The Salem witch trials are not part of the history of witchcraft

Posted on October 5, 2015. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , |

We admit to a bit of hyperbole in that title, but we’re just amplifying the message sent by Diane Purkiss in her August 2015 review of the new Penguin Book of Witches (edited by Katherine Howe).

Her review article is called “We need more types of witches”, and in it Purkiss points out and criticizes the overwhelming fixation historians and average Americans alike have with the Salem witch trials in 1692 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony:

The Penguin Book of Witches disappoints. A better title for this volume might be “The Penguin Book of Witches in the American Colonies”, or even “The Penguin Book of Massachusetts Witches”. As its editor Katherine Howe admits, the English materials she selects are chosen as “antecedent”–her word–to the Salem trials, which are the sole witchcraft trials covered in detail in this slender collection.

The effect is to reinforce the already disproportionate place of Salem in the popular imagination. The Salem trials were very late; they occurred in 1692, while the peak decade for executions in the Anglophone world was in the last decade of the reign of Elizabeth I. Historians estimate that 30,000 witches died in the witchcraft persecutions [in Europe], of whom just twenty died at Salem. …In truth, Salem was in many respects profoundly unusual.

So far so good. We do take issue with Purkiss’ description of the causes of the witch trials:

The monocultural hardline Calvinism of the colonies, the lack of older and once powerful cultures as an anxiety-provoking substrate, the absence of the usual special interest groups, and the vicious hierarchy of the Calvinist churches all militate against using Salem as a representative case of witch-hunting. Yet that is how it is used, both here and elsewhere.

There was no “vicious hierarchy” in Massachusetts churches, which were not Calvinist in the first place (they were Congregational/Independent); Purkiss references the “extreme Calvinism that had led to the establishment of the colonies in the first place”. We assume she means Massachusetts and the Connecticut colonies. But the English reformers who went to New England were not “extreme Calvinists”; they had already worked out unique compromises with Calvinism before they ever left England, during the reigns of Elizabeth I, James I, and his son Charles I. That was in 1630—by 1692, even the original Congregationalist platform had been pretty thoroughly undermined and partially demolished by the loss of Massachusetts’ political independence and the resulting influx of non-Congregational populations, as well as the growing Baptist movement in the 1670s, before the loss of the charter.

We go into this timeline in more depth in our article on Stacy Schiff’s new and wildly inaccurate piece of historical fiction The Witches of Salem. It’s a shame that even people making excellent points about the Salem trials don’t know the history well, but we do want to focus here on the many things Purkiss gets right. She points out the ridiculous fantasy that is The Crucible, and laments its hold on both the popular and scholarly imagination. And Purkiss points out that Matthew Hopkins, who took advantage of social turmoil and fear during the English Civil War to execute 300-500 women as witches in just two years, is never mentioned in the current Penguin anthology, and seems to be completely lost to history, while the people involved in the deaths of just 20 men and women in Salem continue to live in infamy.

If you’re interested in the history of human belief in witches, it’s best to study that entire history, not just one incident that has likely become famous simply because it was the only incident of witch-mania in all American/U.S. history. The anomaly always fascinates, but we can’t let it obscure the history.

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Stacy Schiff and The Witches of Salem—skip it

Posted on September 8, 2015. Filed under: Puritans, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , |

As readers of the HP know, the 1692 witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts Bay Colony, were an anomaly; as we put it in the first post of our series on the Salem witch trials,

…the Salem event is actually an anomaly in the history of their colony. Here are some points that are often overlooked:

–There was only ever one “witch scare” in the Puritan colonies. For the roughly 60 years that Puritan theology and law dominated New England, only one time were dozens of people persecuted and some executed as witches.

–The scare did not spread. It stayed local to the Salem area, and did not create a prairie fire of persecution across New England.

–It generated almost no positive reaction in New England at the time. It was generally not celebrated as a victory of God over Satan, despite the strenuous efforts of Cotton Mather. It almost seems as if all New England wanted to forget about it as soon as possible.

