Deodat Lawson

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Deodat Lawson was a British American minister in Salem Village from 1684 to 1688 and is famous for a 10-page pamphlet describing the witchcraft accusations in the early spring of 1692. The pamphlet was billed as "collected by Deodat Lawson" and printed within the year in Boston, Massachusetts.

Early life and education[edit]

Deodat Lawson was born in Norfolk, England. His mother died within a few weeks of his birth.[1] He likely received an education near his birthplace. One historian compliments Lawson's fine handwriting.[2] The work attributed to Lawson displays great erudition but there is no record of his having attended Cambridge, Oxford, or Trinity College.[3][4] It is possible he attended one of the semi-clandestine dissenting academies. By 1671, Lawson had travelled to Martha's Vineyard in New England.[5] The diarist Samuel Sewall first records him coming to Boston in 1681.[6] He was a minister in Salem Village beginning in 1684 when several church members (including Peter Cloyce husband of Sarah Cloyce a woman who would be among the earliest accused in 1692) were sent by the church to get a boat and help him move his belongings up to Salem. Lawson seems to have never reached mutually agreeable terms in order to be ordained and hold a covenant with the church of Salem Village.[7] While at the Village, Lawson's wife and daughter died. (This subject would be revisited in 1692, see below.)[8]

By the spring of 1688, Lawson returned to Boston and he seems to have been something of an itinerant preacher over the next four years.[9] In 1690, Lawson re-married to a woman named Deborah Allen.[10]

Preaching for Andros[edit]

On July 19, 1688, Lawson preached a proclamation day sermon for the Dominion of New England governor Andros, as was reported in a letter to Increase Mather by Samuel Sewall.[11] It is not clear if this may have been perceived as something of a betrayal to the Mathers, as Increase Mather had only recently fled to England to avoid prosecution under Andros government. In most cases, religious services for Andros were in keeping with the Church of England not that of the Puritans.[12] A strange reference to Lawson's preaching sermons for Andros arose later during the witchcraft trials in the deposition of a twelve-year-old accuser in August of 1692.[13] This deposition was presented in the trial of Lawson's predecessor George Burroughs with Increase Mather in attendance.[14]

Sinful failings[edit]

There seems to be no surviving record of anything untoward in Lawson's behavior while at Salem Village, but in a sermon ("Satan's Malignities") attributed to him, and printed under his name in 1693, he begins a dedication to the inhabitants of the Village by acknowledging that his previous ministry "attended with manifold sinful failings and infirmities, for which I do implore, the pardoning mercy of God in Jesus Christ, and entreat from you the covering of love."[15] The next section of the sermon ("To the Reader") seems to gather and grasp for sources to support Lawson's qualifications, including quoting of a letter from Lawson's own father, which was solicited by "Ministers of Boston." But soon this section also dips toward a debasing confessional: "And wherein I have at any time, given just offense, to the meanest of those that fear the Lord, I do heartily beg their pity and prayers..." This section was removed when the sermon was reprinted a decade later in London.

Salem Witch-phobia[edit]

The pamphlet: A Brief Narrative of Some Remarkable Passages at Salem Village[edit]


Unlike the zealous Cotton Mather and his powerful father Increase Mather, Deodat Lawson does not appear to have published works on witchcraft (if anything else) prior to this pamphlet published under his name ("collected by") in 1692. One historian of the "Bibliography of Witchcraft" considered the introduction to have most likely been written by Cotton Mather, and it is noticeable that the printer, Benjamin Harris, also produced the two lengthy books on witchcraft by the Mathers that summer and fall—a very large commission for a colonial printer.[16]

The Ghostly Lawson[edit]

Lawson's brief narrative covers March 19-April 5, 1692. Oddly, none of the numerous court records and depositions covering the same period list the presence of Lawson in Salem Village.[17] A deposition by Ann Putnam Sr lists a number of the same dates including the sabbath day, March 20, without mentioning Lawson or whoever it was that preached the sermon that day. On March 23, Lawson (or Lawson's narrator) says he paid a visit Ann Putnam Sr. to witness her afflictions, but Ann Putnam Sr. doesn't mention the presence of this out-of-town guest in describing her afflictions on that day, and the very next day, during an examination, the court asked not for Lawson but instead for the Rev. Samuel Parris to read his notes of a visit to Ann Putnam Sr. Thus, it seems that some portions of what was "collected by" Lawson would best be understood as the accounts of others, including Parris.

