Cause of the Salem Witch Trials—the Devil or Political Gain?
"Accused of witchcraft."
The afflicted at Salem, Massacusetts
Puritanical and enlightenment views
An intense Providential-based theology became the foundation of Anglo-Saxon colonists in America. The phenomenon of humanity surrounded by an invisible world of spirits dictated by God was the conventional belief held by Puritans.
Puritans such as prolific writer and minister Cotton Mathers (1663 – 1728), was convinced of the existence of witchcraft in the Salem Witch Trials. Conservative theology was confronted through philosophical and scientific development, nurtured by the Enlightenment period.
The Enlightenment (1685-1815) was the growth of individualism in secular and intellectual forces in Western Europe. Secular Catholic intellectual, Robert Calef (1648–1719) described the Puritan worldview as “heretical” in ‘More Wonders of the Invisible World.’ Enlightenment philosophy undermined the authority of the Church and remarked concepts of witchcraft in Europe as unbridled, ‘superstition.’
Consequently, this resulted in an eventual loss of respect for Puritanism within secular society. Ultimately, the Puritan interpretations of the Salem Witch Trials were critically disputed by Enlightenment academics.
Map of Salem, Massachusetts, 1692
Overview of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692
The Salem Witch Trials (1692) was a period in American history characterised by hysteria and Wiccaphobia. This afflicted the Puritan, New England colony of Salem in Massachusetts where over 200 citizens were convicted and 20 were executed.
The trials began in February (1692) when two allegedly afflicted girls, Abigail Williams and Elizabeth Paris stated there was demonic activity in the Salem community.
The trials were a series of hearings and prosecutions of those accused of witchcraft. Hysteria perpetuated and resulted in individuals such as Reverend George Burroughs’ execution. The trials ended in May 1693 with the release of the accused victims.
Enlightened society was increasingly detached from the notion of witchcraft during the early eighteenth century, however, the question of satanic possession persisted as a paramount concern in Puritanism.
The site of the Salem Witch Trials
Puritanical views of Cotton Mathers
Puritan perspectives on the Salem Witch Trials were dominated by opportunistic authority figures. Cotton Mather socially and politically perpetuated fears of clerical necromancy during the Salem Witch trials since the Enlightenment increasingly attempted to diminish ecclesial authority.
This made it Mather's vital goal to consolidate his jurisdiction on the execution of witches. His text, “The Wonders of the Invisible World” was a paramount example of this motive as known for his Puritan subjectivity. This featured his justification for his actions and accentuated the significance of Puritan administration.
His text documented his letter to William Stoughton (the colonial magistrate and administrator in the Province of Massachusetts Bay) that claimed that George Burroughs (the only Puritan minister executed in Salem in 1692) was the ringleader of the witches.
“...he [Burroughs] is the ringleader of ten other witches, a confession received from five Andover witches that "refreshes his soul.”— Cotton Mather
Examination of a Witch (1853) by T. H. Matteson, inspired by the Salem trials
The Salem Witch Hunt: a brief history with documents by Godbeer
However, his judgement was flawed as it relied on contradictory statements from alleged witches in Andover, Massachusetts. Alleged Andover witch, Margaret Jacobs admitted that she was blackmailed in accusing Burrough's guilt in From the Dungeon, in Salem−Prison, August 20, 1692 (See: Appendix 1 at the end of the article).
Contemporary Historian Richard Godbeer explained in his book, “The Salem Witch Hunt: A Brief History with Documents” that the New England court demanded 'two independent witnesses' for incrimination. Hence, Jacobs' referred to the methodology that Mather and other Puritans partook in to examine the prosecuted. In an attempt to diminish spectral evidence, judges allowed a "touching test" where an examination of the accused was carried out for evidence of "witches' marks" (as demonstrated in Appendix 2).
Exhibited through the forced confessions of the Andover Witches, the Puritan view on the Salem witch trials was contrived by domineering ministers.
Examination of a Witch: Appendix 2
Wonders of the Invisible World
The puritanical fear of the afterlife
The elements of the Puritan worldview in the Salem witch trials reverted around Providentialist ideologies. Within their theology, Satan played a demonic apparition to their world as the “power of air” and leader of the “evil Angels.” The trials catalysed as the power play to consolidate ministerial dominance.
However, Mather had developed a pseudologia fantastica, which was an elaborate and often fantastic account of exploits that is false but that the teller believes to be true. This ignited the belief that malevolent, satanic witches were operating as an organised threat to Christendom.
