As a prelude to Act One of Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible, information is provided to explain what circumstances might have been present to create the perfect storm leading to the execution of so many during the Salem Witch Trials in the late 17th Century.
One theory points to the political climate of the day. The Civil War of 1642-1651 (between Charles I—of England—and the Puritan House of Commons) had turned the Puritan world upside down.
...in their own time a revolution had unseated the royal government...
After Charles I was executed, the leadership of England came under the power of the House of Commons, led by Oliver Cromwell. After nine years of Puritanical rule (in the strictest sense), the people welcomed Charles II from exile, back to the throne. This political upheaval was disastrous, it would seem, for those Puritans who landed and settled in Massachusetts. Miller writes:
It is not hard to see how easily many could have been led to believe that the time of confusion had been brought upon them by deep and darkling forces.
Miller points out that the full force of Puritan frustration was delivered upon the unfortunate victims of the witch trials during this terrible time in America's past.
Another element that provided a perfect climate for the witch trials was social change taking place within this Puritan society. Upon arriving in Salem, the leaders had adopted laws based upon a theocracy...
...a form of government in which God...is recognized as the supreme civil ruler.
The rules were put in place for the society's protection against "destruction by material or ideological enemies." This worked well for a time, it would seem, but then a shift within the community paved the way for mass hysteria:
Evidently the time came in New England when the repressions of order were heavier than seemed warranted by the dangers against which the order was organized.
In other words, people started to tire of the repressive government and wanted more personal freedom.
The witch-hunt was a perverse manifestation of the panic which set in among all classes when the balance began to turn toward greater individual freedom.
Miller explains that if one can ignore the villains of the story for a moment, one might well pity the community of believers. He feels that our society might suffer the same fate one day. Miller expresses the impossibility of building a society without repressions...
...the balance has yet to be struck between order and freedom.
The author goes on to point out another aspect of the witch trials that was as important as the rest. The accusations against the so-called witches gave Puritans the opportunity to openly repent of their sins; however, it was done at the cost of accusing the innocent. For instance...
...a man could say that Martha Corey had come into his bedroom at night...[and] laid...on his chest...Of course, it was her spirit only...
However, he was able to experience the satisfaction of confession, especially during a time when it was "possible—and patriotic and holy" to do so. Additionally grudges, resentments and jealousies surfaced of one neighbor for another.
Finally, it was a perfect way to take land away from someone simply by accusing him of being a witch...at which time, his property would have been forfeited to the state. Revenge galvanized people forward, as they lied about their neighbors, despite their religious beliefs.