Puritans, Spectral Evidence, and the Salem Trials
As many of you know, I recently graduated from Ohio University with my B.A. in History. One of my required courses was a Historical Research and Writing class, and it was awesome. After all, it combined three of my favorite things: history, research, and makin’ words! My professor, Dr. Mark Nevin, was fantastic, and over the course of 14 weeks, we each developed a thesis, pored over acres and acres of primary and secondary sources, and finally presented an academic research paper in which we supported our thesis argument with all of the evidence we could find.
Since Dr. Nevin allowed us to choose pretty much any topic at all in American history, I decided to delve a little deeper into the Salem trials of 1692. It’s a topic I’ve been fascinated by since I was a child, and I’ve read countless books on the subject. I’ve written about it before, for About.com, but never in such a deep and academic way. Specifically, I wanted to focus on the role that Puritan religious beliefs played in the accusations, and the reasoning behind the acceptance of spectral evidence in the trials of Bridget Bishop and others.
So, all of that said, I tremendously enjoyed the research I got to do, and I know there are a lot of you are interested in learning more about Salem – and not the stuff that you see in the tourist shops, or in fluffy memes about the witches who didn’t get burned (fun fact: no one was burned in Salem so if you see a meme that says that, call it out). I want to share this work with you because I think it’s a solid piece of research, plus, if you want to learn more, I’ve got a fairly extensive bibliography in there which will lead you down the scholarly rabbit hole.
A couple of final notes:
- If you want to cite this work in your own papers, please feel free to do so, but make sure you provide appropriate credit. Your professor will know if you plagiarize.
- Yes. I got an A.
BY SORCERY, CHARM, OR ENCHANTMENT:
THE PURITAN RELIGION AND SPECTRAL EVIDENCE
IN THE SALEM WITCH TRIALS
That there is a Devil is a thing doubted by none but such as are under the influence of the Devil. For any to deny the being of a Devil must be from ignorance or profaneness worse than diabolical. – Cotton Mather
In spring 1692, a group of adolescent girls in the small village of Salem, Massachusetts, were plagued by a series of strange afflictions. They had seizures, screamed in gibberish, and claimed to have frightening visions of a black dog, a dark-clad man, and several of their neighbors flying about on brooms. Salem’s authorities immediately mobilized to find the source of these bizarre happenings, and soon settled upon witchcraft as the cause. By the time the summer was over, nearly 200 people had been charged, and twenty were executed, beginning with the hanging of Bridget Bishop in June. One of the most remarkable aspects of the trials was the use of spectral, or supernatural, evidence against the accused. Despite the late 17th century being a period of intellectualism and enlightenment, spectral evidence was routinely accepted during the trial of Bridget Bishop and others because the Puritan religious structure, heavily focused on the work of the Devil, was the foundation of Salem’s society.
The Salem case was not the first in which a metaphysical cause was named as the source of affliction. In the 1600s, both England and, by extension, the New England colonies had seen precedents set in which pious, God-fearing individuals were felled by mysterious maladies. Physicians were called in, a diagnosis of witchcraft was delivered, specters were seen, and eventually neighbors were charged and brought to trial. Many relied on Guide to Grand-Jury Men, by Rev. Richard Bernard, published in 1627 as a guide to differentiation between medical diseases and the Devil’s interference.
In the period between the mid-seventeenth century and the end of the eighteenth, European countries were in the midst of a wave of changes in the intellectual thought process. Advances in science, mathematics, and philosophy led to a complete upheaval in the way man viewed his natural world. Subsequently, there was a shift not only in the way thinkers saw political and social orders, but also in the way they viewed religion. Thus, a separation of politics and social order from the Church created an environment in which much of Europe was able to move into what is now considered the modern age.
The dogmatic spirituality of the medieval period was replaced by an intellectual rejection of religious structure, and although people still accepted the existence of God, the Enlightenment period changed the way they viewed their relationship with him. Rather than viewing God as unknowable, instead they viewed him as a figure that was the creator of the natural world; subsequently, by understanding nature itself, man could better understand the Divine. In the second half of the seventeenth century, European belief in witchcraft dwindled because the new way of viewing nature, as presented by the Enlightenment thinkers, relied on reason over religion, and intellect over superstition.
The Puritans, who had been in the New World for several decades before the Enlightenment period swept through Europe, rejected the notion that God and Biblical principles could ever be supplanted by the ideas of philosophers and scientists. Instead, they stuck rigidly to their existing viewpoints, in which their views of religion, and of man’s relationship with God, shaped and defined their entire society. Specifically, they spent a good deal of time worrying about Satan, and the various ways he might lure them into sinning and causing offense to God. The Puritans saw themselves as not only God’s children, but his messengers, tasked with the divine mission of creating a world in which God’s will and rule held domain over evil and sin.
Ministers like Increase Mather, his son Cotton Mather, and the Reverend John Hale wrote extensively about the misdeeds of the Devil and how he could fool good, pious people into doing his bidding. Cotton Mather had taken it upon himself to expose Satan’s nefarious plot to take over New England. It should come as no surprise, he theorized, that the Devil would be interested in the region; after all, the frontier had once been Satan’s own territory. Satan and his minions, according to Mather, had attacked New England, causing good English colonists to unite in the commission of the crime of witchcraft. This, to be sure, was part of Satan’s plan to eventually destroy mankind.
Meanwhile, Increase Mather questioned whether or not the Devil could appear in the form of an innocent individual. He later affirmed that this could in fact take place, presenting scriptural evidence, citing cases of that of the Witch of Endor appearing to Samuel at the request of King Saul, and of the Devil appearing as an angel of light in order to fool those who gaze upon him. Mather also pointed out that one of Satan’s weapons was to do mischief in the guise of a good and virtuous person in the hopes of seducing men, and presumably women, into the sins of idolatry and witchcraft.
For colonial New Englanders, then, with their strict Puritan values, the metaphysical struggle of good versus evil was part of daily life. While they knew that God was assured to win – after all, God was almighty – what they also knew was that Satan’s job was to constantly tempt them into sinning. He might claim important victims, such as those who were known for their goodness and piety, by tempting or threatening them. Such a conquest by Satan was sure to have been a spiritual coup, because such people were then armed with his power. Meanwhile, God allowed this ongoing battle to continue, which caused many Puritans to spend time reflecting upon the why of man’s existence.