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.
8 thoughts on “Did the Puritans believe in witchcraft?”
Does the Puritan belief in the ability to make a contract with the devil fit into their belief in predestination at all? In other words, if someone was destined to be damned, were there any further punishments if that person entered a contact with Satan? If humans were predestined, what was the point of Satan tempting them on earth?
Hello Megan; thanks for writing. Predestination is an odd belief. Yes, everyone’s fate of heaven or hell was decided by God millennia before they were born, and there was no escaping your fate, but then again no human actually knew their destiny. You didn’t know if you were destined to be saved or not. So everyone had to keep on trying to make themselves available to God’s grace, everyone had to keep reading their Bible, going to church, and preparing their soul so that if God chose to send his grace, it could be received. That’s why you wouldn’t want to make a pact with the devil—that foreclosed the process, and damned you for sure, when you might have been saved. It was a giving up on the process of receiving salvation. Since you had no idea if you were damned from the start, you had no right to stop the process.
You’ll find that the early Puritans did not really focus on making pacts with Satan; this was a later idea, from the late 1600s.
Thank you so much! This was very helpful.
“As a scholar of the Puritans, particularly the Massachusetts Bay Colony group” this particular post is lacking in a scholarly understanding of the theology of the Puritans. You stated things like the Puritans “did indeed believe there was a devil who roamed the earth creating sin.” You seem to be misunderstanding what Christianity believes about Satan. Satan doesn’t “create sin” or find people to “betray.” He is a deceiver who seeks to destroy people by getting them to sin.
Salvation is not “the presence of God” or the “absence of Satan” but a redemption for those who believe and a rescue from an eternity in hell, which is the absence of God.
The Puritans did not go around calling people “witches” in the same banal vernacular that “s.o.b.” is thrown around today.
Hello; thanks for writing. It seems that to deceive is very much the same thing as to betray, so perhaps those two descriptions of what the devil was believed to have done are not so far apart. Second, it’s true that we have to use the term “salvation”carefully but we also have to remember to look at things through the Puritans’ eyes, not our own; the modern-day definition of salvation is not their own. The Puritans at this time did not believe salvation was granted as a reward for or term of belief; many who believed in God would not be saved from hell. You had to have been chosen at the beginning of time to receive God’s grace, for God’s own, mysterious reasons, and belief had nothing to do with that. The Puritans rejected that as part of Antinomianism. But you’re right that it might be better stated as Puritans believing that their community of believers lived first in the presence of God, and later tried to live in the absence of Satan.
I am an eleventh generation from my grandfather and grandmother, Thomas Macy and Sarah Hopcott Macy of Salisbury Essex County, Mass. Indeed from what I have perceived from documents regarding the attitudes of those whose power determined life and death of their fellow community members, witchcraft was simply a tool used to shun or punish those who were not being compliant with the severe rules imposed at that time. My grandparents (11th prev. gen.) were not content with those rules and along with others, were pushing the boundries and evoked the ire of the group “leaders”. They were fined on occasion and on a historical occasion in the 1650’s, they gave shelter to four “friends” (sarcastically called quakers by the puritans). Again, they were fined and two of the “friends” were hung. It would seem that branding someone a witch was a way to gain public support for “terminating” a foe of the ruling status quo. My grandparents eventually left their well established home and lives on the mainland and with a small group, purchased the island off coast (now called Nantucket). I see the same “holier than thou” attitude in many of today’s Christian fundamentalists, many of whom have joined the so called “Tea Party”. They still think there are devils who are after our “souls” and a god who, with a blindfold and a dart board and an ego bigger than Texas determines who stays and who goes and who is invited to join “him” in some sort of paradise. Salelm is just a “stones’ throw away from 2012.
Hello Deeanne; thanks for writing. It’s fascinating that you have documents from the Puritan period! It’s important to read them accurately, or, more to the point, without prejudice. Many, many, many Puritans received fines for this or that infraction; this was commonplace, and carried no stigma or greater legal retribution. This was because the Puritans were a people who valued debate and argument very much, and lived to debate laws (and file law suits) and work to find the most fair solution to each and every problem. This led to laws being flouted and challenged on a regular basis, and was seen as a valuable social dynamic.
Sheltering the people whom everyone in Europe called Quakers was unusual. That would have gotten your ancestors into some trouble indeed. It was illegal for Quakers (Friends) to come into the colony until the 1660s because a) they did not practice the state religion; and b) they were very disruptive and determined to convert Puritan society by just about any means possible.
Puritans in the early settlement period were constantly feeling disgruntled and moving to a new settlement, so your ancestors’ experience is not unusual there. Today’s Connecticut, western Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine were all settled by people who felt the need to move on from where they had been.
We often think of Puritan society as controlled by a grim group determined to squash all personal liberty and joy, a fearful society dedicated to a religious oligarchy that repressed all individuality and thought, but it’s not true—in fact, it’s quite the opposite. As you delve into your family history, look into some good histories of the period. A good start is “A Reforming People” by David Hall. Thanks for writing!
Thank you for your response. However, if you will read the history of my grandfather and grandmother…removed 11 generations… Thomas Macy and Sarah Hopcott Macy..you may more clearly see the conditions which spurred their leaving home and friends…(home is now a museum..Macy/Colby House)… Note also that the names on the stone at Amesbury were the original families. Thomas Macy’s name is among them. If you will notice, there is also a name, George Martin. Now notice that in the Macy/Colby House Museum, there is a spinning wheel and a baby cradle. Both of these items were given to Mrs. Colby (the Colby’s bought the home from Thomas Macy after they had moved to Nantucket). They were given to Mrs. Colby by George Martin’s wife, Susannah Martin…part of the small group of individuals who are the original families in Amesbury. Now search a bit further and you will notice that Susannah Martin was accused of being a witch and was hung. I can only imagine how relieved my grandmother and her daughters were to have moved away from the area and started a new life in Nantucket among the Wampanoag Indians. The following generation of my family became Quakers…which I suspect they may have been secretly prior to leaving the mainland… Notice the fate of two quakers that along with two others had stopped by my grandfathers home during a thunderstorm…. they were hung… These fanatics were afraid of losing their status as the official ‘law’ in the new world…