Influence of the Puritan Religion on the Salem Witch Trials

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23/09/19 History Reference this

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The Puritan Religion and How it Influenced the Salem Witch Trials

Background Information

The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 was an event that lasted a year in which religion fueled mass hysteria in a small colony. The trials consisted of accusations of witchcraft against hundreds of people, and for the unfortunate one’s it would mean their death. These trials and the evidence associated with them was all based around the idea of good which was connected to God versus evil where the connection lied with the Devil. The Puritans were a colony of people from England who were escaping the effects of the Glorious Revolution and found themselves in Salem, Massachusetts. They came to America in hopes of starting a new life under the rule of a new church as they believed the church in England was corrupt. They formed a new religion based off Christian and Catholic ideas and viewed themselves as all-knowing. There was a strong belief that everyone needed to follow their way of life in order to live holy and have a stronger connection to God. The Puritans also based their beliefs around the idea that in order to achieve this desirable pure life one must avoid the Devil’s temptations and wickedness. When strange unexplainable events started occurring within their community the Puritans of Salem turned to their religion for an explanation. Women, children, and some men started behaving in a manner that went against their strict beliefs and the only plausible explanation to them was that God had become angry and sent the Devil to punish them. In efforts to repair their relationship with God the Puritans believed that their only chance was to get rid of the Devil’s evil spirits which had seemed to take over. The Devil was believed to have entered the small community and had taken over some of the residents’ souls in the form of a witch. The Puritans were desperate to get back on the path to righteousness that they started the witch trails in order to cleanse the town. They believed what they were doing was morally correct and it was their duty to God to rid of the witches that had possessed their community.  Religion was the striving force that influenced the Salem Witch Trials. Everything that happened in the town of Salem was connected to the idea that individuals had made some type of deal with the Devil. A majority of the time the trails focused on women as they were viewed inferior to men and envious of them. In the eyes of the law all evidence of witchcraft presented was based on their religious beliefs and not on physical proof.

The Puritan Religion

The Puritan religion started in England as a reformation in efforts of purifying the church. This was based off of the ideas of Martin Luther and John Calvin as the men did not agree with the Roman Catholic church. Martin Luther believed that the teachings of the Bible was the source in which achieving salvation was made possible while John Calvin believed that God had the ultimate source of power. The Puritans that left England and came to America formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony in which they became known as the American Puritans. The main two ideas that came with the reformation was that the Bible was in supreme authority and that individuals had a direct relationship with God and this was not done through an institution or a priest. There were five main beliefs within this religion and this included absolute sovereignty, human depravity, predestination, covenant theology, and individualism. Absolute sovereignty was this idea that God has total control, and that nothing happens without his knowledge. An example of this can be seen when Reverend Samuel Parris delivered a sermon stating, “Our Lord Jesus Christ knows how many Devils there are in his church, and who they are.”[1] When looking into the bigger picture of the Puritan religion of good versus evil, it always comes back to God having power over everyone’s lives. Human depravity is based off original sin which refers to the story of Adam and Eve. Eve ate the forbidden fruit as she could not resist the serpent’s temptation, Adam would follow her actions as well. This ultimately led them to disobeying God and allowing sin to enter the world. Adam and Eve made humanity evil by default of their actions. The only way to save the integrity of human nature is to serve God and live a pure life. God gives the humans the ability to respond to him and they should be forever grateful for this. Predestination is the ability of God to determine whether humans were to be saved or elected and who was to be damned. The Puritans believed only true followers of God could be elected to go to heaven as God had knowledge of everyone’s truest intentions. Although God decides a person’s faith he does have the power to change different outcomes based off the actions of an individual, this refers to Gods forgiving nature. If a person is lured towards the Devil and commits sin, then that person was never truly a Puritan and therefore should be damned to hell. Sin was unacceptable, and the Puritans tried to live a perfect life. They often believed anything pleasurable that brought happiness was the Devil’s way of trying to lure someone and take over their soul. Covenant theology comes from the ideas of Calvinism, and it is based on the relationship between God and those who follow him. It includes the importance of social and civil relationships between other followers as well as the organization of the church. The Puritans rejected the church of England because they believed the church should be a self-governing establishment. Their religion differed mostly in the sense that they believe in personal relationships with God and that these relationships should not be met through a priest. Finally, the last aspect of the five main beliefs of the Puritans is individualism which grows off the idea of personal relationships with God. Men and women were allowed to interpret the Bible for themselves in order to grow a stronger relationship. This also allowed individuals the ability to reflect on themselves. Historian Lori Wilson emphasized that

