Darkness in Puritan Salem

The Embarkation of the Pilgrims captures the typical modesty Americans apply to their founding myths. The rainbow in the background is a great example of a not so subtly taken sign of God tracking his latest group of favored Sims. Photo Credit: Robert Weir


The Witch Craze reached the New World colonies on a time delayed fuse. The first recorded execution for witchcraft occurred in Connecticut in 1647, around the same time that self-appointed Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins was busy hanging everyone in East Anglia. The charges continued at a relative slow burn, with roughly a hundred indictments for witchcraft over a fifty year period. All that changes in a dramatic sequence of events starting in Salem Village, Massachusetts in 1692.

In every way possible, New England was fertile habitat for the witch’s Sabbath. To start, its inhabitants were overwhelmingly Puritan, though this was not the term they used themselves. Instead like the Anabaptists, “Puritan” was the snarky label applied by their critics to describe the self-appointed goody-buckled-two-shoes.[1] In brief, Puritans believed that the Anglican Church was only a half measure of Protestantism, and that further measures were necessary to ‘purify’ the Church of any remaining Popery. With all the humility expected from the highly pious, individual Puritans referred to their fellows as the “the Godly”, which says plenty about the worldview on display.

Famously the first boatload of Puritan “pilgrims” had reached New England in 1620, landing hundreds of miles away from their intended destination. In a typically Puritan moment, the male passengers took this as a sign of divine intent and drafted the Mayflower Compact for their own governance. Social Contract in hand, the early Pilgrims got about the business of colonization, which in these early years mostly involved a lot of starvation and disease. Back in England the Puritans held considerable influence as a faction in the years running up to the English Civil Wars. But when the dust settled both Oliver Cromwell and his royal successors quickly decided they wanted nothing to do with the Puritans. By 1662 the vast majority had left Great Britain for the Colonies or the Netherlands, leading to a massive influx of settlers in the young colony.

Quaker Mary Dyer being led to the scaffold on Boston Common. Dyer was hanged in 1660 for practicing her beliefs in the colony. As is so often the case with those banging on the drum of  “religious freedom”, the Puritans only applied that privilege to themselves. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming to New England the Puritans brought their views on God with them. It infused their every action and choice, and gave ministers outsized authority. If nothing else literacy was highly emphasized in Puritan society, ensuring that even when they got plastered on cider, which was often, everyone could pull a biblical verse out of their hat. As one wry observer put it the Puritans could, “neither drive a bargain, nor make a jest, without a text of Scripture at the end on it”.[2] Unsurprisingly for a worldview so steeped in a narrow reading of Old Testament theology, the Puritans were utterly intolerant of other religions. One major point of tension between the Crown and their wayward colonists would be Puritan oppression of Quakers and other religious minorities in Massachusetts. Not that the Puritans thought much higher of themselves, believing as they did that God took a personal interest in their actions.

The result was a curious mix of deep narcissism and perpetual self-loathing that ensured everyone could be blamed for something, and any sign of the bigger picture was forsaken for the individual shortcoming. Everything and anything could be a sign of the divine. One contemporary book entitled Divine Providence collated evidence of supposed miracles since the founding of New England. A six year old might confess to living a life of sin. The preacher Cotton Mather would blame an entire war with the Wampanoag on the indulgent fashion of his fellow Puritans. Another minister would blame the death of his wife on his own lusts, as he admitted in his diary to enjoying marital coitus with his spouse. Like the Anabaptists, Puritan theology was shot through with a millennial view of the world. Armageddon was coming, and the Puritans longed for it. They were, after all, going to be the only ones to survive it.