The Omission of Testimony from the Contra Side[edit]

Rev. Samuel Parris was tasked by the court with recording by hand the examination of Rebecca Nurse on March 24 and he omitted any testimony from those speaking in her defense. On the reverse side of this record Parris did sheepishly admit "great noises" by the afflicted and "many speakers" prevented him from capturing everything. Perhaps for the same reason Deodat Lawson's published account of this exam also contains no mention of any testimony in defense of Nurse, and Lawson's narrator likewise proffers an excuse: "I had not leisure to attend the whole time of examination." The only record of the existence of a "contra side" speaking in defense of Nurse comes from a brief note on the back of the official order to arrest Nurse.[18]

Deodat Lawson's account of the exam of Martha Cory quotes a line from Rev. Nicholas Noyes declaring her a witch while omitting his next clause as recorded in the court record, "...there is no need of images." Thus Lawson's account withholds information that suggests the sheriff had searched her home for physical evidence relative to the practice of witchcraft and found nothing.[19]

An Incorrect Date[edit]

Deodat Lawson's "Brief Narrative" matches the official court records in a variety of ways while also containing curious differences and mistakes such as the incorrect listing of "Sacrament Day" on April 3 (it was March 27).[20] This may have been a simple error but "Sacrament Day"—when the Lord's Supper was administered—was highly significant to Puritans, and never more so than during this time period with certain accusations regarding the capital crime of witchcraft tied directly to it. "None ought, nor is it possible that any should, maintain communion with Christ, & yet keep up fellowship with Devils," Parris wrote in the March 27 entry of his sermon book.[21] Young Abigail Williams had even helpfully announced it advance on March 21: "The next sabbath is Sacrament day, but she [Martha Cory] shall not come there."[22] Deodat Lawson's account also includes a version of the examination of Martha Cory on this date which suggests the account was constructed hastily and at some distance from Salem Village where such discrepancies would have been easily checked and corrected.

The sermon: Christ's Fidelity Against Satan's Malignity... Delivered at Salem-village, the 24th of March, 1692[edit]

In his pamphlet describing the happenings at Salem, Lawson briefly mentions that March 24 is "Lecture Day at the Village" but nothing more is said about the sermon delivered on that Thursday, or how it was received by the same audience that had been described as unruly and disruptive during the sermons on March 20. What makes this surprising is that the sermon said to have been delivered on that day, and published within a year under Lawson's name, was a persuasive, lengthy, and elaborate tour de force. GL Burr describes the sermon as "no extempore production, but a studied disquisition on the power and malice of the Devil, who 'Contracts and Indents with Witches and Wizzards, that they shall be the Instruments by whom he may more secretly Affect and Afflict the Bodies and Minds of others.'" CW Upham calls it "a thoroughly elaborated and carefully constructed performance, requiring long and patient application to compose it, and exhausting all the resources of theological research and reference, and of artistic skill and finish."

Cotton Mather records that he took multiple "journeys" to Salem in his memoirs, and in a September 2, 1692 letter to Chief Justice Stoughton he writes that "one half of my endeavors to serve you have not been told or seen." In fact there is no record of Mather having delivered a sermon in Salem Village in 1692. Yet there is a noticeable affinity between the March 24, 1692 sermon and Cotton Mather's sermons on the subject published in Wonders of the Invisible World. If the "Satan's Malignity" sermon can be fully attributed to Deodat Lawson, and him alone, Lawson may need to be re-considered as a strong influence on the younger Cotton Mather. However, subterfuge from Cotton Mather should not be ruled out: in the September 2, 1692 letter from Mather to Stoughton he speaks of employing "designed contrivances."

The "Satan's Malignity" sermon has a publishing date of 1693 and is dedicated to several of the judges who had been on the deadly Court of Oyer and Terminer in the summer of 1692 but who were excluded from the new Superior Court that took its place (with orders to disregard "spectral evidence") when it was dissolved later that year.[23]

Cotton Mather's anonymous Life of Phips

The printed sermon also claims an endorsement by a circle of ministers who were all part of the Cambridge Association. It is unknown how widely the sermon was distributed in the decade or so after its first printing. At least one copy made it from Boston to Salem Village ("William Griggs his Book 1692")[24] but there doesn't seem to be any contemporary mention of it during this period. John Hale's timeline makes no direct mention of the sermon.[25] Robert Calef also seems to take no notice of it despite Calef having published a manuscript that Cotton Mather was passing around to his friends in 1693, the title of which --"Another Brand Pluckt Out of the Burning"—shares a refrain with the March 24, 1692 sermon. The "another" in the title denotes it having been a sequel to the first "Brand Pluckt" Mather wrote in the winter of 1692-3 (March 16 is the last internal date) in which Mather referred to himself anonymously in the third person.[26] It is not fully understood why Mather wrote anonymously at this time or why he was unable or unwilling to get his two "Brand Pluckt" manuscripts into print. A handful of years later, Mather attempted to remain anonymous by printing in London a posthumous biography of William Phips (see photo) until he was identified as the author by Robert Calef.[27]

