Witch Trials


Witch Trials Essay, Research Paper

The Salem witchcraft trials resulted from a climate of repression, religious intolerance, and social hierarchy combined with fanaticism and the oppression of women. The Puritan leaders used the trials as a way to control the community and to prevent change in the strict social hierarchy. The trials ensured that the teachings of the church would be followed anyone not following the church was simply accused of being a witch and punished accordingly. Witchcraft was considered a crime, and punishment was severe. The first recorded incidents of Witchcraft originated in the mind of a young girls who would supposedly use crystal balls to try and predict their future. These young girls turned to practices outside the church in order to break the monotony of their lives. Thus, they were open to listening to the slaves, like Tituba. Tituba was a slave whom practised a form of fortune telling based on voodoo. However, fortune telling was in direct conflict with puritan ideology, which forbid the act because only god can predict the future. Therefor, anyone caught looking into the future was a sinner. “God who reveals all things in his own good time does not permit his providence to be tempted. Only the devil will stoop to such devices, therefor to attempt by magical means to see into the future is to traffic with the devil.”

Witchcraft was a rebellion against good, and therefor a sin in the bible and punished as a capital crime. Trials were held in order to uphold the social hierarchy, but the trials soon began to be aided and effected by disputes among the villagers. In Salem no one was immune to the increasing social tensions and hostility, not even the church. At separate times, two ministers, reverends James Bayler and George Burroughs chose to leave the parish rather than be subjected to snooping and the extremely acrimonious climate. The tension over land was growing fast. In 1632, the general court granted governor Endicott three hundred acres of land. With subsequent land grants to others, the boundaries and borders which told the people who owned what land was in dispute. Another land problem was caused by overcrowding in the New England communities. Salem was a seaport community that had been settled early and most of the land within its borders belonged to the first generation settlers. In the 1650 s, boundary disputes between Salem residents and those of surrounding towns increased. As a result of a shortage of land, most second and third generation Salem children lived as adults on subdivided land or moved on. The sons and daughters who stayed in Salem to farm found themselves with a lower income than their parents. “The resulting tensions were Heightened by the concentration of land ownership in the hands of a relative few.” The outcome was a climate of extreme animosity that lead to strife, and it was this tension that lead the puritans to use the trials to acquire land from their neighbours.

The trials were a means to maintain the strict social hierarchy. A major source of social tension and conflict was caused by the farmers. The farmers outside town petitioned for their own minister and for their own house of worship. They had two reasons for their requests. One, they were far from town, and two they were discontent with town management. Their request was granted and this lead to a separate parish for the farmers who would no longer worship with the merchants. Tension increased between the two groups, and the merchants were becoming more prosperous while the farmers were finding it increasingly difficult to make a living. The farmers wanted to stop the growing prosperity of the merchants. So based on the fact that upon conviction all witches lost their land and wealth farmers accused merchants in order to help shift things in their favour.

Another reason for the trials was fanaticism, People became so irrationally consumed by their beliefs that they became easily convinced that the Devil was tampering with their society. Reverend A Mudge stated this when he said, “We know that there was a fearful kind of insanity possessing at the time the minds of the people, including those in authority, concerning what was a witch, .” This fanaticism destroyed the heart of the puritan community. Instead of unity, dissension and discontent were prevalent. Fear was so rampant that people named others as witches before they themselves could be branded. “To escape accusations, people turned accusers and thus lied against the lives of neighbours and friends. Attempting refuge from the wrath of the storm was afforded by confession, ” The ironic nature of falsely accusing neighbours and friends was that lying was a sin, and for a community which prides itself on its strict adherence to gods word so that its people may live forever in heaven, the same people were willing to sin and send others to their death in order to preserve their existence on earth.