The Puritan doctrine stressed that everything was in God’s hands. Good fortune and heath came to those whom God blessed. Salvation was a gift from God. In worship services, Puritans emphasized Bible reading, prayer, and preaching, and they believed in grace, devotion, prayer, and self-examination to achieve religious virtue. The Puritans also believed that God allowed Satan to tempt and torment those who strayed from the path of righteousness and acted immorally or those whose faith God wanted tested.[2]

There are two enemies believed to be surrounding the people in this religion, one being themselves as they are born with the nature to sin as well as the Devil who goes around in hopes that temptation will lead them away from God. Although people are said to be born with original sin, God forgiving nature dismisses the original sin if the people understand the Devil’s intentions. Gods forgiving nature makes him have an irresistible grace which makes people drawn to him. If the people are willing to dedicate themselves to God, they are deemed as saints which means they can persevere and push past the evilness of the Devil. The Puritans also believed in manifest destiny which was God’s way of saying their religion was the best, and therefore it was the Puritan’s duty to convert others.

The Devil and Witchcraft

 As mentioned before, the Puritan religion revolves around the good nature of God and the wickedness of the Devil. Reverend Deodat Lawson, a minster of Salem, describes the Devil as “both indefatigable and implacable, would use whatever means he could to advance his aims. Satan’s extraordinary powers allowed him to attack people either directly or by imploying some of mankind or other creatures”.[3] Regardless of Gods control, the Devil still had the ability to control people as they were weak to his temptations. The Devil was associated with sin and anything that brought happiness or pleasure was viewed as giving into him. It was their goal to live a pure life free from sin and, “those accused of being witches elicited feelings linked with freedom, diversity, sexuality and hostility, feelings the Puritans were at great pains to suppress”.[4] This stems from the idea that witches were said to sell their souls to Satan and write in his book for the exchange for magic and powers. Lawson states that, “Contracting with witches they shall be the instruments by whom he may secretly affect and afflict the bodies and minds of others”.[5] The Devil had the ability to take masks himself within a person in the form of a witch. Witchcraft went against all practices within the Puritan’s religion and any individual who was accused of being a witch was subjected to divine punishment which was also known as God’s wrath. Witches were believed to have practiced white and black magic. White magic was based more on telling the future or receiving good luck through different items, and black magic was used with the intentions of harm or murder. White magic seemed to be harmless and was a popular association with teenage boredom although this was still grounds for being considered a witch as magic came from the devil.

