Cotton Mather and the Salem Witch Trials
The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 took place in the Puritan community of Salem, Massachusetts. Cotton Mather, a clergyman in Salem, emerged throughout the course of the trials as a pillar of support and, ultimately, as a witch-hunter. However, his motives at the beginning of the trials were driven by his Puritanical reasoning which holds a strong belief in Biblical Law. Cotton Mather used his Puritanical faith to find reasoning in God that allowed the Salem Witch Trials to occur.
Puritanism spawned from a reform group of the Church of England in the mid-sixteenth century. Puritans felt the need to make the Church of England pure from the corrupt influences of the Roman Empire.1 In their New England colony, including Salem, they held the Bible to be the foundation of their legal system, while also including some of the common laws of England. The Bible was the basis of the legal system because God, in Scripture, told people how to live. Since man was born with original sin and could, therefore, inadvertently make laws that went against Scripture, the Puritans looked to God, through his words, to decide the righteous course of action.2 They followed this not only in their legal system, but also in their everyday lives. Everyone in the community of Salem attended church, and the church was the pillar of the community in every aspect of life. They did not hold the Bible open to interpretation, and they tried to live humble lives in servitude to the Lord. The Puritan ideals in Salem left the town wide open to the crisis that ensued in sixteen ninety-two. Anything that strayed from the ordinary, from the direct following of God's Word, could be seen as coming from the Devil, since it was as opposition to both the church and God. The Bible also lent its punishments to this community. The Puritans were so devout that they tried to uphold the penal sanctions indicated in Scripture. Once again, this opens the town of Salem to what they perceived as infiltration by the Devil, or deviation from Scripture. The Puritans used their faith and their faith alone to reason. They saw that God was the highest power, and that He should be the guiding light in life. However, the Salem Witch Trials could have come from this pious and narrow view of society. The clergy, including Cotton Mather, allowed and, at times, instigated the search and seizure of witches.
Cotton Mather exemplified the essence of Puritan beliefs. He was originally from Boston, but he then moved to Salem, Massachusetts where he took the position of a clergyman. Mather authored many works on witchcraft throughout the course of the trials. Through his Puritanical belief, Mather embodied reasoning through faith. He wrote as the quintessential Puritan trying to rid humanity of its ills. These works included On Witchcraft and The Wonders of the Invisible World, as well as many letters he sent to fellow clergy on the subject of witchcraft. In his day, he...