Witchery and the Great Awakening

The Salem Witch Trials, and other witch trials though out the early American colonial period, were a terrible tragedy, the reasons of which are still debated. A variety of possible reasons have been claimed, but one stands out to me as the most likely reason. Many of my classmates have put forward one argument or another, and I think most of the reasons put forward did, to an extent, have  an effect on the witch trials. Overall I agree with Kindig that the primary reasoning behind the witch trials were religious, however I would expand on that assertion.

In looking at the witch trials in the context of the great awakening, it bares an obvious resemblance to the witch trials which took place in Europe following the reformation. But what is the uniting factor which explains why both these periods of religious change should cause witch trials? As I see it, the witch hunts came about as a result of a shift of religious authority  from the educated elite to a more personal or grassroots religiosity. This change in who controlled the religious power could have moved the concept of witchcraft into the forefront as the more superstitious religion of less educated common folk moved to the fore. This i think is the most logical explanation for the trend itself, however each individual trial was most likely caused by different individual factors, which played into the trend.

She’s A Witch…. Maybe.

The idea of witches is a relatively familiar topic in our society. From Harry Potter to Halloween the idea of witches in commonplace in novels and particularly around October. However, looking at real, actual, tangible history, witchcraft still rears its ugly head. The Salem witch trials are a common studied event in American History classes. It seems odd to me that these events would even happen and that they would continue to make their way into history books all the way up to present day. Let’s examine these two phenomena:

First off, why would these events even happen in the first place? Like many of my classmates, I believe that there was distinct relationship between the rise of evangelical beliefs and practices and the rise of witchcraft. However, Sherwood asked an interesting question of correlation or causation. While I agree that some sort of causal relationship was present, the “Mean Girls theory” is something I think should be considered. From what we know of that time, living in New England in the 17th Century was not very exciting. It is not farfetched to assume that some women got bored and created a conspiracy that spread like wildfire. The once it went too far the girls realized that could not take it back. If your life had been dull and dreary who wouldn’t have jumped on the witchcraft bandwagon, or broomstick if you will.

Furthermore, the idea of witchcraft is fun, exciting, and captivating. That is why it makes it into the history books. However, there is definitely history to it. Religion in the colonies was at a crossroads when the witch bug hit. A revival of religion was necessary to keep religion buzzing and alive. Nothing proved a fire and brimstone preacher’s point more than the devil alive through sin in a witch in the community. The witches served as a solid real life testament to the devil’s work in the world. For the people of Salem and elsewhere, this made religion all the more personal and real.

There in lies, for me, the answer to Sherwood’s original question. There was most definitely a connection between the religious goings on of the time. However, It could be a product of a few girls’ imaginations or even possibly a scheme brought about by the church. There are numerous possibilities, and I would suggest that it was more likely causation than correlation. Yet, in this case, hindsight is not twenty-twenty but rather shaded by speculation, or possibly witchcraft.

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.

Shocking Similarities and Awakening

After nearly a century on the continent, European colonists in America had gradually become more proficient in maintaining settlements in the New World and were well on their way to establishing their own nation independent of European influence. Before this could happen, the Salem Witch Trials and The Great Awakening took place, radically altering the religious and supernatural mindset of the inhabitants of the Americans before the Revolution.

In Alan Taylor’s American Colonies, he described the process of this religious revival best when he wrote “after significant lags and regional exceptions, we find a dramatic, widespread, and increasingly synchronized outburst of revival religion.” (Taylor, 339). In a sense, this rebirth of religious devotion in the 1700s has set the tone for the relatively conservative and widespread religious devotion that still exists strongly in the Unites States today.

I found it interesting how the readings were divided between Taylor’s description of The Great Awakening and the four external essays concerning the Salem Witch Trials. Much like EVFRASER, WIROBERTSON, ROMANGONE, CHMASONE and SHCALLAWAY, I too believe that the two events were absolutely interrelated. For better or for worse, religion (particularly Christianity) overtime has used scare tactics as a means of gaining support (e.g. the fear of going to Hell, natural superiority). I believe the Salem Witch Trials and the fear of being persecuted in such a harsh manner was an extension of this scare tactic in an attempt to homogenize society. In her essay “Confess or Deny? What’s a “Witch” to Do?” Elizabeth Reis writes “ministers made it perfectly clear that intimacy with Satan ended one’s chance attaining saving grace and damned one to enter an eternity in hell.” Ministers could easily take advantage of this fear in their sermon. They could use it to not only add members to their church, but to strengthen the congregation’s devotion. By persecuting supposed witches for their supposed worship of Satan and other occult practices, churches in the Americas made it clear how they viewed those with different spiritual views, and how through their preaching they are simply trying to save them.

Finally, I found Taylor’s section on George Whitefield especially interesting. His description of him “drawing immense crowds too large for churches” (Taylor, 347) and as a “charismatic and moving speaker” (Taylor, 347) who would move across America delivering his sermon would be just as accurate in describing a notable 21st century Evangelical preacher today as it was back then. Whitefield in a sense almost set the archetype for modern-day “megapreachers” (as we call them in Canada) all the way down to their association with political figures (in Whitefield’s case it was Benjamin Franklin) and strong concern with their public image.