Evidence of Witchcraft

 The belief of the Devil and his association with witchcraft is something the Puritans could not prove with physical evidence. It was simply a belief which influenced how they explained the causes of different events as to bring a sense of control into their lives. Additionally, it was a way to show God their true devotion as they were shedding light on the people who went against his teachings and ideas. A lot of evidence came from the behavior of the accused as witches were believed to be “malicious spirits, impatient people, and full of revenge”.[6] A well-known example of the odd behavior exhibited by the accused is the story of Betty Parris who was the daughter of Reverend Samuel Parris and her cousin Abigail Williams who broke out in convulsions and saw frightening visons. In turn, this allowed them to see into the lives of others and make accusations against those who supposedly possessed them with the magic of witchcraft provided by the Devil. Betty’s mother said she would find her daughter “sitting all alone at her needlework, her hands poised but motionless, her eyes staring uncanny fixity at an invisible object. ‘Betty’ the mother would say, and the child would start violently as if caught in an act of guilt, scream sharply, and being pressed for an explanation would give utterance to a meaningless babbling”.[7] Alongside odd behavior being a major indicator of witchcraft another way of accusing a person would be through visions or dreams as it was believed that God would reveal who these unholy people were. The testimony of Sarah Bibber, Mary Walcott, Johanna Childen, and Susannah Sheldon against Sarah Good is one example of many how seeing an apparition proved one unholy. Sarah Good was one the first women to be accused of witchcraft and this was done so by Abigail Williams and Ann Putman. In Sarah Bibbers testimony she stated, “I saw the apparition of Sarah Good standing by my bedside, and she pulled aside the curtain and turned down the sheet and looked upon my child four years old, and presently, upon it, the child was struck into a great fit that my husband and I could hardly hold”. [8] Mary Walcott stated, “I have also seen the apparition of Sarah Good amongst the witches, who has also afflicted me and urged me to write in her book”. [9] Johanna Childen stated that the apparition of Sarah Good and her child came before her one night and that the child spoke of her mother being a witch. Good then claimed to not have been associated with the devil like her child had stated.[10] Lastly the testimony of Susannah Sheldon states, “I have very often been most grievously tortured by the apparition of Sarah Good, who has most dreadfully afflicted me by biting, pricking, and pinching me, and almost choking me to death”. [11] This eventually led to the community of Salem accusing one another on the basis of hearsay evidence. This included statements from outsiders and confessions, a confession could result from error in stating prayer from the Lord. The people of Salem who were accused often could not escape the accusations made against them, and this led to people having to face a difficult decision of possible death or admitting to practicing witchcraft. Unfortunately, a majority of the time when a person was accused the church did everything they could in order to receive a confession. This often-included different methods of torture or jail time. For example, Giles Corey was pressed with stones over the span of two days in an attempt to extract a confession. Corey eventually died as he would not admit to the accusations against him. The church faulted with the way evidence was handled, “the Salem magistrates did not examine the accusers and accused separately, as advised by contemporary legal treaties, but brought them together, allowing for collaboration among the accusers and intimidation of the defendants”.[12] In simplest terms, if a person was accused there was no way of escaping the scrutiny of their fellow puritans and the church. To add onto the fault of the church, “Salem magistrates acted on the witchcraft complaints immediately with no bond of assurance. They issued warrants, held preliminary hearings, forced numerous false confessions, and remanded the accused to jail for trial”. [13] There were many additional ways that the ministers of the church would prove if someone was a witch. For example, Cotton Mather had a list of evidence that would be admissible in the courtroom and this included,

The discovery of the Devil’s mark on the body of the accused which was found by stripping a person naked and examining them. The mark was said to look like a small red circle and was generally found near the genitals. The pin test was used if the Devils mark was found and if it the prick of a pin did not hurt or make the person bleed it was believed the Devil caused it. The touch test was used on the accused based on the belief that the tormenting specter must, upon contact, return to its owner. Thus, if a fit stopped when the accused person touched the afflicted person, that proved the specter of the accused had been indeed the cause of the affliction.[14]

Whenever an accused person went to trial it was not in fairness of he or she as the jury would often times be made up of the accusers. Some historians view the Puritans ministers as abusing their power politically and socially in order to gain more church attendance and funds. It is said that “witchcraft in Massachusetts cannot be understood outside the context of Puritan theology- it was derived from crucial assumptions within Puritan beliefs”. [15] With all the evidence being based on what ministers saw as witchcraft the people of Salem were put into a dilemma as they accepted what was happening in efforts of not going against God.

