By Thurman Sawyer and George Bundren
In the summer of 1692, Giles Corey was pressed to death because he refused to answer an indictment. Furthermore, some nineteen more souls perished because of the refusal to admit to alleged crimes they committed. Even two dogs were sentenced to death in the middle of the hysteria that broke out in Salem, Massachusetts.
The crime they refused to admit to participating in, (or in the case of Corey not answering to) was the crime of witchcraft. These men and women died upon the sketchy and unreliable evidence brought before them in court. But what caused these Puritan people of Salem to execute their fellow friends and neighbors in the name of witchcraft?
We have discovered that the lost lives of the accused witches were the direct result of the Puritan religious fanaticism of the day. Fanaticism in religion occurs when one goes beyond strict adherence to his or her faith. It occurred in Salem when death resulted from closed minded adherence to religious teaching. The Puritans were fanatical only when they took the lives of people around them, whom they had known and interacted with for years, because of accusations of witchcraft.
In order for us to conclude our study of this event, we must consider several factors. The first section of this paper discusses the way in which Puritan life was totally dominated by religion, takes a look at the Puritan idea of the Devil, considers the behavior of the accused witches of Salem, and analyzes why the accused were sentenced to death. The second section of the paper will examine the possibility of schizophrenia, or mental illness, as playing a role in the Salem witchcraft episode. Let us begin.
Puritan religious fanaticism was evident in Massachusetts a few years before 1692. In 1688, Goody Glover fell victim to the Puritan religious fanatics and lost her life. Consider the following:
Following an argument with laundress Goody Glover, Martha Goodwin, 13, begins exhibiting bizarre behavior. Days later her younger brother and two sisters exhibit similar behavior. Glover is arrested and tried for bewitching the Goodwin children….Glover is hanged (after refusing to confess to the sin of witchcraft).[i]
Any scholar of American history, upon undertaking the study of Puritans, need not be extraordinarily perspicacious to understand that religion was the central focus of the Puritan way of life in the 1690s. “Religion was not a department or phase of social life; it was the end and aim of all life; and to it, consequently, all institutions were subordinate.”[ii]
Puritans were entirely dependent on their religion to make sense of their seventeenth century, New England lives.
Instead of reading about it (life) in the Sunday papers, as we do today, the old Puritans had a quaint custom of making history six days a week and, on the seventh, going to meeting to hear the minister explain it.[iii]
One could argue that such religious fanaticism, or dependence on one’s religion, could lead to a town’s vulnerability to strange events. Indeed strange events were to strike the town of Salem, in a harsh manner, at the close of the seventeenth century.
The cause of the aforementioned strange events was in great part due to the responsibility of Puritan religious leaders. Such leaders were upheld by the community as knowing the will of God and therefore, responsible for manifesting it, no matter the consequences.
What was sheer fantasy in England appeared to be a practical and literal reality in New England, for here the clergy were, as a matter of fact, the first citizens and leading spirits; here the social and political life centered about the various settlements and these settlements were organized into congregations.[iv]
To fully understand the reason for the Puritans’ adherence to their faith is to understand their elementary, or fundamental, beliefs surrounding their religion. Let us consider some of the basic tenets of Puritan religion (Puritanism) in the 1690s. Puritans believed that life was the story of man’s constant struggle with evil and natural elements. John Davenport’s sermon “The Saints’ Anchor Hold In All Storms and Tempests” demonstrates this.
As the whole creation hath groaned ever since its original subjection unto vanity, earnestly expecting the manifestation of the Sons of God: so more especially in these latter days the traveling pains thereof have increased.[v]
The Devil presented the greatest enemy, and obstacle, to the Puritan belief. The Devil could prevent the Puritan from being closer to God, and therefore they eliminated any and all ties to the Devil. He (Puritan) wanted no more connection with the Devil than he was born with; conscious of his sinfulness, he wanted to repent, to exorcize the Devil, to be prepared for the gift of grace if and when it came.[vi]
A second basic tenet of Puritanism was obedience to the word of God. A significant means of ensuring that children would grow up in the faith of Puritanism was to install within them a great fear of God. Two popular biblical verses were utilized by the Puritans to strengthen the faith of the upcoming generation. These verses were favorites of James Fitch, a Puritan minister, in the 1670s. In 1679, John Foster captured two familiar passages from the Bible that were used extensively by Fitch:
Come ye children, hearken unto me, I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
Philipians 32, 11
Hold fast the form of sound works which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.[vii]
Second Timothy 1, 13
John Foster was able to publish several of the fundamental beliefs of Puritanism, during his time. An especially renowned teaching was the damnation of the wicked and the reward of the righteous. Foster recorded the sermon “The Sting of Death,” by Dr. Leonard Hoard in 1680.
