While Rome thus positively declared herself against witches and sorcerers, the Calvinists, in whose numbers must be included the greater part of the English Puritans, who, though they had not finally severed from the communion of the Anglican Church, yet disapproved of her ritual and ceremonies as retaining too much of the Papal stamp, ranked themselves, in accordance with their usual policy, in diametrical opposition to the doctrine of the Mother Church. They assumed in the opposite sense whatever Rome pretended to as a proof of her omnipotent authority. The exorcisms, forms, and rites by which good Catholics believed that incarnate fiends could be expelled, and evil spirits of every kind rebuked—these, like the holy water, the robes of the priest, and the sign of the cross, the Calvinists considered either with scorn and contempt as the tools of deliberate quackery and imposture, or with horror and loathing as fit emblems and instruments of an idolatrous system.
Such of them as did not absolutely deny the supernatural powers of which the Romanists made boast, regarded the success of the exorcising priest, to whatever extent they admitted it, as at best a casting out of devils by the power of Beelzebub, the King of the Devils. They saw also, and resented bitterly, the attempt to confound any dissent from the doctrines of Rome with the proneness to an encouragement of rites of sorcery. On the whole, the Calvinists, generally speaking, were, of all the contending sects, the most suspicious of sorcery, the most undoubting believers in its existence, and the most eager to follow it up with what they conceived to be the due punishment of the most fearful of crimes.
The leading divines of the Church of England were, without doubt, fundamentally as much opposed to the doctrines of Rome, as those who altogether disclaimed opinions and ceremonies merely because she had entertained them. But their position in society tended strongly to keep them from adopting, on such subjects as we are now discussing, either the eager credulity of the vulgar mind or the fanatic ferocity of their Calvin-istic rivals. We have no purpose to discuss the matter in detail—enough has probably been said to show generally why the Romanist should have cried out a miracle respecting an incident which the Anglican would have contemptuously termed an imposture; while the Calvinist, inspired with a darker zeal, and, above all, with the unceasing desire of open controversy with the Catholics, would have styled the same event an operation of the devil.
It followed that, while the divines of the Church of England possessed the upper hand in the kingdom, witchcraft, though trials and even condemnations for that offence occasionally occurred, did not create that epidemic terror which the very suspicion of the offence carried with it elsewhere; so that Reginald Scot and others alleged it was the vain pretences and empty forms of the Church of Rome, by the faith reposed in them, which had led to the belief of witchcraft or sorcery in general. Nor did prosecutions on account of such charges frequently involve a capital punishment, while learned judges were jealous of the imperfection of the evidence to support the charge, and entertained a strong and growing suspicion that legitimate grounds for such trials seldom actually existed. On the other hand, it usually happened that, wherever the Calvinist interest became predominant in Britain, a general persecution of sorcerers and whches seemed to take place of consequence. Fearing and hating sorcery more than other Protestants, connecting its ceremonies and usages with those of the detested Catholic Church, the Calvinists were more eager than other sects in searching after the traces of this crime, and, of course, unusually successful, as they might suppose, in making discoveries of guilt, and pursuing it to the expiation of the fagot. In a word, a principle already-referred to by Dr. Francis Hutchison, will be found to rule the tide and the reflux of such cases in the different churches. The numbers of witches, and their supposed dealings with Satan, will increase or decrease according as such doings are accounted probable or impossible. Under the former supposition, charges and convictions will be found augmented in a terrific degree. When the accusations are disbelieved, and dismissed as not worthy of attention, the crime becomes unfrequent, ceases to occupy the public mind, and affords little trouble to the judges.
The passing of Elizabeth's statute against witchcraft, in 1562, does not seem to have been intended to increase the number of trials, or cases of conviction at least; and the fact is, it did neither the one nor the other. Two children were tried in 1574 for counterfeiting possession, and stood in the pillory for impostors. Mildred Norrington, called the Maid of "Westwell, furnished another instance of possession ; but she also confessed her imposture, and publicly showed her fits and tricks of mimicry. The strong influence already possessed by the Puritans may probably be sufficient to account for the darker issue of certain cases in which both juries and judges, in Elizabeth's time, must be admitted to have shown fearful severity.
These cases of possession were in some respects sore snares to the priests of the Church of Rome, who, while they were too sagacious not to be aware that the pretended fits, contortions, strange sounds, and other extravagances, produced as evidence of the Demon's influence on the possessed person, were nothing else than marks of imposture by some idle vagabond, were nevertheless often tempted to admit them as real, and take the credit of curing them. The period was one when the Catholic Church had much occasion to rally around her all the respect that remained to her in a schismatic and heretical kingdom ; and when her fathers and doctors announced the existence of such a dreadful disease, and of the power of the church's prayers, relics, and ceremonies to cure it, it was difficult for a priest, supposing him more tender of the interest of his order than that of truth, to avoid such a tempting opportunity as a supposed case of possession offered for displaying the high privileges in which his profession made him a partaker, or to abstain from conniving at the imposture, in order to obtain for his church the credit of expelling the demon. It was hardly to be wondered at if the ecclesiastic was sometimes induced to aid the fraud of which such motives forbade him to be the detector. At this he might hesitate the less as he was not obliged to adopt the suspected and degrading course of holding an immediate communication in limine with the impostor, since a hint or two, dropped in the supposed sufferer's presence, might give him the necessary information what was the most exact mode of performing his part, and if the patient was possessed by a devil of any acute-ness or dexterity, he wanted no farther instruction how to play it. Such combinations were sometimes detected, and brought more discredit on the Church of Rome than was counterbalanced by any which might be more cunningly managed. On this subject, the reader may turn to Dr. Harsnett's celebrated book on Popish Impostures, wherein he gives the history of several notorious cases of detected fraud, in which Roman ecclesiastics had not hesitated to mingle themselves. That of Grace Sowerbutts, instructed by a Catholic priest to impeach her grandmother of witchcraft, was a very gross fraud.