The witch trials that took place in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 and 1693 are remembered today as a tragic chapter in American history. The trials are generally considered to be a unique and isolated flare-up of European superstitions that had been brought to America by a few settlers. Yet a closer look at this era reveals that, from the very beginning, fear of witchcraft was a basic part of New England society and served many complex functions. Although belief in witchcraft was prevalent throughout the American colonies, formal trials and executions occurred only in the Puritan communities of New England, the northeastern part of the present-day United States. The reason was that the Puritans had a unique sense of their mission in America. They were originally members of Protestant groups in England that opposed practices of the Church of England under King James I (1566-1625). (Protestants belong to a religious group that was formed in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church in the late 1500s. Although the Church of England is a Protestant denomination [sect], many aspects of the doctrines [laws and teachings] and worship services are based on Roman Catholicism.) The Puritans condemned the use of religious
Words to Know eccentric: odd or unique way of acting epidemic: severe outbreak, usually of disease gallows: a raised stand where hangings occurred magistrate: an official of the courts malevolent: evil notorious: well-known for something bad pact: a verbal or written agreement phenomenon: unusual event psychoanalyst: person who studies human minds spiteful: being mean simply for the sake of being mean sterility: inability to have children testimonial: sworn statement icons (images such as pictures and statues), written prayers, instrumental music, and other elements in worship services. Thus they had a reputation as troublesome and overly pious (religiously devout) people.
The Puritans' protests angered James I and his successor Charles I (1600-1649), both of whom forced them to leave England. After living in other European countries such as the Netherlands (Holland), the Puritans began arriving in New England in 1620. At that time Puritans calling themselves the Pilgrims founded the Plymouth colony in Massachusetts with hopes of establishing their vision of God's Kingdom on Earth. Nine years later another group of Puritans was given a charter (government deed) for starting the nearby Massachusetts Bay Colony. All the Puritans had intense faith in themselves as God's "chosen people." They also brought European superstitions regarding witchcraft and the inferiority of women, which became crucial factors in the "witch" persecutions of the late seventeenth century.
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