When the first colonists began to leave England for North America in the early seventeenth century, they carried a certain subset of beliefs and assumptions with them across the Atlantic which derived culturally from England and religiously from the Calvinist influenced doctrines of Puritanism. In his work The Devil’s Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England, Richard Godbeer examines the complex worldview of these early Puritan settlers and describes their mental and physical realities as far less homogeneous than is often explicated. Although the separation between the elites and the laity was a much smaller gap in Puritan New England than in Europe, many distinctions existed that provided context for their convoluted interpretations of magic, counter-magic, and witchcraft. Godbeer examines the origins of the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692 through the historical framework of late seventeenth century New England - specifically, the similarities and differences between European and colonial witchcraft beliefs; the impact of occult counter-magic and folk healing on the witchcraft trials; and the historical circumstances contributing to a cultural climate that allowed witchcraft trials to proliferate.
Throughout The Devil’s Dominion, Godbeer describes the nature of magic and occult phenomena, and embedded within this account is an inherent comparison of colonial beliefs and their European counterparts. Despite the distance across the Atlantic, the Puritan cultural and religious links with England were never completely severed during the seventeenth century. From 1620 to 1692, New England provides us with an excellent historical laboratory in which to observe both the continuity of witchcraft beliefs as they traveled from England to North America and the quintessentially Puritan version which arose organically amidst the political and religious turmoil of the last quarter of the seventeenth century. The most apparent similarity between Puritan and English witchcraft was the emphasis placed on the witches’ interaction with the devil. Indeed, this was the salient feature of most Protestant interpretations of the crime. Before the accused could be held responsible for the crime of witchcraft, it was incumbent upon the prosecution to prove that the witch had dealings with Satan (153-155). Also like Europe, this explanation of witchcraft as a diabolical heresy pertained primarily to the elite, and in New England the elite class was composed of clergymen.
This elite integration of the devil into the idea of witchcraft was itself an indefinite process. How did one even define the devil? As in Europe, the ministerial fixation on Satan did not exactly accord with the preoccupation with practical magic and counter-magic among the Puritan laity. Satan was not simply evil personified but could also be envisioned as a non-anthropomorphized force or power in the world, manifested most dangerously through the actions of people (87). This apperception of Satan extended to broader dimensions than just the context of witchcraft. For example, demonological rhetoric was employed to attack Native Americans, who represented the great heathen Other (192). The racial, religious, and cultural differences between Puritans and Native Americans were obviously vast, and these differences were often highlighted in ways that portrayed these Native Americans as diabolical. In the demonology of witchcraft, the devil often offered the accused wealth in exchange for her services, and any trade between settlers and Native Americans may have been interpreted in diabolical terms.
Enemies from within the Christian fold were not immune from this line of attack either. The odd piety of the Quakers, who shook uncontrollably as they prayed, easily lent credibility to the Puritan belief that they were possessed by the devil. Their behavior likely seemed little different from those who writhed in contortions under the supposed spell of the devil (194). When the assaults fell within the political sphere, the colonists were not averse to using diabolical language to denounce their enemies. The term “adversary,” for example, was applied to Edmund Andros, the wildly unpopular Anglican ruler of the short-lived Dominion of New England, which deferred, perhaps unconsciously, to the original etymology of the word “Satan” (187). Andros was later demonized alongside Native Americans, with whom he was accused of conspiring against the New Englanders (188). This language of diabolical association would later be applied toward witchcraft in Salem.
The social distance between the laity and the clergy was far smaller in New England than Europe, distinctions were far less entrenched, and interaction between them was more common. As Godbeer mentions, the family, the town meeting, and the church provided the cohesive structures that bound society together. The latter two furnished direct contact between elites and the laity (3). Given this more integrated social structure, why did such a brutal witch hunt occur in Salem in 1692? For one thing, women were excluded from the town meetings (4). The social solidarity that collective decision-making supplied to the male colonists not only may have rendered these women outsiders in their own communities but may also have removed any power they had over their own political and social destinies. The harshness and ruggedness of existence in colonial New England already ensured that women heavily participated in the communal work of a village, but the elite cultural and religious assumptions of female weakness exposed women to a paradoxical existence: they did not participate in the civic or political processes but were fully expected to ascribe to its rules (118). Beyond the level of household, women had social contact with men only in church, and Godbeer contends that their religious conviction left them vulnerable to spiritual crises such as those that rocked late seventeenth century New England (114). Godbeer also reports that seventy-nine percent of all witches and eighty-four percent of all demoniacs in New England were women (68 and 114). By many accounts, this was a greater preponderance than in Europe.
