The Salem Witch Trials: Witch-Hunt as Psychological and Social Catharsis (Part 5)
On May 4, 2011 At 5:40 am
Category : Bloggers and Columnists, John Thomas Didymus, Perspectives and Symbolism
Tags : Anger, divine, england settlers, Misfortune, oyer and terminer, salem witch trials, society, william stoughton
Responses : 2 Comments
(Note: This is Part 5 of an 8-part series: See Part 1: The Salem Witch Trials: A Fresh Perspective
What might seem a trite point to note about the Puritan religious societies of early settlers in New England was the strong and widespread belief in the existence of witches. But unquestionably significant is the related conviction that witches and demons and spirits were especially active in New England communities as agents of the Devil in spiritual warfare against God's elect (the fact that the New England settlers were God's elect being the particular reason why the Devil took a special interest in disrupting their communal life).
The psychological and social implication of this is that Puritans, already under a heavy burden of "spiritual" anxiety over assurance of salvation tended to invest every personal and social mishap or misfortune with special significance, as oracular omen of God's anger with the individual or group over real and imagined transgressions of righteousness.
Witch-hunts, trials and executions were, therefore, largely compulsive psychological and social cathartic responses to stress in the attempt to rid the body politic of "iniquity" and "iniquitous elements" which bring God's anger down on society; and, by so doing, appease God's displeasure, restore divine favor and assurance of salvation. The Puritan religious culture saw prosperity and good fortune as evidence of God's favor, and misfortune as evidence that God was punishing individuals and society for sins. We see clear and unmistakable evidence of this underlying philosophy to body politic health in the arrogant display of righteous anger by the head of the Court of Oyer and Terminer William Stoughton, when Governor Phipps finally decided to dismiss the court on the recommendations of Cotton Mather, one of the Ministers who had earlier made submissions critical of court procedures. In a theatrical display of righteous anger, William Stoughton complained about certain ill-intentioned persons who were stymying his efforts at ridding the Colony of witchcraft and the Devil once and for all.
Societies committed to archaic religious views of a morally exacting paternalistic deity in heaven tend, in the ever ongoing struggle to align themselves with "God's righteous standards," to look inwards, at every supposed sign of divine displeasure, in self-purging and self-flagellating exercises. The colonists could, of course, look to the precedence of Old Testament scriptures and its YHWist chroniclers' biased rendering of cause-effect in Jewish history. The YHWHist religious outlook interpreted national misfortune as divine punishment for sins and apostasy. The YHWHist revivalist purges of the Books of kings arose from the conviction that national and personal calamities were the consequence of group and individual sin and guilt before the deity.
The Medieval witch-hunts were, after the model of the Ancient Hebrew historical precedent; the self-purging of guilt complex ridden society which considers group misfortunes, travails and adversity as sent by God in punishment for sins. The Protestant Queen Elizabeth I had to purge England of "iniquitous elements" to ensure divine favor by murdering 120 Jesuits in the Tudor Reformation struggle with "poppery" in England–Let the reader remember the trenchant Pauline admonition that "a little (sin-)leaven ferments the entire (social) dough" and brings God's anger and judgment down massively and heavily on unrepentant society. Likewise must a Catholic Mary Tudor appease the wrath of a jealous Jehovistic God by burning Protestant priests Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley at the stake.
Puritan society, under the stressful rigor of the conditions of war and social setback, sought diversion from the spiritual torments of guilt complex in witch trials and executions. A successful but exceedingly brutal and genocidal war against Native Americans would be interpreted as evidence of God's favor, but a successful reprisal raid by the enemy was evidence of divine disfavor.
This pattern of religious thought finds its grounds, ultimately, in the Old Testamentary concept of the group as covenanted to deity in an exchange of worship for guaranteed group prosperity. Thus, in accordance with the Deuteronomic principle, loyalty and obedience guarantee prosperity, while disobedience or apostasy brings misfortune. The Puritans held on fast to their religious concept of an elect people in covenant with God and believed that society was founded on pillars of covenant between man and deity. Thus, when the first group of Pilgrims arrived at the Plymouth Colony aboard the Mayflower, a covenant-pact was drawn up which became the constitution of the colony till it was incorporated into Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691. The religious ideological concept of the social entity in covenant with God would influence the jingoistic notion of Manifest Destiny in encroaching westward expansion into Native American territory in subsequent centuries. It would survive over the mid-nineteenth century of the Civil War in the present day Christian Right conviction, voiced by Jerry Falwell, that national sins were responsible for God allowing the September 11 attack on America…
The remarkable ruthlessness of otherwise pious Christian folk in their wars against Native Americans derives its legitimizing precedence from Old Testament accounts of Hebrew wars of conquest and extermination of Canaanite aborigines. The Native Americans, like the Canaanites, were "wicked idolatrous" nations God was consigning to utter destruction by agency of his covenanted people.
Thus, under the pressure of need for more living space as colonist population swelled, the settlers adopted a policy of naked aggression in the acquisition of aborigine land. For Puritan conscience seared by covenant pact with God, genocidal dispossession of the "heathen" was God-ordained. Setbacks were seen only as evidence of society having broken covenant agreement. Society could make good its transgressions by self-purging scapegoating witch-hunting trials which effectively renewed covenant with God.
Thus, without remorse, men claiming Christian redemption would cynically contrive "treaties" with aborigine populations or arm themselves with paper instruments of royal charters and grants which empowered them to simply take land by force, armed with superior weapons of war; and when they ran out of paper or patience to write new documents, invoke the magic blanket of Manifest Destiny.
The aborigines deprived of their land and living-space would begin moving inland with the colonists in relentless pursuit, fulfilling their divine Manifest Destiny rights to possess America.
1.The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege. Taylor Trading Publishing (2004)
2. A Delusion Of Satan: The Full Story Of The Salem Witch Trials. Da Capo Press (2002)
JohnThomas Didymus is the author of "Confessions of God: The Gospel According to St. JohnThomas Didymus" (Read a Free Three Chapters Excerpt)