In its beginning, colonial New England was dominated not only by Puritanism, but also in the belief of witchcraft. The following are the synopses of key people, places, events, and terms that are crucial to understanding the relationship between Puritanism and witchcraft in the early New England Colonies.
Puritanism – the type of Christianity practiced by many New England colonists. Puritanism differed with mainstream Christianity chiefly in the Puritans’ belief in predestination, or the idea that God has already decided the course of the Universe and all aspects of salvation are determined by his sovereignty. Although Puritans considered themselves to be members of the Church of England, many of their self governing congregations ignored the authority of Anglican bishops. Puritanism was the driving force behind the development of colonial New England, and ultimately gave the region a distinctive cultural identity that would endure.
Massachusetts Bay Colony – one of the first English settlements in present day Massachusetts. It was founded in 1630 by a group of about 1000 Puritan settlers from England under the leadership of Governor John Winthrop. The colony became known as “a city upon a hill” and instituted a theocratic form of government. Winthrop and the other leaders of the colony were not religious separatists, and they advocated for reform of, rather than separation from, the Anglican Church. Many of the immigrants to Massachusetts Bay were landowning farm families who were actively committed to Puritanism. These settlers helped Massachusetts Bay to be a healthy, stable colony that thrived in colonial New England.
John Winthrop – the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop wanted the settlers of Massachusetts Bay to build a godly community whose example would shame England into truly reforming the Church of England. He expressed a conservative European’s understanding of social hierarchy and also voiced the dismay of Puritans at the economic forces that were changing English society. Under Winthrop’s leadership, Massachusetts Bay was able to flourish and prosper in the new world.
Anne Hutchinson – a religious reformist who challenged Puritan beliefs at the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Her family had originally moved from Alford to Massachusetts Bay in 1634, following their minister John Cotton. Hutchinson had local bible study groups in her home under the direction of Cotton. However, while studying the bible, the members began to feel that they were not following God in the appropriate way. These members started to feel intensely critical of the church, some even walked out in the middle of sermons. Hutchinson’s followers began to be called antinomians. On November 7, 1637, Anne Hutchinson was put on trial for heresy by the governor John Winthrop. She was found guilty and was banished from the colony. She then traveled to Rhode Island, where she eventually died from an Indian raid in 1643.
Salem Witch Trials – A series of trials in Salem, Massachusetts from June through September of 1962 that dealt with the accusations of witchcraft in the town. Puritans believed that witches were people whose pride, envy, discontent, or greed led them to sign a pact with the devil; thereafter they would use the devil’s supernatural power of evil to torment others. This fallacy created a state of hysteria in the small town of Salem when several girls were accused of practicing witchcraft. Many others were accused of being witches as well, and those who were found guilty attempted to stave off death by implicating others. Ultimately, 19 people were hanged as a result of the trials, while another was pressed to death, bringing the total number of victims to 20. The Salem Witch Trials were but an extreme expression of more widespread anxieties over witchcraft in 17th century colonial New England.
Cotton Mather – a prominent figure in the Salem Witch Trials. He was the minister of Boston’s Old North Church, and he took special interest in the trials. Three of the judges in the trials were friends of his and he encouraged them to consider spectral evidence in the cases. He was even given the official records of the trials and wrote a book about them that was called Wonders of the Invisible World. After visiting Salem and seeing the trials firsthand he revised his position on spectral evidence and tried to minimize evidence of his participation in them. After the trials ended he decided to focus less on the mystical elements of the world and focus more on his duties as a minister.
Witches Coven – the formal organization and working order of witches. There are normally 13 witches in a coven, including twelve witches plus a leader who runs the meetings. However, thirteen is not a rigid rule and there can be more members of a coven. Not all members have to be female and there are several covens that have been documented as having male members. A coven normally meets at night and there is a special officer in charge of setting the date of the meetings and alerting all of the covens’ members to the place and date of the meeting.
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“Cotton Mather.” www.law.umkc.edu. UMKC. October 2, 2009
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. “Witches’ Coven.” The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft. 2nd Edition. 1999.