This, of course, serves as a reminder that the new school year is about to start (as if all of the “BACK TO SCHOOL” sales were not reminder enough). I confess that I really don’t miss going back to school very much. I did look forward to it every year for a long time, as the pleasure of seeing friends (students and colleagues) I hadn’t seen in a while; the anticipation of new students; the hopes for newly reorganized classes and the excitement of a new production season were always both a joy and a promise of frantic activity and mostly enjoyable “work.”
I think of those days with some frequency, but, I must confess, that I’m not completely sorry that they are now over for me. I had a good, long run but I’m enjoying not having to do it anymore. I do want to pass along my hopes and wishes for a good year to any readers who are involved with education. I still think it’s probably the most important thing that humans do. Hopes for the future are pretty slim if we don’t devote adequate time and resources to prepare our children for the mess we will leave for them to deal with. That’s not to say we (as a generation) are probably any less successful that our parents (grandparents, etc.) were; just that we have not solved all of the problems of how to get along with each other and it’s unlikely that we will, so it will soon be time for yet another generation to have their turn at trying. Maybe they’ll be more successful than we have been. In any event, if you’re headed back to school, I wish you well.
Since it is now August, I am reminded that on the Nineteenth of this month, in the year 1692, my ancestor, Martha (Allen) Carrier, was hanged as a witch in Salem, MA. Of course, Massachusetts wasn’t a state yet, it was a part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony chartered by the Massachusetts Bay Company under the authority of King Charles I, who was deposed and beheaded long before 1692, when Martha was killed.
Now Martha was married to Thomas Morgan Carrier, who, at least according to family legend (therefore not proven, nor, probably, provable) had been, in fact, born in Wales, had served in the army of Charles I, and was one of the personal guards of Charles I due to his considerable height (about 7’). (The story goes that the king liked tall people to surround him.) Anyway, Thomas left the royal army to serve with Cromwell during the Commonwealth and was, eventually, selected to guard the stage during Charles I’s execution. It’s said that, when the chosen executioner refused to perform the beheading, Thomas actually accomplished this act himself.
It has always been of some interest to me that while Martha and several of their children were accused of being witches (only Martha was convicted and executed), I have never found any mention of even the slightest suspicion of an accusation of Thomas. Now, no one knew for certain who Charles’ actual executioners were (they were masked), although we do know that when Charles II was returned to the throne, he made strenuous efforts to seek out and punish 49 named (known) individuals and the two unknown executioners as regicides (a capital offense). The story that Thomas was one of the “… two unknown executioners….” was, apparently, known in Salem, at least as rumor, and would seem to have made him somewhat vulnerable. But, although his wife and family were accused of witchcraft, I have encountered no references to Thomas being accused (of witchcraft or anything else) in the research I have done regarding the witchcraft trials. In fact, he is virtually ignored.
What brings all of this to mind is my recent acquisition of a copy of the book, Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. This is an interesting read (although not an easy nor a quick one) at least if you have an interest in the occurrences at Salem. In this 1974 book, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum spend their efforts developing the idea that the Salem experience was an outgrowth of changes in the social, economic, political, and religious circumstances in Salem Village (now Danvers). I have to admit that I think they make a pretty good case, as far as it goes. My objection is that it doesn’t seem to go far enough.
The focus of this study is almost exclusively on the relationships between two family-based factions which developed in Salem Village in the period leading up to 1692. One group, the Putnams, seems to have been beset with a repugnance for the growing mercantile direction of Salem Town, desired their own church and minister in the Village (which lacked official recognition as a separate entity) and focused on the, generally, declining fortunes of the Putnam family and its allied neighbors. On the other hand, the Porter family (and its supporters) was increasing its fortunes, was not desirous of separating from Salem Town and did not support the minister (Samuel Parris) chosen (largely by the Putnam group) for the congregation set up in the Village. It is worth noting that Salem Village had gone through a series of disputes over who should be their minister, that person’s pay and other details of the agreement between the community and the minister for quite some time. So, while there was a church building (and a parsonage) established in the Village, the exact status of the congregation and recognition of their minister had been something of a bone of contention for a number of years.
In a somewhat lengthy and highly detailed argument, the authors develop their idea in considerable, and reasonably convincing, detail. However, at the end one is left with the impression that, while their position could explain at least some of the tension and turmoil which led to the first accusations of witchcraft, it does not seem to shed any light on how the firestorm of accusations spread out of Salem Village and across the colony as far as the city of Boston and settlements in Maine. If this discussion is to hold up, it would seem that it must offer some understanding of how the accusations spread until something over 140 people had been accused. Of these, some simply escaped and fled, but many were arrested and jailed, although only 19 were, in fact, tried, sentenced and hanged. The provincial problems of Salem Village do not appear to be an adequate explanation for this sort of orgy of recrimination. I’m left with the strong impression that some of these social forces could well have been partially responsible for some of what happened, but this book doesn’t seem to be adequate to explain the entire experience.
What it does seem to support, however, is the notion that a mixture of socio/economic insecurity, religion and politics were probably at least a part of what caused the entire conflagration. I confess that I do not find this surprising. Part of the background to the First Amendment, I believe, was that the notion of a state established religion (as was common in virtually all of Europe at the time of our Revolution) should be viewed not just with skepticism, but with great trepidation. I believe that I am correct to assert that a number of the early colonies were founded to escape from forcible involvement with the “official” religion of England. I find it worth noting that the Amendment reads; “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; …”.
To me, this seems to be saying that it’s none of the government’s business to be involved with matters of religion; that government should neither support nor restrict religion, nor should it have anything to say about the exercise of religious worship, or the lack thereof. My suspicion has always been (and I find it increasingly supported by my researches into the Salem experience) that probably the worst thing that can happen to our country is to allow religion and politics to intermingle. As best I can tell, this should not be limited to the US. It seems to be the case that whenever politics and religion join forces, bad stuff happens, freedom is limited, people suffer, perhaps even die. We need to remember that. Religion seems to be invariably concerned with belief in “the one great truth.” The nature of that “truth” is what differentiates one religion from another. Politics should be concerned with how we can get along without allowing (or insisting) that OUR “truth” (whatever it might be) gives us the right to destroy/oppress you and/or YOUR right to believe in something different.
The mixture of politics and religion is the foundation of the fanaticism which led to the Inquisition, many of the historic European wars, the Salem trials and a good deal of other less than pleasant stuff. As Americans, we need to resist any and all efforts to encourage such a mixture as “Un-American!”