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Behind the Salem Witch Trials: Analysis of Puritan Society and Values in the 17th Century

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To the Puritans, good deeds and prosperity were believed to be the work of God while misfortunes and abnormalities were to be the work of the Devil. In 1692, the infamous Salem Witch Trials began in Salem Village, Massachusetts. After a group of young girls were thought to be possessed by the devil, local women were accused of witchcraft which started a wave of hysteria and panic throughout the colony. A special court was then created in order to put the accused witches on trial for their wrong doings. However, this court system was deeply flawed. The trial proceedings did not have a concrete legal structure or process. Oftentimes, the accused had little to no say in their fate as the accusers held a “guilty until proven innocent” mindset. The Salem Witch Trials also could have stemmed from another mindset that Puritan officials wanted to defend their society from other non-Puritan missionaries and officials who threatened their community. Eventually, the court system was its own downfall as many Puritans began to become skeptical of their own values within their society.

Puritan society and values in the 17th Century were heavily influenced by Christian beliefs and the church. The laws of Puritan society were extremely solidified, and people were expected to abide by the strict moral codes. Furthermore, anything that went against this code was believed to be a sin and ultimately punished. This structure of living is what led to the Salem Witch Trials and the mass panic that it created throughout New England. The witch trials in the grand scheme was not successful for what they intended to do on the surface. The Puritans were not finding real witches and they were blind to the bigger picture. The Witch Trials could have stemmed from another reason. In “Cotton Mather on the Recent History of New England”, Mather talks about the “attacks” on Puritan values from non-Puritan missionary and other unwelcome officials.[footnoteRef:1] These non-Puritan ideals that were coming in were looked at as part of a demonic assault on New England. This leads into the idea that the Salem Witch Trials were really an effort to scare the Puritan society to make sure they continued to conform to the morals code and laws set in place by the Church. The witch scare may have been posed by ministers in the community in order to scare people back to the church. The accusation and conviction of a few witches would be enough to deter others from acting out of place out of fear of being accused along with the other “witches”. Mather goes on to say that the People need to band together and “make a good and right use of the prodigious descent which the Devil in great wrath is making upon our land.”[footnoteRef:2] This is clearly a direct call for the people of New England to declare their faith and values and those that do not are in line with the Devil. This shows the radicalization of their religion in hopes of maintaining order. While the witch trials may have been fostered by the want of a more orderly and unified society, it also had the opposite effect on the people of New England and Puritan society. [1: Cotton Mather, Cotton Mather on the Recent History of New England, (Boston, 1692), 32.] [2: Mather, History of New England, 33.]

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While the hidden goal of the Witch Trials was to keep order within the Puritan society, it ended up doing just the opposite. First, its important to note why this happened. Ultimately, this result was caused by the horrible structure of the trials and often times the extreme radical process of convicting the “witches”. For example, in the Sarah Good and Bridget Bishop Trials, there was always little to no concrete evidence and the accusers were pitted against the victim without any say. Questions were asked in a manner that already accused the ladies of witchcraft from the start.[footnoteRef:3] People being convicted and hanged based off of “spectral evidence” seemed unfathomable to those who did not believe in the witch trials. This caused people within the Puritan society to become skeptical of their own values and methods. They began to question what is was they were even doing and what the reason for the completely useless trials were. An example of this can be seen in the letter from Thomas Brattle. Brattle was one of the strongest critics of the trials and he openly condemned the courts and the magistrates that took part in the trials.[footnoteRef:4] His openness about his rejection of the courts was brave and a bad sign that those within the Puritan society were beginning to push back on the values that their community was trying to uphold. While Thomas Brattle was just the loudest voice, it would be naive to think that he was the only one that was opposed to what was going on. Like many things, once one person speaks out others tend to feel a greater sense of will and in turn follow. The increasing competition from other religious groups and the pressure to keep society orderly, subconsciously fed into the extreme obsession over the accusation and condemnation of witches. However, the Puritans own practices led to the downfall of their trial system and a sense of skepticism among their own people which was the opposite of what Puritan officials were trying to achieve. [3: Examination of Sarah Good, Examination of Bridget Bishop, (Essex County Court Archives, 1692). 38-45.] [4: Thomas Brattle, Letter from Thomas Brattle to an Unnamed Clergyman, (1692)]

Puritanism played a big role in how the infamous Salem Witch Trials unfolded. Puritans believed that the witch trials were held in order to cleanse their society of the Devil and bring together a more faithful community. Puritans based the trials off of their own values and beliefs but doing so made them more vulnerable to criticism from people inside their own community. There is no other factor that played such a huge role in how the witch trials started and abruptly ended.


  1. Mather, Cotton. Cotton Mather on the Recent History of New England. (Boston, 1692), 32.
  2. Examination of Sarah Good, (Essex County Court Archives, 1692).
  3. Examination of Bridget Bishop, (Essex County Court Archives, 1692).
  4. Thomas Brattle, Letter from Thomas Brattle to an Unnamed Clergyman, (1692)

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