The Involvement of Puritanism in the Salem, Massachusetts Witch Trials

I wrote a paper in my second year of university about the influence of Puritanism in the Salem Witch Trials. I was re-reading this essay the other day and thought I might share it with you. It’s a bit of a lengthy read, but I hope you’re able to get through it!

The seventeenth century in Salem, Massachusetts can arguably be identified as the century in which the social and cultural fascination and furthermore fear of witches developed. Beginning in 1692, the Salem Witch Trials were fueled by a simultaneous enthrallment and terror towards women who were accused of witchcraft, often times accusations being the result of a woman’s rejection or deviation from Puritanism. It is important to explore how the involvement of Puritanism in the Salem Witch Trials influenced social and cultural perceptions of women in terms of its views of the female body and its views of the female soul. This paper will argue that the involvement of Puritanism in the Salem Witch Trials is what allowed for women to be most susceptible to accusations of witchcraft because of the Puritan views of the female body and the female soul, both views ultimately resulting in the murder of countless women throughout the Witch Trials in Salem as a result of its influence on the social and cultural perceptions of women and their inferiority to men, an inferiority that is still recognizable in contemporary society today.

“Retelling Salem Stories: Gender Politics and Witches in American Culture” by Marion Gibson discusses that the depiction of witches and witchcraft in popular culture today is still influenced by the political and historical events that occurred throughout the Salem Witch Trials in the seventeenth century. Gibson analyzes the gender politics that exist in the cultural depiction and representation of women and discusses how witches have a negative connotation because of their association with the female gender. She focuses specifically on the filming of The Wizard of Oz in the 1930s, and how the portrayal of witchcraft in American life had altered from a historical timeframe to a modern one, and how witchcraft and witches began progressing from the public to a more domestic sphere, allowing the concept of witches to become a metaphor for women.[1] By focusing on the representation of the witch in popular culture, Gibson unveils the ways in which the Puritan ideals emphasized throughout the Salem Witch Trials still impact a cultural understanding of witches today. The subject matter of Gibson’s article addresses the gender politics that exist within the context of witches and witchcraft. Her focus on the Salem, Massachusetts Witch Trials and the ways in which the Puritan religion influenced a cultural perception of women supports the argument that women’s inferiority to men has direct affiliation to the Witch Trials in Salem in the seventeenth century. Her analysis of the depiction of witches within popular culture throughout past decades demonstrates how witches, being female, are still seen as inferior to men in a modern time frame.

“Witch Hunting in Salem” by David Hall focuses on a young woman named Elizabeth Knapp, and her profession of witnessing apparitions and experiencing violent fits to a minister named Samuel Willard in Salem. Hall discusses how after minister Samuel Willard attempted to converse with an apparently possessed Elizabeth, she “spoke in a ‘hollow’ voice, and called the minister ‘a great black rogue’ who “tell[s] the people a company of lies”, and furthermore told Willard that the Devil had vowed to make her a witch if she agreed to become his servant and perform his work.[2] Hall addresses the story of Knapp with the religious views of Puritanism that were affluent in New England in the seventeenth century, and explains how Knapp was believed to be a witch because of her female identity and therefore her increased susceptibility to the Devil overtaking her body and soul. Hall’s article discusses the tremendous influence Puritanism had over individuals in the seventeenth century in Salem, Massachusetts. His analysis of how Puritan views recognized women as being more vulnerable to the Devil than men supports the argument that Puritanism during the Salem Witch Trials is reasoning as to why women were murdered for accusations of witchcraft, much more consistently than men. Hall’s discussion of Puritan beliefs and practices and its emphasis on honesty and confession supports the claim that women were seen as inferior to men during the Salem Witch Trials because of their supposed weaker bodies and souls, and additionally explores the creation of a gender dichotomy during the Trials that is still evident in society today.

“NOTES ON WITCHCRAFT” by George Kittredge focuses on the involvement of Puritanism in the Salem, Massachusetts Witch Trials. Kittredge analyzes the popularity in Puritanism within Salem during the seventeenth century, and how the popularity of Puritanism amongst individuals in early New England is what encouraged a widespread fear of women accused of witchcraft because of the Puritan understandings of the female body and soul. Kittredge focuses on Matthew Hopkins, a Puritan Witch-Hunter, and explains how Hopkins was a Puritan, and that his beliefs in Puritanism is what encouraged his desire to prosecute women for witchcraft accusations. [3] In his exploration of Hopkins, Kittredge effectively communicates how strongly Puritanism impacted cultural perceptions of women and witches. Kittredge’s article analyzes how the influence of Puritan views in regards to the female body and soul impacted cultural associations and perceptions of women in New England. He explains how vast the fear of witches, and therefore women because of their association with the devil, was evident in Salem in the seventeenth century, and in doing so provides an analysis of how Puritan views allowed for men to be seen as superior to women in terms of being able to resist the Devil. Kittredge’s article argues that Puritan ideals in New England are what have allowed for the development of a negative cultural perception of witches.