Relations between the Great Awakening and Witches

Putting both of the readings for Tuesday into one argument, I would say that the witch hunts of the late seventeenth century and the religious Great Awakening go hand in hand. I realize there is somewhat of a debate going on and I would like to make my voice heard. I agree with Romangone who says that the two events were definitely connected. They claim that pastors and religious leaders were using the witch trials to try and scare people into becoming more religious and I think that this has some correct aspects to it. I believe that the witch trials did deepen the peoples belief in the church, but that that was not the pastors’ and religious leaders’ intent. The reason for the sudden witch hunts and trials is up for debate, but whether it was ergot, PTSD, or social warfare, the result of the trials and hunts is undisputed. Throughout the accusations a general fear emerged that these witches were worshiping Satan and that was bringing the Devil closer to Salem. I believe that this led the people of Massachusetts to seek out God in any way possible and they turned to both their old local churches or the traveling evangelicals. The evangelical preachers took full advantage of the fear that had been placed in Massachusetts and they used this fear to convert more and more people to their belief.

Taylor describes the Great Awakening as a “dramatic and sweeping set of religious revivals” (339) and in the mid eighteenth century they were present in many places, especially the northeast. America was the land of religious freedom and protestants of all faiths found a home somewhere on the Atlantic seaboard. Even Catholics had a place in Maryland even thought the majority of the people were Protestants. In the late 17th century, it seemed as though virtually each colony had its own church. The Church of England was the official church of the Virginia Colony, the Puritan Church belonged to Massachusetts and many other New England Colonies, and the Dutch Reformed Church was present in New Netherland. However, the creation and Royal claiming of new colonies between 1690 and 1720 brought more Anglicans over from England and the Church of England grew to be present in more colonies. The Great Awakening was present all over British North America, but was most present in New England who recognized the Congregationalist Church. This was because of the prevalence of churches in that region, Taylor says of New Englanders: “few inhabitants lived more than six miles from a meetinghouse.” (340) The sheer amount of churches and the fact that there were so many educated men from Harvard and Yale to make up the Clergy made New England sure to be the center for the Great Awakening.

The Great Awakening of the 17th century was a time when people restored faith in God and the church became of paramount importance in the colonies. The Salem Witch Trials was by no means the main cause, but I find it undeniable that fear of the presence of the Devil played a significant role in the religious revival of the 1700s.

Religion Against Society: The Relationship Between the Witch Trials and the Great Awakening

Religion in the early colonial era took on many forms. Although different, the beliefs caused a surge of membership and support from the colonists. New institutions were built and people showed up by the thousands to be mesmerized by the speeches of various preachers. Unfortunately, only a few decades before this time, witch trials in northern communities erupted. The correlation between these two has been in debate in previous blog posts.

In Amgaither’s post, she explains that she does not believe that these two events have a cause and effect relationship. Instead, she writes that both were caused by the small town structure and powerful religious prowess in the areas. I agree and disagree with her post. I do believe that the factors stated above did have monumental effects on the emotional proliferation as well as the intemperate actions of the colonists during the witch trials and the Great Awakening. But I also think there was also cause effect driving the scenarios.

During the witch trials of the late 1600s, hysteria broke out as people wrongly accused others of being controlled by the devil. Innocent people were put to death without the rightful use of jurisdiction and the accusers clung to their religious beliefs to determine the victims’ fates. This phenomenon is extremely similar to the beliefs of followers of the evangelical revivals years later. Taylor explains that they believed “that no worldly authority could legitimately obstruct religious choice” (354). Much like the accusers of the witch trials, evangelical converts believed that they should always obey their religious values before that of society. This connection is far too substantial to not be a direct cause of the all-righteous view of religion.

Moving to another issue, I find it interesting that beliefs during this period of religious escalation caused extreme paranoia and conviction. In the witch trials, people were convinced every variation of behavior was controlled by the devil. During the Awakenings, people chose their religious faction and disagreed with choices and the societal standards of others in society. Although these people found god to reach an ethical understanding of life, their actions caused a mass amount of turmoil in the early stages of the colonies. I would like to hear other people’s opinions on either of these two issues I have discussed.

 

The Relationship Between Witch Trials and the Great Awakening

In Sherwood’s post, he argues that the rise of evangelicalism in the Northeast is linked to the witch-hunts in the same region several decades earlier. For the most part, agree with this assertion; however, my views are slightly different in some aspects.

Although the witch trials and Great Awakening were two similar events in the same region, I do not see them as having a cause-and-effect relationship.  Certainly, they shared contributing factors that the South also lacked: mainly small, tight-knit communities and strong religious beliefs.  These qualities allowed the witch-hunt to flourish in the same way they allowed the rise of evangelicalism.  The close communities allowed for both witch accusations and new preaching styles to spread quickly to different families and parishes.  Likewise, the strict standards of the Puritan faith created an extremely God-fearing civilization; in fact, their culture of discipline, hard work, and high morals is based around their religious beliefs.  Their fear of God goes hand-in-hand with a fear of the devil.  When the devil supposedly manifests himself in their neighbors, the people are terrified and act senselessly.  Similarly, a primary reason for the success of evangelicalism was the fear that a person would not obtain salvation and spend eternity in hell.

In summary, small towns and a strict religion are two reasons that both the Great Awakening and the witch-hunts flourished in the Northeast instead of the south.  Although I agree that it may be a contributing factor, I do not believe that these commonalities prove that the paranoia of the witch trials caused the Great Awakening.  In my opinion, these similarities are characteristic of the New England society, and the two events are merely the effects of that social environment.