Freethought Day is October 12, the annual observance by freethinkers and secularists of the anniversary of the effective end of the Salem Witch Trials.
The seminal event connected to Freethought Day is a letter written by then Massachusetts Governor William Phips in which he wrote to the Privy Council of the British monarchs, William and Mary, on this day in 1692. In this correspondence he outlined the quagmire that the trials had degenerated into, in part by a reliance on "evidence" of a non-objective nature and especially "spectral evidence" in which the accusers claimed to see devils and other phantasms consorting with the accused. Note that, contrary to what has been claimed by some, there was no specific order or edict by Phips to ban "spectral evidence" from all legal proceedings. Rather, this was one concern that brought about Phips' stopping the proceedings. When the trials ultimately resumed, "spectral evidence" was allowed but was largely discounted and those convicted were swiftly pardoned by Phips. In the time leading up to the trials being stopped, it was actually clerics including the famous Cotton Mather, often portrayed as the chief villain in the hysteria, who took the lead in advising cautions against the use of "spectral evidence." The Rev. Increase Mather, Cotton's father, specifically condemned "spectral evidence" in his book 'Cases of Conscience', in which he stated that, "It were better that ten suspected witches should escape, than that one Innocent Person should be Condemned." It was this shift in sentiment, no doubt aided by the escalating hysteria and the fact that accusations were beginning to reach higher into the Massachusetts Bay Colony hierarchy, that led to Phips' action.
Freethought Week is often observed during the week in which October 12 falls or Freethought Month during October. Organizers of these events are hoping to show the public that atheists are just like everyone else, that they are involved in the community and family-friendly.
Since 2002, Freethought Day has been observed in Sacramento as a free event, open to the public and held outdoors. Dubbed a "festival of reason" the annual event often features live entertainment and speakers similar to a rally, and is funded through a dinner or reception. "(Freethought Day) is really all about the celebration of the separation of church and state. We also celebrate the First Amendment, and science, and reason and progress" according to the event's organizer, David Diskin.
The 2007 event held at Waterfront Park started with a reading of the Phipps letter. Bands, speakers, bounce house and more, “It’s just a chance for us to show people we don’t have horns and tails”Mayer Heather Fargo issued a proclamation for Freethought Day in Sacramento.
In 2016, the event was renamed "California Freethought Day" to reflect the growth of the event spanning the last 15 years. Several hundred attended in 2016, with the theme "#SecularPride". Diskin quoted in the Sacramento Bee said that this is a day for people to meet others and '"work together to move society forward with a firm reliance on reason and humanity.'"
Highlights of past events.
|Year||Program||Speakers and Entertainers||Venue||Inductees||Notes|
|2002||Delight in Freethinking!||Bobbie Kirkhart, Henda Lea, Mynga Futrell, Jerry Sloan, Hank Kocol, Paul Geisert, Cleo Kocol, Ron Fegley, Kevin Schultz||Waterfront Park||Thomas Paine, James Madison, Frances Wright, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Green Ingersoll, Mark Twain, and Clarence Darrow.||30 people attended|
|2003||Liberty of Conscience||(emcee) Mynga Futrell, poetry readings by Cleo Kocol and Anatole Lubavich, Jerry Sloah, Paul Geisert||William Phips and Denis Diderot||Literature tables, live music, and raffle. Volunteers gave mini-speeches.|
|2004||Dare to Think for yourself!||The James Israel Band Michael Newdow, Roberta Chevrette||Ernestine Rose and Emma Goldman||Banned Book display, various other tables|
|2005||Stand Up for Reason||(emcee) Mel Lipman, Karen Scott, Pearcys, Mynga Futrell, James Israel Band, Roberta Chevrette, Joel Pelletier||Mary Wollstonecraft and Frederick Douglass||Camp Quest presented and A Freethinker's Bookshelf|
