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.

Religious Passion in the North, Religious Apathy in the South, and Witchcraft

A major theme of this week’s reading is the spread of religious fervor in the New England and Mid-Atlantic areas throughout the 18th century and its impact on colonial life. Although previous religious movements had taken place all over the world, the one in the British Colonies is unique. Rather than spreading across the entire east coast, the Awakening was confined to areas where places of worship and people were closer together and overall, more likely to interact. While the Northern people were captivated by the speeches of George Whitefield and the pamphlets and papers distributed by people like Benjamin Franklin, Southern people were noticeably less moved. Communities in the South were much more spread out, which made spreading the religious movement throughout the region an extremely difficult task. This movement was also original because it involved people forming many different strands of a religious belief. Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists each separated from Protestantism yet all of them remained connected because they all had branched off of Catholicism. Rather than the groups becoming homogenized with each other they became homogenized against the British homeland, which is what makes the Great Awakening so revolutionary.
Taylor depicts the Great Awakening’s appeal to Northern people most effectively through primary sources. Benjamin Franklin’s refusal to donate money followed by his sudden willingness to empty his pockets (348) along with Nathan Cole’s recollection of a “heart wound” (349) were both extremely helpful in demonstrating the power that orators held over colonists who were both educated and uneducated. Massachusetts Reverend Peter Thacher’s account of the newfound appreciation and involvement in religion by males also strengthens Taylor’s argument of a formidable religious presence in the North and religious indifference in the South. Although succinctly, Taylor does an exceptional job explaining why speakers like Whitefield did not experience the level of success in the South as he did in the North.
In conclusion, I would like to comment on the ongoing debate over whether or not the Great Awakening in colonial New England and the witch hunts of the late 17th century have a cause-and-effect relationship. As my classmate Amgaither pointed out, the New England area was composed of more educated, community oriented, and religiously active people. These factors primed the area for such momentous religious occurrences in both cases but one did not cause the other.

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 Effected More than just the Colonists

While the recent blog posts make a compelling argument for the comparison of how the rise of evangelicalism influenced the witch-hunt trials in the years to come; a comparison I find more interesting is the fear of witchcraft between both the colonists and the Indians.

Witchcraft was something that took many of the colonists, mainly those in New England, by storm. The accusations and persecutions of those believed to be witches occurred significantly in the late seventeenth century. Fear led to accusations of any behavior that was remotely out of the ordinary and this led to a period where the colonists’ lives were consumed by the idea of witches that ran rampant. Yet, were the colonists the only ones affected by the idea of witchcraft?
After this week’s reading I felt compelled to write about a various aspect that stems from the collection of essays on American witch trials. Something that struck me was the undeniable similarity between the colonists’ and Indians’ beliefs in witchcraft. Although this may have not been a central argument to the essay it was definitely something that intrigued me and I felt the need to address it. Not only was it a matter of just believing in the presence of witchcraft but the certain reasons to believe in it and how certain accusations were carried out.

For so long the common conception was that the natives and the colonists were so very different. In fact, the colonists went as far as to call the Indians “savages” based on their lifestyles that varied from those of the colonists. Yet one thing that the colonists shared with these “savages” was their belief and fear of witchcraft. This concept or idea pertains to the essay titled American Indians, Witchcraft, and Witch-hunting. In this it is seen how the Indians, most specifically the Iroquois tribe, feared witches and often associated sickness with witchcraft. This is a practice that is carried out by the colonists as seen in the various other essays. Much of the time when someone would die of a simple cold or various illness the colonists were quick to blame witches and their practice of witchcraft. Much of this blame was due in part to the fact that during this time medicine was not very advanced and when a random death would occur the colonists didn’t know how to diagnose it other than it was an act of witchcraft.

Therefore, the colonists and Indians shared this fear of witchcraft and it was a big part of their lives for a short period of time where fears escalated as the popularity of this idea grew. This similarity between the colonists and the Indians is one among others and leaves me wondering how similar were these “savages” and colonists?

Taylor, Chapter 15 / Norton, “Witchcraft”: A Supernatural Inclination

Sherwood Callaway
HIS 141, Blog Post 4

In the colonies, the advent of evangelical Christendom can be plausibly linked to heightened paranoia regarding witches on the grounds of their common “experimental” nature.

Taylor juxtaposes evangelicalism with its conservative counterpart, rationalism. He describes the former as “cultivating a spontaneous, direct, and individual religious experience” (343). Plainly, evangelicalism embraced superstition to an almost unprecedented level, arguably rivaling the mystic spirituality of Medieval Christendom. Furthermore, evangelical Christians were extremely emotionally invested in their worship. Rationalism, on the other hand, “held that God created the natural universe and thereafter never interfered with its laws” (344). Rationalists “found guidance” in understanding the methods of science and order (344). They condemned evangelicals as “enthusiastic,” or fanatical—and not entirely without fair reason.

I have little evidence to support the following claim, but I found the prospect much too intriguing to ignore: Could the “experimental” nature of evangelicalism have contributed to the rationalization of witchcraft in colonial New England? I believe so.

Consider a few hard facts:

1) Evangelicalism emerged most prominently in the Congregational communities of New England. For example, the evangelical George Whitefield had little success in the southern colonies, “because most Anglicans distrusted his emotional preaching and ecumenical support… [and the south] also lacked the dense settlement and many printing presses” (348). In New England, however, these essential elements were present, and he achieved much larger audiences.

2) Norton writes in her essay Witchcraft in the Anglo-American Colonies that “the vast majority of known witchcraft cases arose in Massachusetts or Connecticut or developed among Puritan New Englanders.” Furthermore, to extend my tentative comparison of evangelicalism and medieval Christendom, she explains: “only New Englanders established the sorts of small, relatively self-contained communities that in Europe tended to generate witchcraft charges.” Norton suggests that these communities facilitated interaction between neighbors, which facilitated conflict between neighbors, which—when coupled with the unpredictable hardships of colonial life, and a pre-enlightenment worldview—likely escalated into accusations. Quite frankly, the farming societies in the Chesapeake and the Carolinas were not as conducive.

So it is clear that New England was more evangelical, and also more prone to witchcraft charges. But the question remains: was this relationship a correlation or causation? A partial causation, I would bet—contribution is probably a better word.
I’m interested to hear the perspectives of my fellow students on the issue.