The Salem Witch Trials

1876 illustration of the courtroom; the central figure is usually identified as Mary Walcott

1876 illustration of the courtroom; the central figure is usually identified as Mary Walcott


The Salem witch trials were a series of hearings before local magistrates followed by county court trials to prosecute people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts, between February 1692 and May 1693. Over 150 people were arrested and imprisoned, with even more accused who were not formally pursued by the authorities. The two courts convicted twenty-nine people of the capital felony of witchcraft. Nineteen of the accused, fourteen women and five men, were hanged. One man who refused to enter a plea was crushed to death under heavy stones in an attempt to force him to do so.



In 1689, Salem Village was finally allowed by the church in Salem Town to form their own separate covenanted church congregation and ordain their own minister, after many petitions to do so. Salem Village was torn by internal disputes between neighbours who disagreed about the choice of Samuel Parris as their first ordained minister, and about the choice to grant him the deed to the parsonage as part of his compensation.

Increasing family size fuelled disputes over land between neighbours and within families, especially on the frontier where the economy was based on farming. Changes in the weather or blights could easily wipe out a year's crop. A farm that could support an average-sized family could not support the many families of the next generation, prompting farmers to push farther into the wilderness to find land, encroaching upon the indigenous people. As the Puritans had vowed to create a theocracy in this new land, religious fervour added tension to the mix. Loss of crops, livestock, and children, as well as earthquakes and bad weather, were typically attributed to the wrath of God.


Rev. Cotton Mather (1663-1728)


Rev. Cotton Mather (1663-1728)


Despite reverence for the Bible and antipathy towards "Popery," the Puritans had established a type of theocracy akin to that of medieval Roman Catholicism, in which the church ruled in all civil matters, including that of administering capital punishment for violations of a spiritual nature. The Puritans believed in the existence of an invisible world inhabited by God and the angels, including the Devil (who was seen as a fallen angel) and his fellow demons. To Puritans, this invisible world was as real as the visible one around them.

In his book Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions (1689), Cotton Mather describes strange behaviour exhibited by the four children of a Boston mason, John Goodwin, and attributed it to witchcraft practiced upon them by an Irish washerwoman, Mary Glover. Mather was a prolific publisher of pamphlets and a firm believer in witchcraft.

The Puritans believed that men ought to rule over women, and that women need to be totally subservient and subordinate to men. This is known as “patriarchy.” The Puritans thought that, by nature, a woman was more likely to enlist in the Devil's service than was a man, and women were considered lustful by nature. In addition, the small-town atmosphere made secrets difficult to keep and people's opinions about their neighbours were generally accepted as fact. In an age where the philosophy "children should be seen and not heard" was taken at face value, children were at the bottom of the social ladder. Toys and games were seen as idle and playing was discouraged. Girls had additional restrictions heaped upon them. Boys were able to go hunting, fishing, exploring in the forest, and often became apprentices to carpenters and smiths, while girls were trained from a tender age to spin yarn, cook, sew, weave, and be servants to their husbands, mothers, and children.

Most timelines of the Salem Witch Trials begin with the afflictions of the girls in the Parris household in January/February 1692 and end in May 1693 with the last trials, but some start earlier to place the trials in a wider context of other witch-hunts, and some end later to include information about restitution.


The preacher’s house in Salem Village where accusations of witchcraft began, as photographed in the late 19th century


In Salem Village in 1692, Betty Parris, age 9, and her cousin Abigail Williams, age 11, the daughter and niece (respectively) of Reverend Samuel Parris, began to have fits described as "beyond the power of Epileptic Fits or natural disease to effect" by John Hale, minister in nearby Beverly. The girls screamed, threw things about the room, uttered strange sounds, crawled under furniture, and contorted themselves into peculiar positions. The girls complained of being pinched and pricked with pins. A doctor, historically assumed to be William Griggs, could find no physical evidence of any ailment. Other young women in the village began to exhibit similar behaviours.

The first three people accused and arrested for allegedly afflicting Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, 12-year-old Ann Putnam, Jr., and Elizabeth Hubbard were Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba. Sarah Good was poor and known to beg for food or shelter from neighbours. Sarah Osborne had married her servant and rarely attended church meetings. Tituba, as a slave of a different ethnicity than the Puritans, was an obvious target for accusations. All of these women fit the description of the "usual suspects" for witchcraft accusations, and no one stood up for them. These women were brought before the local magistrates on the complaint of witchcraft and interrogated for several days.

