Toil & Trouble
A Brief Account of the Occult at the End of Western Civilization
Newsweek magazine reports that the number of self-identified witches in the United States now exceeds 1.5 million, up from a mere 8,000 in 1990. At that high and growing number, the magazine continues, the devotees of witchcraft far exceed the shriveling membership of the “mainline” Presbyterian Church USA and just about equal the count of Episcopalians.
I am unsure what to make of such comparisons between the witches and the “mainline” Protestants. A cynic of the “Old Believer” sort might see here merely a distinction without a difference, or a welcome clarification of identities.
Certainly, this surge in the popularity of witchcraft finds confirmation in the broader American culture. In recent years, television series featuring witches have included Charmed, Legacies, Salem, A Discovery of Witches, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Motherland: Fort Salem, American Horror Story: Coven FX, The Secret Circle, Always a Witch, The Witcher, and Grimm. If you add to this list those serials focused on vampires, zombies, demons, and Satan himself, the count of occult productions climbs to near fifty—and that does not include feature films. The contemporary American fascination with the diabolical seems clear; authentic and effective Christian counterparts are almost non-existent.
On a related matter, there is now a somewhat serious campaign to make Halloween “America’s Federal Holiday of Death.” The commercial case for this is evident. The sale of Halloween merchandise in the USA far exceeds that in any other nation, both absolutely and on a per-capita basis. And the total spent on Halloween gear is second only to that spent for Christmas. Whatever Christian influence might once have been present in the celebration of All Hallows Eve, the diabolical has largely won out.
Theological & Secular Views
Christians, of course, are deeply troubled by the very subject of witches and warlocks. The Christian witch-hunters of the late medieval and early modern eras hold a reputation for ruthlessness, astonishing cruelty, and arbitrary executions—judgments only amplified in contemporary tellings. Such witch-hunts stand in the popular mind as indelible, even crippling, indictments of the followers of Jesus.
Still, the theological record on these matters should be confronted. Early medieval writers commonly dismissed witchcraft as but a figment of the imagination. However, while never directly addressing “witches,” Thomas Aquinas did describe the reality of demonic sorcery, involving pacts between a sorcerer and the devil. His concern focused especially on the marital and sexual realms, where agents of the diabolical sought to impede carnal union and prevent the consummation of matrimony. Sterility—the absence of generative life—seems to have been the goal.
In 1495, the Dominicans Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger drew extensively on Thomistic writings and produced the now-infamous volume Malleus Maleficarum (The Witch Hammer). This hefty book came in response to Pope Innocent VIII’s prior bull, Summis desiderantes affectibus, which lamented the growing prevalence and power of the witch cult. As the two friars amplified, the reality was “that the Devil is gaining ground; in other words that God is losing it; that the human race, saved by Jesus Christ, is becoming the conquest and prey of Satan.” They described in remarkable detail all “the methods by which the works of witchcraft are wrought and developed and how they may be successfully annulled and dissolved.”
Martin Luther and his fellow reformers were no less clear in their denunciation of Satan and his warlocks and witches. As Luther explained:
When God’s holy word arises, it is always its lot that Satan opposes it with all his might. At first he rages against it with force and wicked power. . . . What he is unable to crush by force he thus seeks to suppress by cunning and lies. . . . At all hours the Devil is seeking to kill us all. . . . If he could kill you in your mother’s body, he would do it.
Allan C. Carlson is the John Howard Distinguished Senior Fellow at the International Organization for the Family. His most recent book is Family Cycles: Strength, Decline & Renewal in American Domestic Life, 1630-2000 (Transaction, 2016). He and his wife have four grown children and nine grandchildren. A "cradle Lutheran," he worships in a congregation of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. He is a senior editor for Touchstone.
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