Within Hoard’s sermon we can see two more basic Puritan teachings.
Like sheep they are laid in the grave, death shall feed on them; and the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning, and their beauty shall consume in the grave from their dwelling….Say ye to the righteous, that it shall be well with him, for they shall eat the fruit of their doings.[viii]
Indeed, such teachings penetrated the psyche of seventeenth century Puritans and enforced cooperative behavior from the religious minded. As for the fundamental issue of witchcraft, there can be no doubt that the Puritans believed in witchcraft and its powers. “Toward the end of the seventeenth century, belief in the reality of witchcraft was virtually universal.”[ix] In the Bible, there are references to witchcraft, such as the Witch of Endore:
Behold, there is a woman that hath a familiar Spirit at En-dor. . .And the woman said unto(King Saul) him, Behold, thou knowest what Saul hath done, how he hath cut off those that have familiar spirits , and the wizards,out of the land: wherefore then layest thou a snare for my life, to cause me to die?
First Samuel 28, 7-9
According to the first Mosaic laws, in dealing with witches, the law stated that:Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.
Exodus 22, 18
The Puritans, therefore, were complying to Mosaic law when they sentenced suspected witches to be hanged.
A final fundamental doctrine of Puritanism we must consider before moving on in our discussion on the cause of the deaths of the accused in Salem, was the tenet of church unity. We have seen that Salem was divided into two main factions: Pro-Parris and Anti-Parris. There was great disagreement in the town as to whether or not Samuel Parris should be the pastor of Salem village.[x] This disagreement placed the town in a position vulnerable to internal strife. What was the doctrine of church unity? According to the written publication of the elders and messengers of the Puritan churches in New England, church unity was the result of the understanding of, and adherence to, the following:
The setting forth of the public confession of the faith of churches hath a double end,and both tending to public edification: First,
the maintenance of the faith…Secondly, the holding forth of unity and harmony both amongst and with other churches….
especially we desire not to vary from the doctrine of faith and truth held forth by the churches of our native country.[xi]
The aforementioned fundamental tenets of Puritanism were upheld by all Puritans. To insure continued congruence with the faith, powerful pastors and ministers reiterated these beliefs exorbitantly. Two such ministers were Cotton Mather and the already mentioned, Samuel Parris. Both men contributed to the events in Salem and played an important role in the effects of the Salem witchcraft episode in American history, through their powerful teachings.[xii]
Cotton Mather was a proponent of the belief in witchcraft and the existence of the Devil. Mather, a third generation Puritan minister and a self-proclaimed authority on witchcraft, believed extensively in the attack of the Devil upon Salem. [xiii] In his “Memorable Providences” he wrote:
By the special disposal and providence of the Almighty God, there now comes abroad into the world a little history of several very astonishing witchcrafts and possessions…The Devils themselves arey compulsion come to confute the Atheism and Sadducism, and to reprove the madness of ungodly men.[xiv]
We can easily determine, upon perusal of the above quotation, that Mather was a fervent believer in witchcraft and the Devil. Mather, in 1692, further demonstrated his belief in the supposed attack upon Salem in “The Wonders of the Invisible World.” Mather, according to this passage, discussed the motive for Satan’s attack on Salem:
The New-Englanders are a People of God settled in those which were once the Devil’s Territories; and it may easily be supposed that the Devil was extremely disturbed when he perceived such a People here accomplishing the Promise of old made unto our Blessed Jesus,That He should have the Utmost Parts of Earth for his Possession.[xv]
Mather, in further defense of the witchcraft trials, tells of the end results if the Devil and the witches are not stopped from further attacks upon the Puritan people:
. .then give Notice of An Horrible Plot against the Country by Witchcraft, and a Foundation of Witchcraft,then laid, which if it were not seasonably discovered would probably Blow up, and pull down all the Churches in the Country. And we have now with
Horror seen the Discovery of such a Witchcraft![xvi]
Parris, like Mather, was a proponent of the belief in the existence of the Devil and his disciples. Consider the following from one of his many sermons as pastor of Salem.
