Archive for March 20th, 2009

Did the Puritans believe in witchcraft?

Posted on March 20, 2009. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

Part 3 of our Truth v. Myth series on the Salem Witch trials asks this question: did the Puritans believe in witchcraft?

I will go out on a limb with an absolute statement to say that every discussion of Salem, no matter how scholarly, includes at some point the assertion that the Puritans believed in witches, witchcraft, the devil, the spirit world, etc. To them, say the articles, the spiritual world was as real as the flesh-and-blood world around them, and their deep belief in Satan and his power over the earth made it easy as pie for the Puritans to believe in witchcraft and persecute innocent people as witches.

As usual, the reality is not so clear-cut. The Puritans of 17th-century New England did indeed believe there was a devil who roamed the earth creating sin. Interesting work has been done showing how the Puritans who left England defined salvation as the presence of God, but over time, their New England descendants saw it more as the absence of Satan. In the difficult world of New England, where people who had never farmed suddenly had to feed their families by farming poor land, hardship and danger must have made Satan a more palpable presence than God much of the time.

Since the devil roamed the earth, looking for people to betray, there were minor evil spirits who roamed with him.  The idea that angels might be sent by God to protect people was far less popular–almost non-existent–than it would become much later in the 19th century. People had to pray for God’s strength to protect them. The Puritans saw events in their lives as evidence of success or failure to follow God’s way. In their official documents, such tragedies as losing a child, a bad harvest, fire, or epidemic were seen as God’s punishment or, as they might put it, “correction.”

But these are the official documents. We don’t have many private journals written by Puritans, but from the few we have, and from the gravestones they left, we can see that in their hearts, Puritans suffered and understood personal tragedies more or less as “the way of the world.” I don’t think there’s a lot of proof that they thought God was punishing them for specific sins when their children died. Children, sadly, were very vulnerable to disease in the time of the Puritans; no family was immune to bereavement, and it seems that when most Puritan people grieved they comforted themselves that God had called their beloved children home to Heaven so that those children would never have to suffer on Earth. There is no fire-and-brimstone lesson to be learned. It just happens.

This is the point I’m working toward: that while the Puritans did believe God intervened in human affairs, and that Satan was always present to betray people, they were also immensely practical people who understood that life was full of the real pitfalls of disease, accident, and financial disaster. They lived in the real world. These were very shrewd and practical business people whose legislative records focus exclusively on real people, their conflicts, and the intellectual solutions to problems.

Thus, when witchcraft comes up, we have to consider that while the Puritans believed in Satan and his power, they rarely felt completely sure that a human being was sharing in that power. There are many judicial records of an aggravated party accusing someone of being a witch; there is usually a pro-forma inquiry and then a logical settlement of the problem. Calling someone a witch in Puritan New England may have been like calling someone an s.o.b today—a way to insult someone, blow off steam, express your anger, and invite remediation.

That’s what makes Salem so unusual. There, in 1692, accusations of witchcraft did not wither away with the application of legal solutions. And there the whole social order was turned upside-down as children held power over adults. Young girls called adult women who were full members of their churches witches and those women were put in jail and tried. This goes against everything the Puritans believed in. To them, God gave complete authority over children to adults, and no child was allowed to make any statements in a court, or even be present. You might believe in witchcraft as a Puritan, but you were not going to let some children decide who was a witch.

Also unusual was the fact that it was fully integrated members of society who were accused and tried and executed. There were always one or two people in a town or village who separated themselves from the group, casting scorn on church-going and on the General Court, laughing at the customs of their fellows and refusing to help out in times of trouble. These people were grudgingly endured by the rest, and open to accusations of witchcraft because of their alarming ways. But even these troublemakers were rarely persecuted as witches. So to have respectable, church-going, child-raising, fully integrated, fully employed adults on trial for witchcraft was very, very unusual.  

The upshot is that while the Puritans did believe in witchcraft and evil spirits, they rarely associated any real person with those beliefs, and even more rarely persecuted people as witches. And they put a lot more stock generally in real-world problems and solutions than spectral ones. And, finally, no belief in spirits would usually lead Puritan New Englanders to overturn their entire social order to let children persecute adults. Salem cannot be explained away as just another consequence of the Puritans’ terrible and ignorant religion. It was an anomaly, it was seen as one at the time, and should be seen as one now.

Next time: a roundup of theories on the witch scare

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