Move to Scituate and More Publications[edit]

Samuel Sewall's diary mentions Lawson in the Boston area for the last time on December 27, 1692, in Watertown, alongside William Stoughton and others. In 1693, Lawson became a pastor at the Second Church in Scituate, which had been tied to Plymouth and governed by the Plymouth General Court until the previous year. Lawson continued to have success publishing, with some help from the Mathers, including a sermon printed in Boston in the summer of 1693 under the "imprimatur" of Increase Mather dated July 27, 1693.[28] In 1694, Lawson published a poem called "Threnodia," a memorial of a Scituate captain who was lost at sea.[29]

Forsaking Scituate[edit]

"When the Rev. Mr. Lawson forsook this church he left no catalog of them that were baptized by him."[30]

In 1696, Lawson seems to have departed for England and left things in disarray, with little or no notice to the church in Scituate. This lack of record-keeping was unusual for a pastor and according to the doctrine expressed in the March 24, 1692 sermon, Lawson thereby left these church members vulnerable to "satan's malignity."[31]

A Return to England and A Descent into Abject Poverty[edit]

Reprinting the Witch-phobic Sermon[edit]

Back in England in 1696, Lawson seems to have been known for his contemporaneous account of Salem perhaps because the "Brief Narrative" been included in London editions of Cotton Mather's Wonders of the Invisible World (WIW) in 1693. Lawson claims that he was solicited to reprint the witch-phobic sermon from March 24, 1692, "...but for some particular reasons I did then decline it." By 1704, a second edition of the March 24, 1692 sermon was printed and sold with an appendix that included some of the information from the "Brief Narrative" in a different form, incorporating information provided by Cotton Mather (in WIW) and presented as two lists, one regarding the afflicted and a separate one on the accused. In this version, all dates and identifying information (including initials) were removed with the exception of a reference to "the ghosts of my wife and daughter."[32][33]

The Uneven, Unwary, and Unhappy Deodat Lawson[edit]

By 1714, Lawson had fallen into a poverty so extreme that he worried about feeding his "three young children." He begged help from New England merchants to front money to print another sermon, one that he'd recently delivered on the occasion of the Royal Coronation of King George.[34]

Lawson's poverty likely stemmed from his having been excluded from the ministry and defrocked. In 1713 and again in 1715, Lawson made attempts to restore "the exercise of his ministry" by confessing to "uneven and unwary conversation."[35]

Lawson's attempts to restore himself to a better position do not appear to have succeeded. In 1727, he was described as "the unhappy Mr. Deodat Lawson" and this seems to be the last heard of him.[36]

An end to witch-phobic accusations in the English realm[edit]

Around the time of Lawson's increasing unhappiness, Francis Hutchinson published a broad attack on witch-phobia that included a lengthy treatment of Salem.[37] Hutchinson cites the work of Robert Calef and blames the influence of the Mathers in the decade leading up to events at Salem, as well as the English clergyman Richard Baxter. Deodat Lawson was not considered important or influential enough to earn a mention in Hutchinson's work.[38] Whereas Calef had focussed on Christian doctrine and called out witch-phobia as an unorthodox "notion" and addressed numerous letter to the influential ministers of New England, Hutchinson dedicates his work to powerful judges and focusses on the spurious, unreliable, and ridiculous nature of the accusations especially when brought before a court of judicature.[39] The arguments of Hutchinson and Calef helped pave the way to the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1736.[40]


