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Causes Of The Salem Witch Trials: Political, Religious And Social

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Between the months of June to September of 1692, the infamous witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts resulted in the hanging of 19 men and women; the deaths of five others, including two children, while imprisoned in jail; the pressing to death of an 80-year old man, and the stoning of two dogs for collaborating with the Devil. Hundreds of others faced accusations and dozens more were jailed for months during the progress of the trials. For over three hundred years these events have not only captured the general publics' imagination, but that of the academic community. Beginning with Charles Upham, in 1867, historians have attempted to explain the mass hysteria that swept through Salem in 1692. These accounts vary both in their interpretation of the events and the aspects focused upon. For example, according to Upham, the afflicted girls, who were the principle witnesses against the witches, had deliberately lied. Succeeding generations of historians, however, had cited mass hysteria, rigors of puritan childrearing and ergot poisoning as explanations for the afflicted girls' behaviors. Furthermore, others have minimized the girls' involvement within the proceedings, focusing instead upon the issues surrounding the trials--political and economic factors, social concerns or interpersonal relationships between the accused and their accusers. Such authors as Enders A. Robinson, The Devil Discovered, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed, and Mary Beth Norton, In the Devil's Snare, all provide compelling evidence as to why the witch hysteria erupted in Salem Village. However, no one narrative can, by itself, adequately explain why the hysteria was allowed to sweep across Salem Village and throughout Essex County virtually unchecked by the Puritan hierarchy or the royal government. In order to truly understand why these events transpired when and where they did, one must examine the witchcraft epidemic in its larger social context. It was not one or two isolated factors that created an environment conducive to the Salem Trials, but a long series of interlocking events that reached their climatic end within the tiny Village of Salem.

Devils, witches, the existence of familiars, these were all common beliefs within the Puritan community of the 1600s. Therefore, it is not surprising that individuals would be accused of practicing witchcraft. Quite frequently those indicted on witchcraft charges were the malcontents within society; the homeless poor, caustic old women or those individuals who seriously threatened the norms of the society. However, as the Scientific Revolution gave way to the Enlightenment, juries were increasingly hesitant to convict even these individuals of witchcraft. Yet, throughout the colonies there were isolated hangings for witchcraft, however most of those indicted and hanged fit into the above mentioned categories. What is so remarkable about the Salem witchcraft trials was the sheer volume of accusations, the number of executions that took place within a remarkably short period of time and the types of individuals who were being accused of practicing black magic. As historians we must ask ourselves why. Why, at a time when it was becoming increasingly difficult to acquire a conviction of witchcraft, were so many accused sent to their deaths on the flimsiest of evidence? Furthermore, why were so many respectable and prominent individuals indicted on the mere testimony of young adolescent girls? Finally, why did magistrates and clergy give such weight to the testimony of those who under ordinary circumstances occupied the lower hierarchy of the Puritan household--female children and servants? It is precisely these inexplicable events that have led numerous historians to postulate varies theories as to why the trials were allowed to take place.

Most modern historians concur that there was no one cause for the Salem Witch trials. A combination of events and factors created an environment that was conducive for the birth and growth of the trials. Between 1656 and 1692, the colony was enduring a particularly trying period. First, the Puritan religion was under direct attack from other religious groups including the Quakers and the Baptists. The Quakers, a religious sect newly founded in England, began coming to Massachusetts in 1656. Laws were enacted to prohibit their coming, but they came in defiance of the laws. Between 1659 and 1661 four people were hanged according to these new laws. Though the Puritans tried to defend themselves by the plea that they were defending the public peace, they were roundly condemned in England. By the mid-1670's, Quakers were protected by the English law and could conduct non-religious business in New England.

Moreover, in 1654 the congregation of Cambridge Church was shocked by a statement from Henry Dunster, the highly respected president of Harvard College. While a baptismal service was in progress, he arose to dispute the practice of infant baptism as un-Biblical and proceeded to take each point from the pastor's sermon and to answer it with Baptist views. He was silenced, stripped of his Harvard presidency and publicly rebuked. Those perceived as religious dissidents would be accused of witchcraft during the Salem trials. Arguably, the colony had previously been beset by religious dissidents, dealing with each episode without incurring a public outcry of a witchcraft conspiracy; however, this time there were other more alarming developments taking place within the colony.

A long series of troubles hit New England, and men began to question the source of their difficulties. King Philip's War erupted in 1675, a costly and brutal war with a confederacy of Indian tribes. Then, in 1676, Charles II began reviewing the charter of the Massachusetts colony with the intent of revoking it altogether. Even nature conspired against the Puritans. Terrible fires broke out in Boston and the plague was the worst in years.

In the midst of such events, the New England Puritans called a special synod in 1679. There, two questions were asked: "What are the evils which have called the judgment of God upon us?" and "What is to be done to reform these evils?" The synod agreed that the evils responsible for the recent catastrophes were such things as pride in heart and body, a spiritual falling away, excessive profanity, breakdown of family life, and failure to observe the Sabbath. They insisted that God would be pleased only when the people repented of these sins and turned to him. To aid in this, the synod suggested that congregations exercise closer discipline and that the magistrates also enforce public discipline.

But the synod did not bring about the reawakening of religious fervor, nor did it halt the problems that beset the colony of New England. In 1684, Massachusetts



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