Puritans and the Salem Witch Trials
During the time period of 1691 to 1692 the town of Salem, a small thriving community within the Puritan Massachusetts Bay colony, was struck by widespread hysteria in the form of witch trials. The way these trials and accusations played out are historically unlike any other witch trials found in European and American history. Historians have pointed to a number of economic, political, and social changes of the then existing institutions throughout the Massachusetts Bay area to be the cause of the Salem witch trials, along with the direction they took. If studied closely however, it becomes apparent that the main cause for the Salem witch trials can be found in the way the people of Salem viewed and practiced their religion. In the Massachusetts Bay colony, the established religion was Puritanism, which was derived from a very literal reading of the Bible, and to be more exact, the Old Testament (Boyer). In this colony the laws of religion did not only set the standard for a person’s moral compass, but also the laws and institutions of government were centered on the scriptures found in the Bible. Therefore, a slight against God or scripture would be punishable through the law of the colony (Boyer). This close knit relationship of religion, law, and social status in turn formed a theocracy, and the emphasis placed on these relationships are one of the main contributing factors of the Salem witch trials. (Lorence-4) “Failing to follow the patterns of interaction seen in ordinary witchcraft cases, they were difficult to explain at the time and have puzzled historians ever since” (Harley p. 308).
The Puritan religion and the ensuing Massachusetts Bay Colony were both based on the notion of leading by example and showing others how they should truly live their lives and practice religion. John Winthrop, the Puritan leader pronounced, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us,” and Puritans truly lived their lives like this (Emerson). Winthrop followed the Covenant of Works and believed that he was chosen to teach God’s law to others and apply it to nations. The most obviously unique feature of New England Puritanism was the church covenant. As John Winthrop explained, "Leave out the covenant and let us see what manner of churches you will constitute. Suppose ten or twenty Christians were desirous to constitute a church. These being met together, every one of them makes a confession of his faith. Will this make them a church? I conceive it will pass the skill of a good logician to make a church without some contract or agreement such as will amount to a covenant" (Emerson). Winthrop therefore, became the leader of the voyage to the New World and was responsible for guiding his fellow Puritans, teaching the laws of God and always showing and demanding perfect obedience from the other Puritans. He wanted all people to understand that God’s rules demanded reciprocal action. Morgan states that, with the people, “He [Winthrop] had sealed a covenant with them and given them a special responsibility to carry out the good intentions that had brought them into the wilderness” (Morgan). And so they carried on, following Winthrop’s lead, in hopes to form a new society in which God intended them to do. Winthrop knew it was wrong to let a sin go unpunished. So as people acted up or were disobedient, Winthrop faced the challenge of deciding a proper punishment for each sin or wrong-doing that was committed.
As time passed and there seemed to be little progress in developing a new society, the feelings of defeat and hopelessness spread amongst the settlers. Some of the settlers began breaking away from the group as a whole and developing their own ideas. People were becoming and acting like separatists. Winthrop knew that they would all need to stick together for this to work but he could sense the change in people’s attitudes....
Cited: Boyer, Paul and Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Salem witchcraft papers, Volume 1:Verbatin transcripts of the legal documents of the Salem witchcraft outbreak of 1692. 2007
Detweiler, Robert. "Shifting Perspectives on the Salem Witches." The History Teacher 80 (1975): 596-610. JSTOR. 10 Oct. 2007 .
Emerson, Everett. Puritanism in America, 1620-1750. Twayne Publishers: Boston. 1977.
Harley, David. "Explaining Salem:Calvinist Psychology and the Diagnosis of Possession." The American Historical Review 101 (1996): 307-330. JSTOR. 10 Oct. 2007 .
Lorence, James J. Enduring Voices. 2000. Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston. New York. Document Set 2, Chapter
Lorence, James J. Enduring Voices. 2000. Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston. New York. Parris, Samuel. “Christ Knows How Many Devils There Are. 1692.
Morgan, Edmund S. The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop. Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.: New York. 1999.
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