Is Providence "Practical"? A Historical Anecdote

Patrick J. O'Banion
Wednesday, June 6th 2007
Sep/Oct 2002

Even committed confessional Protestants can view the doctrine of providence with mixed feelings. Yes, it is biblical. Yes, it glorifies God. Yet it raises difficult questions about the existence of evil and our ability to make free choices. And, after all, what practical difference could this doctrine make in our daily lives?

In the late sixteenth century, the inhabitants of Maldon, England, could have answered that question with authority. In their case, a healthy doctrine of providence literally saved lives. Maldon and its surroundings were witchcraft hotspots. In 1572, Mary Cowpar and her father were apparently bewitched by Alice Chaundler, who was also accused of using magic to murder Robert Briscoe and his two children. Chaundler was found guilty and hung. Five years later, her daughter, Ellen Smyth, was condemned for bewitching Susan Webbe. Between 1582 and 1584, at least fifty-three county women were condemned as witches.

In the midst of this witch-hunt mania, George Gifford, a young Cambridge-educated Puritan, received his first pastoral call. He spent the rest of his life ministering to Maldon's people. His pastor's heart is seen in the pains he took to help both his sermons and writings capture the attention of the "simpler sort" of people. In particular, he spent years contemplating the doctrine of providence and its implications for his flock. And as he meditated on what it meant to believe in a sovereign God, he drew strikingly important conclusions for the women who were being accused and condemned as witches, although there was little or no evidence against them.

He reasoned that if God truly governs the universe, if nothing stands outside his control, then witches in themselves do not possess any real power. What can chants or sacrifices to demons accomplish? The devil, too, is bound by God's controlling hand. Even if witches believe they have magical powers, they are really only dupes of Satan; their incantations and rituals are mere shams.

What conclusion did Gifford draw from this? He began to explain to his parishioners that since God controls the universe they need not fear. Even if a witch were to cast spells against them, what harm could she do? They should not turn to talismans or folk magic to protect themselves but instead look to the heavens and trust in the mighty power of God's providence. Those with faith in Christ, he assured them, would be like Mt. Zion, which cannot be moved.

In Gifford's writings he addressed those who would constitute the juries of future witch trials. How did the doctrine of providence affect his advice to them? He reminded them of their solemn duty before God and man to judge impartially. Since witches have no real power, they did not have to condemn the accused to death simply out of fear that they would wreak havoc in the land. Witches could do no harm that God did not providentially allow. Juries were obliged to render a verdict based on the facts, rather than on hearsay or common opinion. It was better to let true witches go free than to have the blood of innocent men and women on their hands.

The effects of Gifford's teaching, preaching, and writing were remarkable. For example, in 1591, Margaret Wiseman, who lived close to Maldon, was accused of witchcraft. She, however, was not executed. Six women from Maldon, who were all closely associated with Gifford, appeared with her at trial and swore oaths declaring her to be innocent. She was released. But in the summer of that same year Wiseman was accused again. At her second trial, fourteen inhabitants of Maldon swore to her innocence and she went free again, this time for good. As before, most if not all of them were Gifford's friends and parishioners. His teaching on providence gave them the freedom to stand up against what they saw as an unjust accusation.

What possible difference could a healthy understanding of providence make in someone's life? For Margaret Wiseman, it undoubtedly made a great deal.

Wednesday, June 6th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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