–The scare itself was set in the midst of violent political upheaval in New England and especially Massachusetts, and cannot be separated from it.

–There is no one single cause we can pinpoint for the scare; just as there is never just one cause for any major event, there were multiple factors leading to murder in Salem.

The research into what really happened in Salem in 1692 and why has been prolific for the past 10 years, as scholars recruit modern science to try to answer some questions.

If you go to that series, you’ll see that we offer an interesting round-up of scholarly theories about why the outbreak of accusations happened and how/why they were allowed to get so out of hand.

Here, we address an article that appeared in the September 7, 2015 New Yorker magazine. We think it’s an article; the author, Stacy Schiff, is a novelist whose novel on the Salem witch trials is due out in October, but the item in question does not seem to be an excerpt from a novel. Instead, it is a queasy mix of fact and fiction whose purpose is very hard to discern. We will give it a shot.

The piece begins with a series of stark fallacies: that in 1692, “the population of New England would fit into Yankee Stadium today. Nearly to a person, they were Puritans. Having suffered for their faith, they had sailed to North America to worship ‘with more purity and less peril than they could do in the country where they were’… On a providential mission, they hoped to begin history anew; they had the advantage of building a civilization from scratch. Like any oppressed people, they defined themselves by what offended them, which would give New England its gritty flavor and, it has been argued, America its independence.”

This is astounding; where to begin?

First, by 1692 the population of New England was not majority Puritan; by that time, Massachusetts was at the end of a long process of losing its independence. In 1684, its independent charter had been revoked by the Lords of Trade; the practical outcome of this was that Massachusetts would lose its popularly elected legislation and governor (they would be replaced by royal appointees answerable only to England). Before this could fully take place, James II created the Dominion of New England, which we describe in depth here; suffice it to say that this basically removed local government in each of the affected colonies, threw all land titles into question, and enforced religious toleration.

In 1689, this Dominion was overthrown by local American colonists once they heard that the Glorious Revolution had taken place and removed James II from the throne. Between 1689 and 1692 the colonists were caught in the middle of the new King William III’s wars with France, as northern New England experienced attacks from French Canada that destroyed settlements and sent refugees fleeing south. In 1694, a new royal charter arrived at last in Boston, and the colony had a royally appointed governor and a popularly elected legislature.

That’s a lot of change, and what it adds up to is that by 1692 when the witch trials happened, Massachusetts was light years from the days of its founding generation in the 1630s. Its religious hegemony had been broken, and even within the original Congregational church there were sharp theological debates and a general drift away from traditional Puritan religion. The bar for joining a Congregational church as a full member (taking common) was lowered substantially, and in some churches removed altogether. Non-traditional Congregationalists were a strong minority throughout the colony, and a majority in the capital of Boston. Aside from that, there were growing Baptist and unreformed Anglican populations. Old social rules against things like public drunkenness were abruptly discontinued under the rule of the royally appointed governor.

So by 1692, the old Puritan colony was long-gone. No one felt they were on a providential mission anymore, and people in Boston only became more and more connected with London, enjoying the commerce and fashions and relaxed, luxury-appreciative lifestyle brought over by army officers, rich merchants, and others.

Next, no Puritan even in the 1630s ever thought they were “building a civilization from scratch”; it was the exact opposite. They were building on continental reformed Protestant traditions from Geneva and Holland and elsewhere to bring the Reformation to its logical conclusion, to act it out in a way that was not possible in a non-homogenous population. The Puritan founders hewed to English law and custom—clung to it, really, as a lifeline to the old country in an alien world.

Next, the Puritan founders hardly “defined themselves by what offended them” in America. America was their golden, God-sent opportunity to create a religious and political settlement that was everything they ever wanted, the glorious culmination of continental Reformation. In America, Puritans defined themselves by what they wanted, and what they believed was completely, wonderfully achievable.

Finally, the old, corny stereotype of “gritty” Yankees is laughable, and the idea that there is a straight line from the Massachusetts Bay to American independence has long been thoroughly debunked.

