Feeling with Demons. Demonology, Puritans and Emotional Discipline in New England (c.1660–1700)

By Agustín Méndez (University of Buenos Aires-CONICET)

My interest in early modern witchcraft began a decade and a half ago, when I was an undergraduate history student at the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina. The subject early modern history, taught by professor Fabian Alejandro Campagne, dedicated several lessons to explain the rise and decline of witchcraft as a crime, as well as its social and cultural repercussions. Among the texts suggested in the syllabus was Stuart Clark’s Thinking with Demons. Ten years before, in 1997, this book had started an authentic revolution in the already rich historiography of early modern European witchcraft. Over the course of this influential book the author demonstrated that demonology was indispensable for understanding Europe´s cultural and intellectual history between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries. Clark defined demonology as ‘the field of knowledge dealing with the demonic aspects of witchcraft and other practices forbidden by early modern Christianity’ (Clark 2006, p. 259). Among them, historian James Sharpe included magic, superstition, heresy, prophecy and diabolical possession (Sharpe 2017, p. 65). Without neglecting the importance of persecutions, Clark´s main goal was not to explain why witches had been executed, but why ideas about witchcraft made sense and were intelligible between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. This issue caught my attention immediately: not the trials per se, but their intellectual foundations, especially the ideas that underpinned the execution of c. 50,000 people for having committed an imaginary (and utterly impossible) crime. 

For my BA dissertation I focused on witchcraft ideas in sixteenth century England, particularly on skeptical demonologist Reginald Scot´s (c.1534–1599) critique on mainstream European demonological discourse. Later on, founded by the National Scientific and Technical Research Council from Argentina, my PhD research intended a systematic exploration of English witchcraft theory between c.1560–1648 around three main points: a critical revision of its alleged moderation; the mutual influence between theological and folkloric ideas; and its uses to attack superstition and Catholicism during the first century of the Reformation in England. In 2020, the University of Valencia published a book based on the doctoral dissertation under the title El infierno está vacío. Demonología, caza de brujas y reforma en la Inglaterra temprano-moderna (s. xvi y xvii) [Hell is Empty. Demonology, Witch-hunt, and Reformation in Early Modern England (c. xvi–xvii)]. Some preliminary results were published in specialized academic journals (Méndez 2017; Méndez, 2021a; Méndez 2021b).

During COVID–19 lockdown I started to plan my postdoctoral research. While reading secondary sources, I came across with a thought-provoking sentence by Jan Machielsen: ‘demonology was the first properly interdisciplinary science, touching not only on theology and law but on areas of natural philosophy and medicine as well’ (Machielsen 2020, p. 10). Classical philosophy, ancient and medieval religion, and early modern natural sciences all took part in what Clark had labelled as ‘thinking with demons’. For this reason, witchcraft theory was of interest to jurists, philosophers, physicians and, of course, theologians. This made me realize that although I had been concerned with the uses of demonological discourse to impose religious orthodoxy and to control and prescribe thoughts and practices, I had not focused on similar strategies regarding emotions, an area of human existence in which demonologists were also interested in. The Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions Honorary Virtual Research Fellowship Program has become a great opportunity for tackling what I considered to be two pending issues of my investigations: the emotional dimension of witchcraft theory, and the incorporation of Colonial America into my studies of English demonological ideas. I would like to thank Dr Jenny Spinks and Dr Charles Zika for their time and generosity during the application process.

Some preliminary findings on witchcraft theory, fear and rage

My research project for the Fellowship aims to consider demonological ideas as privileged means to know the attitudes that complex social groups maintained towards the expression and representation of specific emotions. This perspective will be used to analyze demonological beliefs in New England during the lapse of time between the witch-trials in Harford, Connecticut (1662–1663), and the aftermath of the witch-hunts that took place in Essex County, Massachusetts, between 1692 and 1693. The first phase of the research, the one I will focus on in this post, aims to study the representation of rage and fear in the demonological treatises published by puritan theologians Increase Mather (1639–1723) and Cotton Mather (1663–1728), father and son respectively.

