Puritans, The Witchcraft Hysteria & The Great Awakening
Let’s enter our time machine (or the Magic Treehouse) and set the dial for 1603. Set the place for London, England. All England is in mourning. Their great Queen Elizabeth has died. The vast majority of the English population had known no other monarch.
She had become queen during very troubled religious times. Her dad had broken England from the Catholic Church. Henry made the Church of England Protestant, but not very Protestant. Then her younger brother Edward VI, England became VERY Protestant (Lutheran) & Catholics were persecuted. Then came her older sister, Mary Tudor. She swung England back to Catholicism and persecuted Protestants.
Elizabeth had no strong religious views. She just wanted to unite the country and religion seemed a good way to do that. She pushed the Church of England and was an equal opportunity persecutor – Catholics AND non-conforming Protestants.
Under Elizabeth, things settled down in England as far as religion went. However, the situation unraveled in the 50 years after her death. England experienced a religious ferment that threatened to tear the country apart. There were many extreme Protestant sects during this time Among them were the Baptists & the Quakers. These groups seemed to be radical to the Anglicans. They believed that the individual conscience was the sole source of moral value. That each person was responsible for his own salvation.
OT the crown, these groups were subversive. That is not surprising. However, the crown also came after more moderate nonconformists & the few remaining Catholics on the island. You need to realize that by rejecting the Church of England. the groups seemed to be undermining the authority of the king. That is the difference between a government of men & a government of laws. The nonconformists seemed to be a threat to the unity of the nation. Also, to many they seemed to be endangering their own souls and the souls of any with whom they came in contact.
Ironically, most of the victims of Anglican religious persecution did not speak out for complete religious freedom or toleration. Of the nonconformists, only the Quakers believed that ALL people should be allowed discover spiritual truth for themselves. Most of the others believed that they alone were right and everyone else was wrong. These other nonconformists did not question the state’s right to dictate religion. They just believed that the crown was dictating the WRONG religion. They were all for uniformity – as long as it was their uniformity.
By the early 1600’s, several religious minority groups gave up hope of ever changing the Church of England. They began to look at emigration as their best option. One of these groups called themselves Puritans. They had wanted to purify the Anglican Church of Catholic influence. By now the more radical Puritans had become Separatists and called themselves Pilgrims.
In 1608, a group of these Pilgrims left England for Leiden in the Netherlands. The Netherlands was a refuge for religious minorities from all over Europe. The Pilgrims did o.k. in Leiden, but as time went on they began to be afraid that theyt were losing their cultural identity. They saw that their children were becoming more like the laid-back Dutch. They felt they had to move to protect their identity & the religious future of their children.
The question was – where to go? They decided on the New World. The problem was that was an expensive enterprise. They could not afford the trip. They also had no charter guaranteeing them English protection from the Spanish and the French. At this point the Pilgrims turned to the London Company. In exchange for some of the company’s less desirable land and for a guarantee of "liberty of the Pilgrims agreed to develop the land in America & give the company part of the income from the land.
About 30 of the Pilgrims left for England where they joined a larger group of nonseparatists who the company hired to work in the new colony. On the 16th of September, 1620, 149 passengers & crew boarded the 180 tom Mayflower & set sail from Plymouth, England for America.
Their destination was the area near the Hudson River but several storms drove them off course to the north. They landed at Cpae Cod Bay & named their landing site, Plymouth. The Pilgrims were afraid that the nonseparatists who outnumbered them would dominate the new settlement. They were also concerned that they had landed outside the area of their charter. Therefore, before they left the ship the Pilgrims write the Mayflower Compact. This was a short document that established a civil government with the power to "enact, constitute, & frame such just & equal laws, ordinances acts, constitutions & offices from time to time as shall be thought most meet& convenient for the general good of the colony."
During that first winter the colony suffered horribly from disease & hunger. They didn’t realize it, but they were lucky – it was a mild winter for New England. Also, the Indians were not as much of a problem as they might have been. Shortly before they landed, there had been a smallpox epidemic that swept through the Indian population of the area.
You all know the story of Squanto, the Indian who had been educated in England & who befriended the colonists & showed them how to plant crops native to the area. In spite of his help the Plymouth colonists suffered horribly. Most colonies suffered through what was called the "starving time". By spring, half of the original group was dead. But by the next fall their warehouses were full with plenty to get them through the second winter. It was that November that the colonists celebrated the first Thanksgiving.
