The Crucible Historical and Social Context
by Arthur Miller

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Salem and Puritanism

The government of Salem in 1692 was a Puritan theocracy. In other words, the town was under the unbending authority of the church. The leaders of the church, and especially the minister of the church, were very powerful figures, comparable to our elected officials. A person who was not a member in good standing of the church was not allowed to live in the community. All citizens were expected to conform to the teachings of the church at all times and to know its catechism, which contained the written statements of the church’s beliefs.

Puritan theology was largely based on the teachings of John Calvin. Calvin was one of a group of theologians who protested against the Roman Catholic church’s departure from the Bible as the ultimate authority. Based on their reading of Saint Paul in the New Testament, they particularly disagreed with the Roman Catholic emphasis on earning your salvation through good deeds on earth. These protesters, or Protestants, believed that salvation could not be earned. The only way to get to heaven was to be chosen by God and to have faith that He would save you from eternal damnation. Some people were predestined, or chosen to be saved, while others were not. While good works would not earn your salvation if you had not been chosen, believers desired to do good works on earth and thus follow the example set by Jesus Christ. Good works were visible signs of your commitment to God.

At the time of the Reformation most of Europe was ruled by a theocracy of its own; that of the Roman Catholic church. The Protestants were compelled by their beliefs to disregard many of the practices of the Catholic church, including buying indulgences and approaching God only through a priest. The church was not pleased with this rebellion against its authority, and the Protestants were greatly persecuted. Many of them left Europe and settled in America to escape this persecution and practice their religion in peace. This was the case with the colony at Salem.

Miller himself has asserted that the community created by such a system was crucial to the survival of the colony against great odds. The settlers of Salem had to deal with attacks from Indians, harsh winters, unyielding soil, and many other hardships. Similar colonies that were not bound by common ideology eventually failed; the Virginia Colony is a good example. In contrast, the people of Salem were united in the strong bonds of a persecuted minority. Their religion required them to act honorably towards their fellow men and to help each other. They were expected to meet regularly at the Meeting House. A strong work ethic was also part of their theology. All of these things contributed to their survival.

Despite the advantages of such a system, however, The Crucible vividly shows it can lead to the loss of any sense of proportion. The Puritans had taken Calvinist theology several steps beyond what Calvin had in mind. While a man’s good deeds could not earn him salvation, they were often used in Salem to determine the quality of his religious life and thus his standings in the community. While Calvin asserted that each man was responsible for his own salvation, the Puritans often took it upon themselves to determine the state of another man’s soul. There was a great emphasis on avoiding damnation, and public confession and “coming back to God” after sin was actively encouraged. Given the importance of good deeds and hard work, as well as the harsh conditions of life in early America, there was little time for pleasure. Many of the pleasures we take for granted, such as dancing, were deemed frivolous and were not permitted. Every facet of life was touched by the rigid teachings of the church, which were strictly enforced. Failure to conform met with harsh penalties, the most severe of which was death by hanging.

Just as the Catholic church had persecuted the Protestants for failing to conform to their rules, so the Protestants persecuted those who did not conform...

(The entire section is 2,635 words.)