If all these errors are in the second paragraph of a piece that goes on for nine pages, that doesn’t bode well for the innocent reader. We tried to read it but gave up, as the piece veered between topics and people and times as if they were all one, and treated all with that condescending disgust that is so familiar to anyone who studies the Puritans. Clearly Schiff, like most people, sees the Salem massacre as typical of, rather than anomalous to, Puritans. She glides over topics to preserve that point of view: for instance, she goes on about how Puritans absolutely believed in witches (which they did) but elides (or does not know) that accusations of witch craft were a) relatively few, b) thoroughly investigated, c) usually thrown out of court, and d) when they weren’t thrown out, sent back to towns for mediation rather than criminal sentencing. All the reader of Schiff gets is a picture of ignorant, awful people who had no compunction about killing people as witches, perhaps on a daily basis.

She completely misunderstands Increase Mather’s warning to children that they would be horribly punished for disobedience to parents, takes on the putative “voice of the [ignorant] people” by saying things like “By the end of July, it was clear that …the Devil intended to topple the church and subvert the country”, lingers over descriptions of deaths by hanging and one by pressing, and mentions Governor William Phips putting an end to the court without saying that the prod to this action was that his own wife, in Boston, was accused!

It all ends with a lyrical description of Cotton Mather having a home-made bomb thrown through his window… but without any explanation of how 98% of the public were against the trials, this is meaningless.

Rather than allow Schiff to get free advertising for her novel, the New Yorker should have made it clear that this is a hybrid fiction-article piece meant to generate readership before anyone seeking real information on the witch hysteria made the mistake of reading it.

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The End of Witchcraft Trials in New England

Posted on October 1, 2013. Filed under: 17th century America, Colonial America, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

Part the last of our short series on the practical whys and wherefores of witchcraft cases in Puritan New England ends with a look at reasons for the decline and disappearance of these cases. Again we are relying on John Demos’ priceless book Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and and the Culture of Early New England for many of our specific examples.

As Demos points out, and as we noted in part 1 of this series, one of the exacerbating factors in witchcraft accusations was close proximity: in early New England towns, the entire population lived in small houses crowding the small square, saw each other daily in a variety of roles, socialized together, worshipped and worked together, and basically could not get out of each other’s hair for one minute. If you disliked someone in town, you would not be able to avoid interacting with them every day, and, in their blunt Puritan way the person you disliked would likely barge into your yard and home whenever they wanted, sometimes just to bother you. We have seen that most people accused of witchcraft were difficult people who demanded favors, gifts, and intimacy from those around them, giving nothing back in return. If a neighbor refused a gift or favor, the difficult person might curse or threaten them. Then, if by coincidence some harm befell the neighbor, the difficult person would fall under suspicion of having used witchcraft to make good their threats.

So if witchcraft accusations were provoked in some part by too-close proximity, it makes sense that once New England had expanded enough to conquer its frontier, and it was safer and less laborious to start new towns, two things happened to slow witchcraft accusations: towns began to grow, and people began to move more often. As Demos puts it:

“Eventually witchcraft would disappear as a matter of formal proceedings. This last part of the sequence is extremely hard to analyze from a distance of three centuries; perhaps, however, one key factor was a certain loosening of the social tissues themselves.  …The growth and dispersion of the local populace, a somewhat broadened range of economic activity, an increasingly firm system of social stratification: these interlocking trends seem gradually to have modified the tensions amid which witchcraft had flourished.” (371)

If the average town goes from 150 people to 1,000, you are less likely to constantly deal with the same people each day, and your neighbor is less likely to focus his full attention on you 24 hours a day simply because there are more people to be interested in. Your neighbor is also less likely to also be your tax collector, fence inspector, pew-fellow, midwife, cattle-driver, etc. A small number of intensely intimate relationships are replaced by many more casual ones.