The trials were intended to control hysteria over witches, but instead escalated it because people could now use the trials as a means of controlling others. There was know belief of innocent until proven guilty in their laws, instead puritan law makers felt that even members of the church could be found guilty of witchcraft. To control the spread of witches, a community of vigilance was created to hunt down and prosecute all suspected witches. Not all villagers agreed with the vigilance approach, Cotton Mather was troubled by this Fanaticism. He believed that the people were to zealous in their pursuit of witches and in their beliefs, and thus they were Hysterical. He stated, “But that which most of all threaten us in our present Circumstances, is misunderstanding, and so the animosity whereunto the witchcraft now regain, has enchanted us.” Cotton Mather realised how this irrational thinking spread the idea of witchcraft among the Puritans. This irrationality was common among both the people and authorities. People became so vehement that the trials became a means of expressing their beliefs. The trials were the outgrowth of their zealousness. It provided them with an outlet to maintain their views and to express their frustration over personal or familial misfortune. Instead of the trials stopping the hysteria, they increased it. They used the witch trials to regain and keep control. It is stated in Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England that, “the function of the county court was to maintain social control” The authorities in the courts (judges) were so adamant in their beliefs that they made people change their testimony when they were on trial. The slave Tituba (fortune teller) realised this and gave testimony that would pleas the judges. Since she confessed her sins, her life was spared. The trials served to maintain social control.

Besides fanaticism, repression of new ideas played a major role in the rise of the Salem witchcraft trials. The authorities used the fear of the trials to control the people and to suppress differing views and beliefs. The trials were a tool to control the people and to prevent change in the puritan lifestyle. It was imperative to the authorities that the ridged society remain unchanged. For example, anyone disparaging the lifestyle of the Puritan community would be accused of witchcraft. The Salem witches themselves believed that the devil s spokesmen promised them release from the psychological and social rigidities of the times. They were also assured a prosperous life in New England. The accused witches believed that the devil sought to overthrow the Church. The Devil in Massachusetts states, “The devil s spokesmen promised release from the psychological and social rigidities of theocracy, and a more abundant life in the new land. Once the church had been overthrown all would be well .” When this occurred, the witches would be free of shame, judgement and any restrictions. The witches confessed to these beliefs. Thus, the trials were a means of repressing these beliefs since they punished anyone who was believed to be a witch.

When young adolescent girls rebelled against the harsh restrictions placed upon them by society, society used the witchcraft trials to maintain control. Practising witchcraft was a way to release frustrations in the very ridged puritan society. The trials restrained any views that conflicted with the puritan religion. The slave Tituba showed the young girls of Salem tricks and spells similar to voodoo. This was against Puritan religion since Puritans believe that God Doesn t permit people to look into the future. Therefor, the people of Salem put Tituba on trial along with her ideas. This set an example to the town that anyone practising different beliefs would be put on trial. The trials were used to suppress new ideas that conflicted with puritan ideology. They ensured that the practice of the puritan religion would remain unchanged. Thus, the judges used the trials to suppress rebellion and to keep society constant.

The trials were also used to keep the social hierarchy intact. The officials wanted to keep each class constant with no upward mobility. The Puritan point of view was that God had ordained the class structure. Therefore, people must remain at the level where God placed them at birth. Carol Karlsen states in The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, “The connections between economic conflict and witchcraft represent well-trod ground of historians.” During the late 1680 s through the 1690 s people were moving up socially. People resented this and used the trials to stop it. People advancing socially were accused of witchcraft and placed on trial. They were found guilty and sentenced to jail or execution by hanging. Thus, the trials were used as a deterrent to people trying to raise their social status. One group especially singled out for witchcraft were the mercantile group. Mercantile capitalism was even called witchcraft. These people were thriving freeloaders, prosperous landlords, and prosperous merchants. Their prosperity caused a power struggle between the traditional farmers and themselves. The witchcraft trials were used by the farming community as a method of restoring order among the social groups. If someone became prosperous, the farmers would accuse the prosperous individual of witchcraft so that this person couldn t rise in the social class. The trials were used to maintain the social order of the farmers and to prevent the merchants from rising socially. They were a means of expressing the farmers frustrations and a means to control the upward mobility of the successful merchants. The social tensions between the merchants and the farmers was a reason for the witchcraft trials.

Social tensions also led to Bridget Bishop being called a witch. For example, Bridget Bishop defied public opinion by wearing scarlet and not the somber clothes worn by the puritan community. The reverend mudge states in the book Witch Hill: A History of Salem Witchcraft states, “She, after this, defied public opinion, by her dress and conduct, more freely than ever.” This lack of a strict adherence to the Puritan philosophy led to Bridget being put on trial as a witch. Puritans did not believe in raising their social level or expressing different ideas. Any transgression led to social tension. Witchcraft was a crime that was punishable by imprisonment and/ or death. The authorities used the trials to repress the people by instilling fear in them. Thus, the people were deterred from straying from puritan doctrine and the church remained the dominant force in the community.