There were significant differences between European and New Englander cultures of magic, counter-magic and witchcraft. According to Godbeer, unlike Europe, folk healers seem to have been at greater risk of being accused of witchcraft in New England (66). Godbeer does not detail specific reasons for this difference, though it may have been due to the fact that no folk tradition of lay medical practitioners existed in New England. The line between magical and non-magical healing was a fine one, and practitioners of folk medicine were often either ignorant of the fact that their work was under suspicion or maintained that it was in no way diabolical (66-68). In any case, the ends may have justified the means in the arena of folk healing, and the merits of the medicine—whether a natural or supernatural antidote—seemed to hinge on its results. In New England there may have been a paradoxical increase in the Puritan use of magic and counter-magic due to the decline of the legal prosecution of witches from the early 1660s to the late 1680s. By taking spiritual matters into their own hands, these Puritans may have inadvertently created the very social conditions that condemned many of them for this use (177-8).
Pluralism, both religious and cultural, also produced different results in New England than in Europe. According to some scholars, pluralism led to greater tolerance in Europe, especially following the Peace of Westphalia, whereas pluralism disrupted the fragile existence to which Puritan New Englanders clung. After the Protestant Reformation began, Catholics and Protestants fought bitterly with one another in Europe, but after generations of living side-by-side, a mutual, if begrudging, respect emerged. Puritan settlers left England for North America, in part, because they desired religious freedom for themselves apart from other Christian sects. The presence of Native Americans, French Catholics to the north, Dutch to the south, and an influx of secular merchants and non-Congregationalist Protestants throughout the late seventeenth century upended their perceived homogeneous environment.
Though its themes come to a head with the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692, The Devil’s Dominion is more concerned with the cultural and political climate of New England in the decades leading up to this event. Godbeer is at his most erudite when synthesizing the cultural, political, and religious trends and explicating how they coalesced and contributed to the trials. Historically, he asserts that the years from the founding of Plymouth colony in 1620 to around 1675 were relatively peaceful. This peace was disrupted by a series of events that shattered the Puritan world. King Philip’s War (1675-6), a brutal conflict with the Wampanoag tribe and a following small-pox epidemic, decimated the New Englander population (182-3). During the next decade, the revocation of the Massachusetts Charter and imposition of the Anglican-controlled Dominion of New England (1686-9) eliminated self-rule among the Puritan colonies and for a short time returned them to the very political conditions they sought to escape in England (184). In 1690 hostilities with Native Americans renewed, this time with French support, and shortly thereafter, the new colony charter granted religious toleration to Anglicans, Quakers, and other Protestant denominations, breaking the Puritan monopoly on religious authority in New England. Richard Godbeer convincingly argues that these events, amidst the cultural climate I have detailed above, generated suitable conditions for the witchcraft trials at Salem to flourish.
The Salem witchcraft trials, though violent, were ephemeral compared to the sustained witch craze of early modern Europe. The trials reached very high up the social ladder into relatives of the very people prosecuting the cases and, unlike the more natural progression of events in Europe, the ministerial authorities made a conscious decision to halt the trials. The very act of uncovering a witch undermined the self-proclaimed godliness of these Puritan authorities because the methods for discovering a witch had much in common with the counter-magic for which the laity was accused—trial by water, hot iron, scalding water, or other ordeals (160-1). If supernatural knowledge was required to a investigate magic, it defeated the purpose of the trials in the first place and exposed the clergy to charges of hypocrisy (220-222). Like England, Puritan elites and commoners never came to a consensus regarding the nature of witchcraft, but unlike England, the common ideas were never truly assimilated into the legal process. Ministers seemed to be at a loss to interpret counter-magic as anything other than witchcraft. Godbeer’s sophisticated treatment of the events leading up to the Salem witch trials masterfully contextualizes the cultural, political, and religious circumstances of late seventeenth century New England and their bearings on Puritan ideas of witchcraft.