Studying the Salem Witch Trials

Dear Reader,

We have been beginning American history this year, starting with exploration and then the settlement of Jamestown, Plimoth, and Massachusetts. I will post the books we have used on the New England area soon, but I wanted to do a post just on Salem and specifically the whole witchcraft thing.

Let me start by saying that we live in New England so we have been spending longer on this area than we might otherwise, both because it is our home turf and because our library has oodles of books on colonial new England. We also made a field trip to Plymouth (not the first time of course) which I highly recommend if you are in the area. Make sure to see the grist mill too; it is an often missed treasure.

Last time we went through American history, we made the trip to Salem, which is about an hour and half drive for us. I am thinking we will probably not do so this time. The older kids remember the previous visit so I am not sure how much more they would get out of it. It is a very tough city to visit. I picked which sites we would see very carefully last time, sticking to those that were more historical. Unfortunately, they all have similar names (“The Witch Museum”, “The Witch Dungeon Museum,” etc.) so it is hard to remember which ones I would recommend. At any rate, if you were thinking of coming up this way, you should know that Salem now proudly boasts of its witch-y heritage. It calls itself “Witch City” and has a huge Halloween celebration (see my thoughts on Halloween here, among many other posts). But any time of year you will find in Salem people who profess themselves to be witches, shops selling all sorts of paranormal paraphernalia (say that five times fast), and a general celebration of all things occult. It feels like a very dangerous place to take one’s kids.

So, as any Christian might, I approach books on this topic with trepidation. The spine books we are using this year, This Country of Ours by Marshall and Stories of Massachusetts by Pratt, both dealt with the topic in an acceptable manner but neither had very much to say on it. So I did want to supplement with other books on the topic which is what we do for most topics any way.

So I got a whole stack of books from the library (and as I said above, there are lots available here). Most of them went right back to the library. I have yet to see a book on the witchcraft trials which has the same take on them that I would. The most prevalent view is that the Puritan adults of Salem and the surrounding towns were bad, superstitious people at whose feet all the blame should be laid and that we know today that witches are just fun and play and isn’t it nice to dress up as them at Halloween? To the extent that they blame the young girls who started it all, they quote the funky mushroom theory (that the girls had some bad mushrooms which caused them to hallucinate) or speak of a kind of mass hysteria or blame their Puritan (and be sure that they use every opportunity to point out that these were those heinous, overly strict Puritans) elders who didn’t ever let them have any fun.  Of course most of these books are not living books anyway. They are very Usborne/DK-y (if you know what I mean) and quite sensationalized to boot.

For myself, I would like to know what exactly went wrong. Theologically, I am not so far from the Puritans myself (for an excellent book on them, check out Leland Ryken’s Worldly Saints). And I do believe in witches. It is ironic to me that though the general interpretation seems to be that witches were all superstition and that the real evil was over- religiousness, that Salem today is full of self-proclaimed witches. If they exist now, why not then? I feel like I should define “witch” here — I am going to use it to mean anyone who seeks to use a kind of natural (i.e. based in nature) magic to tap into the spiritual world and to manipulate things here in our world. I know and know of people who do this today and I have no doubt that such things existed in early New England as well. I believe there is a spirit world and that there are evil spirits to whom God temporarily gives the ability to affect our world. And often they do things that seem good to us, like healing people, because this is a really good way to lure us in (see this really long series of posts on Reiki and demonology).

Now don’t get me wrong, I do think many of the adults of Salem and the surrounding towns (where the whole business began is actually now the town of Danvers, by the way) sinned quite grievously. Some were not involved; many of those seem to have ended up accused themselves. But for those that were, they believed false reports about their neighbors, they conducted farcical trials with crazy tests for witchy-ness which one would think any sane adult would see are useless and easily manipulated. And in the end, the governor came back to the state and did see that it was all way out of control and put an end to it. But many adults who should have known better were definitely caught up in a sinful, paranoid delusion that witches were all around them for quite some time. Really, people talk about the girls’ mass hysteria but it seem to me the adults also suffered from something of the sort. From my Christian perspective I would say that for  a time God gave them over to their sinfulness. It’s as if He allowed a sinful cloud to descend over them and they could not see clearly and were not thinking clearly for a time. Why He did this then and there, I have no idea though I suspect that such things are often the response to sin like when a kid is caught stealing a soda and is forced as a punishment to drink soda until he gets sick.

Now the girls no doubt were also subject to a kind of mass hysteria (though I prefer to think of it as a sinful fog clouding their thoughts or an evil delusion), but what really struck me this time as I skimmed through many books on the subject looking for a good one, was that many of them say that it all began with the girls getting the Caribbean slave woman Tituba to tell their fortunes. Some claim that she was reluctant to do so, but the girls persisted and she did. In other words, it all began when some people willingly engaged in what many would call a harmless dabbling in the occult. They probably thought it was all in fun. People usually do, at first. But there is no harmless dabbling when it comes to the occult. Honestly, I don’t see why it should surprise us that this sort of thing led to things a lot worse. Maybe the girls really were possessed. Probably there was a kind of magic at work here. Definitely there was evil at work and Satan had a field day in Salem for a while.

I don’t really think Salem was overrun with witches. Maybe there were no actual witches. Maybe there were some. But certainly the procedures for finding out who was a witch were deeply flawed and people got carried away in their fervor to root out the evil. But I also don’t think it is right to dismiss the whole thing as due to the ignorance, closed-mindedness, and superstition of the time. There was real evil going on.

It could have all gone a lot better if it had been confined to the girls. As wrong as their “dabbling” was, it could have ended there if it weren’t for the attitudes of their elders. I almost think they erred in not treating those girls enough like people. They should have held them accountable for their own sins and actions instead of looking all around for those who might be oppressing them.

This is what it says on one of the few good books I found on Salem. It is called The Tall Man from Boston and is what I would call a pretty long picture book. We read it all in one sitting. It does talk about witches as part of Halloween (and how fun that is) at the beginning and again at the end. I skipped over those parts. But in general, it is a good book. It is the story of John Alden (son of the famous lover of Plymouth) who was accused of witchcraft. But John was originally from Plymouth and at one point he goes back there to hide,. You see, in Plymouth the witch hysteria never took hold (Yeah, Plymouth! I am partial to the Separatists anyway). And the book tells us (paraphrasing here because I have already returned the book to the library) that “In Salem if their girls would have done this, they would have spanked them and sent them to bed.” That’s the best line I’ve ever read about the whole incident and I think it sums it up pretty well.


3 responses to this post.

  1. […] for the exploration of the Americas and the settlement of Virginia. I also did a post on my take on the Salem witchcraft trials. Now I would like to share with you the books we have been using on the settlement of New […]


  2. Posted by Karen on April 3, 2016 at 11:49 pm

    Thanks, Nebby. I think I agree with your level-headed opinion! The recommendation of the Tall Man from Boston is appreciated, too. I hope my library has it.


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