This was especially true of witchcraft, a sin which by its very nature constituted both a betrayal of God and a secret sin, such that the professed piety of some of the accused became evidence against them, as it proved the extent of their alleged hypocrisy (14). Accusers who targeted pious women were given increased credibility, as their claims were seen as courageous acts, even by the accused, who were often guilty of other sins than those with which they were charged (15-16). Ultimately, though, what was important was confession, which allowed the judges to distinguish repentant witches from the damned, who denied the accusations to the last, and which created a public knowledge that evaded the moral ambiguity of private and thus privileged information (17-18).
Reis takes something of a whirlwind tour through the forms of supernatural knowledge available to women in Puritan England, and the result shows just how circumscribed women were. Not only were they denied the ability to tell fortunes or have revelations, but the simple task of interpreting a sign was considered inappropriate – anything resembling a revelation had to come from an authority. Reis also balances primary and secondary sources, including the writings of John Winthrop and the confessions of accused witches, while also describing particular historical incidents, such as the heresy of Ann Hutchison and the trial of Elizabeth How. This is really helpful for my thesis, as it shows how limited women were in their ability to participate in the struggle against evil, except as exemplars of good. At the same time, Reis seems to avoid the fact that spectral visitations and other alleged symptoms of witchcraft were seen as valid testimony despite their often unverifiable, directly revelatory nature, which gave women a means by which they could briefly participate in the battle between good and evil which the Puritans saw taking place all around them. She provides some information that relates to this – especially the fact that testimony against especially pious women was considered especially reliable – but otherwise is mostly useful for providing context, which she provides a lot of in a very compact article that never feels as dense as it is. I would recommend it, especially for Conchetta’s presentation, due to the way it explains just why witchcraft was so dangerous to the Puritan mindset, and how any kind of female revelation could be equally upsetting.

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