1675 map of colonial New England by cartographer John Seller (1632–1697)
1675 map of colonial New England by cartographer John Seller (1632–1697), Wikimedia Commons

During the last two decades of the seventeenth century, no religious ministers were more prominent in Massachusetts than the Mathers. Their theological works were influential on both sides of the Atlantic, and reflected the traditional puritan assumptions about nature as an extension of God´s wisdom and power. According to this cosmology, every event in nature was considered to be the result of the intervention of an omnipresent divinity (Harvey 2006, p. 497). However, not every event in this providential framework manifested the presence of the supernatural with the same intensity. The most potent and strange, known as ‘special providences’ or ‘wonders’, interrupted the normal order of things (Walsham 2003, pp. 12–15; Hall 1990, p. 71). Some common examples of them include monstrous births, storms, floods, sudden or inexplicable deaths, angelic or demonic apparitions and witchcraft (I. Mather 1684, p. x).

In common with their contemporaries, Increase and Cotton Mather had a strong sense of the demonic. The Adversary was part of their daily life; they were obsessed with his presence on Earth, as well as with the influence he had on their minds. This was particularly evident in a series of treatises published by the two theologians between 1684 and 1696. These years of political crisis, social unrest and resurgence of witchcraft cases in Massachusetts were interpreted as divine punishments for the moral decay in the colony. To demonstrate the increasing presence of Satan in the eve of the End of Times, father and son put pen to paper: Increase published An Essay for the recording of illustrious Providences (1684) and Angelographia (1696), while Cotton send Memorable Providences (1689) and The Wonders of the Invisible World (1693) to the printing presses.  

As pastors, Increase and Cotton Mather had direct knowledge of the sensations that Satan allegedly provoked in their congregation. Among the emotions associated with witchcraft, fear particularly worried both theologians since it could be extremely dangerous if not properly managed. The youngest Mather, for example, wrote that not fearing Satan was one of the marks of the saints, those who were chosen to be saved (C. Mather 1693a, p. ii). In one of the sermons that comprises The Wonders of the Invisible World, he asserts that the Devil induced people to disbelief in divine providence by making them believe that God had abandoned them (C. Mather 1693b, p. 7). If the attempt was successful, disasters and tragedies such as the wonders mentioned above would no longer be considered as part of God´s plan, but as damages caused by an autonomous Satan. 

Painting of Reverend Increase Mather  by Joan van der Spriet (1688)
Joan van der Spriet, Reverend Increase Mather (1688), Wikimedia Commons

To avoid these severe transgressions, one of the sermons in Cotton Mather´s Memorable Providences offered three recommendations of remedies for those suffering diabolic attacks such as spiritual possessions. The first counteraction was appealing to God´s mercy through fervent prayer to scare the demons away and to eradicate human fears. The second was faith in divine providence, evidence that the victim confidently entrusted his wellbeing exclusively to God, a belief that transformed fear into hope. Finally, the third preservative against Satan and his minions was to avoid evildoing and live according to biblical injunctions. According to Cotton Mather, these practices kept devils and witches at bay (C. Mather 1689, p. 20).       

So far, fear seems to have been an undesirable emotion to our authors. If any Christian felt it, it should be considered as a warning sign. Nevertheless, that would be a hasty conclusion. Fear could have positive outcomes. It was even a desirable emotion if it was directed at an appropriate object. Increase Mather reminded his readers that, as Christ said, many were capable of killing, but only God had the power to cast souls into hell. Therefore, the Creator was the only being who should be feared (I. Mather, 1696, pp. 26-27). Consequently, the so-called exterior fears made no sense. Those who directed their fear towards God, for example, should not be afraid when facing mighty armies, like David during the battle against the Philistines. Neither should God-fearing saints feel terror at the prospect of a hazardous journey by sea or land. Finally, the elder Mather explained that those who live in Christ and according to God´s commandments need not be fearful at thunder-claps any more than a child should be afraid of the voice of his loving father. The right fear, the one that puritans should experience every day, filled them with peace and serenity instead of dismal terrors (I. Mather 1696, p. 133).