“The Devil, the Body, and the Feminine Soul in Puritan New England” by Elizabeth Reis discusses the involvement of Puritanism in the Salem, Massachusetts Witch Trials. Reis explains how Puritans viewed the female soul as weaker and more susceptible to being possessed by the Devil than the male soul. She also explains how Puritans viewed the female body as weaker than the male body, meaning it was believed that the Devil could more easily invade a female body and possess her soul in doing so than it could a male body.[4] Her discussion of the Puritan perceptions of the female soul and body depicts reasoning as to why women in New England were accused of witchcraft far more than men. The subject matter of Reis’ article provides a detailed explanation of why women were seen as more susceptible to the Devil’s influence than men in Puritan New England, because her analysis of the Puritan understanding of the female soul and the female body demonstrates reasoning as to why women were considered to be more vulnerable to Satanic influences and possession, which ultimately increased their probability of being accused of witchcraft. Reis’ discussion of the Puritan views of the female body and the female soul argues that Puritan views of women in New England ultimately resulted in the murder of countless women throughout the Witch Trials in Salem, Massachusetts. Reis’ analysis also argues that Puritan views recognized men as being superior to women both mentally and physically.

“SALEM REVISITED” by Roger Thompson discusses the individuals, specifically women, who were accused of being a witch or performing witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts throughout the seventeenth century. Thompson focuses on the cultural fascination and fear of witches in Salem, Massachusetts during the Witch Trials, bringing attention to the controversial persecutions of women because of Puritan views towards them in the period. He explains how Puritan beliefs were the main reasoning for the killings of women in Salem because there is difficulty in justifying the behaviour of governmental authorities for any other reason, except for perhaps psychological fear.[5] Thompson’s article analyzes the connection that exists between witchcraft accusations and Puritanism during the Salem Witch Trials. He argues that the cultural and social terror of women accused of witchcraft developed because of Puritan views towards the female soul and the female body, which resulted in rash decisions made my governmental authorities to maintain peace amongst civilians. His article explains how women were more susceptible to witchcraft accusations than men because of the heavy influence of Puritanism throughout the seventeenth century in Salem, Massachusetts.

“Witchcraft or Mycotoxin? The Salem Witch Trials” by Alan Woolf looks at the Salem, Massachusetts Witch Trials beginning in 1962 from a social, political, and psychological perspective. By analyzing the Witch Trials in Salem from a perspective that considers not only Puritan views but also other factors that may have been involved with women’s strange behavior that ultimately led to accusations of Witchcraft, Woolf unveils just how powerful Puritan influence was over individuals in Salem. Woolf discusses how it has been suggested that Ergot poisoning has been proposed as an explanation for the unusual behavior of women who were accused of being possessed by the Devil, and that upon further analysis of Ergot poisoning, it is arguable that Ergot poisoning is what caused ‘witch-like’ behavior in many cases of executed women: “…Ergotism is associated with vertigo, headaches, painful muscular contractions, mania, delirium, and visual and auditory hallucinations… with progression of seizures and dementia.[6] Woolf’s article examines how Ergot poisoning may have been what encouraged unusual behavior of women accused of witchcraft in Puritan New England. In his article, he displays the incredible influence Puritan views had over individuals in Salem, Massachusetts during the seventeenth century. As opposed to considering the possibility of illness being responsible for odd behavior from women in the period, it was assumed by government officials and religious figures that any woman exhibiting unusual behavior was possessed by the Devil and was therefore accused of practicing witchcraft or being a witch. The choice to rely on Puritan views of the female body and soul as an explanation for women failing to behave normally instead of considering other reasons demonstrates how powerful Puritanism was in Salem during the Witch Trials, and furthermore how it was assumed that a failure to exhibit Puritan behavior meant a woman was possessed by the devil, and not perhaps ill instead.

