22 June 2008
Comparing two Evils: The Devil’s Work vs. Mankind’s Sinful Nature
The sinful nature of mankind is Cotton Mather’s theme of The Wonders of the Invisible World and Pillars of Salt. However, the viewpoint of whom to blame for one’s duplicitous actions is disparate in both stories. Mather’s perspective of sin is a deliberate transgression of a religious or moral law that is not pleasing in the eyes of God. These sinful acts include, but not limited to, murder, Satanism, deception, and witchery. Although both stories have a similar theme of the sinful nature of humans, they depict two different angels on the outcome of the character’s sinister acts. The Wonders of the Invisible World illustrates the different stages a criminal went through to reach repentance, which stirs conflicting emotions and views of sin in readers. Pillars of Salt portrays the role Satan plays in mankind’s sinful pursuits against God. Interestingly, both stories pointed the blame for their sinful thoughts and actions on different things, which makes the stories have their own unique twist and point, which is exactly what Cotton Mather is trying to convey to his readers.
There are obvious differences in The Wonders of the Invisible World and Pillars of Salt; three in particular sets the two writings apart, the attitude of the accused toward their situation, the crimes committed, and whom the accused blamed for committing their sins. In The Wonders of the Invisible World, Martha Carrier, a women accused of witchcraft, reacted to her situation by claiming that she was innocent of all charges brought against her by “pleading not guilty to her indictment”(310). However, Martha did not testify in her defense and made no strides to prove her innocence. Thus, even if she might be innocent, she made no attempts to prove it. Ironically, Martha was “convicted of a very damnable witchcraft” (309). However, she was not the only one that was committing an evil act against God. The greatest evil in this story is the concept of groupthink and selfishness. Groupthink is the act of a group or community conforming to a prevailing point of view and is mankind’s natural tendency to blend in and conform to one’s culture and society. Unfortunately, it can have a negative affect on history, especially in the case of the Salem witch trials. The concept of groupthink was evident in The Wonders of the Invisible World. It caused good friends, cousins, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, to turn on each other, as chaos broke loose in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. The accusers are the people that committed the act of evil because they were selfish. They were afraid to take a stand and stop the horrific hysteria-taking place in their village. Their act of deception caused many innocent people to die a terrifying death. Some motives for their dishonesty include revenge, jealousy, and fear. Thus, the lesson in this story is the concept of groupthink and its negative affect on society if not stopped by someone brave enough to prevail against the norm. In the case of James Morgan, a man accused of murder in Pillars of Salt, his attitude towards his situation is to repent for his sins and be an example to others. He openly “Cursed his [sinful] passions” (417) and asked for forgiveness. He feared eternal damnation, thus he tried to make peace with God in hopes of being saved before his soul departed from the earth. The underline theme in this story is the sin of having a lustful nature. Not in the sense of having a sexual desire for something, but the temptation of the skin to go against God. The minister states a simile that compares mankind’s initial affinity towards God, which states that man was “…born with a soul as full an enmity for God, as a Toad is filled with poison” (419). Man was born with sin and had a desire to do evil. The need to conform to society and having a lustful nature will lead many astray because there is not a moral compass guiding one’s path, thus chaos will always be the result if God is not present.
The crimes of Martha Carrier and James Morgan are different, and stir different perspectives in the spectators that were at the event. In “The Wonders of the Invisible World” Martha was accused of having supernatural abilities and used her powers to “torment” her victims by “biting, pricking, pinching and choking them” (311). Her own children accused her of forcing them to be witches and with great detail described the horrific ordeal their mother put them through. Many of the observers at the trial after hearing so many testimonies from so called eyewitnesses and from the accused own children, believe that Martha Carrier was truly a witch and worshipped the devil. After hearing of her crimes of witchery, they adamantly believe that she should be put to death and has no compassion for her and her position. On the other hand, James Morgan committed the ultimate sin of taking a human’s life, yet the minister wanted to save him. He asked the Lord to help him deal with Morgan “faithfully” (419) and guide him in the right direction towards heaven. Although he “despised” the teachings of God and drank heavily (418), he gave an inspirational speech of repentance and proclaimed that he was an example of a “veil wretch” that deserves the punishment he received (418). This evoked compassion and pity for Morgan’s faith. Ironically, there is no hard evidence that suggest that Martha truly used witchery and bewitched the people that testified against her. In the end, everyone wanted to see her executed and has no compassion for her situation. Yet, James Morgan admitted his sins and committed the ultimate sin of murder, and in the end, people admired his forwardness and it evoked feelings of compassion for his situation. Morgan took responsibility for his actions openly spoke about his wrong doings and later repented, but Martha did not do anything to plea her case. Thus, no one felt sorry for her and the faith that awaited her.
The Wonders of the Invisible World conveys the tendency many people have to blaming others for their mistakes. In the case of the Salem witch trials, the devil was to blame for the sinful actions of the victims of Martha Carrier. In one case, Foster confessed that the “devil carried [her] on a pole to witch-meetings”(312) against her will. Foster proclaims her innocence by blaming Martha and the devil for making her perform witchery. Even the title of the story The Wonders of the Invisible World: A people of god in the devil’s territories defers blame on the devil, which shows that they believe that the devil was responsible for making them commit sins against God. On the contrary, in “Pillars of Salt”, James Morgan took full responsibility for his actions and “owned the sentence” being convicted of. He is remorseful of his actions and pleads with God to save his soul.
Though there are differences that set the stories apart, there are also similarities that unite them together. In both stories the accused was executed, which parallels with the crimes they were accused of. The crimes are considered gruesome, and they died a gruesome and terrifying death by hanging from a rope, which slowly suffocated them. Both stories illustrate the cause and effect of evil in society. For instance, for many years after the Salem witch trial, many realized that the Salem witch trials are the result of mass hysteria that resulted in the deaths of innocent people and will forever be apart of tragic mistakes in human history. In the case of “Pillars of Salt”, the confession of James Morgan might of inspired many sinners to change their ways before they shared the same faith.
According to Cotton Mather, evil comes in many shapes and forms and is present in every walk of live. Both stories have a lesson to teach about the evils in society. Like good, evil is the force that balances the universe and humanity must live with its presence and find a way to overcome one’s sinful nature. Mather’s overall point in both stories states that God is the only one that can save us from ourselves. No matter how hard humans fight against the flesh, one cannot overcome their sinful desires alone, but only with the aid of the Lord. The cause of evil will continue to be debated for many more years. However, evil seems not to be the actions of the devil, but the impatience of humans desires, jealousy, and greed, which all leads to a destructive society that is blind to the truths of life.