Both authors also meditated upon rage, which they viewed as a particularly important emotion for a number of reasons. First, the evil spirits’ servitude was a punishment for having defied their creator. Their expulsion from Heaven and their captivity in Hell were the result of God´s ʽintolerable and interminable’ wrath (C. Mather 1693a, p. 8). After the impure spirits were forever incapacitated from doing good, their evil drive was almost exclusively aimed against human beings. Increase Mather explained ‘the devil is full of wrath and rage especially against those which keep the Commandments of God and give testimony of Jesus’ (I. Mather 1696, p. 119). In The Wonders of the Invisible World, Cotton Mather also wrote that during the last days, Satan´s rage would provoke unprecedented catastrophes. The scene could have been more bleak: a vengeful and enraged creature was directly aiming his powers against fragile humans. As a matter of fact, Cotton explained that the only reason Satan´s overwhelming rage did not destroy humankind was the restraint imposed on it by God (C. Mather 1693a, pp. 22–23).

Painting of Reverend Cotton Mather by Peter Pelham (c.1700)
Peter Pelham, Reverend Cotton Mather (c.1700), Wikimedia Commons

Nevertheless, God did not always hold Satan back. Cotton Mather preached to his congregation that New Englanders had closed their ears to the godly message of repentance and sanctification. These offences provoked God´s anger, which was expressed by loosening Satan’s chain. This emotional response from the Creator explained the proliferation of negative special providences in New England since the end of the 1670s. The younger Mather believed that no other plantation had been ‘more pursued by the wrath of the devil’ and that ‘the wrath of the great God’ had pressed hard upon it (C. Mather 1693a, p. 31). Only by appeasing God and repairing their moral transgressions could New Englanders stop the assault from the ‘diabolic mastiff’, always eager to create havoc (C. Mather 1693a, p. 46).   

So far, we have seen that the Mathers have described rage as an emotional response exercised by God and demons. In God´s case it was a reaction to human sinfulness; in Satan´s a reply for his eternal doom and resentment towards the creation. Nevertheless, there is not any positive mention or justification for human rage. Both Mathers considered that rage was a hint of the absence of divine grace in a person. In relation to this, it was frequently believed that demons had power over human minds and were capable of instilling their own thoughts into the consciousness of their victims (Oldridge 2016, p. 72). These ideas often came without warning and entered the mind with great force. Something similar could happen with emotions. By reason of their vast knowledge of human nature, demons could discover the desires and needs of individuals and use them to stir negative emotions in their spirits (Putnam Demos 2004, p. 177). Cotton Mather tackled this issue in his demonological treatises. The puritan theologian was aware that due to poverty and illness, among other reasons, most of his contemporaries were dissatisfied with their lives (C. Mather 1693a, p. 51). Satan was equally conscious of this reality and used it to his advantage, for example by stimulating avarice, lust, or covetousness in some people. In those who were ill, he stirred impatience and anxiety to find a cure. Satan also made them doubt their salvation because of the misfortunes they were experiencing. Since he was not capable of depriving people of grace, he wanted to rob them of joy by making them believe they were not children of God (C. Mather 1693a, p. 8). This state of mind was particularly dangerous, because discontentment and frustration could make people rage at their God. In other words, dissatisfied individuals became angry at God, and this emotion progressively corrupted their souls (C. Mather 1693a, p. 14).  

Cotton Mather explicitly exhorted his readers not to be enraged by their poverty or physical impediments because these discontents ‘opened the doors of the soul for all the devils of Hell to enter in’ (C. Mather 1693a, p. 15). Human rage was also understood as a lack of faith in divine providence, because it made people forget that their sufferings were part of a divine plan that was inscrutable but utterly good. When facing adversities, Mather recommended lifting ʽup our hands to heaven without wrath’ and pleading God for his mercy (C. Mather 1693a, p. 44). Thus, rage brought people towards Satan and led them astray from the behavior expected from those who had been chosen for salvation.

