The One Year That Wiccanism Was An Organized Religion

Photographed by Winnie Au.
On April 11, 1974, over 70 followers of Pagan, Wiccan, and other nature-based traditions of witchcraft convened for the first — and last — meeting of the American Council of Witches. Their goal was to define the official guidelines of Wiccanism and to be recognized by the U.S. government as a religion. The Council disbanded shortly after this meeting. What remains are 13 principles of belief that are still around (and contested) today.
With these principles, the Council upheld the importance of nature, the supernatural, and equality in Wiccan worship. They wrote that witchcraft should serve as a unifier, a guiding light for how followers should live their lives. For the most part, the Council kept the principles pretty general — they specified in their introduction a desire for inclusivity — but they also used them as an opportunity to address the public's perception of witches.
Several of the guidelines speak directly to commonly held stereotypes about witches and Pagans, chief among them the idea that these religions are equivalent to Satanic worship: "We do not accept the concept of absolute evil, nor do we worship any entity known as 'Satan' or 'the Devil,' as defined by Christian tradition. We do not seek power through the suffering of others, nor accept that personal benefit can be derived only by denial to another," reads number 12 of the principles.
Beyond that, the Council stated that no one can just call themselves a witch and then get to be considered a witch. Witchcraft, according to the Council, requires self-improvement and a desire to be in harmony with nature. But how each person chooses to find that harmony is a very personal choice, whether that means observing the equinoxes and solstices of the year or celebrating the full moons.
Although the Council disbanded during the same year the principles of belief were defined, the U.S. military still added them to its chaplain handbook, Religious Requirements and Practices of Certain Selected Groups: A Handbook for Chaplains, published in 1978. And because of that, the Council helped Wiccanism gain a little more recognition.
To this day, the Wiccan community remains divided about the importance of the American Council of Witches. Some argue that an organization like the Council is a "necessary evil" to having one's faith represented widely, and since individual groups of Wiccans (or covens) usually create their own spiritual guidelines, the Council's principles often provide inspiration. Meanwhile, others have taken measures to avoid association with the Council altogether. This is a defining feature of nature-based faiths like Wiccanism and Paganism — each follower is a total individual, with a very personal interpretation of the religion's messages.
The American Council of Witches put forward just one set of Wiccan beliefs for an incredibly diverse, individualized religion. So in a way, it makes total sense that it not only failed, but it remains a divisive subject more than 30 years later. Of course, that doesn't mean it was all bad: If nothing else, the Council raised the profile of the Wiccan community and left behind some solid principles that witches today may choose to follow or leave behind.

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