Bill O’Reilly, host of the “No Spin News,” is one of my favorite news pundits. He reminded me a few years ago to question all you see/hear on TV and the Internet and always seek the facts about news and issues.
I paid $280 to become a lifetime member of his nightly broadcast for access to materials and commentary. In return, I received a free set of his Killing series books (now 13). They comprise the most successful non-fiction book series in history with nearly 20 million copies sold.
His latest blockbuster is Killing the Witches: The Horror of Salem, Massachusetts.
But I disagree with O’Reilly on the Pilgrims (and Witches).
Disagreeing With O’Reilly on the Pilgrims (and Witches)
It’s okay to be at odds with commentators, political leaders, friends, your pastor, and even your wife on certain subjects. That’s the beauty of independent thought and seeking the truth.
In the case of Bill O’Reilly, I agree with his positions about 95% of the time. In his first twelve Killing series books, I found no faults. They were fantastic.
In Killing the Witches, I disagree with both his writing about Pilgrims/Puritans, and what he said in a news broadcast last week.
First, a quick summary of Killing the Witches.
O’Reilly begins with a witch burning in late sixteenth century Scotland. Then he chronicles the Pilgrims (he calls them Puritans) coming to America on the Mayflower, establishing Plymouth, Massachusetts, and other New England towns.
He calls the Puritans “fundamentalists” (p.10) with an “extreme faith” (p.11) who later, in Salem, hang twenty people in the 1690’s (mainly women) convicted of witchcraft. He shares the details of their trials from public records.
O’Reilly blames two father/son clergymen, Increase and Cotton Mather, for supporting the witch hangings–especially Cotton Mather. He says Increase gave “frightening sermons,” and the witch trials brought both “fame and prosperity” to both preachers (p.90). He says, “They are the voice of God” and “God approves of hanging witches” (p.91).
Interestingly, O’Reilly begins the book with Exodus 22:18:
“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (KJV).
In the Bible, the just God approved of it also.
In the second section of the book, O’Reilly discusses the influence of Salem on young Benjamin Franklin leading to the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution a generation later.
In the third section, O’Reilly tells the true story of the demon-possessed boy who inspired the movie “The Exorcist.” O’Reilly believes in evil, but says the Salem trials were misplaced zeal by religious fanatics. He concludes that modern-day “cancel-culture” is similar to the witch hunts.
On his broadcast on October 31, 2023, O’Reilly went further in his disdain for the Pilgrims/Puritans:
“The Puritans were not Christians. They were a cult. They were thrown out of England because of their extreme views.”
I strongly disagree.
First, though the Pilgrims and Puritans were Bible-believers who “protested” (Protestants) the corruption and idolatry of the medieval Catholic Church, they were different in their faith practices.
To quote an eminent 19th century historian:
“In the old world, on the other side of the ocean, the Puritan was a Nationalist, believing that a Christian nation is a Christian Church, and demanding that the Church of England should be thoroughly reformed. While the Pilgrim was a Separatist, not only from the Anglican Prayer-book and Queen Elizabeth’s episcopacy, but from all national churches. Between them there was sharp contention…The Pilgrim wanted liberty for himself, his wife and his little ones, and for his brethren, to walk with God in a Christian life as the rules and motives of such a life were revealed to him from God’s Word. For that he went into exile; for that he crossed the ocean; for that he made his home in a wilderness. The Puritan’s idea was not liberty, but right government in church and state–such government as should not only permit him, but also compel other men to walk in the right way.” (Leonard Bacon’s Genesis of the New England Churches, 1874).
The Puritans were more “strict” than the Pilgrims, though not abnormal for their time. The Pilgrims were actually Bible-centered libertarians. If both groups were alive today, the Pilgrims would be starting Christian schools (separatists) and the Puritans would be working to improve the government schools (reformers).
You can’t blame Salem on the Pilgrims. The vast majority of primary sources paint the Plymouth colony as one of the highest of godly expressions in the New World–so much so that they maintained good relations with the Indians for 100 years.
They were a “city on a hill.”
That’s why we celebrate them every Thanksgiving.
William Bradford in Of Plimoth Plantation stated their purpose for coming to America:
“To propagate and advance the Gospel of the Kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world, yes, though they should be as stepping stones for others for the performing of so great a work.”
That’s not the legacy and language of an “extreme sect.”
I visited Plymouth on December 15, 1988, and was given a personal tour of the environs and Pilgrim museum by Pastor Paul Jehle, the unofficial historian of the town. Everything I saw and read confirmed the godly legacy of our Pilgrim fathers.
Second, though the Puritans were stricter than the Pilgrims and desired biblically-based theocracies in the New World, that was normal for the time period. The Catholic Church (O’Reilly’s heritage) ran a theocracy in Europe for 1000 years. Protestants then fought for the same rights (The Religious Wars).
O’Reilly is right that the forming of the USA and Ben Franklin’s part in it brought about a new experiment in American government: 1) No mandated religion, 2) Freedom of individual worship, and 3) Favoring the majority biblical worldview (which creates blessing).
We can thank both the Pilgrims and Puritans for those freedoms today.
“The glories of Christianity in England are to be traced in the sufferings of confessors and martyrs in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; and it was under the influence of Christian principle that the Mayflower brought over the band of Pilgrims to Plymouth…”Before our children remove our religious connections…before they leave the old paths of God’s Word, let us place in their hands this chronicle of the glorious days of the suffering Churches, and let them know they are sons of the men ‘of whom the world was not worthy,’ and whose sufferings for conscience sake are here monumentally recorded.” (John Overton Choules in a reprint of the preface of Daniel Neal’s History of the Puritans, 1731).
It’s true that the Salem witch trials got out of hand and killed some innocent people. Every human life is precious. But this must be put in historical context. About eighty people were accused of practicing witchcraft throughout New England from 1647 to 1663. Thirteen women and two men were executed. The Salem trials followed in 1692–93, culminating in 200 people being accused of witchcraft and 20 people being executed. Five others died in jail.
This was not unusual for the time. From 1500 to 1660, Europe executed 50,000-80,000 suspected witches. The number was far less in America because of the godly influence of the Pilgrims/Puritans.
Here’s another perspective: the Catholic Church slaughtered 3,000-10,000 people during the Spanish Inquisition with possibly up to 125,000 dying in prison. Today in America we kill 2700 human beings every day through abortion.
That is the greatest horror of human injustice.
Yes, some grave mistakes were made in Salem. But they were small compared to Europe. The main problem was a lack of legal due process (which O’Reilly says included allowing “spectral evidence” in court–ghostly apparition “sightings” by mostly juveniles).
Increase and Cotton Mather later saw the wrongs of the witch trials. Increase lamented, “It would be better for ten witches to go free than for one innocent person to be condemned” (p.97). And Cotton admitted, “Things were carried too far” (p.142).
Yet, overall both Mathers did great good for the colonies through their spiritual leadership and helped lay the foundation for subsequent great awakenings in America.
O’Reilly slants the history of the Salem witch trials due to his Catholic heritage, lack of historical context, ignorance of Pilgrim history, and one other factor:
He’s against capital punishment (which the Bible is not).
We all have our biases. He brings that one strongly into Killing the Witches.
I respectfully disagree.