The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 have been talked about in many history and literature classes for many years, but the story behind them may not be as well-known as they should be. The Salem Witch Trials were more than just witchcraft and witch hunting. There were many religious, social, political, and economic components to these events of 1692. Throughout this paper, the religious, economic, political and social components as well as the specific trials and accusations of witchcraft will be evaluated in a manner that allows the audience to understand the bigger picture of the Salem Witch Trials.
It is important to start at the very beginning when witchcraft was believed to be a part of another community even before Salem. This community was Groton, Massachusetts around 1672. David D. Hall speaks of a young woman living with the minister of Groton, Massachusetts during this time, who began “to carry herself in a strange and unwonted manner” (1994, n.p.). Hall states that the minister, Samuel Willard, claimed that “16-year-old Elizabeth Knapp saw apparitions and experienced violent ‘fits’ over a period of three months” (1994, n.p.). Unfortunately, there was a big difference in the way in which the community members dealt with the news of witchcraft in Groton compared to that of Salem. Many of the people in Groton believed that good would overcome evil and they were there to help Elizabeth during the spiritual healing. They were there to support and guide her. However, this was not the case in Salem. Everyone blamed each other and wanted to get rid of the witches instead of help them out of the discontent of their lives. According to David D. Hall, in February of 1692, there were many young Salem girls that stated they had been afflicted by witches after they had been practicing magic themselves. After this event, the witch hunts began. These witch hunts arrested 150 people. 19 were hanged for witchcraft while one man was actually executed for refusing to testify against his family members and friends (Hall 1994). According to Douglas Linder, “the first three to be accused of witchcraft were Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborn” (n.d., n.p.). Tituba was the Village Minister Samuel Parris’s Indian slave that he brought from Barbados and she was the first to really be looked at as the town witch. There were many others who were thought to be witches such as Ann Putnam, Betty Parris, Mercy Lewis and Mary Walcott just to name a few.
Religion in Salem, Massachusetts
According to Ernest W. King and Franklin G. Mixon Jr., “in the 17th Century, Salem, Massachusetts, was a community-oriented society with strong religious beliefs” (678). There was much uncertainty and anger within the Salem community. David Hall states:
As the story of Elizabeth Knapp of Groton reveals, some tensions originated in the religious expectations of Puritanism. One expectation was that believers fulfill, to the best of their ability, their moral duties. Another was that they examine their motives in Puritan parlance, their ‘hearts’ to see whether they had sufficiently repented of sin and trusted entirely in the mercy of Christ. Puritanism intensely and regularly posed this question: Are you sincere? (n.d., n.p.).
When answering that specific question, many turned to anger and uncertainty. They were angry at the question and more uncertain of the answer they would give. This would lead to confusion and eventually to blaming others just as Elizabeth Knapp did. Puritans were also very accustomed to confession. They were asked to confess their sins and this is how many of them came out as witches. Religion played a part in this because confession was part of what they did in order to be one with God. At that point in time, they would speak of their sins and would confess that they had joined with the Devil. At that point, the ministers knew who were witches and who weren’t. Confession, because of its power, became extremely important to the process of witch hunting. Hall states, however, that “witch-hunting, in fact, was not unique to Puritan America. It occurred in both Catholic and Protestant regions of Europe” (n.d., n.p.). Since it was not so new, maybe many of the individuals who were placing blame and accusations of witchcraft upon others could have figured it out for themselves whether this was the case or not. Yet, during that time, many were terrified, did not want to have any part in what was happening (unless it was the execution of the evil), and did not know how to protect themselves from the outside forces of witchcraft. Religion plays a part because these witches were supposed followers of the devil while others, who were not considered witches, were supposed followers of God.