Other accusations followed in March: Martha Corey, Dorothy Good and Rebecca Nurse in Salem Village, and Rachel Clinton in nearby Ipswich. Martha Corey had voiced scepticism about the credibility of the girls' accusations, drawing attention to herself. The charges against her and Rebecca Nurse greatly concerned the community because Martha Corey was a full covenanted member of the Church in Salem Village, as was Rebecca Nurse in the Church in Salem Town. If such upstanding people could be witches, then anybody could be a witch, and church membership was no protection from accusation. Dorothy Good, the daughter of Sarah Good, was only 4 years old, and when questioned by the magistrates her answers were construed as a confession, implicating her mother.

In April, the stakes rose. When Sarah Cloyce (Nurse's sister) and Elizabeth Proctor were arrested, they were brought before John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin, not only in their capacity as local magistrates, but as members of the Governor's Council, at a meeting in Salem Town. Present for the examination were Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth, and Assistants Samuel Sewall, Samuel Appleton, James Russell, and Isaac Addington. Objections by John Proctor during the proceedings resulted in his arrest that day as well.

Within a week, Giles Corey, Mary Warren (a servant in the Proctor household and sometime accuser herself), and many others and were arrested and examined. Mary Warren, along with other women, all confessed and began naming additional people as accomplices. Numerous additional arrests followed. 

Cotton Mather wrote to one of the judges, voicing his support of the prosecutions, but cautioning him of the dangers of relying on spectral evidence (dreams and visions in which the accuser sees the accused doing evil things) and advising the court on how to proceed.  The Court convened in Salem Town on June 2, 1692, with William Stoughton, the new Lieutenant Governor, as Chief Magistrate. Bridget Bishop's case was the first brought to the grand jury, who endorsed all the indictments against her. She went to trial the same day and was found guilty. On June 3, the grand jury endorsed indictments against Rebecca Nurse and John Willard, but it is not clear why they did not go to trial immediately as well. Bridget Bishop was executed by hanging on June 10, 1692.

In June, more people were accused, arrested and examined, but now in Salem Town, by former local magistrates John Hathorne, Jonathan Corwin, and Bartholomew Gedney who had become judges. At the end of June and beginning of July, grand juries endorsed indictments against Sarah Good, Elizabeth Procter, John Procter, and many others. Among these, Sarah Good and Rebecca Nurse, went on to trial at this time, where they were found guilty, and executed in 1692. In mid-July as well, the primary source of accusations moved from Salem Village to Andover, when the constable there asked to have some of the afflicted girls in Salem Village visit with his wife to try to determine who caused her afflictions. Elizabeth Procter was given a temporary stay of execution because she was pregnant. Before being executed, one man named George Burroughs recited the Lord's Prayer perfectly -- supposedly something that was impossible for a witch -- but Cotton Mather was present and reminded the crowd that the man had been convicted before a jury. On August 19, 1692, he along with others including John Procter was hanged.

In September, grand juries indicted eighteen more people, including Giles Corey. On September 19, 1692, Giles Corey refused to plead at arraignment, and was subjected to peine forte et dure, a form of torture in which the subject is pressed beneath an increasingly heavy load of stones, in an attempt to make him enter a plea.


Giles Corey being “pressed” to death under the weight of stones in order to force a confession of witchcraft.


After two days of peine fort et dure, Corey died, his chest crushed, without entering a plea. Though his refusal to plead is often explained as a way of preventing his possessions from being confiscated by the state, this is not true; the possessions of convicted witches were often confiscated, and the possessions of persons accused but not convicted were confiscated before a trial, as in the case of Corey's neighbour John Proctor and the wealthy Englishmen of Salem Town. Some historians hypothesize that Giles Corey's personal character, a stubborn and lawsuit-prone old man who knew he was going to be convicted regardless, led to his recalcitrance.


How The Witch Trials were Conducted

After someone concluded that a loss, illness or death had been caused by witchcraft, the accuser would enter a complaint against the alleged witch with the local magistrates. If the complaint was deemed credible, the magistrates would have the person arrested and brought in for a public examination, essentially an interrogation, where the magistrates pressed the accused to confess. If the magistrates at this local level were satisfied that the complaint was well-founded, the prisoner was handed over to be dealt with by a superior court.

Not even in death were the accused witches granted peace or respect. As convicted witches, Rebecca Nurse and Martha Corey had been excommunicated from their churches and none was given proper burial. As soon as the bodies of the accused were cut down from the trees, they were thrown into a shallow grave and the crowd would disperse. Oral history claims that the families of the dead reclaimed their bodies after dark and buried them in unmarked graves on family property. The record books of the time do not mention the deaths of any of those executed.


The Witch Cake

At some point in February 1692, likely between the time when the afflictions began but before specific names were mentioned, a neighbour of Rev. Parris, Mary Sibly (aunt of the afflicted Mary Walcott), instructed John Indian, one of the minister's slaves, to make a "witch cake", using traditional English white magic to discover the identity of the witch who was afflicting the girls. The cake, made from rye meal and urine from the afflicted girls, was fed to a dog. According to English folk understanding of how witches accomplished affliction, when the dog ate the cake, the witch herself would be hurt because invisible particles she had sent to afflict the girls remained in the girls' urine, and her cries of pain when the dog ate the cake would identify her as the witch.

