What social changes lay behind the Salem witch trials? 

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Scholars disagree on just what were the most important causes of the Salem witch trials, but there is a consensus that the witch scare took place in the broader context of major social change near the end of the seventeenth century. For one thing, the episodes occurred in the context...

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Scholars disagree on just what were the most important causes of the Salem witch trials, but there is a consensus that the witch scare took place in the broader context of major social change near the end of the seventeenth century. For one thing, the episodes occurred in the context of King William's War, a contest between England and France that, in the colonies, took the form of violent frontier fighting with Abenaki warriors allied to France. Some historians, noting that some of the accusers of witchcraft came from the Maine frontier, which had witnessed brutal fighting, have argued that this trauma was an important part of the hysteria. It also occurred in the context of a serious smallpox epidemic that killed many people in New England (and was itself related to the war.)

Another major social change lay underneath the trials. There was a rivalry developing, one involving Salem Village and Salem Town. The former, having received many refugees from the war, was already struggling, and many wealthy residents who had connections to the town were deeply resented by others. Many of the accusations of witchcraft, in fact, involved families that had litigated against each other in court in past years. Their quarrels related to land ownership and the selection of ministers, an important aspect of New England political life. In short, many issues tore at the fabric of Puritan society in the neighborhood of Salem, contributing to the outbreak of the witch scare in 1692–93.

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Salem and several nearby communities were founded as Puritan settlements by those seeking freedom from religious persecution in Europe. Puritans were a very plain, strict Christian denomination that believed life should be lived with total purity of spirit. They believed who would spend eternity in Heaven or Hell was predestined, and it took constant diligence to avoid the sins of the world, including alcohol and dancing, and condemn oneself. Puritans believed the world was full of evil in the form of supernatural negative forces like devils or demons. 

Though Puritans didn't officially believe in witchcraft, they certainly suspected supernatural evil. With reports of witch hangings from England and nearby communities, people were primed to accept the possibility of an evil witch among them. In the years leading up to the Salem Witch Trials, the community struggled to find and keep a minister who was agreeable to the salary they offered. When Samuel Parris was hired as minister, he pushed the moral and social tensions of Salem even higher by publicly punishing his parishioners for the slightest of sins. 

The community was so on edge with worry about personal conduct and the temptations of the world that it would certainly seem a relief (or at least convenient) to seek out the devils stirring up trouble in Salem and put them to rest. Clergymen like Parris might have taken advantage of social hysteria like this to prove a point about the dangers of witchcraft and temptation. Combined with the likelihood of ergot poisoning in those who were reported to have suffered from witchcraft, one could say that this really was a perfect storm of mass hysteria.

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