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I am innocent of such wickedness
from the Salem Witch Trials Memorial

Salem’s witches (2)

wicked little town

Salem memorializes those who died in its 1692–3 witch trials in a number of ways. The one that always gets me is the pleas of the executed stamped into the stones as you enter. (See header image above.) A lot of people miss or disregard this text, just as many people disregarded the pleas themselves.

Salem Witch Trial Memorial

What we’re reading

Keywords

  • depravity
  • lived religion

WTF happened in Salem?

A lot, is the short answer. You can check out this page for a more comprehensive review of the events.

But here are the main points from the timeline.

before 1692

  • lots of community in-fighting (Salem is a tiny place, remember)
  • property disputes, as we saw in Karlsen’s article
  • conflicts with Indigenous communities (because colonizers showed up and stole their land)
  • loss of charter with England, meaning the colony is uncertain of its standing in the empire
  • Massachusetts Bay Colony also has a new governor, meaning the villages and settlements are eager to show they have things under control (they do not)

winter 1692

  • cousins in the village preacher’s household have fits
  • others report experiencing afflictions
  • which leads to accusations of witchcraft
  • which requires a response from community (because they have extensive witchcraft detection mechanisms, remember? Godbeer talked about this.)

spring 1692 — spring 1693

It’s important to note that the residents of Salem were not distinct in the fervency of their religious commitments. Salem did distinguish itself in the extent of its official responses to accusations of witchcraft, however.

It’s also important to note that while the Puritan religious worldview absolutely informs these proceedings, it is the civil authorities, NOT the church officials, putting people to death for witchcraft.

By the end of Salem’s witchcraft panic:

  • 156 people were accused of practicing malicious witchcraft (again, in a town of roughly 500 people)
  • 30 were convicted
  • 14 women + 5 men were hung
  • 3 women + 1 man died in prison
  • Giles Corey was pressed to death during interrogation rather than confess to witchcraft and forfeit his assets to the state, which would have left his wife and children impoverished
from the Salem Witch Trials Memorial (image: Word Press Public Photos)

Witchtok

There’s a lot of interesting witchy content on TikTok right now! But some of my faves aren’t actually done by witches — they’re about the Salem witch trials. Here are a few done by BeQuietJoe from the perspective of Abigail Williams, one of the first girls to accuse her fellow villagers of malicious witchcraft.

If we were meeting in person, we’d be doing a lot more with the primary source records from the trial. Since we’re not, here’s a bit of background on the character BeQuietJoe is embodying in these short videos.

Reis, “Discourse of Depravity”

“Puritan anxiety owed less to the unattainability of heavenly glory than to the likelihood of hellish horror.” (Reis 1997, 4)

You’ll remember depravity from our TULIP talk last time — the idea that without the Divine, humans are spiritual garbage. It might or might not surprise you to learn that not all the folks listening to sermons like Mather’s, which you read for today, internalized the message in the same way.

When you’ve finished this chapter, you should know…

  • why Puritans — including Puritan women!! — thought women were more likely to be damned
  • How Reis is defining “lived religion” and why this concept is important
  • Why does Reis think we need to understand witch trials in religious terms?

This article does a great job of showing us why we’re not understanding Puritan New England if we’re not thinking about its colonizing residents in religious terms. Remember, Puritans believed in predestination — they thought their salvation or damnation was entirely up to the Divine and completely out of their hands. But at the same time, archival evidence of witchcraft confessions shows us that Puritan women seem to have internalized the “discourse of depravity” with far more frequency than Puritan men.

“The Witchcraft episodes of the seventeenth century, when women were accused and convicted far more often than men and when women actually confessed to being in the devil’s snare, display the sense of women’s inherent wickedness which the community — women and men — endorsed. Puritans may have professed publicly that the sexes were equal before god, but they were not equal before the devil.(Reis 1997, 2)

It’s important to recognize that Puritan women’s confessions of witchcraft weren’t always or even usually coerced. Rather, their religious worldviews predisposed them to believe they might be in league with Satan even if they didn’t remember intentionally joining his team.

“The women who confessed to witchcraft were so assured of their essential sinfulness that they became convinced they had actually covenanted with satan…Believing themselves to be sinners in any case, women easily blurred the line between ordinary sinning, which necessitated repentance, and the more egregious act of signing the devil’s book and becoming a witch.” (ibid.)