The Pilgrim population grew. They reached about 1000 after 20 years. Life was rough but the leaders like William Bradford would not let them forget their mission – to found a Godly community. For 70 years, the Old Colony did fairly well. Then, in 1690, it was absorbed into the larger Massachusetts Bay Colony.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony
The Pilgrims who settled the Plymouth Colony were propelled by religion. Those who came to the Mass Bay Colony came for the same reasons. These Puritans had also given up hope of reforming the Church of England.
In 1625, 40 of them emigrated to the fishing village of Salem, just north of present-day Boston. Then a few prominent Puritan gentlemen farmers secured a charter from Charles I. They were given permission to build a new colony. The company was named the Mass Bay Company. It was a corporation authorized to own & govern all lands between the Merrimack & Charles Rivers from "sea to sea".
In the summer of 1629, the Puritans convinced John Winthrop, a Cambridge-educated lawyer & gentleman farmer, to become governor of the Mass Bay Company. He agreed on the condition that the Puritans take their charter to Mass with them. That way the king could not get his hands on it. Winthrop was aware of the problems facing colonies in the new world. He knew about Jamestown. But he also thought he knew why these colonies had such problems. He wrote that their "main aim had become carnal not religious". He would see to it that this would not happen in Mass Bay.
Soon men & women facing persecution in England & starvation due to economic depression were willing to sell all their property, pay off all their debts, leave their friends and surroundings and sign up for a trip to an unsure future. In early spring 1630, four well-stocked ships ;eft for New England. Several more soon followed. Every one of these ships made it. The colonists took this as a sign that God approved of what they were doing.
In just a few months, over 1000 had made the voyage. They built cabins, cleared trees, & planted crops in the area that would become Boston. By 1640 Mass had about 9,000 people, almost as many as Jamestown, which had a 13 year head start.
Even though the Puritans came to Plymouth & Mass to avoid religious persecution & oppression, they soon established religious oppression in both Mass & Plymouth. Under John Winthrop & the other Puritan leaders, Mass Bay functioned as a theocratic republic. TO be considered a "freeman", one had to be an adult male property owning head of family and a full-fledged member of a congregation. Only freemen were allowed to take part in political decision-making. Women were denied all political rights, as were men who were not church members or men who owned no property.
The puritans decoded that they would establish a "City Upon A Hill" that would be a beacon to show the world what could happen in a community that lived in accordance with God’s laws (as known only to the male Puritan freemen)
The Puritan religious leaders had great power in their communities but they did not have total power. They did have great influence over who became members of congregations. That was very important.
However, the power of the preachers was limited. A congregation had the power to hire & fire its ministers & to set their salaries. The preachers could not hold public office. Thus, in a limited way, the Puritans endorsed the idea of separation of church and state.
In spite of what most think, the Puritans were not a dreary non-worldly lot. They believed there was a calling to do God’s work. They believed in what in the 19th century would be called the Protestant Work Ethic. God intended for man to work hard & if he did that, God would reward him in a material way.
Legend to the contrary, the Puritans in the New World also enjoyed simple pleasures like singing, dancing. They seemed to eat well, drank heartily & made love (monogamously) They did believe that man was basically bad. That if left alone his worst instincts would take over. Therefore laws were needed to keep him in line. Each colony passed laws to "encourage" man to lead a moral life.
These laws were called Blue Laws. In New Haven, Conn, for example, a young couple was fined for the crime of kissing in public. Conn had so many Blue Laws they were called the Blue Law Colony (later, state).
Still, life was a serious business & the fires of hell & eternal damnation were very real to the Puritans. It was a hell where sinners yelled & shrieked in vain for divine intervention.
A very popular poem in New England, selling more than one copy for every twenty people was written by a Puritan clergyman, Michael Wigglesworth & entitled "Day of Doom_ It was written in 1667. It shows what Puritans thought hell was like:
They cry, they roar for anguish sore,
and gnaw their tongues for horour.
But get away without delay,
Christ pities not your cry:
Depart to Hell, there may you yell,
and your eternally.
