Are ye bewitched?

How did a self-proclaimed God-fearing community condone hanging their citizens, based on the hysterical rantings and accusations of a gang of pre-teen and teenage girls?

No single reason.  No precipitating event.  No one tipping point.  Comprised of a hundred pieces, it’s a puzzle with common elements.

Fear. Superstition. Power struggles. Greed. Jealousy. Disenchantment.

The Puritan settlers’ strong belief system evolved from a complex evolution of theology and religious practice that ultimately caused their separation from the Anglican Church. Yet debate continues over whether religious persecution caused them to leave England. Could it have been the allure of a new land?  The promise of religious freedom?  Or something else?

Regardless, the Puritans were among the first settlers in the colonies but were unprepared for the harsh realities they faced in the new land: a bitter climate, smallpox, the Anglo-French War, the constant threat of attack by Native Americans.

Over time, the town elders began to lose their tight rein over the community. As some families prospered, others’ resentment grew. Neighbors feuded. Distrust and malcontent escalated as did the fear of outsiders.

Fuel for collective paranoia.

Then the new minister arrived—a man who had failed in business but felt the ‘calling’ to preach.

Ironically, as heated discussion ensued over Reverend Samuel Parris’ demands for a higher salary, so did his daughter and niece’s fits.

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Image of Rev. Samuel Parris from Danvers Archival Center–Peabody Institute Library

Mystified by the girls’ bizarre condition, the town physician attributed this to the only thing it could be—the work of the devil’s handmaidens. Witchcraft. With the stage set for disaster, an ugly chapter in American history unfolded.

What parallels do you see in modern history?


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