The main conflict between John Proctor and Reverend Parris concerns Parris's fire-and-brimstone sermons and hypocritical nature. John Proctor views Reverend Parris as a cold, superficial man who is more concerned about material objects and status than the souls of his congregation. Proctor resents Reverend Parris for demanding gold candlesticks at the altar and refuses to allow him to baptize his child, seeing no light of God in him.
John Proctor is also a guilt-ridden man who is continually reminded of his eternal destination when he listens to Parris's threatening sermons. As a Puritan, Proctor believes that he will suffer eternal damnation for committing adultery and feels uncomfortable listening to Parris preach about hell. Proctor's distaste for Reverend Parris is the main reason he does not regularly attend church.
Reverend Parris is portrayed as a self-centered, insecure man who believes that John is a member of a faction dedicated to removing him from office. Parris is not only intimidated by Proctor but views him as a threat to his authority. Once the witch trials begin and Elizabeth is accused of witchcraft, John Proctor challenges Salem's officials, and Reverend Parris accuses him of attempting to undermine the court. Parris knows that Proctor is an influential citizen and tries to ruin his reputation.
Reverend Parris is insecure and selfish, always worrying about his "enemies" and what they will think, how they will perceive him, even more so than he worries about his daughter, Betty. He says to his niece,
I cannot blink what I saw, Abigail, for my enemies will not blink it.
He does not say that he cannot blink what he saw because he his concerned about Betty, that they need to know why she is suffering, or that they need to pray for forgiveness. He tells Abigail that his "ministry's at stake" if she does not confess what the girls were doing in the woods with Tituba. We soon learn that John Proctor "had a sharp and biting way with hypocrites" and that in his presence, "a fool felt his foolishness instantly." Parris is such a hypocrite, professing to be a man of God and yet caring more for his own status and power than he does about God or other people, and he seems eager to prove that he is no fool. It is no wonder the two men clash.
Parris also feels undervalued, driven by his pride. He says,
I am not some preaching farmer with a book under my arm; I am a graduate of Harvard College.
He demands the deed to the minister's house, though Proctor says that he is the first. Parris claims that he "want[s] a mark of confidence" that he will not be "put out like the cat," but he continues to refer to his congregation as "you people," indicating that he feels himself to be different from—even better than—they. This will not make him likeable to one such as Proctor.
Parris tells Reverend Hale that he does not "see [the] light of God in that man." He finds it troubling that the pewter candlesticks made by Francis Nurse stood in the meetinghouse since it was built, but they were not good enough for Parris. Proctor says that "for twenty week he preach nothin' but golden candlesticks until he had them." Proctor works really hard as a farmer, and it bothers him to have a minister who seems so invested in possessing expensive things. Again, he seems to see Parris as a hypocrite.
Throughout the play, both characters challenge each other, as Proctor ends up fighting for his life and Reverend Parris does his best to remain in his important position. Initially, John Proctor disagrees with Reverend Parris's decision to send for Reverend Hale to investigate the use of witchcraft. Reverend Parris believes that John Proctor is part of a faction attempting to usurp his power and immediately challenges him by mentioning his unflattering Sunday service attendance. John Proctor then begins to discuss why he doesn't support Reverend Parris and mentions that Parris only preaches about Hell. Proctor also views Reverend Parris as a greedy, selfish man who is more concerned about his wealth and status than his obligation to serve the Lord. Proctor cannot stand that his tithe money is spent on golden candlesticks and even refuses to have his child baptized by Reverend Parris. Reverend Parris sees Proctor's adversity as an attempt to overthrow his authority and tries to convince the Court officials that Proctor is a rogue troublemaker who should burn with the other witches.
Proctor feels that Parris is selfishly abusing the power of his position in Salem. Parris complains that his salary is too small and insists that he be given firewood. Proctor feels that Parris has no regard for God and thinks only of himself and of money.
Early in the play the differences between the men are energetically debated. At one point Parris criticizes Proctor for not attending church. Proctor responds by outlining the various abuses he feels Parris is making through his position as reverend.
"...the last meeting I were at you spoke so long on deeds and mortgages I thought it was an auction."
Parris then expresses his belief that there is a group setting up against him (Parris) and that Proctor is part of that group. This is not true, but in anger Proctor says that if such a group exists he will join it.
The basic problem Parris has with Proctor stems from Parris' understanding that his position in Salem is not secure. This is a result of his own behavior. He will not admit this much, but is quick to address the issue of his own insecurity in Salem and to defend that position in whatever ways he feels he can. This includes attacking Proctor (a man who openly challenges him) and supporting the witchtrials (to deflect attention from the fact that his daughter was caught dancing naked in the woods at midnight).