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Salem in Social, Cultural and Religious Context

An Analysis of The Devil’s Dominion by Richard Godbeer

By Justin Dohoney

When the first colonists began to leave England for North America in the early seventeenth century, they carried a certain subset of beliefs and assumptions with them across the Atlantic which derived culturally from England and religiously from the Calvinist influenced doctrines of Puritanism. In his work The Devil’s Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England, Richard Godbeer examines the complex worldview of these early Puritan settlers and describes their mental and physical realities as far less homogeneous than is often explicated. Although the separation between the elites and the laity was a much smaller gap in Puritan New England than in Europe, many distinctions existed that provided context for their convoluted interpretations of magic, counter-magic, and witchcraft. Godbeer examines the origins of the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692 through the historical framework of late seventeenth century New England – specifically, the similarities and differences between European and colonial witchcraft beliefs; the impact of occult counter-magic and folk healing on the witchcraft trials; and the historical circumstances contributing to a cultural climate that allowed witchcraft trials to proliferate.

Throughout The Devil’s Dominion, Godbeer describes the nature of magic and occult phenomena, and embedded within this account is an inherent comparison of colonial beliefs and their European counterparts. Despite the distance across the Atlantic, the Puritan cultural and religious links with England were never completely severed during the seventeenth century. From 1620 to 1692, New England provides us with an excellent historical laboratory in which to observe both the continuity of witchcraft beliefs as they traveled from England to North America and the quintessentially Puritan version which arose organically amidst the political and religious turmoil of the last quarter of the seventeenth century. The most apparent similarity between Puritan and English witchcraft was the emphasis placed on the witches’ interaction with the devil. Indeed, this was the salient feature of most Protestant interpretations of the crime. Before the accused could be held responsible for the crime of witchcraft, it was incumbent upon the prosecution to prove that the witch had dealings with Satan (153-155). Also like Europe, this explanation of witchcraft as a diabolical heresy pertained primarily to the elite, and in New England the elite class was composed of clergymen.

Read the original article at: Conversations with Philemon

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