Social Attitudes in Salem, Massachusetts
“The alleged behavior of the accused witches was characterized as anti-social (i.e., hostile, aggressive, and disobedient), and the ministers did not want to allow it to erode ministerial control and disrupt the community” (King and Mixon, 2010, p. 682). These behaviors, especially disobedience, were clear, obvious signs that these men and women of the town were witches as many believed that anyone who would be disobedient to town officials and especially God, were nothing more than individuals put under curses or were witches themselves. These behaviors were not commended and the violence, hostility, disobedience, insanity, and rage of many of the girls listed in Douglas Linder’s article “The Witchcraft Trials in Salem: A Commentary” only made many individuals feel as if these young girls were witches. Anyone who showed any signs of anti-social behaviors were considered witches and were expected to be hanged. This is how the social attitudes of the community worked at the time. Many believed that if there was anything out of the ordinary about a person, there was something terribly wrong and that person needed to be dealt with legally. Many anti-social people were considered witches just on the grounds that they were anti-social, just because they did not attend church regularly or worship regularly, or fulfill a certain idea of the person they should be while living in such a religious-oriented community.
Politics in Salem, Massachusetts
During the 1690’s, Salem was a community that was divided geographically. Salem Village relied on Salem Town to its east where it was much larger and it depended on the government and religious services of this part of Salem. Not only was the community divided, but so were the people that lived within these communities. There were the West Salem Villagers and the East Salem Villagers. Before long, it was one against the other. The accusers of witchcraft tended to be the West Salem Villagers and the accused the East Salem Villagers. Here, we see that they are truly divided. Throughout the 1690’s, we see many ministers such as Parris attempting to save face. Parris felt he had to protect the minister’s social capital and his standing in the community to feel as if it could still respect and listen to him. Many didn’t have options to keep witchcraft away. Therefore, Parris suggested that prayer, scripture reading and church attendance were the best ways to combat the evil forces within the witch community. Once the community is divided, as Salem was at the time, politics are of huge importance. Everyone fights for specific privileges, opportunities, and becomes accustomed to living with one type of people: their own. They become divided on local issues as well as what is best for the community and what is best for the citizens of that community. A divided community fights over the smallest and largest things such as money, power, and government. It is just the way that politics and division work (King & Mixon, 2010, p. 681).
After the trials, paper currency was used and needed. King and Mixon quote Johnson, 1976 when they explain that the witchcraft mania discredited the church leadership. “This decline in ministerial power and influence opened the door for changes that reflected the growing commercialization and internationalization of place such as Salem Town and Boston” (King & Mixon, 2010, p. 683). Many of the townspeople knew that bartering would no longer be an acceptable way to do business and that the economy needed some kind of stimulant in order for the community to continue to grow. King and Mixon state the following in reference to the importance of paper money and how it changed things for the people of Salem:
The lessening of community-based power and decisions by ministers led to increased commercial activity because businesses could be open longer and more
often. With this increased commercialization came a need for a change in the method of exchange from barter to, ultimately, paper currency. The acceptance of paper currency allowed new traders to compete with established local merchants in these expanding markets (683).
Therefore, the Salem Witch Trials, the hysteria, and the weakening of church leadership, played another part in helping the town learn to function more commercially and gave it the opportunity to grow as a community. Though the idea of witchcraft and the idea of witches in the community was something that many of the people frowned upon, it was this that actually helped the community become divided enough to become more successful and business-oriented.
In conclusion, the Salem Witch Trials were not just a matter of executing witches who did not deserve to live because of their “devil worshipping.” It was also a time of change, a time of further expansion, a time of religious beliefs being tried, and a time of advancement for the town of Salem. It incorporated religion, social attitudes, politics and the economy and became an important time in history for Salem, Massachusetts. Though many were hanged and death was their ultimate fate, the Salem Witch Trials helped the town grow, expand, learn, and understand the differences of people. It became a guide, a sort of map, for many other towns and cities in the New England states and was a time of trial, tribulations, and turmoil for many individuals who lived in the town at the time.
Hall, David. “Witch Hunting in Salem.” Christian History 13.1 (1994): n.pag. Academic Search
Complete. Web. 18 Feb 2013.
King, Ernest, and Franklin Mixon, Jr. “Religiosity and the Political Economy of the Salem Witch
Trials.” 47. (2010): 678-688. Web. 18 Feb. 2013.
Linder, Douglas. The Witchcraft Trials in Salem: A Commentary. N.p. Web. 18 Feb 2013.