how the Puritans used their believes to support the witch trials
When reflecting on the battle between Puritanism and Witchcraft, one would be inclined to deem it a battle between God and the Devil. This categorization would probably satisfy us since we have been made to believe that the world is black and white.
But what happens when you can’t tell who is good and who is bad? When those who believe themselves to be part of the holy group act wickedly and those who are supposed to be aligned with the Devil are simply atypical.
This is what the battle between witches and Puritans really is, the supposed clash between the dammable and the divine, but where the lines are blurred and the boundaries of good and evil have been erased.
Puritanism was a religious group formed within the Church of England in the early 17th century. The Church of England, or Anglican Church, itself was a reformative religion that sought to combine progressive views with traditional Roman Catholic beliefs. Puritans, however, intended to cut all ties with Catholicism, therefore “purifying” the Church of England.
Puritanism was characterized for being an inflexible religion. They upheld strict moral beliefs that they intended to pass onto all of England, therefore changing how people lived and behaved.
Puritans adopted many of the principles suggested by John Calvin, also known as Calvinism. This doctrine emphasized predestination, meaning that God decided an individual’s faith before they were born. Based on this belief, only a select few were chosen to be saved by God and the rest would be condemned for eternity. Therefore, nothing they did in life could change the choice God has already made.
Although some were destined for salvation, Calvinists believed that mankind was depraved in its entirety, therefore, humans would always seek to satisfy their pleasures. Even though the Puritans believed in predestination, they still emphasized the importance of being in communion with God to cleanse oneself from evil, regardless of salvation.
Smoking, gambling and drunkenness were among the many activities rejected by the Puritans. Their intention was to emulate the people in the Bible by pulling inspiration from this scripture. Their theology gave them a sense of superiority, believing that they were God’s chosen ones. They had seen the light while everyone else stumbled in the darkness.
After facing religious persecution in England, some Puritans fled to Massachusetts, where they established communities that mirrored their religious beliefs. These New World colonies gave the Puritans the freedom and power they were unable to obtain in England. However, this meant that any deviation from members of the community posed a substantial threat to the system they had worked so hard to establish.
While the Salem witch trials seem like an extremely violent approach taken by the Puritans, we should consider that their religious foundation was already a merciless one. They saw God as a vengeful being, whose wrath one should avoid at all cost. Since God would punish in death, it was their duty to punish in life, and it was this sadistic mindset that justified their sinister crusade.
Puritans imposed the death penalty for certain acts - like adultery - and enforced it all too often. They took advantage of their position, hiding behind the Bible to explain their twisted ways. Given their familiarity with the Bible, it is strange they failed to notice one of the most important commandments: “Thou shalt not kill”.
Defining witchcraft is challenging since its meaning varies between cultures and periods. For example, the early broomstick-riding, Devil-worshipping depictions of witches, look nothing like today's flower crown-wearing, wand-waving Wiccans.
Traditionally, witchcraft was associated with disturbing practices that intended to cause harm to others. Those who practiced dark magic were believed to manipulate the environment and manifest illnesses. Upon noticing their failed crops or a mysterious health decline, a villager might attempt to find an explanation for their sudden misfortune. The answer was, almost always, witchcraft. As a result, bloody witch hunts became an increasingly popular method for banishing evil.
However, before the 14th century, witch hunts were extremely rare and witchcraft was generally considered to be a minor offense. This mild view on witchcraft started to change as books depicting occult practices began to be published. These publications emphasized the evils of dark magic and introduced the idea that witches and Satan were intertwined.
Perhaps the most notable of these works is the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), published in 1486. Written by witch-obsessed Heinrich Kramer, the book describes how to identify, torture and eradicate a sorceress. According to Kramer, the only way to stop a witch was by burning them alive, something that the Church was already doing to heretics.
Kramer wrote the Malleus Maleficarum as a retaliation tactic after he attempted to have several women executed for witchcraft but his ludicrous claims were dismissed. Unfortunately, even though this book was written by a bitter lunatic, it was eventually employed as a “handbook” to defeat the evils of hell.
In 1603, King James I of England published Daemonologie, another piece of literature that influenced the masses. In this book, he depicts witches as being individuals with extraordinary powers that allow them to disappear and fly. He also describes depraved acts he thought witches would partake in, such as having massive orgies in the woods, copulating with demons and eating babies.
Aside from their abilities and rituals, King James explains the ties between a witch and Satan, as well as the gifts they are given upon initiation. Once a witch makes a pact with the Devil, they are given a mark - this could be an extra nipple, a mole or virtually any physical imperfection - to demonstrate who they worship. They were also given a “familiar”, which was a low-ranking, shape-shifting demon - usually a cat - that would assist them in their corrupt endeavors.
Needless to say, these outlandish characteristics attributed to witches made it so anyone could potentially be accused. Any kind of imperfection or pet could be seen as a confirmation of someone’s involvement in the occult.
Apart from his book, King James made another huge contribution to the already aggravated witch craze. In 1604 he passed the Witchcraft Statute which signaled witchcraft as a crime punishable by death.
Although Puritans had previously encountered witches in England, the conflict between them is most relevant in Salem. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was viewed as a new beginning, a chance for the Puritan Church to reign over a brand new settlement.
The purpose of this community was to live in purity and righteousness. The colonists sailed to a new horizon, hoping to leave the terrors of the Devil behind. Unbeknownst to them, the evils they hoped to escape had already infiltrated their vessels.
Their fresh start was plagued by their archaic belief in sorcery and the old world views they brought to the Americas. These were times in which the existence of dark magic was not questioned and the Devil was an imminent threat to society.
Witchcraft became a huge concern in Salem after Betty Parris and her cousin, Abigail Williams suddenly became ill. Their bizarre symptoms included convulsions and animal-like behavior. They complained of burning sensations and needle pinches. Even after incessant prayer, the girls’ state remained the same. This is when minister Samuel Parris, Betty’s father, summoned the village doctor. The incompetent physician who was all too familiar with the symptoms of possession, declared the girls as cursed.
Roughly three years before the Salem incident, Cotton Mather’s book titled Memorable Providences was published. His work narrated the story of several possessed children in Boston, who witnessed the specters - or spirits - of the witches that were causing them harm. Oddly enough, the girls in Salem were also tormented by specters and their symptoms were eerily similar to those described in the book. Mather was a highly regarded Puritan minister, who’s influential publications molded the perception of witchcraft in Massachusetts.
The children of Salem enjoyed reading and storytelling. Aside from the Bible, the youth had books that denounced witchcraft at their disposal. It is not unreasonable to believe that Mather’s popular book could have fallen into Betty and Abigail’s hands. Upon perusing its pages, the ideas could have influenced their behavior, causing psychosomatic fits.
Soon, countless innocents were accused of causing their disease. This incident kick-started the Salem witch trials, giving way to an era of gruesome sacred executions.
Following the accusations, many innocent lives were taken. Although some were tried and acquitted, many were executed. The accused were mostly outcasts, people that strayed away from the guidelines imposed upon them. They threatened the already tainted foundations of the colony and their eradication was mandatory.
The Puritan doctrine made the witchcraft accusations undoubtedly real and the presence of the Devil irrefutable. Their religious inflexibility drove them to insanity, committing acts infinitely more sinister than any occult ritual. In the never-ending war between good and evil, this time, evil won.