When I first started discussing Salem, I looked at the way the series misunderstood Salem as a place. I’ve also mentioned how Salem omits one of the key figures in the Witch Panic, Rev. Samuel Parris. After a lot of intervening posts, it’s time to tackle why those omissions are such a big deal.
A House Divided
I’ve already explained that Salem was actually two communities, the larger, more prosperous Salem Town and the smaller, more agricultural Salem Village. Salem Town had reluctantly allowed Salem Village to have its own church (or ‘meeting place’), reluctantly because the church and its minister were supported by taxes, so a new church meant that Salem Town would be losing tax revenue from Salem Village. The Town had only done this because the Massachusetts Legislature had authorized the new church. So this new church was a focus on considerable tension with the wider Salem community.
And, in fact, the question of who was to serve as the minister of Salem Village’s new church was extremely contentious. In 1673, Rev. James Bayley was appointed minister, but left 7 years later, amid accusations that he wasn’t praying enough and that church members had not been allowed to participate in his selection. He was replaced with Rev. George Burroughs, who was ousted in 1683 and ultimately wound up moving to the Maine frontier. Burroughs was succeeded by Rev. Deodat Lawson. He stayed for four very turbulent years before departing in 1688. His successor was Rev. Samuel Parris, who was eventually forced out in 1696 because members of the church who opposed him were refusing to pay the taxes for his salary. The constant disputes are not entirely understood, but it is clear that Salem Village was split into two factions, those who supported Bayley and Burroughs and those who supported Lawson and Parris, which each side opposing and complaining about the other.
In 1974, historians Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum published a very important work, Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. In it, they worked to untangle the religious politics of Salem in the 1680s and 90s, and what they found is that during the Witch Trials those Villagers who supported Lawson and Parris tended to be bringing accusations of witchcraft against those who supported Bayley and Burroughs. Indeed, Rev. Burroughs was himself accused of being the leader of the witches, initially by Abigail Williams and then later by Mary Walcott, Susannah Sheldon, and Mercy Lewis. He was forcibly brought back from the Maine frontier to stand trial, and was eventually found guilty and executed that August. But the supporters of Bayley and Burroughs were not bringing accusations against the supporters of Lawson and Parris. This suggests that there was something distinct about the former group that was leading them to fear witchcraft.
Boyer and Nissenbaum mapped out the residences of those involved, and found that a majority of the accusers came from the western half of the Village, which was the more rural side, while a majority of those accused, as well as those who spoke in defense of them at the trials, lived on the eastern half of the Village, closer to Salem Town. Furthermore, the accusers mostly tended to be farmers by occupation, whereas large numbers of the accused witches were tradesmen and craftsmen, including a carpenter, a shoe-maker, a miller, and a sawmill operator. Several of them, such as Bridget Bishop, ran taverns. In other words, the accused tended to be somewhat better off economically, enjoy more social and commercial contacts with Salem Town, and engage in occupations directly tied to the growing commercial world of Boston and Salem Town, while the accused tended to struggling members of a more traditional rural economy. Puritans in particular considered taverns highly suspect places where immoral activity went on.
Since that pattern tended to also manifest in the question of who supported which ministers, Boyer and Nissenbaum suggested that Salem Village was a community divided between those who were suspicious of the economic transformation taking place in late 17th century Massachusetts and those who had found it a source of economic opportunities. The ‘traditionalists’ had been uncomfortable with Bayley and Burroughs and succeeded in forcing them out and installing first Lawson and then Parris because they suspected the first two ministers because they seemed insufficiently traditional in some way, perhaps because their supporters were too ready to embrace economic change.
The Problem of the Quakers
Another thing that troubled the Puritans of Salem Village was that they and their ancestors had come to New England to get away from what they considered the ungodly society of England. Not only was England wealthy, it was home to numerous different brands of Christianity. The Puritans were strict Congregationalists who felt that the Anglicans were too moderate and willing to compromise on religious matters. They also loathed the much more religiously liberal Quakers, who maintained that every person possessed an inner divine light, which to the Puritans seemed dangerously close to saying that God was in all people and might therefore speak through anyone. The Quakers had earned their derisive nickname by a tendency of some members to ‘quake’ when they felt the Holy Spirit within them. Such religious shaking looked rather like the seizures that those afflicted by witchcraft sometimes experienced.
