The Colonial Church in Salem 1600s
The Colonial Church in Salem 1600s (Now houses several shops)

Salem certainly does have more than it’s share of churches. We saw a number of them as we walked up and down the streets there. It was the “Puritans” who started the mass hysteria in Salem back in 1629. Below is a picture of the first church built in Salem.

Unitarian Church built in Salem in 1629 Unitarian Church built in Salem in 1629

To understand (as much as it is possible to understand 300 years after-the-fact) what happened, let me just say (on this page) that for the Puritans there was to be no such thing as “play” or “fun.” Life in those times had to consist of work, and church. Nothing else. To do anything else, would be to commit the most grave of sins against God. This philosophy was to eventually become their undoing.

Lo and Behold! There was also a Catholic Church built in Salem shortly thereafter. This church was built in the 1600s as well. There was a point at which “the powers that be” in St. Peter's decided to build an addition to their church. Only problem was that the only place where there was any room [left?] was St. Peter's Cemetery. To accommodate the new addition, they moved all of the tombstones (minus the bodies) and placed the tombstones in front of the church from two to three feet apart. Next they proceeded to build the new addition right on top of all the bodies left behind in the ground!

As a result, the tombstones stand erect in front of the church not more than two to three feet apart! (Our trolley tour guide joked that he'd always wondered whether they'd been buried standing up!) (Below is a photo of the side of St. Peter's Church with it's new addition.

. . . and here are some of the tombstones in front of St. Peter’s. . .

. . . and here are the rest of the tombstones . . .

Tombstones moved minus the bodies
Tombstones moved minus the bodies

Back “addition” of old St. Peter’s Church

Certainly a rather sad testament to the Catholic Church . . .



The whole life of a Christian should be nothing but praises and thanks to God; we should neither eat nor sleep, but eat to God and sleep to God and work to God and talk to God, do all to His glory and praise.”

Richard Sibbes
Richard Sibbes, Puritan Minister

There were a number of religious factors that contributed to the Salem witch trials. Among these are the influence of the strict Puritan lifestyle, the believed presence of the Devil in the community, and a conspiracy theory involving the town ministers.

Puritan Lifestyle and Religious Views

The Puritan lifestyle was influenced heavily by the church and Christian beliefs. According to Discovery Education, “Church was the cornerstone of the mainly Puritan society of the 17th century.” Puritan laws were extremely rigid and the members of society were expected to follow a strict moral code. Due to this fact, anything that was believed to go against this code was considered a sin and deserved to be punished. The Puritans also believed strongly in the wrath of God and did everything they could to prevent themselves from receiving it. This is why the witch scare was taken so seriously and the accused were punished harshly. The first women to be accused as witches were those who strayed from the Puritan lifestyle and were considered to be social outcasts. The afflicted girls tended to single out the “social deviants, outcasts, merchants, tradesmen and others who threatened traditional Puritan values”. For example, one of the first accused women, Sara Osburn, had been previously scandalized by the community for having premarital sexual relations and not regularly attending church, whereas another woman, Martha Corey, was shunned for having an illegitimate child (Phelps and Lehman). The fact that these women were considered sinners played a huge role in their accusation and conviction. The members of the community felt that it was their duty to rid the community of such sinners, since they were believed to be working for the Devil. The Puritans believed that the Devil was as real as God and that those members of society who were the weakest at upholding Puritan values and morals, specifically women and children, would be selected to carry out his work. Witches were believed to do just this, and therefore were deemed punishable under Puritan Law (“Salem Witch Trials”). The accused women mentioned above had failed to uphold the community values, and were therefore easy targets for the Devil and witchcraft. This argument played a huge role in their conviction by the court. As opposed to having actual evidence, these women were condemned to hanging based solely on the testimonies of several teenage girls and their own positions in society.

Puritan Societies
Puritan Societies

The Believed Presence of the Devil

The believed presence of the Devil in the community was well justified in the Puritans’ point of view. It was a common belief that God would protect his servants unconditionally and would keep them out of harm’s way. Therefore, when difficulties in the community began to arise, the blame was easily placed on the Devil and the “witches” that were carrying out his work for him (Schuetz). Also, according to David Levin, a prominent minister in the community had predicted that “the antichrist had only about twenty years more in which to win converts and torture mankind.” This meant that the Devil only had a short time left in which to turn people against God, and due to the various difficulties in the community, the community believed that the time had come and the Devil had already begun to recruit people in the community to carry out his work.

Puritan congregation
Puritan congregation

A Conspiracy Theory

Another widely scrutinized theory suggested the idea that the witch scare may have been posed by the ministers of the community in an effort to drive the mass back to the church. According to Robert Detweiler in his article “Shifting Perspectives on the Salem Witches,” the ministers were believed to have encouraged the strange behavior so that they could increase their own influence over the people by showing that they were able to rid the afflicted from the evil spirits. Another reason the ministers could have posed this was to use witchcraft as a check on anti-social behavior. The encouragement of the few accused witches would serve to deter others from acting differently for fear of being accused as well. This demonstrates quite well the possible effects that the society of the time had on this notorious case.

– The University of Michigan


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