The Role of the Puritan Church in the Salem Witch Trials The Salem Witch Trials were a time of confusion, where half a dozen girl accusers threw the town of Salem on its head. The end result was 19 hung and one crushed to death for failure to admit or deny witchcraft and 150 more were imprisoned throughout the course of the trial (Hall p38). The Puritans came to the “New World” for their religious freedom to fallow their ideals for a new way of life, the “perfect way of life.” They were issued charter--to live on the land--. The King Phillip’s war labeled as “[t]he bloodiest war in America’s history …which…took place in New England in 1675” (Tougias par.1) had a dramatic effect on the Puritan society. Their charter was revoked and reinstated at least twice throughout the course of the war. This stress of having their land revoked and reinstated without a doubt placed pressure on the society as a whole to develop and become self-sustaining entity free from England. After the war people would look to the church even more than they had in the past for guidance. This set the seen for the problems to come. The churches relentless attempt to maintain the society that they had established was the cause of the Salem witch trials.
Even before Salem Village was established there was a separation between its future inhabitants. The people on the western part of Salem Village were farming families that wanted to separate from the Town (Sutter Par.2). On the east side of the Salem Village were the people who had made a living on the rich harbor and were strongly apposed to leaving the security of the larger Salem Town (Par. 2). By 1672 the inhabitants of Salem Village had separated from Salem Town, built a meetinghouse, and hired their own minister (Witchcraft in Salem Village Par.1). “By 1689 the villagers in a seemingly unusual spirit of cooperation pushed hard for a completely independent church, while at the same time hiring their fourth successive minister, Samuel Parris”(Trask p. xi). “The residents of Salem were after all, Puritans, which means they viewed their community not just as a group of individuals, but as a single entity united under God” (Possible Causes… Par.3). The social tension caused by the differing opinions on the separation of the village from Salem Town strongly contradicted their religious ideals that they were all supposed to be as one. The farming people in Salem Village thought that the thriving economy of the harbor in Salem Town made it far to individualistic (Sutter Par.3).
Samuel Parris has a long and eventful history that shaped his views and actions while he was preaching in Salem Village. At the age of 20 Parris inharated his fathers sugar plantation in Barbados while he was attending Harvard (Linder “Parris” Par1). The wealth that Parris had accumulated while in Barbados was sufficient enough to support him and his new family when he moved to Boston (Par.2). Unhappy with his life as a merchant Parris decided that it was time for a change in his vocation. In 1691 he began to substitute for absent ministers and speaking at informal church gatherings (Par.3). After the birth of his third child with his wife Elizabeth Eldridge, Parris began to have formal negotiations to become the preacher for Salem Village (Par.3). The marriage of Parris and Eldridge linked him to multiple distinguished families in Boston, including the Sewalls (Par. 2). His true self could best be seen threw the way that he preached in his congregation. “It is as though the most important issue in the New Testament were the Son of God’s fragile ego. In reality, of course, the fragile ego was Parris’s. He was more obsessed wit his standing in other peoples eyes” (Armstrong p.12)
William Stoughton was born into a family that had a great deal of land in the Massachusetts Bay area (Linder “Stoughton” Par. 1). Even from an early age Stoughton showed a great deal of interest in the ministry (Par.1). From 1674 to 1676 and 1680 to 1686 he served as the Deputy President of the colony’s temporary government (Par 2). Between his two terms Stoughton acted as an agent for Massachusetts at the court of Charles II in England (Par. 2). Shortly after the witchcraft outbreak in Salem, Governor Phips appointed him chief justice of the newly formed court of Oyer and Terminer (Par. 4).
“Puritanism was especially favorable by its temper and its tenets, to prosecution for witchcraft” (Lyman p. 331). The church was extremely instrumental in the manifestation of the witch trials. “Ministers were looked to for guidance by the judges, who were generally without legal training, on matters pertaining to witchcraft”(Linder Par. 13). This lack of legal training allowed for the trials to be continued for as long or as short as the ministers wanted them to. “Evidence that would be excluded from modern courtrooms—hearsay, gossip, stories, unsupported assertions, surmises—was also generally admitted” (Linder Par. 13). The church and the court had the people to a point where they would do anything to avoid getting on the wrong side of the powers including accusing their own friends. “The superstition of the people had lead them to believe that their God had abandoned them” (“Why 1692” Par. 1). According to the article “Possible causes of the Salem witch hunts” the residence of Salem saw themselves as “a single entity under God”(Par. 8).
The first people that were accused of witchcraft were all likely targets not only for the church, but also for the community as well due to their outlandish nature. Sarah Good, a beggar and social misfit, Tituba, Parris’s slave he had brought with him from Barbados, and Sarah Osborn, a quarrelsome woman who had not attended church in more than a year (Linder Par. 10). The accusations brought against these women were not to be refuted by anyone except for themselves that is except for Tituba who openly admitted to practicing witchcraft and seeing the other women sign the Devils book (Breslaw). Goodwife Sarah Cloyse stormed out of the church on the Lords Day in the middle of the sacrament (Lincoln p. 161). Soon after this Goodwife Cloyse was accused herself of witchcraft. By taking advantage of the people in town that had either been standouts or had done something to draw attention to them, the church and court were able to gain the support of the community.
What was to come of the accused once they were jailed was dependent on their willingness to conform and support the ways of the common folk. The 19 people that were hung and the one man who was crushed to death were all guilty of the same crime, failure to admit to practicing witchcraft (Hall p.38). For the few people that did admit to practicing witchcraft there lives would be spared if they were to repent. The puritan religion believed that if you were to acknowledge your sins that God would save you.
