It is important to remember that early American puritans viewed the Salem Witch Trials through a different religious and sociological perspective than we do in more enlightened times today. Early colonial settlers of profound Christian beliefs had their whole value system anchored very firmly in the strongest tenets of the Bible. Indeed, suspicion of witchcraft had roots in civilizations from far earlier times than those of the early American Pilgrim Fathers. In his book on The Salem Witch Trials, K. David Goss explains how disapproval of witchcraft was punishable by death even in the ancient societies of Mesopotamia. This tradition was carried over into the earliest books of the Christian Bible too, and the puritans involved in The Salem Witch Trials would have been familiar with the stricture from Exodus ‘thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’
Traditionally, any form of supernatural power, even superficial ones like being able to foretell future events, were seen by devout Christians as being in a realm appropriate only for God himself. Meddling in these perceived divine areas was seen to be tantamount to holding an arrogant belief that the meddler felt himself to be on a par with God.The Jews also believed that God spoke only through his prophets. The puritans of Salem and the other settlements would have known well the story of Saul, the king who was chastised by Samuel for asking a witch for help. The jurists, such as Samuel Sewall, would have had in mind the destruction of Saul’s family and armies by the Philistines as punishment.
The early American puritans would have interpreted the act of bringing down a curse, or even guessing the future, as an invocation of supernatural power and an abuse of divine privilege. As explained by Goss, this art of prophecy could only be achieved through the perpetrator’s request for help from alternative, less wholesome, supernatural beings. In so doing, the meddlers or witches as they came to be called, were seen as the joining the ranks of the enemies of God – those destructive elements only interested in imperiling the souls of mankind and recruiting them for the lord of darkness himself.
Such fears drove the puritans towards devotion, fasting and prayer and they lived in constant fear for their souls and those of their families. In a climate of religious paranoia such as this, it is easy to see how puritan beliefs coloured the judgement of those involved in the conduct of The Salem With Trials. Hysteria, invention and sensationalizing whipped the flames of suspicion into a frenzy, until even prudent men like Samuel Sewall were propelled into hasty and ill-considered condemnation of suspects on the flimsiest of evidence. It is ironic that Sewall reflected upon a similar punishment to that of Saul being visited upon his family, but for bad judgement in the conduct of the proceedings, not for consorting with witches himself.