Witchcraft and PuritanismWhat does witchcraft tell us about Puritan societies in New England?
Puritan society in New England was dependent on the community belief that all members were working for the glory of God. The Puritans did not tolerate deviations from the strict code of behavior which frowned on individuality. The confining life that the Puritans lived demanded that they work and worship, there was little tolerance for any type of entertainment, except that which was sanctioned by the church.
During the witchcraft hysteria, As "The Crucible" illustrates, various reasons emerged for the accusations of witchcraft, they ranged from jealousy and envy to petty rivalries between neighbors, to a desperate need to understand the workings of the unseen world. To question their fate, or why some lost children, livestock or had difficulty growing food for their family was to question the will of God. So all their negative emotions were bottled up and ended up emerging in wild accusations of witchcraft.
What the witchcraft hysteria tells us particularly about the Puritans is that they were a a people who were challenged by a harsh environment who experienced tragic circumstances that their religion did not allow them to question. Unfortunately, instead of strengthening their faith, the doubts which many harbored as to the causes of their misfortune led to the most vicious forms of hatred and prejudice expressed in a faith driven community.
Historically speaking, the ways in which witchcraft was handled in Puritan society exemplifies the existence of a theocracy, that being a government with close ties to the church. Witchcraft, which would have been considered a crime against the church, was dealt with in the Puritan court system, thus showing the close connection between politics and religion.
Furthermore, witchcraft stands as evidence of the many fears the Puritans held. With their strong beliefs in God and that there were those that were "chosen" by God to be saved in the afterlife, it was only natural that they would also believe there were those who represented evil. Witchcraft shows that a society cannot have good without having bad. Goodness was emphasized in the presence of evil.
Dbello's response also rings quite true. It was most often women that were declared witches by men, and usually these women were single or widowed, sometimes lived a life outside of the norm as deemed by Puritan society and thus were deemed outcasts, and many also had some sort of power in terms of wealth. These are all characteristics that Puritan men were dissatisfied with, and an accusation of witchcraft was the easiest way to bring these women down.
Witchcraft in Puritan America was a convienent way to keep people, especially women, in "check". With all due respect the Puritan Elders, all of whom were men, had much to deal with. Disease, famine, Native American attacks, insurrection, to name but a few. However, what scared the Elders most was a strong assertive, confident woman. Puritan America was based on clear roles between men, women, and God. Any disruption of that reality could result in failure of the colonial group. Obviously there are not many truthful accounts of why the Elders would be fearful of a woman, other than the ones that describe "witches" as being possessed by the devil. Witchcraft was a crime to rid the colonies of women who challenged authority, whatever that authority might be. It was a way to retain the status-quo. Witchcraft was used as a tool to control the passions of someone who had too much to say in a society that was scared to death.
I agree with linda-allen on this one. The Puritans were a devout people, and their biggest fear was not strong or assertive women but the infiltration and presence of sin in their midst. This is a discouraging proposition for them, of course, since human nature is born into sin and they had no reasonable recourse for sin except punishment. Like so many other things, this pure motivation--to keep sin from tarnishing their community--gets tainted by many of the elements mentioned in earlier posts: greed, envy, selfishness, and fear. Unfortunately, women were the primary targets of this frenzy of accusation.
In light of all this wonderful historical chronology, witchcraft spells out superstition and fear of the unknown. For instance, my cows die and you've been looking at me funny. You're a witch. My children all die, and you have children and grandchildren in the double digits, you're a witch. You dislike Mr. XYZ, and later his house burns...you're a witch. You get the idea. It isn't very flattering, but people used the idea of witchcraft to explain away things they couldn't find viable explanations for on their own...it's a lot like the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, only less creative.
The witchcraft craze of the early modern period was not limited to America, it was a European phenomenon that came with the Puritans to New England. They did not invent it. It tells us of the supersticion of the people as well as their distrust of anything or anyone new and different. It wqas also frequently used as a political tool. Joan of Arc was burned as a witch by her political enemies, the English. In a similar manner, John Demos shows the political and social nature of the Salem witchcraft trials in Entertaining Satan.
The question is not what witchcraft has to tell us, but what the witch hunts have to tell us about Puritan America. They were not evil people looking for any reason to punish others. They were devoted Christians who were ardent in and dedicated to their faith. They took their nickname "puritan" seriously: Their goal was to purify themselves and their communities from any appearance of evil. That ardent devotion led to suspicion and fear of anyone or anything that was different from them.