Darrel (Darrell), Reverend John (16th century) was an English Puritan minister convicted of fraud for exorcising the Devil from a man. John Darrel, a successful minister, was caught in religious infighting among moderate Catholics, English Anglicans, and Puritans. His case led the Anglican Church to forbid rites of Exorcism. Prior to his fateful case, Darrel was called to exorcize nine people in various cases: Katherine Wright in 1586, Thomas Darling in 1596, and seven possessed children in Lancashire in 1597 (see SEVEN IN LANCASHIRE Possession). He was unsuccessful in dispossessing Wright, and although a witch was accused of causing her Possession, the justice in charge refused to commit the witch and warned Darrel to desist from exorcisms or face imprisonment. In the DARLING Possession, Darrel advised fasting and prayer but was not present during the exorcism so as to avoid personal glory.
The possession of the seven Lancashire children had already led to the execution of Edmund Hartley, originally summoned to cure the children but eventually found to be the witch responsible. Darrel was consulted because the children continued to have fits and convulsions. Assisted by the Derbyshire minister George More, Darrel exorcised the children in one afternoon, emphasizing that the greatest value of such Puritan exorcisms was in refuting the claim by the papists that theirs was the only true church since they could cast out devils. Darrel’s last case was the dispossession of William Sommers of Nottingham, begun in November 1597. Sommers, aged 20, suffered fits and had a lump the size of an egg, which ran about his body. His behaviour was obscene, including bestiality with a dog in front of onlookers. Darrel exorcized him before 150 witnesses, but Sommers suffered repossessions, eventually naming witches responsible. Although Sommers did not react consistently to the various witches’ presence, Darrel had all 13 arrested. All but two were released, but Darrel claimed that Sommers’ accusations were correct, and that Sommers could probably find all the witches in England.
In January 1598, one of the accused witches’ powerful families charged Sommers himself with witchcraft, for bewitching a person to death. Sommers confessed to fraud. He Demonstrated how he simulated fits, including frothing at the mouth.
Darrel tried to persuade Sommers to withdraw his confession. Called before a church commission set up by the archbishop of York, Sommers went into fits—but the commission was convinced he was genuinely possessed. On March 20, and again at a later date, Sommers reaffirmed to church and government authorities that he was indeed faking his fits.
Sommers’ flip-flops riled the public, and ministers talked from their pulpits about nothing but witchcraft and the Devil. Fearful of the effect on the people, as well as the increasing power of the Puritans, or Calvinists, the archbishop of Canterbury moved against Darrel. Katherine Wright and Thomas Darling were summoned as witnesses against Darrel and joined Sommers in confessing fraud. Wright and Sommers even accused Darrel of teaching them how to contrive fits. Wright’s assertion did not fit the history of her own fits, which had continued periodically for 14 years. Darling recanted on his confession. Mainly on the basis of Sommers’ detailed accusations, the ecclesiastical court found Darrel to be a counterfeit and deposed him from the ministry in May 1599. Darrel languished in prison for several months but was never sentenced. After his release, he went into hiding for at least two years. His career dispossessing people was over.
As a result of Darrel’s conviction, the Anglican Church passed Canon 72 of the Episcopal Church, forbidding exorcism as a formal ritual. Although there are Anglican priests today practicing exorcism on an informal basis with the approval of their bishops, most Anglicans—as well as other Protestants—have adopted the beliefs of MARTIN LUTHER: that the Devil can best be driven from a tortured soul by prayer alone, since only God knows when the Devil should leave.
- Walker, D. P. Unclean Spirits: Possession and Exorcism in France and England in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.