We saw this kind of uncertainty in Thomasin’s face toward the end of The VVitch — you could see her wondering if maybe she hadn’t made some pact with the Devil, even if she didn’t remember doing it. Remember, too, that when we’re talking about the Devil in Puritan New England, we’re not talking about a concept. We’re talking about a material actor who physically preys on people. As Reis shows us, “belief in Satan’s direct physical presence prevailed,” (1997, 5).

Reis also makes an important contribution to the historical study of American religion(s) by insisting we attend not just to what sacred texts or church records say, but what we can discern of how “lay women and men actually lived their theology” (1997, 3). That is: religion doesn’t just get done by specialists like preachers; we can’t reduce religion to what people say they believe or what books or sermons tell them to believe. Religion is lived, something that gets made and remade by the people who do it everyday. This shows up in Puritan New England, in part, in the disconnect between their professed theology (“everyone is equal before God”) and their lived reality (women were far more likely to be accused of and confess to witchcraft). She wants us to pay attention to the Salem witch trials in part because they help us see how Puritan New Englanders “voiced…the meaning of commonly held beliefs in unpredictable and gendered ways,” (Reis 1997, 4).

So again, Reis is insisting that we don’t understand Salem or what happened there if we don’t take the villagers’ religious worldview seriously. The courts, even though presumably secular, were still shaped by Puritan theology and an absolute conviction that the Devil was both real and really working on these people. Religion matters in our scholarly analysis of Salem because religion mattered so very much to the people of Salem.

Reis, “The Devil, the Body, and the Feminine Soul”

I said this often when we were watching The VVitch, but Puritans were extremely literal when they talked about the Devil. Keep in mind, too, how very real and material New England Puritans understood the devil to be.

Puritan New Englanders thought the literal, physical Devil was literally, physically attacking their bodies. And Puritan women, who were told that their bodies were weaker and thus more susceptible to demonic influence, tended to believe — and confess! — they were in league with Satan far more frequently than their male counterparts. As Reis puts it, “New Englanders considered women more vulnerable to Satan because their image of the soul and its relation to the body allowed them to associate womanhood with evil and sin,” (1997, 95).

When you’ve finished reading this piece, you should know…

  • What does Reis argue about the role of body in salvation or damnation in the Puritan worldview?
  • How did Puritans understand witches? Who were witches, what did they do, and why did they matter?
  • Why does Reis think it’s important to pay attention to witches in Puritan societies?

Puritan theology held that all souls were weak and therefore feminine (I know. I know. It’s not great). Even men had feminine souls. We saw this reflected in the flowery, romantic language Caleb used about Jesus.

alas, poor Caleb. You can read more about this scene here.

In the Puritan worldview, your body was a “close enemy,” and women’s bodies — despite literally making more bodies — were considered weaker than men’s bodies (Reis 1997, 96).

The body could become the Puritan’s own worst enemy. It was the primary battleground in the struggle between the devil and the individual soul.” (ibid.)

If everyone has weak feminine souls and women have weak feminine bodies, women found themselves in what Reis calls a “double bind,” making them more susceptible to attacks by Satan (ibid., 94). But women were also thought to have a particular potential for goodness, as you read in Mather’s sermon (ibid., 120).

“Puritans…constructed a gendered ideology and society that conceived of women, ironically, as closer both to God and to Satan” (ibid.)

So when it comes to Puritans, theology, and gender, it’s…complicated. Which is exactly why Reis wants us to pay attention to the witches of Salem: they help us better understand the complexities of how gender shaped New England Puritan theology. Of those 17th century witches we can identify by gender from archival sources, almost eighty percent were women. Witches “effectively demonized the notion of active female choice” because witches were “feminine souls [who] made an explicit and aggressive choice to conjoin with the devil” (Reis 1997, 94).

All this should be ringing Williams, Creed, and Clover bells in your memory by now.

Mather, “The Character of a Virtuous Woman”

Mather is far better known for another sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

from the printed pamphlet version of “Sinners”

That sermon has a lot of very vivid imagery, including a bit about the Divine dangling sinners over the fiery pits of hell like a spider.

drawing by Skylar Romocki

But Mather didn’t only preach fire and brimstone. And even in the set of sermons you read for today, he has both very positive and very negative things to say about women. There’s certainly more nuance here than in Willard, for example.

Wondering whether you are a virtuous woman? Take this quiz a former #NUwitches student made and find out!

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Megan Goodwin

Megan Goodwin

author of _Abusing Religion_, co-host of “Keeping It 101: A Killjoy’s Introduction to Religion Podcast,” and wikipedia-certified expert on (ugh) cults