The Puritans are important to us today for a couple of reasons. Their idea of a "city upon a hill" and their Protestant Work Ethic have become part of the American soul. All people np matter where they live have a self-image. The American self-image is as a redeemer nation. We see ourselves as living in a nation where all the oppressed peoples of the world can come. We also see ourselves as an example to the world. We in the New World would set an example to the Old World. To the Puritans, it was a religious example. It has become something more. This is one of the themes that we will see over & over as we go through the American Experience. We show the world what can happen if they adopt our form of Christianity but alos the American free enterprise system & the American idea of participatory democracy. We will see it in the Declaration of Ind, in our reform movements, in our short-lived drive for empire, in Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points, in our entry into the World Wars, in Vietnam & even today.
The Protestant Work Ethic became a driving force in American morality in the 19th century.
Those who did not share the Puritans’ religious views were not welcome in the colony. As John Cotton, a prominent Puritan minister noted: the design of our first planters was not toleration. They were professed enemies of it.
Read about some of those who were not welcome. One was Thomas Hooker who thought that church membership should not be a requirement for voting. When he could not convince the powers that be he & some who agreed with him left. In 1636, & established the first settlement in what is now Conn.
They wrote the Fundamental Orders of Conn. It was a form of government that gave less authority to the magistrates. Their settlement was New Haven.
Roger Williams was another who fled. He & followers founded Providence colony in what would become Rhode Island. He was unusual & that he actually bought the land from the Indians. In Providence he stopped the Puritan practice of taxing the people to support the church. In Providence Plantation the key principles were the complete separation of church & state, toleration of all religious beliefs & the sovereignty of the people.
Then there was Anne Hutchinson, a woman of quick wit & bold spirit who also tangled with the authorities in Mass Bay. She began holding meetings at her house after church on Sundays. There, people would discuss the sermon. Ministers did not like that & eventually brought her up on charges of heresy.. She seemed to violate the Puritans’ principle of female subordination. The problem was that she was smarter & quicker than her questioners. She kept them at bay. But they wore her down. When she, in exasperation, came out with a warning that if they continued God would ruin them, their posterity & this wholecity. They had her now. They asked her how she knew. She told them God had told her. Big mistake. Everyone knew God spoke only to certain men. She was a heretic. She & some of her followers soon moved to a settlement near Providence.
The Witchcraft Phenomenon
Unfortunately for them, the first generation of Puritans cpuld not pass their religious zeal on to their children. Church attendance dropped (along with collections) Not only did the second generation seem to be more passive in their religious expressions, they were also more inclusive. As church attendance dropped the church leaders feared for the souls of their flocks. Explain why attendance dropped & why people seemed to be more materialistic.
Rhings seemed to be changing in Puritan America. By the late 1600’s the character of New England was changing. New Englanders were more business oriented. Instead of farming more were involved in producing
goods for export or for the actual exporting of goods.. With the change in work & where people lived the times they were a’changing.
To many in New England things were changing too fast. In our history, when there is great dramatic change, weird things seem to happen. Nowhere was this illustrated better than in Salem Mass. Salem had grown quickly to become the second largest seaport in the region. Trade brought prosperity to Salem but it also destroyed the relative equal distribution of wealth that Salem had enjoyed. Salem had been a society of humble fishermen & farmers. Then things changed.
A sharp distinction arose between the two parts of town, the eastern, port side of town & the western farming side.
Before 1661 the richest 10% of the population owned 21% of the town’s wealth. Just 20 years later the richest 10% controlled 62% of the town’s wealth. The vast majority of those 10% lived in the east (port) side of town.
With the loss of economic standing came a loss of social standing. But that was not all the farmers lost. They lost political power to the businessmen. Before 1665, farmers held most of the town’s political offices. After that merchants & businessmen outnumbered farmers in political office by a 6 to one ratio. With all of this there developed great tension between the two sides of town. The farmers resented the merchants.
Salem had become divided into two districts – Salem Towne along the harbor & Salem Village inland. The residents of the Village resented their loss of economic, social & political standing. Tensions between the two grew.
In 1691, the temperature reached a boiling point. Several Salem Village teenage girls met a West Indian slave women – Tituba. The girls discovered Tituba practiced "Black Magic". They encouraged her to tell their fortunes & tell them about sorcery.
Later the girls began to behave strangely at home. When their parents confronted them, they said Tituba had put a spell on them – that she was a witch. They also accused a rather ill-tempered beggar woman &a bed-ridden old woman.