When Demos talks about loosening of the social tissues, remember that the Puritans were dedicated to the principle of mutual watch: the loving oversight of their community. This meant playing a role in the spiritual lives of your community, and welcoming your community’s involvement in your own spiritual life. Puritans worshipped, prayed, and debated together on a regular, almost daily basis, and their ideal was to work out all conflicts through loving negotiation. Ideally, no matter would ever have to go to court. Many times, when a problem did go to court—including witchcraft cases—it was sent back to the town by the judge with a recommendation that the problem be solved privately, by the interested parties, through prayer, negotiation, and applied goodwill. Ministers, deacons, and especially godly church members were on constant call to mediate conflicts, and were successful far more often than might be expected.

As towns grew, and people knew each other less well, mutual watch became difficult and then impossible to carry out. Just as a growing population meant less intimate, less frequent contact between townspeople, so too it meant less conviction that the community was bound, or able, to mediate conflicts. And larger, more mobile populations meant fewer personal problems between individuals had the chance to fester and grow. Problems went directly to court and were settled there. This meant that the weeks, months, or even years of private tension over a suspected witch, and the weeks, months, or years of attempted mediation and accumulated anxiety and bad feeling were done away with. Without that long history of conflict, fewer accusations of witchcraft were made. Without that long history of conflict to produce dozens of witnesses for and against the accused, those witchcraft cases that did go to court were weaker and taken less seriously. It was easier to see the case as the result of a personal conflict. The wind was taken out of the sails of witchcraft.

So we see that by the end of the 17th century, a century of intense population growth in New England, witchcraft cases are dwindling to nothing. In fact, after the Salem witch trials in 1692, there were “no more executions, no convictions, indeed no actual indictments” related to witchcraft in any New England court. (Demos 387) We talked in part 2 about why Salem, the largest witch trials, happened as witchcraft trials themselves were dying away. Here we want to focus on its aftermath. The hysteria at Salem deeply shocked and shamed New Englanders, who saw government go off the rails, replaced by accusation and panic, and they were embarrassed to think of how they looked to the outside world. The Age of Reason was influencing how people thought about natural and unnatural phenomena, even New England Puritans.

Thomas Brattle is a good example of this. Brattle lived in the town of Cambridge and wrote a letter to a friend about the events in Salem just as they were ending, in October 1692. Brattle’s account of the way the trials were conducted is a powerful example of a good Puritan completely rejecting the irrationality of the Salem trials:

“First, as to the method which the Salem Justices do take in their examinations, it is truly this: A warrant being issued out to apprehend the persons that are charged and complained of by the afflicted children, (as they are called); said persons are brought before the Justices, (the afflicted being present.) The Justices ask the apprehended why they afflict those poor children; to which the apprehended answer, they do not afflict them. The Justices order the apprehended to look upon the said children, which accordingly they do; and at the time of that look, (I dare not say by that look, as the Salem Gentlemen do) the afflicted are cast into a fit. The apprehended are then blinded, and ordered to touch the afflicted; and at that touch, though not by the touch, (as above) the afflicted ordinarily do come out of their fits. The afflicted persons then declare and affirm, that the apprehended have afflicted them; upon which the apprehended persons, though of never so good repute, are forthwith committed to prison, on suspicion for witchcraft.

…I cannot but condemn this method of the Justices, of making this touch of the hand a rule to discover witchcraft; because I am fully persuaded that it is sorcery, and a superstitious method, and that which we have no rule for, either from reason or religion. [This] Salem philosophy, some men may call the  new philosophy; but I think it rather deserves the name of Salem superstition and sorcery, and it is not fit to be named in a land of such light as New-England is… In the mean time, I think we must [be] thankful to God for it, that all men are not thus bereft of their senses; but that we have here and there considerate and thinking men, who will not thus be imposed upon…

What will be the issue of these troubles, God only knows; I am afraid that ages will not wear off that reproach and those stains which these things will leave behind them upon our land. I pray God pity us, humble us, forgive us, and appear mercifully for us in this our mount of distress.”

Puritans had always treasured reason. They believed it was God’s greatest gift (after saving grace), given to humans to allow them to comprehend God’s creation and to seek to understand God’s will. Their legal code was a model of reason. As the 17th century drew to a close, Puritans began to doubt that their courts should be hearing witchcraft cases. Like Thomas Brattle, they felt there was no way for a judge to ” discover witchcraft” because witchcraft was supernatural—it could not be addressed in a human court: witchcraft was “that which we have no rule for, either from reason or religion.” Most Puritans felt the same, and witchcraft accusations were handled privately after Salem.

