History we don't want to repeat

I think that one of the reasons that many of us in the United Church of Christ have a heightened sensitivity towards the dangers of Christian fundamentalism is that the history of our church includes a fair amount of fundamentalism. In fact, sometimes I look at some of the newer fundamentalist Christian groups in our area and think to myself, “Yup, been there. Done that.” Among the predecessor denominations of the United Church of Christ is the Congregational Church, which traces its roots back to the Pilgrims and Puritans that arrived on the shores of New England. Prominent among those settlements was the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Massachusetts was established by the Puritans in 1629. They wanted to purify the church of England, however after years of persecution they opted to found a new colony and start fresh. Unlike the Pilgrims who wanted complete separation from England and who were, for the most part not well-educated, the Puritans were, for the most part educated and their enterprise was successful because of organization and planning. The Pilgrim Plymouth Colony struggled. Massachusetts Bay was successful earlier and soon experienced a population explosion that ended up it its absorbing Plymouth. John Winthrop is often credited as the founder of Massachusetts Bay Colony. He served as Governor four different times and was a strong and successful Colonial pioneer.

It is a bit of a simplification, but the colonies of Rhode Island and Connecticut both grew out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The area around modern-day Boston and Salem grew out of the efforts of Puritan and Pilgrim colonists.

The end of the 17th century was a time of unrest throughout the New England colonies. As the leaders of the church began to impose more and more theological imperatives on the colonists, England was reasserting control over the colonial government. In Boston Cotton Mather was doing daily battle with the devil, whom he believed was at work everywhere. He was convinced that the devil was aided by witches. His account of Goody Glover, the witch of Boston was widely circulated. The Rev. Samuel Parris of Salem certainly read Mather’s work.

In 1692 accusations of witchcraft and possession began to arise in Salem Village. In May of that year the constable was dispatched to arrest Wilmot “Mammy” Redd of Marblehead for having “committed sundry acts of witchcraft on the bodies of Mary Wolcott and Mercy Lewis and others in Salem Village to their great hurt.”

Mammy Redd was the wife of a poor fisherman and sometimes worker in the boatyards. She was old and disagreeable. By the time she was in here seventies her quarrels with a neighbor and disputes involving her butter business had inspired rumors that she was a witch. Her daughter had been married to Rev. George Burroughs, who had been identified as the “ringleader” of the witches.

After her arrest on May 28, she was taken to Salem for a preliminary examination in the home of Nathan Ingersoll on May 31. The “affected girls” whom she had never before met, promptly fell into fits. When asked what she thought ailed them, Redd said, “I cannot tell.” Urged to give an opinion, she replied, “My opinion is they are in a sad condition.”

She was indicted as a witch and four months later tried in Salem Town. She as not granted defense counsel. Testifying against here were Ambrose Gale, Charity Pitman and Sarah Doddy. Doddy claimed that she was unable to defecate for a month, which caused her stomach to swell and inflicted great pain.

Wilmot Redd refused to confess to being a witch. No one from Marblehead came forward at the trial to speak on her behalf. She was convicted and hanged on September 22, 1692. Seven others were executed with her. Her body was not claimed. She was probably buried in an unmarked grave her her home because the law would not allow her to be buried in consecrated ground.

The witch hysteria in New England was short lived. It suddenly ended when the wife of Massachusetts Governor William Phipps was accused. Phipps reacted swiftly in defense of his wife. The frenzy ended. Common sense returned. The bubble had been burst. An awareness of the horror of what they had done began to sink in. There were public apologies and attempts to make amends.

Time moved on. The pond near where her small house once stood now bears her name. Redd’s Pond is about the only sign of the memory of the times. On October 31, 2001, Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift signed a bill pardoning Wilmot Redd along with four other victims who had been executed for witchcraft.

Mammy Redd was the only resident of Marblehead executed for witchcraft, but her story is chilling nonetheless. Fervent preaching led to a kind of mass hysteria that ended in violence and innocent victims.

Some of us are touchy about fundamentalism because we can remember where it led our forebears.

Thoughts of Mammy Redd came to my mind recently as I read an article in Wooden Boat Magazine about a re-created Herreschoff steam launch that was built at Redd’s Pond Boatworks. Building boats is still practiced at Redd’s Pond and traditional wooden construction and restoration is an art practiced by the craftsmen at Redd’s Pond Boatworks.

At the boatworks, they have managed to keep alive the traditions of earlier centuries without preserving the mistakes of the past. They pass on their skills of traditional boatbuilding with an innovative summer school experience where students gain hands on experience covering a range of boatbuilding skills from reading a table of offsets through the final coat of pain and the launch of the boat. Each year the class constructs one boat which is sold for the cost of the materials. In the winter they construct some of the best wooden sleds and toboggans out of ash and oak slats. Their convertible sled/wagon is a classic.

Every picture of that red and white barn at the edge of the pond, however, is also a reminder that the history that unfolds at that place contains stories of violence and horror. It is a history that we must never forget.

Seriously, we never want to do that again.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!