“Madness in Massachusetts; The Salem Witch Trials” approaches the topic of the Salem Witch Trials from a more emotional perspective, focusing on the injustices of the convictions of innocent women more so than the accusations. The article references Ms. Schiff, a Pulitzer prize-winning author, and the blame she directs at William Stoughton: “As Ms. Schiff points out, he was a bachelor with no knowledge of teenage girls; hence his willingness to allow “spectral evidence” seen by hysterical girls and other accusers, but no one else”.[7] Schiff recognizes the dominance Puritan teachings had in Salem during the Witch Trials, and acknowledges the information Puritanism dictated to individuals about the vulnerability of the female mind and body and women’s increased susceptibility to the Devil. Schiff acknowledges the emotional trauma and abuse imposed upon women accused and convicted of witchcraft, explaining how women were subject to bodily examinations in an attempt for governmental authorities to locate the Witches Teat on their bodies, with mere imperfections such as birth marks, warts of bug bites being identified as a mark of the Devil.[8] An example of the bodily examinations women were subject to occurs in the painting “Examination of a Witch” by Tompkins Harrison Matteson, for it depicts a scene in which a woman accused of witchcraft is physically examined by governmental authorities, with the authorities convinced they have located the mark of the Devil upon her back.[9] It is apparent that this text explores reasoning as to why women were more prone to accusation of witchcraft than men during the Salem Witch Trials as a result of Schiff’s recognition of the heavy influence of Puritan teachings in the period. Schiff identifies that because of Puritan teachings of women’s increased vulnerability to satanic possession, they were more predisposed to emotional and physical trauma resulting from their accusations than men. Patriarchal influence was a tremendous power during the Salem Witch Trials, as Schiff points out in the case of William Stoughton, and a combination of patriarchy and Puritan teachings is what allowed for women to be accused of witchcraft more commonly than men.

“Holy Hysteria: A New Look at the Salem Witch Trials” by Sara Jones addresses the profiles of Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and a slave name Tituba. Tituba worked in the home of Samuel Parris, who was Salem’s Minister. Good, Osborne and Tituba were all accused of practicing witchcraft as a result of a claim made by Betty Paris, who was the daughter of Reverend Samuel Paris, who blamed the women for inflicting fits upon her and her cousin Abigail.[10] Jones explains how Osborne had not attended church in three years, and how Good had a reputation in Salem for having a sharp tongue and poor manners. Tibuta also had a poor reputation, simply for being foreign and also a slave. All three women possessed undesired qualities of a Puritan woman, which is what convinced the inhabitants of Salem that the women were witches, and that Betty’s claim was valid.[11] Jones’ article examines the implications that Puritanism placed upon women in Salem who failed to abide by its teachings and expectations. For reasons such as not attending church, having a defiant attitude, and for being a black slave woman, Osborne, Good and Tituba were automatically deemed as scapegoats and forced to take the blame of witchcraft because of the accusations made my the daughter of a minister. The punishments these women faced at the hands of a Puritan man in power provide evidence of how greatly Puritanism influenced the perception of women in Salem during the Witch Trials, and furthermore displays the greater likelihood of women being convicted of witchcraft than men as a result of Puritan beliefs and teachings.

The painting titled “Accused of Witchcraft” by Douglas Volk depicts an image of a young girl clinging to her father after being accused of witchcraft.[12] The girl’s father has his hand raised in defiance towards a group of authorities and government officials who have come to arrest his daughter. The girl’s accuser stands concealed underneath a cape and points towards the girl in blame. It is arguable that this scene would have been a common occurrence in Salem during the Witch Trials, but perhaps the most crucial component of the painting is the image of a clergyman, or a minister, as he raises his head towards the heavens, symbolizing his religious beliefs and authority. It is important to recognize how the clergyman is the largest figure in the painting, which is arguably a reference to the fact that he has the most power and authority in the scene. Perhaps his height in the image is also a reference to the idea that because of his religious authority, he is the closest to God and the most informed of Puritan teachings in this period. This image is powerful in its representation of the influence Puritanism had in Salem during the Witch Trials. The painting features a young girl being accused of witchcraft, demonstrating the extent to which women were punished in the period for fear of witchcraft. It is evident from this painting that age was not a factor taken into consideration when a woman was accused of witchcraft, and furthermore that attempted paternal protection made no difference in whether or not a woman was suspected of being a witch. Volk’s image is a powerful display of the tremendous influence Puritan views had in Salem during the Witch Trials, and the extent to which they were carried out.

