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What causes a small village to implode and cause one of the most tragic events in U.S. history? During the summer of 1692 tensions were high and many people began to separate from the church. Puritan leaders began to worry they were losing control of the community and wanted to prevent change in the strict social hierarchy. The leaders wanted to ensure that the teachings of the church would be followed anyone not following the church was simply accused of being a witch and punished accordingly. Witchcraft was considered a crime of treason, and punishment was severe. The Salem witchcraft trials resulted from social hierarchy , fanaticism, hysteria, and religious intolerance .
The trials were a means to maintain the strict social hierarchy. A major source of social tension and conflict was caused by the farmers. The farmers outside town petitioned for their own minister and for their own house of worship. They had two reasons for their requests. One, they were far from town, and two they were unsatisfied with town management. Their request was granted and this lead to a separate parish for the farmers who would no longer worship with the merchants. Tension increased between the two groups, and the merchants were becoming more prosperous while the farmers were finding it increasingly difficult to make a living. There was disagreement about the choice of Samuel Parris as Salem Village’s first ordained minister. According to Marion L. Starkey by deliberately seeking out “iniquitous behavior” in his congregation and making church members in good standing suffer public penance for small infractions, he made a significant contribution toward the tension within the village, and the bickering in the village continued to grow unabated. In this atmosphere, serious conflict may have been inevitable.(The Devil in Massachusetts 26-28)
Another reason for the trials was fanaticism, People became so irrationally consumed by their beliefs that they became easily convinced that the Devil was tampering with their society. In “Against Modern Sadducism” (1668), Joseph Glanvill claimed that he could prove the existence of witches and ghosts of the supernatural realm. Glanvill wrote about the “denial of the bodily resurrection, and the supernatural spirits”.(1-4) In his treatise, he claimed that ingenious men should believe in witches and apparitions; if they doubted the reality of spirits, they not only denied demons, but also the almighty God. This fanaticism destroyed the heart of the puritan community. Instead of unity, dissension and discontent were prevalent. Fear was so rampant that people named others as witches before they themselves could be branded. The ironic nature of falsely accusing neighbors and friends was that lying was a sin. This was a community that was proud of its strict adherence to god’s word so that its people may live forever in heaven. Those same people were willing to sin and send others to their death in order to preserve their existence on earth.
The trials were intended to control hysteria over witches, but instead escalated it because people could now use the trials as a means of controlling others. There was no belief of innocent until proven guilty in their laws, instead puritan law makers felt that even members of the church could be found guilty of witchcraft. To control the spread of witches, a community of vigilance was created to hunt down and prosecute all suspected witches. Not all villagers agreed with the vigilance approach, Cotton Mather was troubled by this Fanaticism. He believed that the people were to zealous in their pursuit of witches and in their beliefs, and thus they were Hysterical. He stated, ” But I am resolv’d after this, never to use but just one grain of patience with any man that shall go to impose upon me a Denial of Devils, or of Witches. I shall count that man Ignorant who shall suspect, but I shall count him down-right Impudent if he Assert the Non-Existence of things which we have had such palpable. “(sec XXXIII) Cotton Mather realized how this irrational thinking spread the idea of witchcraft among the Puritans. This irrationality was common among both the people and authorities. People became so vehement that the trials became a means of expressing their beliefs. The trials were the outgrowth of their zealousness. It provided them with an outlet to maintain their views and to express their frustration over personal or familial misfortune. Instead of the trials stopping the hysteria, they increased it. They used the witch trials to regain and keep social control.
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Religious intolerance played a major role in the rise of the Salem witchcraft trials. The authorities used the fear of the trials to control the people and to suppress differing views and beliefs. The trials were a tool to control the people and to prevent change in the puritan lifestyle. It was imperative to the authorities that the ridged society remain unchanged. When young adolescent girls rebelled against the harsh restrictions placed upon them by society, society used the witchcraft trials to maintain control. Practicing witchcraft was a way to release frustrations in the very ridged puritan society. The trials restrained any views that conflicted with the puritan religion. The slave Tituba showed the young girls of Salem tricks and spells similar to voodoo. This was against Puritan religion since Puritans believe that God Doesnââ‚¬â„¢t permit people to look into the future. Therefore, the people of Salem put Tituba on trial along with her ideas. This set an example to the town that anyone practicing different beliefs would be put on trial. The trials were used to squish new ideas that conflicted with puritan ideology. They ensured that the practice of the puritan religion would remain unchanged. Thus, the judges used the trials to suppress rebellion and to keep society consistent.
Social tensions also led to Bridget Bishop being called a witch. For example, Bridget Bishop aroused public opinion by wearing scarlet and not the somber clothes worn by the puritan community. This lack of a strict obedience to the Puritan Belief’s led to Bridget being put on trial as a witch. Puritans did not believe in raising their social level or expressing different ideas. The church used the trials to control the people by injecting fear in them. Thus, the people were dissuaded from straying from puritan belief’s and the church remained the dominant force in the community.
The Salem witchcraft trials were caused by the overwhelming need to control the puritan people. The social structure and male dominance could not be allowed to change. The Clergy benefited from witchcraft, it gave them an excuse to put any enemy of the church, meaning anyone with differing views, on trial. This led to the strengthening of the puritan views leaving their society unchanged. Keeping society loyal to the church and the social hierarchy unchanged were the factors leading to the conception of the witchcraft trials.
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