As religious missionaries in a strange land, the Puritans clung to their beliefs as the foundation of a collective life. Religious persecution had driven the Puritans from Europe, yet a fixation upon Satan’s machinations in their new home led to paranoia and collective hysteria. The reason for this lies in Puritans’ conception of the entity they referred to as “the Devil,” an evil force with whom they shared a complicated relationship.
God's Relationship to Satan
Puritans believed in the absolute supremacy of a just God, so the existence of a being whose sole purpose was to spread evil creates obvious theological problems. Puritans explained this contradiction through a belief in God’s power over the Devil. Though the Devil sought to corrupt God’s creation, he did so with God’s implicit permission, and acted to test the faith of believers. This position has precedent in the Old Testament, when God allows Satan to test the faith of Job. God also used the Devil to mete out punishment as natural calamities or unfortunate events, such as birth defects.
The Powers of the Devil
To Puritans, the Devil was an invisible presence that could influence the material world. Cotton Mather, a Puritan leader and minister, wrote of devilish afflictions he claimed to have observed firsthand. According to Mather, an attack from the Devil could manifest as scratches or bruises, muteness, blindness or sharp pains. Mather additionally claimed to have seen impossible contortions, such as the revolution of the head upon the neck, jaws opened to an incredible width and the tongue pulled out to prodigious length. Puritans also believed that the Devil caused depression and could lead the afflicted to alcohol abuse, promiscuity and suicide.
The Devil in New England
Puritans considered the wilderness as the Devil’s natural habitat. As pilgrims in an uncharted land, Puritans recognized themselves as intruders in the Devil's territory, and thus the special targets of his ire. Native Americans, whom Puritans regarded as servants of the Devil, aroused suspicion and fear. The Puritans’ location in a godless wilderness helped forge paranoia around the Devil, which Puritan leaders may have stoked in an attempt to create unity and maintain order. Prominent Puritans like Increase Mather and his son, Cotton, seemed to genuinely believe in the Devil, however, as evidenced in their personal writings.
The Devil's Handmaidens
Puritans saw women as the weaker sex, not only physically, but also mentally and spiritually. All women bore an imperishable taint due to the actions of Eve, whose temptation illustrated women’s availability as tools for the Devil's work. The Puritans used witches as scapegoats to explain the occurrence of misfortune. For example, English refugees from King William’s War arrived in Salem and placed a strain on local resources. This hardship, combined with the general dislike of the newly arrived Reverend Samuel Parris, created an atmosphere of general disaffection. When the unpopular reverend’s daughter and niece made accusations of witchcraft, hysteria took over and led to the famous trials of 1692-1693.
- Gettysburg College: Puritan Beliefs on Satan and Witchcraft
- Michigan State University: Religious Aspects
- Maine History Online: The Devil and the Wilderness
- Archiving Early America: Witchcraft, Religious Fanaticism and Schizophrenia -- Salem Revisited
- Encyclopedia Virginia: Witchcraft in Colonial Virginia
- Smithsonian Magazine: A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images