Kelley Nugent



Period 3

Causal Factors of the Salem Witch Trials

In 1692, the relative quiet and calm of the Massachusetts Bay Colony of Salem was shattered by accusations of witchcraft. Before the events of that year had resolved, a series of arrests and trials had resulted in the execution or death in prison of at least twenty-four of the residents of the community. While it may have appeared initially as a sudden, inexplicable occurrence, it was actually the end result of many years of accumulating tension within the community and had strong historical and religious basis. Although Salem was founded on Puritan ideology, by 1692 political unrest, class struggle and religious oppression challenged the stability of the social order which ultimately resulted[MO1]  in the Salem Witch Trials.

The years leading up to the time of the witch trials were full of political turmoil. In[MO2]  1690 Great Britain revoked the Massachusetts Bay Charter, the document upon which the political framework of the Salem area was founded. This action suspended the court system and abolished the long standing Puritan theocratic state. Two years later, in 1692, a new royal charter was created under the governorship of Sir William Phips. This charter created a single religious and civil governing body consisting of the governor, the church, the legislature and the courts. In the context of this system, the local minister, Reverend Samuel Parris was given absolute power as both judge and jury with regard to the question of witchcraft in the Salem area. This set a dangerous precedent in which the potential for limited judicial objectivity and abuse of power was rife. Given that there was no separation between Church and State, it made the accused witches more susceptible to being convicted of the charges against them.  Local political influences from outside the community were also in play. Political relations with the indigenous Native[MO3]  American population were strained at best. There had been a series of Indian attacks against the local population in 1691. In fact, many Salem area residents had lost their lives as a result of these attacks. The stress created by the potential danger of these attacks put considerable strain on the Salem community and led to the temptation to blame the Devil for the actions of the Indians who were considered to be heathens and worshippers of the Devil.

Socioeconomic issues in Salem also helped set the stage for the conflict and the hysteria[MO4]  of the Trials. Salem as a whole was divided into two geographical areas, Salem Village and Salem Town. Salem Village was located to the west and was the area mainly populated by the farming community while Salem Town was more populated port town to the southeast. By the late 1600’s these two communities were economically and socially divided, but were still considered one joined political element.  In order to participate in Puritan worship, the citizens from Salem Village had to commute to Salem Town because the village had no central Church or meeting place.  The people of the village had sought independence from Salem Town but because the town had a financial interest in the continued control of the village, Salem Town worked to prevent that from occurring.  Finally, in 1672, one of the requests of the villagers was granted and they were permitted to have their own pastor and a central place for meeting but they had to still be politically tied to Salem Town. This promoted continued tension between the village and the town because there was a lack of a single central meeting place where citizens from the town and village could congregate for worship. This separation conflicted with the Puritan concept of one unified religious community and contributed to increased tensions which ultimately lead to the rash of accusations of witchcraft in later years. From 1640 to 1690, as the population of Salem Village increased, the size of the average[MO5]  Salem Village landholding decreased from 180 acres to 125 acres. This created an atmosphere of increasing crowding and fear of loss of land as well as jealousy of larger landholders. There was also an increasing dichotomy developing between the wealthy merchant class and the poorer farmer class. The merchants were traditionally less religious, while the farmers were traditionally more devout. Also, the merchants were generally newer members of the Church while the farmer caste was generally those older more established members of the Church. There was animosity between the two groups. The development of a financially successful and independent mercantile class capable of sustaining itself without the help of the community as a whole was at odds with the Puritan concept of one communal religious and economic group. It is easy to see how they could have been perceived as an undesirable group and one to be eliminated to restore[MO6]  the continuity of the community as a homogenous unit. If one looks at the distribution of the accusers vs. the accused it is evident that there is a clear geographical division and therefore division along economic lines. Virtually all of the accusers were from the western, more rural part of Salem Village while almost all of the accused and their defenders were from the eastern village bordering the town and Salem Town itself. It is also noteworthy that a number of village leaders were involved in the accusations on both sides of the border. A number of the village leaders were geographically clumped together near each other as well. This suggests an internal power struggle within the community as does the fact that there was a fairly even distribution between supporters and detractors of the Rev. Parris.  The younger generation was becoming increasingly less religious as well, often refusing to abide by the Sabbath, refusing to go to church and engaging in such forbidden practices as premarital sex. This set up an environment of increasing tension between the religious community and those less faithful to the point where[MO7]  accusations of witchcraft became the perfect means of eliminating the less faithful members of the society and restoring the unified religious community. It also became a means for the disenfranchised members of the community to attack those they perceived as more fortunate and of whom they were jealous.

Religious influence on the events of 1692 was great. Puritan religious society was traditionally very strict with regard to punishment for violation of law[MO8] . It was not uncommon for death to be the sentence for those convicted of disobeying the rules. The Puritan concept of the unified whole community and the maintenance of social order were integral to the events of 1692. Once a group of “outliers” or those who did not fit in with the traditional Puritan ideology was identified there was no option but for them to be eliminated by any means necessary.  Also, historical and religious precedent for the events of the trials had already been set. The Puritans were the descendents of European religious communities of hundreds of years prior stemming back to the Roman Catholics from whom the Protestants arose during the Reformation. Roman Catholicism had long ago decreed that witches existed and that they should be punished, often by death. European religious communities, both Catholic and Protestant, had executed thousands of convicted witches and heretics by means such as hanging, burning at the stake and drowning. The idea of hanging convicted witches was a natural progression of this historical precedent and was not a great departure from the ordinary. As such it was easy to order and to have carried out without significant community opposition.

The epitome of Puritan ideology was a community of like minded individuals united in both economic and spiritual goals[MO9] . The reality of the situation at Salem was that there was significant diversity within the members of the community on both counts. There was economic inequity with a wealthy and poor class, religious inequity with an old established and a new church membership and developing religious differences between the old and new generations. This was all played out in the context of a geographically divided society held together for political and financial reasons. The attempt to maintain social order in the face of such inherent conflict was doomed to eventual failure. That failure culminated in the expression of years of pent up social tension in the form of the Salem Witch Trials.




 [MO1]Clear and complex; well developed

 [MO2]Clear Transition

 [MO3] Evidence and analysis throughout 

 [MO4]Clear Transition

 [MO5] New Paragraph?

 [MO6] analysis


 [MO8]clear transition

 [MO9]Nice finish – solid paper