To not believe in Satan was to deny God’s omnipotence, a detrimental belief instilled into Mather's nurture as he stated that the witches "must go to...the devil, into everlasting burning." The underlying fear of 'everlasting burning' resonated in his diary entries and sermons.
“They who know not God shall have a Vengeance in flaming Fire, taken of them.”— Cotton Mather
"Execution of Mrs. Ann Hibbins."
Mather’s fear of the afterlife was also accentuated by the approximately eighty times he had referenced “Satan” within his diary. Mather’s guides to witchcraft aimed to systematise knowledge towards humanity’s vulnerability to Satanism.
Mather's diary explicitly demonstrated the hypersensitivity of occultism in Puritanical society's views of the trials.
“Our First Parents hearkening to the Temptations of Wicked Spirits, did Eat a Forbidden Fruit; and by that sin, they fell from God... into a State of Sin and Misery, their Sin was our Sin...The Death which the Broken Law of God threatened unto them; is due to us all: A Death which intends all Misery... where our Souls continue Immortal”— Cotton Mather
Kitab al-Hawi fi al-tib by Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi
The devil or yellow fever?
Puritan attitudes towards the Salem Witch Trials were exploitative and shaped by authority figures. Mather’s diaries contradicted his supposed belief in the righteousness of the trials. The way that medical explanations were disregarded, demonstrated the fluid views of Puritans. Mather witnessed yellow fever epidemics on the Rear Admiral Sir Francis Wheeler, (11th June 1693, Boston.) Ironically, the ‘afflicted girls’ symptoms coincided with smallpox. This consisted of vomiting and malaise, and was first recorded in 865-925 in the book, “Kitab al-Hawi fi al-tib.” The eminence of this text in Europe suggested that Mather recognised the physiological infliction of the victims. Hence, he had the ability to regard the trials as the result of ailment but intentionally omitted this possibility. Therefore, this exclusion implied that the Puritan worldview was founded on meticulous deception.
Witch hunt by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1650
Was the Salem Witch Trials a ploy to consolidate the churches' position?
The pessimistic Puritan inclination towards the Salem Witch Trials was restricted by religious trepidation. Puritan figures attempted to diminish speculation of the 'afflicted girls' being bedevilled by sickness. Puritanical ministers undermined ideas that conflicted with the concept of, “stupendous witchcraft.”
Mather indicates this through his research recorded in his book, Memorable Providences. He took the eldest of the children, 13-year-old Martha, into his home to make a more intense study of the phenomenon. Although the girls' affliction correlated with yellow fever, he concluded that the children of Boston Mason John Goodwin;
“The Secrets also of God’s Providence... permitted Satan... to molest His children.”— Cotton Mather
“The soul-killing witches that deform the body,” Shaks.
This conclusion was unlikely if he intended to support his society due to his previous medical training. The fact he excluded the possibility of illness to be the root of the ‘afflicted girls’ suggested the manipulation of the Puritan villagers.
This trepidation systematically alleviated the role of the ministry in Puritan society. With disregard of medical causes, contemporary Historian Mary Norton targeted the hypocrisy of the executions. She argued that the accusations against Burroughs demonstrated the corruption of Puritan authority.
Norton made a social comment on the extremity of Puritan beliefs in regard to the Salem Witch Trials. It was plausible that the Puritan worldview of the Salem Witch Trials was a meticulous, minister-driven ploy to consolidate their position in society.
Witchcraft: the devil talking to a gentleman and a judge
The enlightenment perspective of Robert Calef
The Salem Witch trials were met with severe criticism by Enlightenment idealists. Secular theorists remarked the witch trials as mere, “superstition”, according to Robert Calef. The term was a slanderous allusion to ‘uncivilised’ citizens outside of the classical world of Hellenistic authors.
Sorcery was viewed as a false religion and an atrocity against the human aesthetic. Hence, Calef had attempted to undermine ministry integrity in Salem.
This was clear through how Calef subverted Mather’s theology as the work of, “a man who instigated witchcraft trials to satisfy his own lust for fame and power.” Uniform to numerous Enlightenment idealists, Calef retained deism values, reacting spitefully to the trials. This was demonstrated by his satirical appropriation of the title of Mather's text, ‘More Wonders of the Invisible World.’
The grave of Robert Calef
Furthermore, Calef viewed the Salem Witch Trials as a matter of social disharmony highlighted by the way, “Calef paid no attention at all to Mather’s arguments and examples. Instead, he scrawled a series of comments in the margin accusing Mather of trying to inculcate superstition.”
From Calef’s commentary of Mather, Enlightenment viewpoints devalued the role of Puritans towards the trials, regarding it as detrimental to humanity's progress.