So far nothing was unusual. Belief in witches at this time was common. In Europe & America people of all socio-economic & educational levels believed in them. Between 1647 & 1691 New England courts tried 81 people as witches. Sixteen of them were hanged. Here is where things became different. In the earlier trials, officials questioned a few people of lower social classes in orderly hearings. Certain types of evidence & testimony were not allowed. At Salem, there was near panic, evicence that was not permitted before was now allowed. Before most of the accused were lower class, now several prominent people were accused.
Bt Aoril 1692, the girls had expanded their accusations to two prosperous farm wives who had long been considered saints in their congregations. They accused the village’s former minister as a male witch.
Fear was beginning to take over. In this atmosphere, the judges began to allow formally forbidden evidence & testimony. The fear of witchcraft overcame rules oi evidence. Spectral evidence was allowed in. Accusations came very quickly until the jails were full. People were put in stocks on the village green. One suspect spent nine months in heavy chains. She was a four year old girl
The pattern of hysteria in Salem reflected the community’s internal divisions. Most of the charges came from the village’s west side. With two exceptions, those charged as witches lived outside the village’s western section.
Gender & age also seem to have played a role . Two-thirds of all accusers were girls between the ages of 11 & 20. They were products of a society that had little sympathy for the emotional complexities of adolescence. It was a society that expected children to behave with a maturity that they were not ready to show.
Those most frequently accused were middle agad women from the rich side of town. These were the people most closely resembling their mothers. To a large extent, maybe the girls were displacing resentment that they felt toward their own mothers onto the women whose families their parents already hated & were therefore willing to believe the worst.
The number facing trial grew quickly. There were only two ways ot save yourself if accused. You could confess or you could blame others. Name names. Ties of friendship or family meant nothing to most accused. A minister was named by his own granddaughter. A seven year old girl helped send her mother to the gallows. A wife & daughter facing death turned on the husband/father. Fifty people saved themselves by confessing. Twenty others would neither disgrace their names nor betray those not guilty. Those twenty went to their graves instead.
By late 1692, most Mass ministers had come to believe thatthey had doubts that justice was being served. The clergy were having problems with the fact that so many convictions were based upon spectral evidence. Backed by the clergy & alarmed that his own wife was accused of being a witch; Governor Phipps forbad any more imprisonments for witchcraft in October 1692. By that time over 100 were in jail & over 200 more were waiting their turn. Soon after that Phipps ordered that there would be no more trials. Early in 1693, Phipps brought an end to the terror by pardoning all those convicted or suspected of witchcraft.
The witchcraft hysteria reflected the profound anxieties over social changes in New England. The underlying causes for this tension were evident in the antagonism of Salem Village’s farmers toward the merchants & businessmen of the other side of town. Maybe the farmers were trying to expel the commercial witches from their city.
The Great Awakening
Two powerful influences were competing in American intellectual life in the 18th century. One was the traditional outlook of the 16th & 17th centuries woth its emphasis on a personal God intimately involved with the world, keeping watch over individual lives.
The other force was the new spirit of the Enlightenment, a movement sweeping across Europe & America. It was a movement that stressed the importance of science & human reason.
The old vision supported such phenomenon as witchcraft & faced far greater value on a stern moral code in which the intellect was less important than faith. The Enlightenment, in contrast, suggested that people had a great deal of control over their own lives & the course of their societies. Thinkers of the Enlightenment believed that the world could be explained & therefore be structured along rational grounds. The two ideas could not be more in contrast with each other.
Across Europe & America there would be a reaction against the thinking of the Enlightenment. Many people felt that something was missing in their lives. That something was old time religion. This would result in the first great American revival movement.
It would be called the Great Awakening. Later, it will be called the First Great Awakening. The first stirrings, or freshening as they were known then, began early in the 1700’s. But the major part of the Great Awakening began in the 1730’s & reached its peak in the 1740’s. For a while a new spirit of religious piety & fervor seemed to reverse the trend away from the piety of the past.
Wandering preachers from England did a lot to stimulate the revival spirit. John & Charles Wesley visited Georgia & other southern colonies in the 1730’s, setting the stage for the Great Awakening. They revitalized religion & converted a lot of blacks & Indians.
