Freethought Day is celebrated on October 12th of each year, the annual observance by freethinkers and secularists of the anniversary of the effective end of the Salem Witch Trials.
The seminal event connected to Freethought Day is a letter written by then Massachusetts Governor William Phips in which he wrote to the Privy Council of the British monarchs, William and Mary, on this day in 1692. In this correspondence he outlined the quagmire that the trials had degenerated into, in part by a reliance on “evidence” of a non-objective nature and especially “spectral evidence” in which the accusers claimed to see devils and other phantasms consorting with the accused.
Note that, contrary to what has been claimed by some, there was no specific order or edict by Phips to ban “spectral evidence” from all legal proceedings. Rather, this was one concern that brought about Phips’ stopping the proceedings. When the trials ultimately resumed, “spectral evidence” was allowed but was largely discounted and those convicted were swiftly pardoned by Phips.
In the time leading up to the trials being stopped, it was actually clerics including the famous Cotton Mather, often portrayed as the chief villain in the hysteria, who took the lead in advising cautions against the use of “spectral evidence.” The Rev. Increase Mather, Cotton’s father, specifically condemned “spectral evidence” in his book ‘Cases of Conscience’, in which he stated that:
“It were better that ten suspected witches should escape, than that one Innocent Person should be Condemned.”
It was this shift in sentiment, no doubt aided by the escalating hysteria and the fact that accusations were beginning to reach higher into the Massachusetts Bay Colony hierarchy, that led to Phips’ action.
As Dr. Tim Gorski, Pastor of the North Texas Church of Freethought has observed:
“Now this is the important part: why did [Phips] do it? Was [he] a Freethinker? No. Was it that people suddenly realized that there are no witches, no demons, no evil spells and the like? No. No, the Phips edict came about with the complicity of all the devout fundamentalist believers that constituted the community of Salem and the Colony of Massachusetts because they had to.
Winston Churchill once remarked that ‘What the wise do in the beginning, fools do in the end.’ Churchill also said that ‘You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else!’
For, you see, eventually, at some point, and to some degree, people simply have to act rationally. You have to open doors before walking through doorways. You have to turn the key in your ignition before you drive home today. No amount of faith and prayer can allow anyone to do otherwise. And despite all the rhetorical flourishes of the superstitious believers, that’s the way it’s always been and always will be. Indeed, this truth is becoming more and more important every day.
It’s also the essence of the role of the law: to hold people to a standard of dealing with one another that’s based on reason. That’s the basis of every shall and shalt not that there is, not some divine command of ‘do it or else.'”