It is arguable that the seventeenth century in Salem, Massachusetts can be recognized as the century in which the social and cultural enthrallment and fear of witches originated. Beginning in 1962, the Salem Witch Trials were powered by a coinciding fascination and terror in regards to women who were suspected of witchcraft, often times suspicions being the outcome of a woman’s rejection or deviation from Puritanism. It is important to examine how the contribution of Puritanism in the Salem Witch Trials persuaded social and cultural observations of women in terms of its views of the female body and its views of the female soul. This paper has argued that the involvement of Puritanism in the Salem Witch Trials is what allowed for women to be most vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft because of the Puritan views of the female body and the female soul, both views ultimately resulting in the murder of countless women throughout the Witch Trials in Salem because of its influence on the social and cultural perceptions of women and their inferiority to men, with such an inferiority still recognizable in contemporary society today. An examination of the articles by Gibson, Hall, Jones, Kittredge, Reis, Thompson, and Woolf, and an analytical observation of the paintings by Volk and Matteson reveal just how profoundly influential Puritanism was within Salem, Massachusetts during the Witch Trials. Not only did the Puritan religion dictate that women were more likely to being possessed by the devil than men because they had weaker minds and bodies, but in promoting this perception of women it furthermore communicated the idea that women were inferior to men, and that it was therefore acceptable to accuse women of witchcraft at a much greater rate than men. The atrocities that occurred within Salem during the Witch Trials as a result of Puritan views and teachings were arguably a direct result of a gender dichotomy, and furthermore reveals the tremendous influence both religious figures and male authority figures possessed in the period due to patriarchal dominance in society. The negative perception of witches and witchcraft is still identifiable in culture and society today, and it is wise to question and explore whether or not the Witch Trials in Salem, Massachusetts during the seventeenth century is what has impacted the perception of witches and witchcraft so greatly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Primary Sources:

Volk, Douglas. “Accused of Witchcraft.” Corcoran Gallery Washington, D.C.

1884: http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/generic.html

Matteson, Tompkins Harrison. “Examination of a Witch.” Peabody Essex

Museum, Salem, MA. 1848: http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/generic.html

Secondary Sources:

Gibson, Marion. “Retelling Salem Stories: Gender Politics and Witches in

American Culture.” European Journal of American Culture, 25 (2) (2006): 85-

 

107.

 

Hall, David D. “Witch Hunting in Salem.” Christian History 13, no. 1 (February

1994): Web.

Jones, Sara E. “Holy Hysteria: A New Look at the Salem Witch Trials.” Church & State

  1. 1 (2016): 19. Academic OneFile, EBSCOhost (accessed March 16, 2016).

Kittredge, George Lyman. “NOTES ON WITCHCRAFT.” Proceedings Of

The American Antiquarian Society 18, (April 1907): 148-212.

“Madness in Massachusetts; The Salem Witch Trials.” The Economist, 2015.,

84, Academic OneFile, EBSCOhost (accessed March 16, 2016).

Reis, Elizabeth. “The Devil, the Body, and the Feminine Soul in Puritan New

 

England.” The Journal of American History, 1995. 15.

 

Thompson, Roger. “SALEM REVISITED.” Journal Of American Studies 6,

No. 3 (December 1972): 317-336.

 

Woolf, Alan. “Witchcraft or Mycotoxin? The Salem Witch Trials.” Journal

Of Toxicology. No. 4.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Marion Gibson, “Retelling Salem Stories: Gender Politics and Witches in American Culture.” European Journal of American Culture, 25 (2) (2006), 90.

[2] David D. Hall, “Witch Hunting in Salem.” Christian History 13, no. 1 (February 1994): Web.

 

[3] George Lyman Kittredge, “NOTES ON WITCHCRAFT.” Proceedings Of The American Antiquarian Society 18, (April 1907), 152.

 

[4] Elizabeth Reis, “The Devil, the Body, and the Feminine Soul in Puritan New England.” The Journal of American History, 1995. 15.

[5] Roger Thompson, “SALEM REVISITED.” Journal Of American Studies 6, No. 3 (December 1972), 319.

 

[6] Alan Woolf, “Witchcraft or Mycotoxin? The Salem Witch Trials.” Journal Of Toxicology. No. 4, 459.

 

[7] “Madness in Massachusetts; The Salem witch trials.” The Economist, 2015. 84, Academic OneFile, EBSCOhost (accessed March 16, 2016), 1.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Tompkins Harrison Matteson, “Examination of a Witch,” Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA, 1848: http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/generic.html

[10] Sara E. Jones, “Holy hysteria: A New Look at the Salem Witch Trials.” Church & State

  1. 1 (2016): 19. Academic OneFile, EBSCOhost (accessed March 16, 2016), 20.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Douglas Volk, “Accused of Witchcraft,” Corcoran Gallery Washington, D.C., 1884: http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/generic.html

 

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