|2006||Embrace Reality||(emcee) Mel Lipman, Michael Newdow, James Israel, roberta Chevrette||Butterfly McQueen||Jump house from Camp Quest, blood pressure health check added, follil display|
|2007||Reason & Act... Boldly||Stephen Meadows, Paul Geisert, Michael Newdow, Karen Scott, Mynga Futrell, James Israel||Roger Williams||Segway display|
|2008||Celebrate Our Secular Heritage!||(emcee) Lori Lipman Brown, Constantine Lobos, Paul Geisert, Kristi Craven, Keith Lowell Jensen, Matt LaClair, Vince Wales, Michael Newdow, Paul Martin, Jammin' James & Friends||George Orwell||Freethought and banned book displays|
|2009||Stay Curious!||John Ross, Cleo Kocol, Brian Jones, Midtown Jazz, James Israel Band, Michael Newdow||César Chavez Park||Luther Burbank|
|2010||Equality for Everyone!||(emcee) Marie Bain, Bruce Maiman, Roberta Chevrette, James Israel Band||Jane Addams||City of Sacramento and Governor issued proclamations for Freethought Day.|
|2011||Come Out and Celebrate Reason!||Fred Edwards, Elisabeth Cornwell, Keith Lowell Jensen, The Phenomenauts, Dan Barker||McGeorge School of Law||350 attendees. First movie screening. Multiple tracks throughout the day, including a "Leadership" track.|
|2012||Vote for Reason!||Michael Werner, Mikey Weinstein, Jessica Ahlquist, Chris Lombardi, A.J. Johnson, Rebecca Hensler, Steve Newton, Brian Dalton, Baba Brinkman, Victor Harris.||Ben Ali Shrine Center||Bayard Rustin||Addition of "Authors' Panel".|
|2013||The Many Voices of Reason||Sean Faircloth, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Greta Christina, Jason Frye, Heina Dadabhoy, Keith Lowell Jensen, Shelly Segal, Neil Wehneman||William Land Park||Hypatia||"Authors' Panel" expanded to include Podcasters. First "Group Photo".|
|2014||The Wonders of Magic and Reason||Ryan Kane, Rebecca Watson, Phil Zuckerman, Dan Arel, Ross Blocher||California State Capitol Building||Frank Zappa|
|2015||Spread the Reason||Mandisa Thomas, Greta Christina, Jason Torpy, Jason Heap, Chris Johnson, Richard Carrier||California State Capitol Building||Oliver Sacks||"Leadership Day" resumed. Event started with a service from Sunday Assembly Sacramento. "Community Panel" added.|
|2016||#SecularPride||Aron Ra, David Silverman, Cidney Fisk, Nas Ishmael, Shelly Segal, Dan Arel, Melissa Pugh, Tom Manger, David McAfee, Steve Hill, Victor Harris||Vacant office space near Reason Center||Cleo Kocol and Anne Gaylor.||Heavy rain forced the event to an alternate, indoor venue. Several hundred attended.|
|2017||Engage with Reason||Ryan Bell, Evan Davids, Larry Decker, David Diskin, David Fitzgerald, Candace Gorham, Victor Harris, Rebecca Hensler, Sikivu Hutchinson, Juan Mendez, Richard Pan, Athena Salman, David Smalley, Thomas Smith, Elbe Spurling, David Tamayo, Jessica Xiao||California State Capitol Building||Katharine Hepburn|
|2018||Discover Reason||Eugenie Scott, Dr. Abby Hafer, Kavin Senapathy, Seráh Blain, Evan Clark, Steve Hill||California State Capitol Building||W.E.B. Du Bois and Stephen Hawking|
|2019||Think Again||Hemant Mehta, Raul Martinez, Debbie Goddard, Sarah Gillooly, Monica Miller||California State Capitol Building||Marie Curie and James Baldwin|
Cotton Mather was a New England Puritan minister, prolific author, and pamphleteer. One of the most important intellectual figures in English-speaking colonial America, Mather is remembered today chiefly for his Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) and other works of history, for his scientific contributions to plant hybridization and to the promotion of inoculation as a means of preventing smallpox and other infectious diseases, and for his involvement in the events surrounding the Salem witch trials of 1692–3. He also promoted the new Newtonian science in America and sent many scientific reports to the Royal Society of London, which formally elected him as a fellow in 1723. A controversial figure in his own day, in part due to his role in supporting the Salem witch trials, he sought unsuccessfully the presidency of Harvard College, which had been held by his father Increase, another important Puritan intellectual.