Salem Witch Trials History Channel
"Witchcraft in Colonial America: a matter of lies and death."
Were The Salem Witch Trials used to create social divisions?
Educated society became increasingly convinced that witchery was a ruse to advocate social disharmony, but the question of satanic pacts remained a major topic of authoritarian perplexity.
Enlightenment scholars attempted to reveal that the Puritan judicial system was founded on social subjectivity. Calef utilised eyewitness accounts to target the hypocrisy of Mather’s actions, highlighting the element of religious bigotry in the trials.
Calef proposed this as Burroughs advocated secularism, which was a threat to the ministry. One of the contradictions supporting his viewpoint was how Burroughs recited a perfect rendition of the Lord's Prayer.
Fanciful representation of The Salem Witch Trials, lithograph from 1892
Calef delineated Burroughs' execution as an injustice since Mather himself prescribed that prayer was impossible for those allied with the devil. However, Mather had altered the rules condemned by the devil claiming;
"The Devil has often been transformed into an Angel of Light."— Cotton Mather
Viewing this as an arbitrary act of deceit, Calef targeted the fact that the prosecution progressed. Due to this, enlightenment scholars perceived the witch trial as the product of secular prosecution and ecclesial deception.
Letter about Indian Raid on Casco Bay, 1676
Was The Salem Witch Trials the result of racism?
Those within the enlightenment movement discerned the trials as the result of bigotry. Racism was a plausible cause of the trials due to the previous conflict between the Native Americans and New England.
For example, when King Philip's War began in Massachusetts in 1675, the Wabanaki tribes (a coalition of five Algonquian, African American tribes) in Maine were pulled into the conflict. Attacks on Anglo settlements were subsequent until 1677, whereas the Treaty of Casco (1678) ended the war.
Calef took this into consideration and argued that the trials were caused by these hostilities. This was also perpetuated by those in Salem who suffered from post-traumatic stress such as Ann Putnam (witness at the Salem Witch Trials).
The trial of George Burroughs
Calef noted that Burroughs resembled the Wabanakis through his dark complexion. Abigale Williams publicly accused Burroughs as an occultist, regarding him as a ‘little black minister.’ This implied racial discrimination.
Consequently, this motivated Calef to accentuate the irrationality of the Trials. Calef's aversion towards Puritan views were not aided by Mather's racist comparison of the Wabanakis’ to Satan. Calef disputed that clerics prosecuted those who were not in conformity with their society.
This extraordinary Time of the Devil’s coming down in great Wrath upon us.— Cotton Mather comparing the Wabanakis to the Devil
More Wonders of the Invisible World by Robert Calef
Robert Calef versus Cotton Mather
The interpretation of sorcery metamorphosed from a non-fictional satanic offence into a fraudulent and morally inexcusable crime. This was since the enlightenment was the intention of applying an objective and scientific approach to religious, social, political and economic issues.
However, the trials were reliant on spectral evidence such as the use of dreams as evidence against the accused. Puritans also believed Satanic possession was possible through portals provided by blemishes. Hence, Enlightenment intellectuals perceived the witch-hunt as a reminder of humanity’s unjust cruelty.
Calef attempted to exclude religious subjectivity through his text to confront society with the obscenity of the witch-hunt.This was since his text, ‘More Wonders of the Invisible World’ was not founded on biblical scriptures. Calef criticised Increase Mather’s (Cotton Mather’s father) text ‘Cases of Conscience.’
He claimed the book documented the testimony of "bewitched" accusers without liable physical evidence. Increase Mather explained that if men were to physically act on creating peace, there would be no sinners to “stand forth at the day of judgement.”
"Arresting a witch."
This demonstrated Mather's motivation to advocate the witch-hunt. Increase Mather’s text was overwhelmed with subjective, Christian theology that Calef perceived as illogical.
This was since Calef saw no scientific merit in the theory of, for example, blemishes being a mark of a witch. Calef’s text accused Cotton Mather of denouncing his scientific education through advocating spectral evidence.
He argued that ministers would inadvertently make non-scriptural references and actions. Calef claimed these references were the meticulous, puritanical deception to prolong society's Wiccaphobia.
False evidence used to condemn 'witches?'
Enlightenment scholars believed that Christian values of agape were ignored altogether during the executions. Calef scolded Puritanicalism for its "unscriptural" belief in the devil. On this basis, he argued that core Christian values were contradicted. For example, Nicholas Noyes (a pastor), gloated over the hanging corpses of “eight firebrands of Hell.” Furthermore, Calef claimed the Bible didn’t allude to witchcraft.
