Salem Witch Trials While in Term Paper

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In this sense, the only category of convicts which were burned to death was that of the so-called "satanic Blacks" as this was considered to be the only way of destroying their 'evilness.' In Puritan New England ideology, Blacks were associated with Satan. This belief was the remnant of an old European image of Satan as a black man which dated back to long before the contact between Africans and Europeans in the New World. However, one must note here that Satan was never seen as a Native American. Whites only feared Native Americans because of the constant warfare between them. "In fact there has been speculation that witchcraft outbreaks occurred when there was a great deal of anxiety among Whites resulting from intense raids by Native Americans."

Evilness' vs. Illness

With Calvinism being the dominant religious ideology in both England and most of its colonies, witchcraft trials were not an uncommon phenomenon because Calvinism included the concept of witchcraft, and satanic intervention. However, the psychological causes of the victims' manifestations were never taken into consideration simply because no proper psychological evaluation and diagnosis existed. Instead, Calvinists relied completely on the reading of the Bible which represented the source for their beliefs regarding Satan. Because they did not believe in simple misfortune, such as in the case of an accident or an illness, Puritans assumed that the misfortune in question was the result of the ill wishes of someone close to the victim who had appealed to an 'evil-doer' such as witches. This is why 17th century symptoms were 'negotiated' by Calvinists since they were unable to properly diagnose mental illnesses. In the case of Salem, the court initially proceeded on the basis of a diagnosis of bewitchment which had been established by the accusers. Because the number of witchcraft trials was increasing, there was the need for a change in diagnosis so that the so-called witches would be considered completely powerless in front of their 'satanic puppet-master'.

Calvinists believed that the only correct way to approach any kind of problem was to search for God's purpose and to find meaning and answer in the word of the bible. These were followed, in the case of afflictions, by repentance and seeking removal of the affliction in question through appropriate means depending on the type of problem. In the case of severe afflictions, Calvinists resorted to prayer and fasting. Despite the number of witchcraft trials, it is relevant to note here that Puritans were no more prone to witch-hunts than anyone else in that period.

Calvinists believed the Devil acted in three ways. The most common was considered temptation which mankind must resist. Temptation consisted of sinful images that the Devil presented to human imagination. Also, Satan could employ the two extreme afflictions that were mentioned in the Canon of 1604, i.e. possession and obsession. The leading Congregationalist, Nathaniel Holmes, argued that the most afflicted i.e. those who suffered possession, would be horribly physically disfigured in the process. The less severe form of Satanic affliction was obsession which entailed that Satan only had power over the afflicted person's body. This form was considered to lead to suicide, and was blamed on witches. The diagnosis of possession was frequently issued by the scholars of the community, and thus imposed on the less learned. In fact, this is how the concept of witchcraft was formulated. The victims of witchcraft were seen as entirely innocent, and their sole duty was to identify the witch so that the latter could receive her punishment.

Because direct obsession by the Devil was only rarely invoked, there were four available explanations for extreme psychological symptoms. The criteria for this classification of symptoms was both in terms of natural vs. demonic, and of guilt vs. innocence. Calvinists believed bewitchment or obsession by the Devil through a witch involved an innocent victim, similarly to natural disease in the sense that they believed God was sending the affliction for some good reason. In the case of a possession, similarly to a case of fraud, the person in question was considered guilty. Hence the only way for witchcraft accusers to be certain their case was trialed as witchcraft was to hold high social status or a good reputation; otherwise these so-called victims risked a second diagnosis which could turn against them.

In 1660 New England had no tradition of demonic possessions. In 1669, Thomas Walley wrote, "Many are possessed with an Evil spirit"; this in fact referred to the sins of the colonies. First generation New England preachers focused on the afflictions of God rather than on those of Satan, and treated sin itself as the opposite of God instead of the Devil. However this would all change in 1671 when in Groton, Massachusetts, domestic servant Elizabeth Knapp pressed for a bewitchment diagnosis. The 16-year-old girl exhibited strangely aggressive behavior which culminated with the murder of her neighbor. The Reverend of Groton judged the girl to be upright before God. Under pressure, the girl confessed that she had been tempted by Satan but had denied surrendering herself to him. A physician prescribed her treatment for a natural disease, but her fits occurred again, and her spiritual condition remained the same. Reverend Willard of Groton expressed concern at her lack of repentance and fear that she had not fully confessed. When Elizabeth's fits occurred again, the physician interrupted her treatment and diagnosed her affliction as diabolical in origin. Although the girl continued to deny demonic possession, and attempted to resume the accusations of witchcraft, Rev. Willard no longer believed her and claimed she had covenanted with Satan. Eventually a diagnosis of demonic possession was agreed upon by everyone.

Significance of the Salem Trials. Anthropological interpretations.

Modern anthropological interpretations have determined that witchcraft functioned "as a mechanism of social control as well as an outlet for frustrations, anxiety, and aggressive impulses." The alleged witches were used as scapegoats for the projection of aggressive impulses in society which generated a form of relief. This function of relieving stress and tension acted not only at the level of the individuals who trialed witches, but also at the level of the community as a whole. These accusations of witchcraft also served as a means of restoring social equilibrium in a society which becomes unable to handle rapid change such as in the case of colonial America. Massachusetts was in a state of unrest in the 1680s and 1690s with New England society and religion both declining.

People feared the wrath of God and the possibility of society becoming corrupted by Satan through his agents. In 1684 the Crown revoked the Charter of Massachusetts and two years later, New England found itself under one government in the Dominion of New England which led to Massachusetts losing much of its traditional self-determination right. This state of decay and despair was amplified by the arrival of the royal governor Sir Edmund Andros who benefited from dictatorial power in the colony. The outbreak of civil war in England represented the pretext and opportunity for Massachusetts to send Andros home in chains. The state of Massachusetts received a new charter in 1691 but the political context of the era had deeply affected New England society, and this would give rise to the "witch mania of 1691-92" which is considered "a symbol of profound changes in the structure and evolution of Massachusetts society." Other scholars (Boyes, Nissebaum) have argued that the origins of witchcraft accusations in New England were directly linked to local struggles and personal antagonism such as those that were present in Salem Village where inhabitants were engaged in disputes over land, village boundaries, commercial development, as well as the establishment of a local ministry.


The fear of witches and demons that spread through Western society between the 16th and 17th centuries took many forms. In New England colonial leaders became concerned during the 1640s with the emergence of witchcraft that was viewed as the Devil's desire to subvert God's Commonwealth. Legal steps were taken by the Puritans in the attempt to protect themselves from what they regarded as witchcraft. Consequently, in 1636 Plymouth included in its Summary Offences that were "liable to death," the action of "Solemn Compaction or conversing with the devil by way of Witchcraft, conjuration or the like."

The most shocking aspect of the Salem trials is the way these hearings were actually conducted. Several teenage girls accused two hundred people of practicing witchcraft. Many of the accused were trialed by unqualified judges, and did not benefit from any sort of legal defense. Moreover, there was no physical evidence in any of the witchcraft cases; the accusations were based solely on spectral evidence. The significance of the witch trials that took place in Salem towards the end of the 17th century on American society was tremendous. It was precisely these trials which launched the term witch-hunt used to describe the search of witches who were,…

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