They were handled privately because witchcraft accusations didn’t disappear after Salem; they dwindled, and  they entered the realm of ambiguity. “Witchcraft was hard to square with ‘enlightened’ standards and values, yet it could not be dismissed entirely” [Demos 387], and in this state of limbo witchcraft accusations were reduced to the status of gossip and private fulminations and, eventually, legend. Ministers reported strange cases that alarmed them, but never led them to publicly reveal the suspected culprits. Almost every little town seemed to have a local witch who fueled gossip and folklore but was mostly left in peace. “The figure of the witch was effectively scaled down, so as to shrink the elements of death-dealing power, and to emphasize those of sheer eccentricity. …The harm attributed to witchcraft was confined more and more to routine domestic mishap, nightmares, and simple ‘mischief’… such elements had always been part of the witch’s maleficium, but now they were virtually the whole of it.” [Demos 390]

Puritans had always been skeptical of claims that someone was truly a witch in league with and empowered by the devil, and required many witnesses and much evidence in trials, and even then dismissed most cases. By the 1700s, that skepticism was complete. 1630-1700 is a pretty brief window for witchcraft, and since we see that witchcraft cases really began in Puritan New England in the mid-1640s and ended after 1692, the window is even briefer. It is odd, therefore, that Puritan New England is so identified with witch trials and witch hunts. Poor Thomas Brattle was right, it seems, to fear that “ages will not wear off that reproach and those stains which these things will leave behind them upon our land.” Americans love to reproach the Puritans with their “witch mania”, unfair though that accusation may be, given that English colonists throughout North America believed just as firmly in witches. If only there had been a Salem in Virginia, another anomaly that drew attention away from its laser focus on Massachusetts, we might have a better general understanding of the role of witchcraft belief in the early modern western world.

As it is, we will leave off here feeling we’ve done our small part to set the record straight.

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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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The 1692 witch scare: why Salem?

Posted on March 18, 2009. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

Welcome to part 2 of my Truth v. Myth series on the Salem witch scare of 1692. Here we take a look at Salem before the scare to see what was happening, and why Salem ended up as the site of this tragedy.

Salem was not just any old town in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Salem was the site of first settlement for the New England Puritans. When John Winthrop and his famous band of Puritan settlers arrived in 1630, they first sheltered in Salem before heading south to found Boston. (Remember, as we show in Pilgrims v. Puritans: who landed in Plymouth?, those people who landed in 1620 were not Puritans but Separatists.) A small group of unfunded Puritans had left England in 1626 and founded Salem. Therefore it was the first Puritan settlement in New England, and as such had planted the first Reformed Anglican (Congregational) church in the New World.

So Salem had clout. It was literally the mother of all Puritan churches in the New World, and its community was very proud of its standing. The church in Boston became very powerful, but the Salem congregation was always a kind of Queen Mother to it, and the advice of Salem’s ministers and congregation was always important to Boston.

Salem was always a frontier town. It was closer to southern Maine than to Boston, and southern Maine was a battleground from the 1630s on between France, ever-encroaching southward from Canada, and the English settlers in MBC and Plymouth. The English created settlements and trading posts in this area, notably Agawam, as buffer zones against French expansion. The French, who had a good track record of keeping their hands off (Native) American land in Canada, were easily able to enlist Abenakis, Acadias, and Penobscots to fight the English settlers, who clearly needed and took lots of land in New England. So while the French built forts in the north from which to sweep down into New England, their Native American allies (particularly the Abenakis) would raid English settlements in southern Maine and northern MBC, armed with French weapons and given sanctuary in French-controlled land.

