Witchcraft and the Religious Divide

In his latest post, Sherwood explores the possibility of a relationship between evangicalism and the witch trials of colonial New England. I agree with his conclusion that the relationship is most likely one of contribution on the part of evangicalism. The nature of the sermons at this time pertified churchgoers by evoking a sense of inpending doom and of the closeness of the devil (think of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”) which would have made the presence of witches in their communities seem more plausible. In combination with the uncertainty and turmoil of the region at this time which we discussed in class, the religious fervour could have easily led a New England colonist to see an illness or the death of an important farm animal as a result of witchcraft than of simple misfortune.

I also think that it is important to look at the effects that the outbreak of witch trials had on the development of the Great Awakening which occured several years later. In chapter 15 of American Colonies, Taylor describes the divide between evangelicals and rationalists which accompanied the proliferation of religious dominations at this time. He writes that reationalists “…rejected the supernatural mysteries and overt emotionalism of evangelical worship” (Taylor 344). Rather than seeing God’s wrath or the Devil’s work in any misfortune, the rationalists looked to science and reason. As the antithesis to evangelical thought, rationalists didn’t believe that God interfered in the world. Therefore, I contend that the witch paranoia of the late 1600s was at least partially responsible for the divide that began to form during the Great Awakening. After the flurry of convictions and executions, government officials were likely embarrassed and wanted to distance themselves from the influence of such intensely emotional religion. As a result they, and others who disapproved of the witch hunting, could have gravitated toward rationalism. In addition, the witch hunting could have been used as support against evangicalism, furthering the opposition to its spread and helping to develop the more moderate and conservative sect of the movement. The relationship between the witch trials and evangicalism is a complex one in which both the witch paranoia and evangicalism influenced the other. It is important not to overlook one’s influence on the other and I would be interested to hear what other people think about this relationship.