Angel or Spirit….One of you is a Devil. xvii] Our Lord Jesus Christ knows how many Devils there are in his church, and who they are. There are Devils as well as Saints in Christ’s church. Christ knows how many of these Devils there are. Christ knows who these Devils are.
Now that we have established the idea that religion was the primary motivation in a Puritan’s life, thus the dominant force in his/her existence, have considered some of the basic tenants of Puritanism, and two of its major proponents, Cotton Mather and Samuel Parris, let us now endeavor to discuss another point, crucial to the answering of the question of why lives were lost during the Salem witchcraft episode. That is, we must discuss the idea of the Puritan Devil. According to the American historian, Shirley Jackson:
Everyone (all Puritans of the 1690s)believed that there actually was a devil, a created being whose efforts were directed toward the working of evil. It was important to know precisely how effective the devil could be, and, of course, how best to fight against him. The devil was believed to carry on his war against heaven through the use of human beings. Every person won to his service was a blow against heaven and the strength of the church. It was commonly believed that the devil worked in person against mankind, using all his weapons to urge humanity to his side.[xviii]
Francis Winwar, another historian of the Salem witchcraft episode, offers the following description of what the Puritans fervently believed was the enemy of God, Satan.
No, the Devil was no imaginary evil to the people of New England. He was a real, physical being whom the bewitched described in minute detail, from his blackened skin to his cloven hoof and forked tail. For the Devil had crossed the ocean with the Puritans in remembered witch trials in Old England.<ahref=”#_edn19″ name=”_ednref19″ title=””>[xix]
We can conclude that since the Puritans had such an active description of the Devil they certainly believed in his existence and feared that existence.
Another creature that the Puritans believed in, aside from the Devil and his Demons, was a tiny hairy creature, they referred to as the “imp.” Consider the following:
Obviously the woman was telling the truth. Did she not describe the witch’s favorite means of perambulation, and the witch’s imp or familiar which she would suckle from her own body so that it would then do her bidding in hurting and tormenting innocent people?[xx]
Now, one might ask, even though we have established the fact that the Puritans ardently believed and taught the existence of the Devil, demons, and imps, how does this relate to the cause of the deaths of the accused witches? To answer that question we must next consider the symptoms of the girls who were said to be demon possessed and were doing the accusing.
[i] Images From The Salem Witchcraft Trials. http//www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/SAL_BNUR.HTM
[ii] Herbert Schneider, The Puritan Mind (Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 1958), 23.
[iii] Ibid., 10.
[iv] Ibid., 17.
[v] Sacvan Bercovitch, Aspects of Puritan Religious Thought (New York: AMS Press, INC., 1808), a (preface).
[vi] Levin, David, ed., What Happened In Salem? (U.S.: Twayne Publishers, 1952), 9.
[vii] Ibid., 235.
[viii] Ibid., 80.
[ix] Levin, David, ed.. What Happened In Salem? , 7.
[x] Boyer, Paul & Nissenbaum, Stephen, Salem Possessed (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), 158.
[xi] Sacvan Bercovitch. Aspects Of Puritan Religious Thought, 275.
[xii] “Images From The Salem Witchcraft Trials,” http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/ASA_PAR.HTM.
[xv] Mappen, Marc, ed. Witches and Historians, Interpretations of Salem, (Huntington: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Co., Inc, 1980), 20-21.
[xvii] James Cooper & Kenneth Minkema, The Sermon Notebook Of Samuel Parris: 1689-1694 (Boston: University Press of Virginia, 1993), 195.
[xviii] Shirley Jackson, The Witchcraft Of Salem Village (New York: Random House, 1956), 4.
[xix] Frances Winwar, Puritan City: The Story Of Salem (New York: Robert M. McBride & Company, 1938), 96.
[xx] Ibid., 101.