Trouble for Salem, with the French, Native Americans, and England itself, began in 1686, just six years before the witch scare. In that year, King James II of England established the Dominion of New England (read more about that here), which took away MBC’s political independence, its self-rule, and its religion. This grossly unfair and unpopular regime was overthrown by the New Englanders in 1689, when they got word that James II had been deposed in favor of William and Mary. But they were not able to get their independence back; MBC would remain a royal colony with a royal governor who was appointed by the king rather than elected by the legislature.

So just three years before the scare, Salem, along with all the MBC, has had its religion, land rights, and governance challenged and not fully restored. But worse was to come–the new king immediately brought his war with France to New England.

King William’s War (1689-97) was fought by English forces in Europe, but the violence came to New England. Because their home nations were at war, the French in Canada launched new attacks through their Native American allies on English settlements. Native American night raids on small Maine villages were terrifying and unsparing. The worst attack was on York, Maine on January 25, 1692; the first accusations of witchcraft in Salem came weeks later.

Salem, again, was close to Maine, and actually received many refugees from the violence, particularly children. Salem was on constant alert for Native American attack, and sent militia to defend Maine itself.  Salem’s neighboring towns of  Andover, Haverhill, Amesbury, Newbury, and Rowley (now Georgetown) were attacked.

In the midst of this external stress and tension,  Salem was also undergoing internal strife. Salem was made up of Salem Village, the original farming settlement, and Salem Town, a newer development of mostly merchants and business people.  The old Puritan law of “one village, one church” had been upheld in Salem long after it was clear that Salem Town was large enough, and its people far away enough, to have its own congregation. But this was not just any church splitting. This was, remember, the Mother Church of New England; Salem Village did not want to split its historic church and lose the esteem this gave them. There was resentment in the farming Village of the wealth of the merchant Town; all the Village had was its church, and did not want to lose it. Finally, however, it was forced to release Salem Town from its obligations to First Church in Salem, and in 1689, the same year MBC became a permanent royal colony, Salem’s historic church was split.

So we have in Salem, by 1692, very high tensions over Native American attack, royal governance, and internal economic and religious division. On the eve of the scare, Salem was just waiting for a spark to ignite an explosion of violence. In the next segment, we’ll talk about why witchcraft became that spark.

Next time: Did Puritans believe in witchcraft?

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Truth v. Myth: The Salem Witch Trials

Posted on March 16, 2009. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , |

Welcome to part one of my Truth v. Myth series on the Salem Witch Trials and the whole witch scare that took place in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692. This is perhaps the most famous Puritan moment in American history, the one thing most people think of when they think of the New England Puritans. Usually, it is seen as shocking proof of the damage the Puritans’ hateful religion could do, and serves as a reminder that church and state must be kept separate if justice is to be done.

As a scholar of the Puritans, particularly the Massachusetts Bay Colony group, I spend a lot of time and ink explaining how they actually lived and governed themselves, and I have some sympathy for their experiences, goals, and achievements. The proto-democracy they established was a direct precursor to the full democracy of the United States. And they actually believed firmly in separation of church and state when it came to daily legislation. So I start by noting that the Salem event is actually an anomaly in the history of their colony. Here are some points that are often overlooked:

–There was only ever one “witch scare” in the Puritan colonies. For the roughly 60 years that Puritan theology and law dominated New England, only one time were dozens of people persecuted and some executed as witches.

–The scare did not spread. It stayed local to the Salem area, and did not create a prairie fire of persecution across New England.

–It generated almost no popular reaction in New England at the time. It was not celebrated as a victory of God over Satan, or condemned as unjust. It almost seems as if all New England wanted to forget about it as soon as possible.

–The scare itself is set in the midst of violent political upheaval in New England and especially Massachusetts, and cannot be separated from it.

–There is no one single cause we can pinpoint for the scare; just as there is never just one cause for any major event, there were multiple factors leading to murder in Salem.

The research into what really happened in Salem in 1692 and why has been prolific for the past 10 years, as scholars recruit modern science to try to answer some questions. This series does not make any claims to being the final word on what happened. But a good round-up of new theories, along with some satisfying myth-busting of old ones, will be good enough work for us.

Next: Setting the scene at Salem

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