As a result, the Massachusetts Colony had initially been extremely hostile to Quakers, arresting them, ordering them whipped, and in the 1650s and 60s, hanging them. The Puritans were determined to keep out what they saw as the diabolical Quakers. But when Massachusetts received a new charter from James II in the mid-1680s, it granted religious toleration to all Protestants, meaning that Quakers now enjoyed legal protection and could not be violently forced out of the community. By 1692, the largest community of Quakers in Essex County was located in Salem Town, and Quaker communities had sprung up in neighboring communities as well. Accused witches frequently had Quaker connections, but were not generally Quakers themselves. For example, Rebecca Nurse had taken in an orphaned Quaker child, while Elizabeth Proctor had numerous Quaker relatives. And, as one historian has demonstrated, Quakers tended to live in the eastern half of Salem Village.
So if we pull all of this together, what we see is that Salem Village had a significant faction of traditionalist Puritans who saw themselves struggling economically as farmers; increasing settlement meant that the farmers had fewer opportunities to expand their farms. Even if the stormy weather of 1692 didn’t cause ergotism, it may well have caused poor harvests and similar problems. These traditionalists saw themselves losing their social position to people whose occupations and economic activities seemed religiously suspect. They were seeing rising numbers of Quakers appearing in the colony, and could no longer keep them out or express their distaste for Quakers through legal persecution. They saw these religious and economic changes as signs they were losing ‘their’ Salem to the forces of Satan, and because the two sides of Salem Village were geographically and socially quite distinct, they had fewer chances to interact and see their opponents as human beings. They had won a few victories over the issue of which minister would lead them, but their preferred candidates were being contested by their opponents. And then, in 1692, a group of teenage girls began to experience strange symptoms and claimed that some of the non-traditionalists were witches. Seen in that context, the Witch Panic makes a lot more sense.
To appreciate the anxiety the Quakers caused, one only has to think about the considerable anxiety that the spread of Islamic immigrants has caused in some sections of contemporary American society. Like Salem, modern America is experiencing a growth of religious pluralism and some traditionalists are extremely uncomfortable with that development. Some traditionalists call directly for the restriction of religious rights to Christians, but others express their anxiety a bit more indirectly through worries about ‘terrorism’. While there are certainly many differences between witches and terrorists (not least of which is that terrorists actually exist), they are both easily demonizable figures who cannot be compromised with because of the danger they are seen to pose.
The Salem Witch Trials are a fascinating set of events. They have engaged the attention of many serious scholars and enthusiastic amateurs for generations, and hopefully these posts have given you a sense of why they are so compelling and worthy of study. The work of scholars like Walter Stephens, Carol Karlsen, Paul Boyer, and Stephen Nissenbaum have reveled a truly complex set of social, economic, religious, and cultural forces (and I’ve only scratched the surface of the issues).
And yet, WGN’s Salem ignores most of this in favor of an entirely fabricated, historically inaccurate, lurid tale of actual witches plotting evil and working actual magic. The show runner and writers have taken a rich, fascinating story and replaced it with juvenile pabulum. In a few places they’ve gotten bits right; there’s a passing line in one episode about how the Puritans are losing control of the town and are afraid, but that’s a throwaway line that goes nowhere. And while they’ve managed to replicate part of what’s going on with the teenage girls of Salem, I think that was basically blind luck.
I entirely understand that in order to succeed, a television show has to be interesting and engaging to its audience. It has to give them a reason to turn in week after week. But the actual Salem Witch Trials are interesting and engaging. The unembellished facts have held people’s attention for 3 centuries now and show no signs of becoming boring. Instead of throwing out the facts and making a new story out of whole cloth, Salem could have woven its lurid intrigues around the real characters and events. They didn’t have to lead Mercy Lewis through town in bondage gear to make her seizures and accusations shocking.
The past is a fascinating place. It would be nice of American television actually went there occasionally.
Want to Know More?
SALEM SEASON 1is available through Amazon.
When I was a first semester freshman, I took a course in American History before the Civil War. It was my first college history course, and one of the textbooks was After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection. Its various chapters are dedicated to introducing various interesting historical issues to college students, and its second chapter, on Salem, introduced me to the work of Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum. That chapter is probably what I remember most clearly from that class (apart from everyone humming the Preamble to the Constitution when we had to write it on an exam). If you’re looking for an easy introduction to historical methods and American history, this is an excellent book.
Or you could buy Boyer and Nissenbaum’s Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft.
Just after reading this, I found a review in the Fortean Times of a book called The Empty Seashell: Witchcraft and Doubt on an Indonesian Island by Nils Bubandt. Interesting parallels, societal stress and the complexity of the conflict between skepticism and credulity.
Anthropologists have shed a great deal of light on European witch trials and beliefs by looking at non-Western models of witchcraft. There are very strong similarities in witchcraft beliefs across the board.
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