Learning from the Salem Witch Trials: Polarization, Fear, and Reconciliation

By Kevin O'Reilly History

Feeling overwhelmed by the polarization and bitterness in our society today? The Salem Witch Hysteria of 1692 offers historical perspective on the divisions in America in 2021, but it also suggests ideas for reconciliation.

Historical Context

According to historians Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, polarization within Salem Village was a key cause of the Salem Witch hysteria and trials of 1692. Half the village wanted to split with Salem Town by supporting Reverend Parris, while the other half wanted to stay with Salem Town and refused to pay taxes to support Reverend Parris. Three previous ministers had already been driven out of Salem Village in 16 years by the divisions between the two groups, this at a time when the average tenure for ministers was 21 years. Rather than work out their differences, each side struggled to gain power over the other by gaining control of the village committee, the church and public opinion. Talk about polarization! Each side saw the other as the enemy. Once accusations of witchcraft began, supporters of Reverend Parris turned their demonization to violence, with deadly consequences.

Divisions weren’t the whole story in Salem Village, however. Fear was heavy in the New England air. The colonists were losing their desperate war with the American Indians, suffering hundreds killed and wounded and taking in throngs of refugees from the frontier war zone, according to historian Mary Beth Norton. One of the most devastating losses occurred in January, 1692, just as the witchcraft hysteria was unfolding. Unable to thwart the external threat from the American Indians, they lashed out at the internal threat, their fellow colonists whom they regarded with suspicion. Supporters of Reverend Parris were certain that their opponents in Salem Village were betraying the colonies’ original religious principles by working with the devil to help the Indians. Witchcraft explained why the colonists were losing the Indian wars. It was a conspiracy theory of epic proportions. And this was before the internet.

When the accusations went to court, truth was on trial. Those who lied and confessed were saved from the gallows, while many of those who remained true to their faith and refused to confess to witchcraft were killed. One of the accused witches, Mary Easty, petitioned the court to consider that the accusers and confessors were lying. She did not plead for herself “for I know I must die” but for the other condemned prisoners. Her brave stand for the truth did little good in the noxious climate of polarization, conspiracy theories and fear. She was hanged, strangling slowly for agonizing minutes.

The trials and executions continued for months, the fearful accusers and their supporters knowing with dead certainty the real causes of society’s problems. Their breathtaking arrogance allowed them to persist in murdering their fellow colonists. The toll: 19 hanged, one tortured to death, five dead in jail.

 

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Connecting to Current Events

But the Salem Witch hysteria also provides hope. When Reverend Parris finally left Salem Village four years after the trials, Joseph Green took over as minister. The new pastor emphasized community and charity, rather than dogmatic theology and fear. (Reverend Parris had preached that Christ knew who the devils were in his church.) In a “big tent” strategy, he opened the church to new members by lowering the strict theological requirements. Pastor Green somehow convinced the leading members of the two opposing sides to sit in the same pews in church and he encouraged church members from both sides to work together in building a new meetinghouse (17th century infrastructure?), according to historian Emerson Baker. Reverend Green brought the church back to adherence to the truth by pivoting away from smug superiority toward humility and mutual respect. He persuaded the congregation to reinstate a former member who had been excommunicated during the trials and he influenced one of the main accusers, Ann Putnam Jr., to apologize publicly. The shame of admitting error was painful, but accountability was key to reconciliation. Others, including a pastor, one of the judges, and 11 jurors also apologized. Massachusetts paid compensation to some of the victims’ families and more recently the city of Salem and town of Danvers erected monuments to the victims.

These restorative actions could never be enough to rectify the appalling injustice of 1692, but they were a step in the direction of devotion to truth and restoration of community. They give us a glimmer of hope that in 2021 we too can diminish polarization, reduce our self-righteous arrogance, and see our opponents in red-blue America not as enemies to be beaten but as our fellow citizens to be actively engaged in building a better society.


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Kevin O'Reilly is the former history department chair at Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School, where he taught for 35 years. He is the author of 13 books on decision making in United States history and 6 books in world history, available from Social Studies School Service. He was the national social studies teacher of the year in 1986 and the winner of the Nasdaq national grand prize for teaching economics in history in 2004. 

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