Final words: Conceptual tools from the History of Emotions

In his monumental Being Protestant in Reformation Britain, Alec Ryrie states that far from being suspicious of emotions, reformed protestants exalted them (Ryrie 2013, pp. 12–20). To the godly faith was an affective experience, and no amount of intellectual understanding could replace it (Sullivan 2016, p. 148). As we have seen, emotions were not inherently positive. Tom Schwanda argued that puritans believed in the necessity of emotional discipline to cultivate emotions that draw people closer to God and to placate those that had the opposite effect (Schwanda 2016, p. 73). 

Through the analysis of Increase and Cotton Mather´s demonological works, I intend to demonstrate that New England puritans, like their English forebears, understood that emotional control was vital to achieving godliness. Their treatises could be considered as examples of what Peter Stearns called ‘prescriptive literature’, materials designed to tell people how to behave, how to react to others and what kind of emotions are appropriate or inappropriate (Stearns 2021, pp. 53–56). I think that these goals are evident in the demonological treatises penned by the Mathers. The fact that parts of them were originally sermons demonstrates the authors´s intention to communicate their message beyond the limits of their congregation.  

Due to its plasticity and interdisciplinary interests, demonology was a branch of theology particularly suitable for stimulating or censuring emotions. Early modern people thought about religion, history, nature and politics through demons, but they also felt with them. On the eve of the apocalypse, with Satan unleashed and God judging moral decay in the colony, refraining from rage and knowing what to fear was vital in order to avoid the destruction of the community of saints living in the ‘city upon a hill’. As Laura Kounine wrote, ‘in the early modern period emotions were not considered products of the unconscious, but interpreted and experienced in the context of one´s relationship to God and to the Devil’ (Kounine 2017, p. 331). With this in mind, it can be postulated that demonology was instrumental to the constitution of emotionology, a concept created and defined by Peter and Carol Stearns as ‘the attitudes or standards that a society, or a definable group within a society, maintains toward basic emotions and their appropriate expression, as well as ways that institutions reflect and encourage these attitudes in human conduct’ (Stearns and Stearns 1985, p. 813).

This idea shares some commonalities with William Reddy´s emotional regimes, ‘the set of normative emotions and the official rituals, practices, and emotives that express and inculcate them; a necessary underpinning of any stable political regime’ (Reddy 2004, pp. 128–29). During the last two decades of the seventeenth century, instability was the norm in Massachusetts. The progressive advance of metropolitan government over the colony´s autonomy was perceived by the puritans as a threat to their religious and political supremacy – and they were not entirely wrong. Congregationalism lost its privileges after tolerance was gradually extended to Anglicanism, Baptists and Quakers. Voting rights were no longer based on religious factors but on land ownership, which enfranchised property-owning dissenters (Baker 2015, p. 186; Ray 2015, p. 66 and p. 86).

Massachusetts, the moral beacon that puritans had given to the world, was collapsing and losing the features that had set it apart from other English colonies which did not have a covenantal obligation to God. Certainly, the Mathers could not do much to stop these major transformations. Perhaps they believed that they could protect the ideological supremacy of puritanism by defending the emotional values of the old order. Or, at least, they were confident of being able to slow down the pace of change enough to avoid the imposition of a different emotional regime, one in which fearing God might no longer be a virtue, or raging at the Creator would bring no consequences to men and women.

Agustín Méndez completed his PhD in history at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) in 2018. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council from Argentina. His research in early modern witchcraft explores demonological discourses and its relation with the protestant reformation in England from a perspective based on cultural and intelectual history. He has published in various journals including Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural, Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft, and Rivista di Storia del Cristianesimo. His book El infierno está vacío. Demonología, caza de brujas y reforma en la Inglaterra temprano-moderna (s. XVI y XVII) was published in 2020 with Publicacions de la Universitat de València. He is currently working on a project centered on the relation between witchcraft theory, demonic possession and emotions in the English Atlantic (c. 1660–1720).