The first objective Parris had was to gain the support of the powerful and influential members of the town.
”During the latter part of February he invited some ‘worthy gentlemen of Salem’ and ‘neighbor ministers’ to his house for a consultation, no doubt hopping to keep the local men of power and influence sympathetic toward him as well as to get some advice” (Armstrong p. 27)
If he had any intentions of keeping the town behind him he knew that he must first win over the influential families. After he gained the support of the men of the influential families the rest of the town did not hesitate to fallow their lead.
During the early stages of the Salem Witch Trials “[t]he key accusers… constitute[d] an especially intriguing group, because young women were generally among the most voiceless and powerless residents of 17th-century America”(Norton p. B4). It was this that made these young girls an ideal pawn for the elaborate game of chess that the church was playing with the townspeople. Also the innocence of the girls received the sympathy and trust of the masses.
“…half a dozen adolescent girls,…accused Carrier of tormenting them and who fell into writhing fits as they stood before the magistrate. They shrieked that they had seen the Devil whispering into Carrier’s ear. ‘You see you look upon them and they fall down,’ said the magistrate” (Shapiro p. 64).
Even in the courtroom the girls were used to illustrate and support the accusations and condemn the accused.
Mainly the judges and the magistrates determined the way that the Salem Witch trials were run. According to the article Possible causes of the Salem witch hunts “…, the magistrates who presided over the trials encouraged solidarity among the afflicted, which ultimately fueled the rapid expansion of the accusations from outlying areas” (Par. 5).The judges that presided over the trials were appointed by Governor Phips and were for the most part were strongly affiliated with the church. (Linder ‘Stoughton’ Par. 5). By placing the magistrates in charge of the trials the legal accuracy by most standards were ignored. The liberal nature of the court of Oyer and Terminer was the main factor that determined the conviction of the accused, because there was no need for concrete physical evidence to condemn the accused.
As the trials became more intence and heated the people of the town looked to the church for guidance. The Puritans were a highly religious group that was constantly trying to live the perfect life in the eyes of God. In their eyes if you were to consort with the Devil or were affiliated with anyone that has you yourself were to be condemned. The only way that these people saw that they would be able to keep in the good graces of God was to eliminate those amongst them who were not. The only thing that these people know about their God or the Devil was what they were told by the church. The reasoning they were so dependent upon the church is that they needed something to baring them together and the fact that most of their ancestors left there home lands to go to America to get religious freedom.
As the trials progressed not only did the number of people being accused increase, but also the type of people that were being accused changed. When the trials first started the outcasts of the society were the ones that were being accused. As time went on people saw the opportunity to eliminate people that they were having problems with or that people whose land they wanted for themselves. By accusing someone of witchcraft there lives would be destroyed and they would most likely go broke, because they would have to be able to pay for their own jail bill. At one point when Sarah Good was accused her four year old daughter Dorcas Good was also jailed.
There was no rush in the eyes of the court to get the trials done in an orderly or speedy fashion. Some of the people that were jailed died while they were in jail; these people included Sarah Osburn, Giles Cory, and at least four others (Witchcraft in Salem Par. 5). May of the other people that were released were not left unaffected, but rather they were left with many mental effects. The longer that the church carried out the trials the longer they would have the undivided attention of the people of Salem Village.
When people finaly became tired of the trials they were then able to step back and see what they had been oblivious to for such a long time. The learned persons of the colony were beginning to speak out against the “spectral evidence” that was being used as the new year rolled threw (Witchcraft in Salem Par. 5). With the spectral evidence being disallowed there were no more convictions and all of the prisoners that were left in jail were released. The people then looking back on the trials replaced Parris as minister and placed the majority of the blame on William Stroughton. The parish and town being divided it was now up to the new minister Thomas Green to put everything back together (Linder Par. 23)
There have been many new laws past that prevent this same situation from happening again in the future. The separation of church and state keeps the bias opinion of a single religion determining peoples fate. If the same situation were to arise today with the accusation of people being witches there would not be much attention given to it. This is because in present society there is more of a sense of independence rather than the idea that everyone was one large entity that was dependent upon each other.
Everything from the people that were accused of practicing witchcraft to the length of the trials was all a direct reflection of the church. The way that the trials were run was just a sign of how powerful and influential in the society at the time. If the church was not existent at the time Salem Village would not have been able to separate from Salem Town. The reason behind the ending of the trial was that the church was getting to carried away with the trials. If it wasn’t for the church’s constant need to romaine in control of the town which they were instrumental in establishing the Salem Witch trials would have never been carried to the levels that it was.
Armstrong, Karen. A Delusion of Satan, First Da Capo Press Inc, 1995
Breslaw, Elaine. Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem, NY:NY: UP, 1996
Hall, David D. 1994 “Witch hinting in Salem”, Christian History, Vol. 13 Issue 1, p. 38
Lincoln George, ed. Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases: 1648-1760. New York: Barnes: 145-64
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Shapiro, Laura, 8/31/92 The Lesson Of Salem, Newsweek, Vol. 120 Issue 9
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Tougias, Michael. “King Philip’s War in New England” February 15 2001. Online Internet 1997
Trask, Richard B. The Devil hath been raised, Danvers, Massachusetts: Yeoman Press, 1997
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“Witchcraft in Salem Village” March 21 2001. Available: http://etext.virginia.edu/salem/witchcraft/Witch.html