Reverend Parris spoke with Sibly privately about her "grand error" and accepted her "sorrowful confession." During his Sunday sermon, he addressed his congregation about the "calamities" that had begun in his own household, but stated, "it never brake forth to any considerable light, until diabolical means were used, by the making of a cake by my Indian man, who had his direction from this our sister, Mary Sibly", going on to admonish all against the use of any kind of magic, even white magic, because it was essentially, "going to the Devil for help against the Devil". Mary Sibley publicly acknowledged the error of her actions before the congregation, who voted by a show of hands that they were satisfied with her admission of error.



This 19th century representation of "Tituba and the Children," by Alfred Fredericks, originally appeared in "A Popular History of the United States", Vol. 2, by William Cullen Bryant (1878)


Traditionally, the "afflicted" girls are said to have been "entertained" by Parris' slave woman, Tituba, who supposedly taught them about "voodoo" in the kitchen of the parsonage during the winter of 1692, although there is no contemporary evidence to support the story. A variety of secondary sources typically relate that a "circle" of the girls, with Tituba's help, tried their hands at fortune telling, using the white of an egg and a "glass" (a mirror) to create a primitive crystal ball to divine the professions of their future spouses, and scared one another when one supposedly saw the shape of a coffin instead. The story is drawn from John Hale's book about the trials, but in his account, only one of the "afflicted" girls, not a group of them, had confessed to him afterwards that she had once tried this. Hale did not mention Tituba as having any part of it, nor when it had occurred.

Tituba's race is often cited as Carib-Indian or that she was of African descent, but contemporary sources describe her only as an "Indian". Research by Elaine Breslaw has suggested that she may well have been captured in what is now Venezuela and brought to Barbados, and so may have been an Arawak Indian. Other accounts describe her as a "Spanish Indian". Contrary to the folklore, there is no evidence to support the assertion that Tituba told any of the girls any stories about using magic.


The touch test

The most infamous way to discover witchcraft – and in direct opposition to what Parris had advised his own parishioners in Salem Village – was the "touch test" used in Andover during preliminary examinations in September 1692. As several of those accused later recounted, "we were blindfolded, and our hands were laid upon the afflicted persons, they being in their fits and falling into their fits at our coming into their presence, as they said. Some led us and laid our hands upon them, and then they said they were well and that we were guilty of afflicting them; whereupon we were all seized, as prisoners, by a warrant from the justice of the peace and forthwith carried to Salem" Rev. John Hale explained how this supposedly worked: "the Witch by the cast of her eye sends forth a Malefick Venome into the Bewitched to cast him into a fit, and therefore the touch of the hand doth by sympathy cause that venome to return into the Body of the Witch again".


Response to the Witch Trials in Salem

Soon after, there was widespread criticism of the witch-hunting in Salem. In the decades following the trials, the issues primarily had to do with establishing the innocence of the individuals who were convicted and compensating the survivors and families, and in the following centuries, the descendants of those unjustly accused and condemned have sought to honour their memories. Hale’s account of the Trials was published in 1702 after his death. Expressing regret over the actions taken, Hale admitted, "Such was the darkness of that day, the tortures and lamentations of the afflicted, and the power of former presidents, that we walked in the clouds, and could not see our way". Various petitions were filed between 1700 and 1703 with the Massachusetts government, demanding that the convictions be formally reversed. Those tried and found guilty were considered dead in the eyes of the law, and with convictions still on the books, those not executed were vulnerable to further accusations. The General Court initially reversed its judgments only for those who had filed petitions; among those convicted but not yet executed was Elizabeth Proctor. In 1703, another petition was filed, requesting a more equitable settlement for those wrongly accused, but it wasn't until 1709, when the General Court received a further request, that it took action on this proposal. In May 1709, 22 people who had been convicted of witchcraft, or whose relatives had been convicted of witchcraft, began to seek both a reversal of the court’s judgments against them as well as compensation for their financial losses.

Repentance was evident within the Salem Village church. In 1703, the church’s decision was finally reversed concerning the excommunication of Martha Corey. In 1706, when Ann Putnam, one of the most active accusers, joined the Salem Village church, she publicly asked forgiveness. She claimed that she had not acted out of malice, but was being deluded by Satan into denouncing innocent people, and mentioned Rebecca Nurse in particular, and was accepted for full membership. Financial compensation was given to the survivors by 1711, and in 1712, the Salem church reversed Noyes' earlier excommunications of their former members, Rebecca Nurse and Giles Corey.

