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Book Review: "Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England"

Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

"Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England"

"Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England"

Elizabeth Reis Book Review

Over the years, a variety of approaches have been undertaken by leading historians to explain the strange and rather bizarre behavior that occurred during the Salem witch trials. Typically, these investigations provide an overview of the mass hysteria that occurred and provide no real insight into what caused the massive witch hunts that took place. Approaching the issue from a totally different perspective, however, Elizabeth Reis attempts to explain the Salem Witch Trials through the use of gender and its role within Puritan society. Reis demonstrates throughout her book Damned Women that the witch hunts resulted from a general fear of Satan coupled with the viewpoint of Puritan society that argued women were “innately evil” and inferior beings. Reis points out that the uncertainty of one’s salvation lead many Puritans, predominantly women, to begin questioning their allegiances to God and, as a result, many women begin to contemplate whether ordinary sin could be equated with signing a pact with the devil.

Analysis of Main Points

According to Puritan religious doctrines, Reis proclaims that the Church (elect) represented the future bride of Christ. Much like an arranged marriage, God the Father predestinated a certain amount of individuals (Christ’s bride) for his Son to spend eternity in heaven with. As Christ’s future bride, therefore, the soul of an individual was perceived by Puritans to be feminine. In an attempt to prevent this matrimonial bond between Christ and the elect, Reis goes on to describe the Puritan belief of Satan and his goal of tormenting the body and seducing the soul of a believer. As Reis describes, it is the body of an individual that protects the soul from outside interference. By inflicting torment and pain, however, it was believed that Satan could gain access to one’s soul if the individual lacked the proper strength to stand firm against the devil. It is here that Reis begins to explore the differences between men and women throughout Puritan society and how the notion of women being inferior beings played out in the coming witch trials.

Both men and women experienced the same message of salvation within Puritan society. Reis contends, however, that men and women interpreted this message in their own ways. Whereas men looked towards particular sins they committed, women looked upon themselves as innately evil which, in turn, lead many women to believe that their sinful nature “would indeed deliver them to Satan’s clutches and hell’s fiery furnace” (Pg. 54, Reis). As Reis describes, Puritan society readily adopted this inferior view of women basing their conclusion on the belief that “women’s bodies were physically weaker than men’s and subject to more debilitating illness” (Pg. 108, Reis). With weaker bodies, Satan could reach a woman’s soul far easier. Their bodies lacked the ability to stand strong against the devil’s temptations and, as a result, women found themselves far more susceptible to becoming witches (individuals who covenant themselves alongside the devil).

The line between ordinary sin and witchcraft was so thin that women often, mistakenly, assumed they had entered into a pact with the devil when they committed ordinary sins. This is in stark contrast, as Reis explains, to the men who did not confuse prior sins with eternal damnation. As Reis describes, “men were better able than women to distinguish their prior sins from the immediate accusation of a devil’s pact” (Pg. 159, Reis). Because of their elevated position within society, therefore, Reis explains how men were capable of escaping execution (in regards to charges of witchcraft) far easier than women. A woman’s lowly status seemingly damned her regardless of what she said or did within official court proceedings. By confessing to charges of witchcraft, a woman upheld the ideals of Puritan theology since she was, in effect, admitting to being weaker-minded and lacking in strength to firmly oppose the devil and his temptations (Pg. 142, Reis). To deny charges of witchcraft, however, seemingly went against Puritan ideals. As Reis goes on to describe, denial often equated itself to execution.

Understanding their position within Puritan society, however, many women began confessing to witchcraft as a means of saving themselves. Confession paralleled the ideals of Puritan theology and, in turn, allowed numerous women to escape with their lives as long as they submitted themselves to the guidance of the Church officials (men). Many women understood this concept all too well and used it to their advantage. Thus, Reis is not entirely convinced that all of the women charged with witchcraft truly believed they had signed a pact with the devil. Instead, Reis proclaims that many of the women charged with witchcraft resulted from lies instigated by jealous neighbors within the Puritan society who only wished to see these women hanged. While it is true that some of the women on trial did, in fact, believe they had signed a pact with the devil (due to prior sins) it cannot be ignored, as Reis proclaims, that many of the confessions directly resulted out of simple fear of death.

The Aftermath of the Trials

Reis concludes her book by describing the changing views of Satan and sin following the aftermath of the Salem Witch Trials. With so many women (and a few men) executed for charges of witchcraft, it became apparent that the traditional ideas of Satan and sin needed to be evaluated further. It is at this point, as Reis describes, that Satan no longer pervaded the minds of many Puritans. Satan did not possess the un-Godly/innocent, and he did not control and make “slaves” of people. Instead, Puritan ministers began preaching that individuals should take responsibility for their sins and not blame it on the workings of the devil as they did in the pre-trial Salem days. Instead of fearing Satan and his many temptations Reis describes that people began to fear God’s wrath far more.

Personal Thoughts and Comments

Reis does an exceptional job at describing the Salem witch trials and institutes a newfound understanding within the readers’ minds of how and why the trials occurred in the manner that they did. Reis does a nice job of clearly stating her argument beforehand and throughout the book. Each chapter often begins (or ends) with a quick overview of the section which provides the reader with an ability to maintain focus and understanding of the subject at hand while reading. Furthermore, Reis does not make any statement without thoroughly backing up her claims with both secondary and primary sources. Reis draws upon arguments made by numerous historians and expands upon each of their ideas presented. Additionally, the examples provided from eyewitness accounts and the quotes taken directly from official court documents allow the reader to truly see her point much more vividly. Too much of anything can be a bad thing, however, and at times Reis employs far too many examples in her attempt to get her point across. With so many names being presented throughout the reading it is, at times, difficult to maintain focus and the reading quickly becomes confusing. Moreover, while Reis incorporates many primary sources into her argument she does not include sources outside of Salem itself. While this does not necessarily weaken her argument it would have been interesting to see the viewpoints of non-Puritans and outsiders during this time and their opinion regarding the witch trials. Their opinions, in turn, could possibly present topics for further debate. Finally, it is important to note Reis’ inclusion of the post-trial Salem as well. Reis does an excellent job at incorporating the newfound beliefs of Satan and sin during the aftermath. While it does not strengthen or weaken her argument it does, however, allow for a very interesting conclusion to a particularly remarkable time in history.

All in all, I give this book 5/5 stars and highly recommend it to anyone interested in the Salem witch trials and early American history from a Puritan perspective. Definitely check it out if you get a chance!

Questions to Facilitate Group Discussion

1.) Did you find the argument/thesis of this book to be compelling? Why or why not?

2.) Who was the intended audience for this piece? Can scholars and non-academics, alike, enjoy the contents of this book?

3.) What were some of the strengths and weaknesses of this book? Can you identify any areas that could have potentially been improved by the author?

4.) What did you learn as a result of reading this book? Were you surprised by any of the facts presented by Reis?

5.) What sort of primary source material does the author rely on? Does this reliance help or hurt her overall argument?

6.) After reading this work, would you be willing to recommend this book to a friend or family member?

7.) Did you find this work to be engaging? Why or why not?

8.) What type of scholarship does Reis build upon?

Works Cited:

Articles / Books:

  • Reis, Elizabeth. Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England. New York: Cornell University Press, 1997.

© 2017 Larry Slawson