The Salem witch trials were a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693. More than two hundred people were accused. Thirty were found guilty, nineteen of whom were executed by hanging. One other man, Giles Corey, was pressed to death for refusing to plead, and at least five people died in jail.
Freethought is an epistemological viewpoint which holds that beliefs should not be formed on the basis of authority, tradition, revelation, or dogma, and that beliefs should instead be reached by other methods such as logic, reason, and empirical observation. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a freethinker is "a person who forms their own ideas and opinions rather than accepting those of other people, especially in religious teaching." In some contemporary thought in particular, free thought is strongly tied with rejection of traditional social or religious belief systems. The cognitive application of free thought is known as "freethinking", and practitioners of free thought are known as "freethinkers". Modern freethinkers consider free thought to be a natural freedom from all negative and illusive thoughts acquired from society.
John Hathorne was a merchant and magistrate of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Salem, Massachusetts. He is best known for his early and vocal role as one of the leading judges in the Salem witch trials.
Spectral evidence is a form of evidence based upon dreams and visions. It was admitted into court during the Salem witch trials by the appointed chief justice, William Stoughton. The booklet A Tryal of Witches taken from a contemporaneous report of the proceedings of the Bury St. Edmunds witch trial of 1662 became a model for and was referenced in the Trials when the magistrates were looking for proof that such evidence could be used in a court of law.
Sir William Phips was born in Maine in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and was of humble origin, uneducated, and fatherless from a young age but rapidly advanced from shepherd boy, to shipwright, ship's captain, and treasure hunter, the first New England native to be knighted, and the first royally appointed governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. Phips was famous in his lifetime for recovering a large treasure from a sunken Spanish galleon but is perhaps best remembered today for establishing the court associated with the infamous Salem Witch Trials, which he grew unhappy with and forced to prematurely disband after five months.
Elizabeth Proctor was convicted of witchcraft in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. She was the wife of John Proctor, who was convicted and executed.
William Stoughton was a colonial magistrate and administrator in the Province of Massachusetts Bay. He was in charge of what have come to be known as the Salem Witch Trials, first as the Chief Justice of the Special Court of Oyer and Terminer in 1692, and then as the Chief Justice of the Superior Court of Judicature in 1693. In these trials he controversially accepted spectral evidence. Unlike some of the other magistrates, he never admitted to the possibility that his acceptance of such evidence was in error.
Goody Ann Glover was the last person to be hanged in Boston as a witch, although the Salem witch trials in nearby Salem, Massachusetts, occurred mainly in 1692.
Atheist Alliance International (AAI) is a non-profit advocacy organization committed to raising awareness and educating the public about atheism. It does this by supporting atheist and freethought organizations around the world through promoting local campaigns, raising awareness of related issues, sponsoring secular education projects and facilitating interaction among secular groups and individuals.
This timeline of the Salem witch trials is a quick overview of the events.
Robert Calef was a cloth merchant in colonial Boston. He was the author of More Wonders of the Invisible World, a book composed throughout the mid-1690s denouncing the recent Salem witch trials of 1692–1693 and particularly examining the influential role played by Cotton Mather.
Deodat Lawson was a 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.
Thomas Brattle was an American merchant who served as treasurer of Harvard College and member of the Royal Society. He is known for his involvement in the Salem Witch Trials and the formation of the Brattle Street Church.
Sarah Cloyce was accused of witchcraft but never indicted by a grand jury in the Salem Witch Trials
Hemant Mehta is an American author, blogger, and atheist activist. Mehta is a regular speaker at atheist events, and has been a board member of charitable organizations such as the Secular Student Alliance and the Foundation Beyond Belief.
Mandisa Lateefah Thomas is the founder and president of Black Nonbelievers Inc. She has spoken at secular conferences and events, and has promoted the group's agenda in media outlets.
Martha Carrier was a Puritan accused and convicted of being a witch during the 1692 Salem witch trials.
In a letter dated September 2, 1692, Cotton Mather wrote to judge William Stoughton. Among the notable things about this letter is the provenance: it seems to be the last important correspondence from Mather to surface in modern times, with the holograph manuscript not arriving in the archives for scholars to view, and authenticate, until sometime between 1978 and 1985.