Hence, this discredited the supposed existence of witches' in alliance with the devil. To Enlightenment intellectuals this made the witch hunt seem ludicrous. Puritans believed that witches were not a creation of God but still believed in their existence. Due to this, Calef insinuated that God was not in control of nature. This challenged the Puritan worldview and Mather’s texts. The Mather family firstly chastised the use of spectral evidence;
It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape than that one Innocent Person should be Condemned.— Increase Mather (Cotton Mather's father)
"Witch Hill," or "The Salem Martyr"
However, they observed the executions of those guilty of witchery based on spectral evidence. Calef concluded that the Mather family participated in “highly criminal” conduct through supporting the trials. The desire for publicity was a motive for various enlightenment individuals to criticise the Salem Witch Trials. During this period there was a publishing boom and a thirst for literary knowledge.
The rise of printed formats such as periodicals was instrumental in the spread of enlightened knowledge in society. This was a popular tool that Calef had utilised to challenge Puritan authority. The desire for publicity was accentuated through his false accusation of Mather. This consisted of a dispute between Mather and himself, claiming he sexual harassed the afflicted, Margaret Rule:
He rubbed her stomach (her breast not covered with the bed-clothes) and bid others do so too, and said it eased her. Then she revived . . . [Upon her falling into another fit] he again rubbed her breast.— Robert Calef
Calef's attacks against Cotton Mather
Calef demonstrated the impact of publicity in Enlightenment views of the Salem Trials. This was how he circulated this rumour, leading into a public confrontation from Mather. Charges of libel were laid against him in court that Mather consequently did not carry out with. The veracity of this accusation was debatable since it was founded on ambiguous construction without physical evidence.
Mather was bound by English common law that forbade torture, except in the case of treason against the monarch. Hence, it was plausible Calef had committed libel as the Witch Trials became a controversial topic in Europe. Since Mather was a prominent Puritan figure, Calef specifically targeted the individual to gain publicity.
This can be supported by Mather’s retraction of charges since challenging the rumour would have given it greater currency. Calef had intended for the rumour to permeate then continued to torment Mather with his book release when it hadn't. The manner that Enlightenment advocates addressed the witch hunt were moulded by the intent to gain public interest to advance their careers.
Salem Witch Trial museum
Bench in memory of George Burroughs
Historian Puritans and the Enlightenment were swayed by the morals that society dictated to react to the crisis presented to them. Neither Cotton Mather nor Robert Calef’s interpretation of the Salem Witch Trial may surpass each other in value or veracity. Instead, they were products of the sheer complexity of their contexts.
Each proposition on how to react to the crisis was an extension of the historian’s world view. The Puritan world was fashioned by traditionalist providentialism and their static reliance on ecclesiastical guidance.
Reverend Cotton Mather’s ambitious intent to consolidate his prestige was riddled with apprehension of purity, eternal damnation and God. The Enlightenment was the reaction against traditional conventions and the Church’s dominance over society.
Robert Calef’s view of the Salem Witch Trials was constructed by his craving for publicity, swayed by a movement that motivated free expression. Enlightenment views were also the reaction against theological inaccuracy and the dismissal of scientific evidence. Conceptually, the Salem Witch Hunt never ended.
The word ‘witches’ has been simply replaced and has become synonymous to scapegoating. This is the inevitable reality of human nature since where there is a difference, prosecution will follow.
After my Humble Duty Remembred to you, hoping in the Lord of your good Health, as Blessed be God I enjoy, tho in abundance of Affliction, being close confined here in a loathsome Dungeon ... not knowing how soon I shall be put to Death ... The reason of my Confinement is this, I having, through the Magistrates Threatnings, and my own Vile and Wretched Heart, confessed several things contrary to my Conscience and Knowl— Magaret Jacobs' letter from the dungeon (appendix 1)
Inside the Salem Witch Trials - Documentary TV (Official)
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- 2. Al-Razi. Kitab al-Hawi fi al-tibb. Oxford Bodleian MS Marsh 156, fol. 167a lines 6-12. (also on page 122 in Volume 15 of the 1st edition of the 23-volume set of the book published by Osmania Oriental Publications Bureau, Osmania University, Hyderabad, India, 1955-7).
- 3. Benjamin C. Ray. ‘Satan and Salem: The Witch-Hunt Crisis of 1692.’ University of Alaska Press, 2015
- 4. Boyer, P. and Nissenbaum, S. Salem possessed: The Social origins of Witchcraft (Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1974)
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