A Puritan text from the library of William Stoughton, the hanging judge of Salem

A Puritan text from the library of William Stoughton, the hanging judge of Salem

Owen, John (1616 – 1683). The doctrine of the saints perseverance, explained and confirmed. Or, The certain permanency of their 1. Acceptation with God, & 2. Sanctification from God : Manifested & proved from the 1. Eternall principles 2. Effectuall causes 3. Externall meanes thereof. In, 1. The immutability of the 1. Nature 2. Decrees 3. Covenant and 4. Promises of God. 2. The oblation and intercession of Jesus Christ. 3. The 1. Promises 2. Exhortations 3. Threats of the Gospell. Improved in its genuine tendency to obedience and consolation. And vindicated in a full answer to the discourse of Mr John Goodwin against it, in his book entituled Redemption redeemed. With some digressions concerning 1. The immediate effects of the death of Christ. ... with a discourse touching the epistles of Ignatius; the Episcopacy in them asserted; and some animadversions on Dr. H:H: his dissertations on that subject. By John Owen servant of Jesus Christ in the worke of the Gospell. Oxford : printed by Leon. Lichfield printer to the University, for Tho. Robinson, anno Dom: 1654. First edition. [52], 445 (i.e. 443), [1] pages ; 30 cm. Bound in original calf, the volume is rather worn, with some of the original boards exposed. Repairs to the front gutter and sundry other faults, including a chip to leaf Gg2 (227/228) not affecting the text. Despite these minor blemishes, the book is tightly bound, and the text complete. ESTC R21647; Wing O740; Madan III, 2258.

With the ownership signature and occasional annotations of "William Stoughton of New Colledge [sic], Oxon.” Additional ownership inscription: “Clarinda Mayhews Book 1807 / April 22.”

A remarkable copy of the first edition of this classic of Puritan theology, from the library of William Stoughton (1631 – 1701), the American minister and magistrate who presided over the Salem witch trials of 1692.

Born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, Stoughton attended Harvard, graduating in 1650. In 1651, he went to England to preach in Sussex and continue his studies at New College, Oxford, which granted him a Masters degree and a Fellowship. It was here that he first encountered the great theologian John Owen, who served as Vice Chancellor of Oxford University during Cromwell’s Protectorate. Along with Owen and other Puritans, Stoughton lost his positions at Oxford at the Restoration, and in 1662 he returned to New England. A sermon he delivered in Dorchester in 1668 reveals the extent to which Stoughton embraced the idea that the ascendancy of the Puritan theocracy in Massachusetts suggested that America was the New Israel:

This we must know, that the Lord’s promise and expectations of great things, have singled out New England, and all sorts and ranks of men among us, above any nation in the world.


Anon., William Stoughton, c. 1700 (Harvard University Museums of Art)

Declining numerous offers of a pulpit, Stoughton entered the magistracy in 1671, serving in multiple capacities, including Commissioner for the United Colonies (1674-76, 1680-86), and colonial delegate to the Royal Court (1676-79). A close associate of Joseph Dudley (1647 – 1720), a local power broker, Stoughton was appointed to the newly organized Massachusetts state court in 1687, and in 1692 received a commission as Lieutenant-Governor of the colonies. 

On 2 June 1692, as one of his first acts, the new Governor Sir William Phips, appointed Stoughton Chief Justice of a special tribunal on witchcraft. As one biographer notes, Stoughton “went upon the bench with a bigoted zeal akin to animosity, and proceeded with such alacrity that the first victim was executed on the tenth of June, only eight days after the tribunal was constituted.” In his history of the Salem trials, Charles W. Upham remarks that “Chief-justice Stoughton appears to have kept his mind chained to his dogma to the last.” When in 1693 he received word that reprieves had been granted to seven of the accused witches he had condemned to death, he replied “We were in a way to have cleared the land of them; who it is that obstructs the cause of justice I know not: the Lord be merciful to the country!” He would continue to serve in the judiciary until his death. He bequeathed land and funds to Harvard, who named a dormitory in his honor.

            As many historians have observed, Stoughton’s religious convictions were central to his judicial decisions in the Witch Trials, including his controversial acceptance of "spectral evidence." Indeed, the Calvinist theology of the Puritan movement underlay the perspective of accusers and accused alike. The five essential doctrines were Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement (i.e., Christ died only for the saved, not for all mankind), Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints. The present volume from Stoughton’s library focuses on the last, and perhaps most complex of these ideas.


John Greenhill, John Owen, 1668 (National Portrait Gallery, London)

John Owen, widely heralded as the greatest theologian of the Puritan movement, wrote The doctrine of the saints perseverance in response to what he considered a dangerous and misleading book. John Goodwin’s Redemption Redeemed (1651), which advocated the doctrine of Arminianism – the conviction that God offers salvation to all who exercised their free will to accept His gift of grace. Arminianism directly contradicted the Calvinist belief that God chose who would be saved and who would be damned. Arminianism held open the possibility of apostasy – “A believing member of Christ may become slothful, give place to sin, and gradually die altogether, ceasing to be a member.” In contrast Calvinism, as Owen here argues, was predicated on the conviction of the perseverance of the saint: God’s grace is irresistible, and those whom He elects are “kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation” (1 Peter 1:5). In effect, argued Calvinists like Owen, once an individual is saved, he or she will always be saved, and might rely on God’s continuous grace. To suggest that the members of the elect might backslide, explained Owen, was to doubt God’s omnipotence and omniscience, and to impugn His honor. “It was the intent and purpose of God,” he writes, “that the sealing of believers shall abide with them for ever.” When Owen addressed the reader, he spoke directly:

That you and all the saints of God may yet enjoy that peace and consolation which is in believing that the eternal love of God is immutable, that he is faithful in his promises, that his covenant, ratified in the death of his Son, is unchangeable, that the fruits of the purchase of Christ shall be certainly bestowed on all them for whom he died [i.e., the elect] . . . shall be kept unto salvation, is the aim of my present plea and contest.

Once one was saved, one was saved for good. If one could never find perfect assurance that one’s every action was correct, one could rest with the confidence that whatever one’s actions, one’s place in heaven was as secure as the place of the unregenerate in Hell.

            The line from John Owen to William Stoughton to the gallows of Salem town is crooked but sure. Owen was a mighty presence in Oxford when Stoughton was at New College. Stoughton did not annotate this work heavily, but there are a few marginalia to the pages and the rear flyleaf that indicate he read this work closely. His notations are telling. On page 105, he underlined the passage “no more of Gods Indendment to the Nation, but only that there should be an inviolable connexion between their Obedience & Prosperityes,” adding his nota bene, “Ad Scrut;” This passage, which perfectly articulates the “Protestant ethic” linking God and Mammon, would have resonated not only with Stoughton’s sense of New England’s special place in the divine plan, but also with his personal success. Stoughton’s successful ventures in real estate brought him both worldly wealth and spiritual assurance.

            A fascinating volume offering further insight into the United States' first theocratic judiciary.

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    A Puritan text from the library of William Stoughton, the hanging judge of Salem