On Monday 8 August 2022 (9:00am AWST), Agustín Méndez will be presenting on his research in the seminar ‘Demonology as Emotionology. Appropriate and Inappropriate fears in Increase and Cotton Mather’s demonological works (Massachusetts, c. 1680–1700)’, as part of the CHE Virtual Fellows Seminar Series. For more details and to register to attend, please click here.

Works cited

Baker, Emerson. A Storm of Witchcraft. The Salem Trials and the American Experience (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Clark, Stuart. ‘Demonology’, in Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Western Tradition, edited by R. Golden (Santa Barbara: ABC Clio, 2006), pp. 45–82.

Clark, Stuart. Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).

Hall, David. Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgement. Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990).

Harvey, Kate. ‘Providence’, in Puritans and Puritanism in England and America. A Comprehensive Encyclopedia, edited by F. Bremer and T. Webster (Santa Barbara: ABC Clio, 2006), pp. 497–500.

Kounine, Laura. ‘The Devil and Demons’, in Early Modern Emotions, edited by S. Broomhall (London and New York: Routledge, 2017), pp. 331–33.

Machielsen, Jan. ‘Introduction: The Science of Demons’, in The Science of Demons. Early Modern Authors Facing Witchcraft and the Devil, edited by J. Machielsen (London and New York: Routledge, 2020), pp. 1–16.

Mather, Cotton. The Wonders of the Invisible World (Boston, 1693a).

Mather, Cotton. A Discourse on witchcraft (Boston, 1689).

Mather, Cotton. The Devil Discovered (Boston, 1693b).

Mather, Increase. An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences (Boston, 1684).

Mather, Increase. Angelographia (Boston, 1696).

Méndez, Agustín. ‘The Last Conspiracy: Sabbat, Apocalypse, and Anti-Catholicism in English Demonological treatises (c. 1587–1648)’, Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, 16.1 (2021a): 84–113.

Méndez, Agustín. ‘The Problem of Demonic Corporeality in Early Modern England. Thomas Aquinas, Demonology, and Witchcraft Folkloric Ideas (c. 1587–1648)’, Rivista di Storia del Cristianesimo, 1 (2021b): 141–72.

Méndez Agustín. El infierno está vacío. Demonología, caza de bruja y reforma en la Inglaterra temprano-moderna (s- xvi y xvii) (Valencia: Publicacions de la Universitat de València, 2020).

Méndez, Agustín. ‘To Accommodate the Earthly Kingdom to Divine Will: Official and Nonconformist Definitions of Witchcraft in England (ca. 1542–1630)’, Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural, 6.2 (2017): 278–309.

Oldridge, Darren. The Supernatural in Tudor and Stuart England (New York and London: Routledge, 2016).

Putnam Demos, John. Entertaining Satan. Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

Ray, Benjamin. Satan & Salem. The Witch-Hunt Crisis of 1692 (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2015).

Reddy, William. The Navigation of Feeling. A Framework for the History of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Ryrie, Alec. Being Protestant in Reformation Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Schwanda, Tom. ‘The Saints Desire and Delight to Be with Christ’, in Puritanism and Emotion in the Early Modern World, edited by A. Ryrie y T. Schwanda (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 70–94.

Sharpe, James. ‘The Demonologists’, in The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic, edited by O. Davies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 65–96.

Stearns, Peter and Stearns, Carol. ‘Emotionology: Clarifying the History of Emotions and emotional Standards’, The American Historical Review, 90.4 (1985), pp. 813–36.

Stearns, Peter. ‘Prescriptive Literature’, in Sources for the History of Emotions. A Guide, edited by K. Barclay, S. Crozier-De Rosa and P. Stearns (London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), pp. 53–65.

Sullivan, Erin. Beyond Melancholy: Sadness and Selfhood in Renaissance England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Walsham, Alexandra. Providence in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

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