Gender Bias

Puritan men believed that women were given to them to be good wives and helpers.  Women were viewed as stay at home mothers who cared for the children, cooked, and cleaned while the men were to be out working and providing for their families. Since men had this duty to care for their families, women viewed marriage as the only way to get financial security since they were so limited on what they could do. Women were at the hands of men and were expected do everything they were told. The reasoning behind women being inferior to men stems from the story of Adam and Eve. Eve ate the forbidden fruit after being tempted by the serpent who was the devil and disobeyed god. Due to Eve’s actions all women are viewed as weak and vulnerable to falling into a life of sin. Women were accused of witchcraft a majority of the time due to their susceptibility of weakness. Typically, women over the age of forty or divorced were more likely to be accused of being witches because they did not have a man in their life to take care of them. Often times if a woman inherited land from her family she was accused because it was seen that only men were supposed to have ownership over property. Historian Sandra VanBurkleo states, “the belief in women’s susceptibility to Satan originated not only in physical weakness but also in the sex’s allegedly small talent for reasoning and in the continuing power of Genesis”.[16]  Men did not believe that women had the ability to live a morally correct life and felt that God gave them the power to handle women in any way they felt necessary.

 It is human nature to follow instincts and do what seems morally correct. Humans are emotional creatures and try their best to make sense of the world around them. Often times religion is a way to cope with the known and unknown aspects the world has to offer. In the case of the Puritans, they truly believed what they were doing was in favor of God. They followed him and his teachings and tried to live a life that would please him. When faced with situations and events that did not make sense to them they turned to their faith and felt as if God was testing them. God was allowing the Devil to walk among them in order to see who would fall to his temptations. The Puritans did what they knew best which was to be true to God and to punish those who went against him. They did not use physical evidence to prove if a person signed the Devil’s book to gain powers, but they relied on their faith. Their faith is what dominated their lives and their actions went hand in hand with events that they tried to explain but did not truly understand. The Salem Witch Trials was an event where the power of religion and its influence on people was strongly correlated and made people act in ways that in which today’s society does not make sense. These trials show that a person cannot be found guilty of a crime against humanity based off words or superstitions because many innocent people died. It goes to show the importance of physical evidence and the importance of trustworthy testimony that is not fueled by bias.

Bibliography


[1] Marvel, Laura. The Salem Witch Trial, Devilish Hypocrites in the Church (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2003), 43

[2] Wilson, Lori Lee. The Salem Witch Trials. (Minneapolis: Lerner Pub, 1998), 17-18

[3] Norton, Mary Beth. In the Devils Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 (New York: Vintage, 2003), 66

[4]  Semmelhack, Diana, and Larry Ende. The Psychotic Element in Everyday Group Thinking: Reflections on the Salem Witch Trials. Radical Psychology: A Journal of Psychology, Politics & Radicalism 7 (2008): 6. lscsproxy.lonestar.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,cpid&custid=s1088435&db=a9h&AN=35894144&site=ehost-live.

[5] Norton, Mary Beth. In the Devils Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 (New York: Vintage, 2003), 67

[6] Norton, Mary Beth. In the Devils Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 (New York: Vintage, 2003), 32

[7] Starkey, Marion Lena. The Devil in Massachusetts. (New York: Anchor Books, 1969), 39

[8] Boyer, Paul S. Salem-village Witchcraft: A Documentary Record of Local Conflict in Colonial New England. (Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press, 2001), 12

[9] Boyer, Paul S. Salem-village Witchcraft: A Documentary Record of Local Conflict in Colonial New England. (Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press, 2001), 12

[10] Boyer, Paul S. Salem-village Witchcraft: A Documentary Record of Local Conflict in Colonial New England. (Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press, 2001), 13

[11] Boyer, Paul S. Salem-village Witchcraft: A Documentary Record of Local Conflict in Colonial New England. (Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press, 2001), 13

[12] Ray, Benjamin C. The Salem Witch Mania: Recent Scholarship and American History Textbooks. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 78, no. 1 (2010), 50 www.jstor.org/stable/40666461.

[13] Ray, Benjamin C. The Salem Witch Mania: Recent Scholarship and American History Textbooks. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 78, no. 1 (2010), 50 www.jstor.org/stable/40666461.

[14] Wilson, Lori Lee. The Salem Witch Trials. (Minneapolis: Lerner Pub, 1998), 33

[15] Mixon, Franklin G. Homo Economicus and the Salem Witch Trials. The Journal of Economic Education 31, no. 2 (2000), 181. doi:10.2307/1183189.

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