George Whitefield was another Englishman who came over. He was a very powerful speaker & an associate of the Wesley’s. He made several tours of the colonies drawing huge crowds wherever he went.
Whitefield’s presence was so powerful that some said that he could make whole crowds swoon simply by saying the word "Mesopotamia".
In his first sermon he ranted, raved, cried, laughed, sang & shouted and, it was claimed, drove 15 people stark raving mad. The leading British actor of his day said he would give everything he had if he could just say the word "Oh" like Mr Whitefield.
Whitefield’s American tour inspired thousands to seek salvation. Most of the converts were young adults in their late 20’s. In Conn., the number of new church members jumped from 630 the year before he came to over 3200 the year of his tour.
He even won over the skeptical Ben Franklin. When he was convinced to go to see Whitefield, he vowed that he would go but would put nothing in the collection plate. When the plate was passed at the end of the night, Franklin was so moved that "I emptied my pockets wholly into the collection dish, gold and all".
In contrast to the rationalists who stressed the human potential for betterment, the evangelistic ministers depicted the utter corruptness of human nature, the fury of God’s anger, & the need for immediate repentance.
Although he was a brilliant intellectual, well aware of the thinking of the Enlightenment, the preacher Jonathon Edwards, drove home his message with breathtaking clarity in his sermon, Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God.:
The God that holds you over the pit of Hell, much as one holds a spider or some other loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, & you, & is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire, he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else , but to be cast into the fire. He is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight. You are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful & venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince. And yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every morning. It is ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell last night. That you was suffered to bawake again in this world after you closed your eyes to sleep& there is no other reason tp be given why you were not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up.
Edwards was the most outstanding preacher of the Great Awakening. Day after day, agonized sinners came to his house to seek his aid in finding God. It is said that at least one person killed himself when he did not feel what he felt he should.
In the beginning, the Puritan ministers were big supporters of the revival. They saw attendance rise in their churches and collections too. But soon they saw that the Great Awakening was not quite what they expected. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that it was more than they expected.
Yes, church attendance picked up with the new converts. Yes, young people were coming back to the church in large numbers. But the Great Awakening would do more than that. It would open unprecedented divisions in churches that had so recently seemed indivisible. In New England, Presbyterians divided into New Lights and Old Lights in 1741 & did not come back together until 1758, when the New Lights emerged victorious. The Great Awakening broke apart churches that no one thought could be broken apart.
In many communities, Old Lights passed laws forbidding New Light preachers to preach or perform marriages or baptisms. Conn. expelled New Lights who were legitimately elected to the colonial legislature. Elisha Paine, a New Light, was put in jail for preaching in violation of the law. Tell story of preaching from his cell.
The Great Awakening peaked in 1742 everywhere but in Va. There the high point came in 1755.
For all the immediate impact of the Great Awakening & all the commotion it raised at the time, it’s long term impact was far greater.
First: The revival started the decline in the influence of the Quakers, Anglicans & Congregationalists (Puritans) As those churches lost influence the Baptists, & Presbyterians gained after 1740. Along those lines the Great Awakening introduced to America the movement begun by the Wesleys. The seeds they planted would eventually grow into the Methodist church. Together, these new churches have dominated American Protestantism ever since. The Methodist church will become one of the largest denominations & will have a huge influence on the American idea of morality.
Second: The G. A. would stimulate the founding of many colleges to train the ministers of the New or Old Lights.
1746 New Light Presbyterians – The College of New Jersey (
1754 – Anglicans – King’s College – Columbia
1764 – Baptists – College of Rhode Island (Brown)
1769 Congregationalists built Dartmouth
Third: The revival marked the real beginning of black Protestantism. It had been almost nonexistent before 1740. New Lights reached out to slave communities. Some slaves actually preached to mixed audiences. By 1790 there were many black churches.
Fourth: The G. A. also had the unintended consequence of fostering religious toleration by blurring the lines between denominations. Revivalism prepared the way for Americans to accept what is called DENOMINATIONALISM. That assumes theat all Judeo-Christian churches are legitimate expressions in the belief in God & deserve equal freedom and respect.
The G. A. also seems to have helped prepare the way for the American Revolution. By exposing the corruption of church leaders & getting people to see that some of their church leaders were not deserving of their loyalty, it became easier to draw the same conclusions about political leaders and kings.