Reverend John Hale: Character Traits & Analysis

Instructor: Matthew Hill
John Hale was a Puritan pastor who served as one of the lead judges in the Salem Witchcraft Trials. He later regretted his role and wrote a book urging caution to future generations.

Background of a Puritan

John Hale was at the center of one of the most controversial episodes in colonial America. Although initially proactive in prosecuting people accused of witchcraft in the Salem Witch Trials, he became apologetic regarding his role and wrote a book cautioning future generations. John Hale was born in June 1636 in Charlestown, Massachusetts to Robert and Joanna. His father Robert was a blacksmith. As a young man, Hale was eyewitness to the hanging of accused witch Margaret Jones in June 1648, who was one of nearly a dozen women hanged before the more infamous Salem Witch Trials. His latter writings provide one of the few known sources on this incident which makes it of particular interest to historians. Like many Puritans, Hale graduated from Harvard before going into the ministry.

Pastor and Chaplain

In 1667, Hale accepted the position as pastor of the First Parish Church in Beverly, Massachusetts which was only two miles from Salem. In 1690, he accompanied the colonial militia as chaplain in an invasion of the Fortress of Louisbourg in Canada as part of King William's War. Hale was married three times but his second wife as we shall see became the best known. His first wife was Rebecca Byles with whom he had two children. She died after nearly 20 years of marriage and he remarried Sarah Noyes with whom he had four more children. It was Sarah who later affected his thinking on the witch trials.

Governor William Phips
Governor William Phips

Background to the Trials

Salem, Massachusetts had gone through turbulent and uncertain times on the eve of the witch trials. Massachusetts had recently undergone a change in government, Indians wars were constant in the prior decade, and the colony had participated in King William's War against the French, which was one of many colonial wars of the era. The origins of the Salem Witch Trials began in the home of Salem pastor Samuel Parris, whose own daughter, Elizabeth, accused their servant, Tituba of witchcraft due to Elizabeth's exhibiting strange behavior. From here, investigations spun out of control. Theories abound as to the causes, from economic rivalry, petty jealously, gender conflict, and childhood psychological trauma. Either way, by the end of 1692, over 200 people had been accused and put on trial for witchcraft. In all, twenty people were executed - 19 women were hanged, and one man, Giles Corey, was pressed to death beneath boulders.

Pastor Samuel Parris
Pastor Samuel Parris

Hale During the Trials

As a prominent pastor, Hale was pulled into the trials. A strong tug came from Massachusetts governor William Phips, who was a personal friend with Hale and a supporter of the trials. The early evidence shows that Hale was enthusiastic about the trials and believed both in the reality of witchcraft and the wisdom of purging the community of those who practiced witchcraft. However, suddenly he had a dramatic change of heart. Four of his own church members were accused, which brought it close to home for him. Also, and even more personal, his beloved wife Sarah, who was also pregnant at the time, was accused. Few took seriously that Sarah was involved in any capacity, and she was easily acquitted. Nevertheless, the sight of his congregation, and especially his wife, being among the accused was too much for him. Hale became an opponent of the trials and outspoken against them.

Salem Witch Trials
Salem Witch Trials

Hale's Confession

The year Sarah died in 1697, he published his own account of the trials titled, A Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft. It was more than a recounting of events, but rather an apology and a confession that the legality of the proceedings was questionable. He did not deny the reality of witchcraft, but rather that passion had ruled over reason in the conduct of the trials. His primary purpose in writing it though was to warn future generations to use caution and restraint in such matters.

Frontpage of A Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft
John Hales Book

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