Near contemporary woodcut of the Wampanoag besieging a fortified house, attempting to “smoke out” the defenders. Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons

The political situation in New England added a second layer of uncertainty on this foundation of religious conviction. The colony may have begun on the note of Thanksgiving between the Puritans and their new neighbours like the Wampanoag, but those days were long gone. Increasing colonization coupled with religious tensions and conflict had exploded into King Philip’s War in 1675. Under Metacom, the Wampanoag and a loose alliance of other tribes had waged all-out war against the settlers, who reciprocated in kind.[3] By the end of the War ten percent of the adult male population in the colony had died. A third of their towns had been burned. Losses among the Native Americans were potentially three times as high, Metacom himself was shot and dismembered, his head posted on a spike outside Fort Plymouth. King Philip’s War cast a long shadow over the colony. The nights were dark, and in the imagination of Puritans huddled in their homes, full of terrors. Preachers would conjure images of savage tribal warriors and vicious French troops out of the mists.

In 1692, a second conflict known as King William’s War was just beginning. A failed raid on Quebec under soon to be governor Sir William Phips had cost hundreds of lives in 1690, and the Wabanaki of French Canada had invaded New England in response. The sparsely populated region of Maine had been all but wiped out, sending refugees sweeping south with stories of horrific atrocities inflicted by the victorious tribes. Of the first wave of girls who accused their neighbors and family of witchcraft, almost half were orphans from these wars like Abigail Hobbs. George Burroughs, Salem’s former minister, had fought and defended a Maine town from a combined French and Wabanaki assault.

The situation was further complicated by the instability in the Colony’s government itself. Their Royal Charter had been revoked, but negotiations for a replacement were still ongoing. Eventually a new royal charter was enacted and Governor Phips was bundled off for his birthplace of New England, though he would arrive months too late to get a handle on the situation boiling over in Salem.

Reverend Samuel Parris. A failed Barbados plantation owner turned preacher. He died in the author’s hometown in 1720. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The final and crucial ingredient in New England witchcraft was the influence of individual preachers and the troubled village of Salem itself. Insofar as they had one, Puritan social life revolved around the local church and the weekly sermons given by their minister. Whatever the theme, whatever the content, this was something to chew over with friends and family for the week. Quite fittingly, this placed the minister and his family on a pedestal. If the sermons were considered subpar, the villagers would find ways of ensuring their minister knew about it. Maybe the voluntary donation of firewood the minister needed to work and study by would be equally poor quality. Or maybe villagers would just forget to pay their preacher. This had been the case in Salem, and more than once. When the trials began, Salem Village was on its fourth minister in recent years, a man named Samuel Parris. Parris was proud, standoffish, and had been no one’s first choice. But then, Salem Village was no minister’s first pick for a flock by any shepherd.

Salem Village (now the town of Danvers) had slowly grown out from Salem Town, spreading and bumbling outwards. Relations between Salem Town and Salem Village were bad, and divided regularly over everything from fiscal to religious affairs. When the Village finally split, the villagers began squabbling with each other instead about everything possible. Parris’ immediate predecessor Deodat Lawson had consequently gone unpaid for years, as had Reverend George Burroughs in his own tenure.

Cotton_Mather Peter Pelham
The bewigged face of malevolent piety. Cotton Mather is one of the most dangerous figures in the story of Salem. Photo Credit: Peter Pelham

Yet the word of a gifted priest could dominate matters. This was especially true for the figure of Cotton Mather in the trial. A gifted preacher and prolific writer, Mather had attended Harvard at age eleven and delivered his first sermon at sixteen. One of his favourite topics happened to be witches, which would obviously be active in New England. After all, “Where will the Devil show most malice but where he is hated, and hateth most?”[4] Mather’s words would feed further fuel to Salem’s combustion.

[1] In a modern sense we would use a word like “stickler” to describe the Puritans. Shakespeare’s tragicomic figure Malvolio in Twelfth Night is something of an extended dig at the popularly imagined Puritan. Though there’s no explanation for the abomination that is yellow cross-gartered stockings.

[2] Schiff, S. 2015. The Witches of Salem. New Yorker.

[3] One of the battles was fought in the author’s home town of Sudbury. This likely marks the first and last time Sudbury was strategically important to anyone

[4] Schiff 2015


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