  1. ^ See letter from his father quoted in the "To the Reader" section of his 1693 sermon "Christ Fidelity vs Satan's Malignity" online.
  2. ^ “His chirography is easy, free, graceful, clear, and clean,” CW Upham writes regarding Lawson's keeping four pages of receipts in Salem Village during his initial stay there 1684-87. Upham also includes a facsimile of Lawson's signature. CW Upham Salem Witchcraft Vol. I.
  3. ^ Stacy Schiff, The Witches see notes to Chapter 3.
  4. ^ GL Burr Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases (1911)[1] p.147.
  5. ^ CW Upham Salem Witchcraft Volumes I and II.
  6. ^ Sewall DI p. 49
  7. ^ CW Upham Salem Witchcraft Volumes I and II passim.
  8. ^ CW Upham Salem Witchcraft Volumes I and II.
  9. ^ Sewall DI, p.213. May 13, 1688.
  10. ^ CW Upham Salem Witchcraft Volumes I and II.
  11. ^ Sewall DI, p.231-2, n.1.
  12. ^ See Sewall DI in 1688, passim especially p. 217-9, for much argument with Andros over his use of the South Meetinghouse for Anglican services as well as other details of the fight with the Mathers.
  13. ^ "...he [Lawson] went eastward with Sir Edmond [Andros] and preached so to the soldiers..." --deposition of Ann Putnam. Records of Salem Witchcraft Vol. II (1864) p. 114.
  14. ^ "I was not myself present at any of the trials, excepting one, viz. that of George Burroughs; had I been one of his Judges, I could not have acquitted him."-- postscript to Cases, WIW, Farther Account (reprinted in 1862) p.286. :
  15. ^ "Christ's Fidelity the only Shield Against Satan's Malignity" Boston, printed by B. Harris 1693.
  16. ^ George Henry Moore Bibliographical Notes on Witchcraft in Massachusetts, p. 6. "I can not resist the impression upon reading it, that it was promoted by Cotton Mather and that he wrote the "Book seller's" notice "to the Reader.""
  17. ^ cf. March 21 examination of Martha Cory in Parris' hand which lists the minister Noyes and five other men but no Lawson.
  18. ^ Typescripts are available and this link carries photos of the originals.
  19. ^ Cotton Mather's private essay for the judges dated May 31 also suggests an ongoing frustration in the quest for evidence to convict those who were presumed guilty, "What can no poppets be found?"
  20. ^ CW Upham follows Rev. Samuel Parris and lists it as March 27. See Salem Village Church Record-book and also Parris Sermons.
  21. ^ Coll. Soc. MA. p. 198.
  22. ^ Bernard Rosenthal et al. Records of the Salem Witch-hunt (2009) p. 145.
  23. ^ Christ's fidelity the only shield against Satans malignity. Asserted in a sermon delivered at Salem-village, the 24th of March, 1692. Being lecture-day there, and a time of public examination, of some suspected for witchcraft. / By Deodat Lawson, formerly Preacher of the Gospel there. ; [Six lines of Scripture texts]. June 2006.
  24. ^ Proceedings of Massachusetts Historical Society Second Series Vol.IX p.496.
  25. ^ GL Burr, Narratives, see p.414.
  26. ^ Burr, p. 255.
  27. ^ See Mather's memoirs. In 1702, Mather included a reprint of the work in Magnalia.
  28. ^ Evans Early American Imprints
  29. ^ Evans Early American Imprints.
  30. ^ A reprint of the church record-book is available online. The 1704 second printing of the sermon includes the 1696 date p. 96. Some details also in CW Upham Salem Witchcraft Volumes I and II.
  31. ^ "That whensoever, God hath declared a person or people to be in covenant with Him... he will assuredly and shortly, suppress the malice of satan, however violently engaged against them." p. 45.
  32. ^ Reprinted in 1964 in the Jahrbuch für Amerikastudien Bd, pp 228-270.Comments on the decision to print the second edition p.95-96.
  33. ^ Lawson, Deodat. Christ's Fidelity the Only Shield Against Satan's Malignity. Asserted in a Sermon Deliver'd at Salem-Village the 24th of March, 1692. Being Lecture-day there, and a time of Publick Examination, of some Suspected for Witchcraft. Second Edition, 1704. Reprinted in London, by R. Tookey for the Author; and are to be sold by T. Parkhurst, at the Bible and Three Crowns in Cheapside; and J. Lawrence, at the Angel in the Poultrey.
  34. ^ GH Moore, Bibliographical Notes on Witchcraft, p.26-7.
  35. ^ The 1714 letter reprinted in its entirety by GH Moore in 1888, above, correctly cites the Bodleian Library, Rawlinson MS folder C. The reference to Lawson's defrocking also survives via Rawlinson but in folder D, summed up in the 1893 finding aid p.589 Archived 2016-08-18 at the Wayback Machine.
  36. ^ ibid. CW Upham seems to have been the first scholar to unearth this reference to Lawson in a 1727 edition of Calamy's Continuation. Salem Witchcraft Vol. I and II (1867).
  37. ^ Francis Hutchinson An Historical Essay, published in 1718 but begun at least a decade before, Chapter V, passim.
  38. ^ "I know Mr. Cotton Mather, in his late Folio [Magnalia] imputes it to the Indian Paw-waws , sending their Spirits amongst them; but I attribute it to Mr. Baxters Book, and his [Cotton Mather], and his Father's [Harvard President Increase Mather], and the false principles, and frightful stories that filled the people's minds with great fears and dangerous notions." F. Hutchinson, p.77.
  39. ^ See Hutchinson's defense of an accused woman Amy Duny. He suggests the men who accused her deserved a scolding for being bad drivers and were too weak or lazy to unload their cart at the end of the day.
  40. ^ Ian Bostridge,Witchcraft and its Transformations (Oxford, 1997) pp. 34–5.