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Looking at the several social, literary and historical interpretations of the American History, Hurter (2013) argued that most historians painted a picture of America as a religious place. Following this observation, Chaemsaithong (2009) added that many people studying the history of America, especially during the colonial period, have used Salem as a warning against certain actions viewed as unreligious, such as witchcraft. Indeed, the Salem Witchcraft Trials continues to arouse debates between history scholars, religious academicians and legal professionals.
The Salem Witchcraft Trials is an episode of the American History that stretched between 1692 and 1693. The events that characterized this episode invoke images of discrimination, unprecedented abuse of power, persecution and religious bigotry. Furthermore the irrational fears that distinguished this period explain the societal constructs towards religion, culture, legislation and politics. In as much as the trials are used in the annals of history to depict the fascination that defined the relationship between social values or beliefs and the legal interpretation of judgments, Jortner (2014) explains that there has been no clear universally accepted explanation for the event.
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This paper will delve deeper into the Salem Witchcraft Trials, looking at the cultural, political, religious and legislative interpretations of the events, more so in relation to the English colonial experience in the 17th century in the Massachusetts area. This discussion will prove the ultimately alluring nature of the Witchcraft trials by illustrating how these trials are subject to diverse interpretations based on the purpose of the interpreter.
During the 17th Century, the period of the occurrence of the Salem Witchcraft Trials, Puritanism was undoubtedly the most prevalent religion. Life in New England during that period was established on the platform of the church. In Massachusetts, majority of the people were Puritans, described as colonialists from England who settled in the area in search of religious tolerance. The Salem Witchcraft Trials exposes the religious intolerance that characterized the English Colonial Experience in the 17th Century in the Massachusetts area.
In as much the Puritans wanted the locals to believe that their religious constructs were tolerant, the Salem Witchcraft Trials proved that the Puritan code was not only intolerant but also strict. Whereas it was deemed wrong not to attend church, the strictness of the Puritan code was depicted in the engendered sitting arrangements during the long church services. In addition, rigidity and restrain were the cornerstones of the Puritan lifestyle in which people were expected to repress their opinions and emotions by working hard against them.
The Salem Witchcraft Trials brought forth the long-standing belief in the supernatural powers. In this context, supernatural was depicted as a devil’s practice that manifested through the harmful powers given to humans. This power would be used to cause harm and pain in the society in exchange of loyalty and favors from the devil. Therefore, the Salem Witchcraft Trials was a test that pitted the Puritan religion against the social evil of witchcraft. This interpretation exposes the strict adherence that the English Colonialist imparted on the issue of religion in the Massachusetts area.
The realities of life in Salem village could not be complete without mentioning the fact that the rural village was composed of a Puritan community. The effects of the British War against the French in the American Colonies three years prior to the Salem Witchcraft Trials, coupled with the recent disaster inflicted by the smallpox epidemic could not wash away the political influence that these trials had in the English Colonial practice during the 17th Century.
The use of spectral evidence is among the most contested aspects that powered these trials. According to the Puritan belief, witches could only use their spiritual powers to cause harm to people within the society. This way, the Puritans envisioned witches as people who could torture others without being in the physical presence of the people. The claim by one afflicted girl that pointed to the use of specter by a defendant to attack her during the trial was treated as legitimate evidence. As such, the society believed that the witches could use their powers to manipulate the thinking of the afflicted girls in the course of the trial.
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Amidst the application of such accusations as evidence, the political influence in making judicial decisions could not be understated. Looking at the legitimacy of the spectral evidence as admitted during the trials, Holmes (2016) noted that the influence of leading political figures in Salem played a role in the realization of this development. Witchcraft was considered a violation to the Puritan code, a factor that encouraged the ministers to authorize the use of spectral evidence in hearing the Salem Witchcraft Trials.
While analyzing the causes of witchcraft hysteria, Chaemsaithong (2009) took a number of factors into consideration. The most instrumental factor is the belief that shaped the opinion of witchcraft prevalence among the New England settlers. As earlier mentioned, the internal strife and political upheavals during that period were considered when analyzing political hysteria. In addition, Salem had several personal feuds and land disputes that heightened the tensions within the community.
Many of the Puritan villagers had their culture established on religion. As portrayed in the Salem Witchcraft Trials, the society was cultured towards believing that the successes or failures of individuals were shaped by the blessing or curses from God. This way, many Puritans believed that the witchcraft hysteria was as a result of God’s punishment for rampant failures that some villagers had caused him.
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In addition, the role of the clergy in shaping the Salem Witchcraft Trials was induced in the explanations of witchcraft hysteria. While some historians such as Hurter (2013) accredit the trials’ end to the efforts by the clergy, some such as Holmes (2016) argue that the society was channeled towards expecting retribution owing to the activities of the clergy. The clergy, however, are keen to take a position when describing the afflicted girls as liars. This explains the political supremacy that the government had over the church during the 17th Century. While members of the clergy believed that the girls were victims of the disease, they could not out rightly condemn these girls for fear of indictment over their stand against the cultural and religious values of the Puritan community.
The Salem Witchcraft Trials heightened the political and class strife that were characteristic of the English colonial experience in the 17th century in the Massachusetts area. The rivalries between Salem Village and Salem Town were complimented by rivalries between families. The role of Tituba in the drama is highlighted from this account, with the image of Tituba performing witchcraft with the afflicted girls putting her at the center of the class and political rivalries during the period. As such, the trials were considered as battles between the cosmopolitan Samlem Town and the conservative rural Salem village. This moves to point out that class and political identity was a construct of the 17th Century English Colonial experience.
The reflections on the events of Salem Witchcraft Trials reveal much about the purpose of the interpreter as opposed to the purpose of the events themselves. In this essay, the interpretations surrounded the religious, political, legislative and cultural perspectives. The mysteries of the challenges of the Salem Witchcraft Trials explain the role of the above perspectives in the modern day political agenda. The trials, moreover, are relevant in the political realm, as they explain how the social, religious and cultural demands can be used to manipulate the politicians into serving the needs of the community.
- American Yawp. 2017. “4. Colonial Society | The American Yawp”. Americanyawp.Com. http://www.americanyawp.com/text/04-colonial-society/.
- Chaemsaithong, Krisda. 2009. “Re-Visiting Salem: Self-Face and Self-Politeness in the Salem Witchcraft Trials”. Journal of Historical Pragmatics 10 (1): 56-83. doi:10.1075/jhp.10.1.04cha.
- Holmes, Clive. 2016. “A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience, By Emerson W. Baker”. The English Historical Review 6 (3): cew215. doi:10.1093/ehr/cew215.
- Hurter, S. R. 2013. “Elusive Or Illuminating: Using The Web to Explore the Salem Witchcraft Trials”.OAH Magazine of History 17 (4): 60-61. doi:10.2689/maghis/17.4.60.
- Jortner, Adam. 2014. “America Bewitched: The Story of Witchcraft after Salem by Owen Davies”. Magic, Ritual, And Witchcraft 9 (2): 237-239. doi:10.1353/mrw.2014.0020.