This section is from the book "Faith - Healing. Christian Science And Kindred Phenomena", by James Monroe Buckley. Also available from Amazon: Faith-Healing, Christian Science and Kindred Phenomena.
Many persons acknowledged themselves witches, both in Europe and America, and gave detailed accounts of their interviews with the devil. This has led various writers to suppose that witchcraft has an objective reality; and certainly the problem is complicated by the fact that some who confessed were persons of undoubted piety. Yet it is not difficult of explanation.
1a Europe tortures the most terrible were inflicted to compel confession. In " Superstition and Force," Mr. Henry C. Lea quotes Rickens, a magistrate during an epidemic of witchcraft at the close of the seventeenth century, as complaining that no reliance could be placed on legal witnesses to procure conviction. Del Rio avers that torture is to be more readily resorted to in witchcraft than in other crimes, in consequence of the extreme difficulty of its proof. This, Mr. Lea says, was the common opinion of the time. Constantine issued a decree a. d. 358 that no dignity of birth or station should protect those accused of sorcery or magic from the severest application of torture. Old German records are full of accounts of men and women yielding and confessing, usually in language put into their mouths by the inquisitors.
In New England none of those who confessed themselves to be witches were executed, and every effort was made to induce them to do so. If any one confessed to being a witch, and afterward, driven by conscience, retracted, he was certain to be executed. This was the case with Samuel Ward well, who confessed, retracted his confession, and died upon the gallows protesting his innocence.
But why did some religious and spiritually minded persons confess? Because they were saturated with erroneous views of the power of the devil, and his mode of exercising it. They believed that he was very near them all the time, endeavoring to effect an entrance; and when they were accused, saw "the afflicted," and realized that the magistrates and ministers thought they were guilty, their minds being weakened by the terrible pressure upon them, they came to the conclusion that in some unguarded moment the devil had gained an advantage over them; and that, though "they were unconscious of having done such things, their spirits must have committed them," and they therefore confessed.
Many thousands of persons in former centuries concluded in the same manner that they had committed "the unpardonable sin"; while of these very few had any clear idea of what the sin is. The pressure of the doctrinal beliefs of the age upon morbid conscientiousness, with a natural distrust, antagonized all the promises of the Gospel, and they despaired.
Many abandoned persons who believed in witchcraft and sought to obtain the power could easily find coincidences seeming to prove the truth of their claims, and in this way thought themselves to be wizards and witches.