Causes of discontent

Granger Collection, New York

When faced with, "crop failures, epidemics, Indian raids, and sundry other disasters..." the first generation of New England settlers ordered a day of humility.  On this day the people would pray, fast and repent for their sins. The covenant stated that once confessed and repentant the misfortune will end.  Calamity was viewed as a moral judgment against the community.

The second generation of New Englanders broke with this tradition.  They placed a strong emphasis on moral deficiency and spiritual corruption.  These sins of the community were deified between 1660-1690 through a type of sermon called a jeremiad.  A jeremiad would denounce the community and issue a warning that more disasters worse than they were experiencing would come down upon them if they did not repent.  Unlike the day of prayer and fasting to appease an angry God, the jeremiad was a public condemnation of the community for their sins.  As the 1690's progressed the imagery of doom and apocalypse grew to cosmic proportions.  "...[E]cclesiastical denunciation had escalated almost to the point where the success of a sermon could be measured by the vividness of its portrait of impending doom."  Witchcraft in Salem made true the minister's prophecy, that the moral and spiritual decline of the community had brought it to the brink of collapse 
(Weisman, pgs. 121-123).

At the time of the Salem trials the relationship between England and the colony was tense and precarious.  After fifty years of autonomy England under Charles II revoked the charter of 1629 allowing the colony to self govern.  Immediately the established colonial civil institutions were undermined.  Charles died in 1685 and was succeeded by James II who appointed a council to replace the colonial General Court.  The council's first duty was to inform the colonial government that the charter had been terminated.  The new governor, Sir Edmund Andros, arrived in 1686 to dissolve the institutions set up by the New Englanders.  Andros refused to recognize land titles and levied taxes without representation.  Worst of all he forcibly took control of the South Church and desecrated the meeting house by holding Church of England services in it.  In 1688 the New Englanders deposed Andros.

William and Mary ascended to the throne in 1689 provisionally restoring indigenous institutions.  A temporary government was set up and the General Court was reestablished.  They immediately began petitioning for the restoration of the 1629 charter.  When they did receive a new charter in 1691 it required that Massachusetts must recognize and include within its political boundaries previously excluded religious groups.  It appeared to the ministers that New England was in further danger of failing.

The colony was fighting the French and Indian war from 1689-1697 and their failure on the Canadian border began to make them see the misfortunes of war and the loss political independence as a sign that a wrathful God would allow them to lose.  This undermined the covenant.  The Covenant of Grace was an assurance that God would be held to the contract.  Doubt about the covenant placed the survival of the community in doubt. 

"From an orthodox perspective, Massachusetts Bay, just before the Salem trials, presented the spectacle of a society at the point of dissolution".
Youth profaned the sabbath, urban crime required the use of night patrolmen.  It appeared there was a "conspiracy by Satan of God's chosen people" 
(Weisman, pgs. 123-126).


In 1689 The Salem Village Church hired as their pastor Rev. Samuel Parris, a Harvard Divinity School dropout who had been a mediocre merchant in the West Indies before returning to New England to secure the position of minister.  Parris was divisive and after his arrival, due to contract disputes between he and members of the Salem Village Church council, the village and church broke into factions. Those who supported Parris were of the mind to oppose intervention by Salem Town into the affairs of the Village.  Those against Parris were people who wanted to maintain ties with the Town.  People who supported Parris were generally of the group who made the accusations of witchcraft against those who did not support Parris' ministry.  In his weekly sermons Parris played out the factional fighting as the cosmic battle between God and Satan.  He had made reference to a conspiracy in the vein of Judas against Christ (Parris cast himself in the role of Christ):  "...here are but two parties in the world: the lamb and his followers, and the dragon and his followers" (Weisman, pg. 129; cf. Rev 5:12, 12:9). When a member of his congregation was accused he told the people the devil could be anywhere.  He expressed uncertainty about God and if he would allow Satan to take the form of a saint and dwell among them.  This statement puts covenant assurance into question and is in rhetorical agreement with the acceptance of empirical spectral evidence by the Chief Justice of the court (Weisman, pgs. 126-129; see also Salem Possessed for details of the factional infighting of the Salem Village Church).

"The object of judicial zeal became not so much the suppression of conspiracy as the preparation of the community for its final deliverance...The Court of Oyer and Terminer became...an instrument in the fulfillment of biblical prophecy" 
(Weisman, pg. 131).
 

 
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