Religious intolerance was also a key reason for the trials in Salem. The trials even helped the religious figures in the puritan community. During this time, a religious revival or so called “Little Awakening” was taking place. The Puritan leaders stopped the revival by having the girls blame their supernatural visitation to a divine source rather than a demonic source. The book Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft states, “By encouraging and even exploiting the unusual behaviour of the young people in their communities; both ministers had managed to turn a potentially damaging situation to their own benefits.” The Puritans did not accept any other kind of religious practice. Only the Puritan religion was allowed in the town of Salem. The witchcraft trials were used for religious edification of the community. The church clergy were able to use the trials as a device to rid the community of enemies to the church. The trials resulted in the church ministers attacking their enemies. Therefor, the trials were used against anyone with opposing views of any kind. The witchcraft trials benefited the clergy and the church officials by putting all their adversaries on trial. The trials were used to control people s religious practices and help the minister keep control.

Along with religious intolerance the trials were most importantly used to keep women oppressed. It is asked in Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England, “Why were women (and especially women over the age of forty) singled out and punished so disproportionately?” The Puritan men exercised tremendous control over their women. Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England states, “it is possible to interpret witch-hunting as a means of reaffirming this authority at a time when some women were testing these constraints, and wen women without husbands or male siblings inherits property.” Females were accused of being witches for owning their own businesses, not attending church, being a Quaker, being outspoken, and for owning property. Women who had risen to the top of the social ladder were often charged with witchcraft. Social tensions again played an important role in the witchcraft trials in Salem. The puritans believed that God ordained the class structure; therefore, women should not rise on the social ladder. The Devil in The Shape of a Women states, “submissiveness, a quality expected in puritan society Nor was it common among witches, most of whom were decidedly assertive.” The trials enabled puritan men to keep puritan women submissive and to prevent upward social mobility of women. If a woman became too assertive or rose on the social scale she would be brought to trial. At this time, Puritan women were gaining control over there own lives. Consequently women were blamed as witches more often then men. Most importantly, the trials were used to place women over forty on trial. These women were at a point in there lives where they could no longer perform the major role of a woman. These women could no longer bare children and therefore no longer benefited puritan society. It is stated in The Devil in The Shape of a Women, “Whether a widow remained a widow or remarried, whether she held on to her means of support or relinquished them, she competed with her sons for precious resources.” Also, men resented that some women could live alone without the need of a man. This was not the accepted social structure. Hence the trials reflected the feelings of the men in puritan society. Quaker women were put on trial because they believed in the right to female spiritual leadership. They felt that there was no need for an ordained ministry because women and men could teach each other the “divine truths”. This went against the Puritan beliefs by making women equal to men in the teaching of God. Thus, Quaker women were put on trial. Putting these women on trial put there views on trial, hence the trials suppressed Quaker women and kept the male dominated Puritan society intact.

The Salem witchcraft trials were caused by the overwhelming need to control the puritan people. The social structure and male dominance could not be allowed to change. Ministers benefited from witchcraft, it gave them an excuse to put any enemy of the church, meaning anyone with differing views, on trial. This led to the strengthening of the puritan views leaving their society unchanged. Keeping society loyal to the church and the social hierarchy unchanged were the factors leading to the proliferation of witchcraft trials.


1)Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the shape of a Woman New York: Random House, Inc., 1987

2)David D. Hall, Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-century New England Boston: North-eastern University Press, 1991

3)Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973

4)Reverend Z. A. Mudge, Witch Hill: A History of Salem Witchcraft New York: Carlton and Lanahan, 1870

5)Marion L. Starkey, The Devil in Massachusetts Garden City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949

6)Cotton Mather, The Wonders of the Invincible World: being an account of the tryals of several witches lately executed in New England: and of several remarkable curiosities therein occurring New York: Random House, Inc. 1987

7)Elliot, Charles W. Mysteries of Glimpses of the Supernatural New York: Harper and Brothers, 1852.

8)Phillips, Jan The Craft of the Wise Ms. January/February 1993: 78-79

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