The Puritans


A Puritan of 16th and 17th century England was an associate of any number of disparate religious groups advocating for more "purity" of worship and doctrine, as well as personal and group piety. Puritans felt that the English Reformation had not gone far enough, and that the Church of England was tolerant of practices which they associated with the church of Rome. The word "Puritan" was originally an alternate term for "Cathar" and was a pejorative used to characterize them as extremists similar to the Cathari of France. The Puritans sometimes cooperated with presbyterians, who put forth a number of proposals for "further reformation" in order to keep the Church of England more closely in line with the Reformed Churches on the Continent.



The term "Puritan" was not coined until the 1560s, when it appears as a term of abuse for those who proposed radical reforms. Throughout the reign of Elizabeth I, the Puritan movement involved both a political and a social component. Politically, the movement attempted, mostly unsuccessfully, to have Parliament pass legislation to replace episcopacy with presbyterianism, and to alter the 1559 Book of Common Prayer to remove elements considered odious by the Puritans. Socially, the Puritan movement called for a greater commitment to Jesus Christ on the part of its members and for greater levels of personal holiness. By the end of Elizabeth's reign, the Puritans constituted a distinct social group within the Church of England who regarded themselves as the godly, and who held out little hope for their neighbours who remained attached to "popish superstitions" and worldliness. However, most Puritans were non-Separating Puritans who remained within the Church of England, and only a small number of Puritans became Separating Puritans or Separatists who left the Church of England altogether. Although the Puritan movement was occasionally subjected to suppression by the bishops of the Church of England, in many places, individual ministers were able to omit disliked portions of the Book of Common Prayer and to be especially attentive to the needs of the Puritans.



The Church of England as a whole was Calvinist. But the Puritan movement was more strict than Calvinism, taking on the form of congregationalism. Puritan worship was plain, resembling a secular lecture with women strictly segregated from men, and tight control was exercised over the personal habits of members of Puritan congregations to enforce piety. In 1633, the Church of England moved away from Puritanism and rigorously enforced the law against ministers who deviated from the Book of Common Prayer, or who violated the ban on preaching about predestination. As a result, many Puritans participated in the Great Migration, founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a Puritan haven. The Puritan movement in England was a major reason for the English Civil War, during which the Puritans formed the backbone of the parliamentary side.



            Puritan suspected that King Charles I of England was secretly planning to restore Roman Catholicism. As such, the Parliament, heavily influenced by its Puritan members, was reluctant to grant Charles revenue, since they feared that any revenue granted might be used to support an army that would re-impose Catholicism on England. For example, when Charles wanted to intervene in the Thirty Years' War by declaring war on Spain, Parliament granted him only £140,000, a totally insufficient sum to pursue the war. Charles was so outraged by Parliament's opposition to his policies that he determined to rule without ever calling a parliament again, thus initiating the period known as his Personal Rule (1629-1640), which his enemies termed the Eleven Years' Tyranny.


The Great Migration and the foundation of Puritan New England, 1630-1642

The events of 1629 convinced many Puritans that King Charles was an ardent foe of further church reforms. Since King Charles was only 29 years old in 1629, they were thus faced with the prospect of countless decades without reforms and with their proposals being suppressed. Given this situation, some Puritans began considering founding their own colony where they could worship in a fully-reformed church. One group of separatist Puritans had already settled in New England: the Pilgrims.


19th-century painting depicting the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620.


Many Puritans had grown disillusioned and wanted to move somewhere where they could retain their English identity, while also worshipping God in the way they believed was required. As such, the congregation voted to found a colony. The group ultimately decided to move to New England. In 1620, the Pilgrims left for New England onboard the Mayflower, landing at Plymouth Rock. The colony founded by the Pilgrims was called Plymouth Colony.

John Winthrop, a Puritan lawyer, began to explore the idea of creating a Puritan colony in New England. After all, the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony had proven that such a colony was viable.

Winthrop sailed for New England in 1630 along with 700 colonists on board eleven ships known collectively as the Winthrop Fleet. The move of the Puritans from England to the New England colonies along the Northeast of what would one day be the United States is called “the Great Migration.”

Most of the Puritans who emigrated settled in the New England area. However, the Great Migration of Puritans was relatively short-lived and not as large as is often believed. It began in earnest in 1629 with the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and ended in 1642 with the start of the English Civil War when King Charles I effectively shut off emigration to the colonies, and when Puritans felt less menaced by Royalist decree. From 1629 through 1643 approximately 21,000 Puritans emigrated to New England. This is actually far less than the number of British subjects who emigrated to Ireland, Canada, and the Caribbean during this time.

The Great Migration of Puritans to New England was primarily an exodus of families. Between 1630 and 1640 over 13,000 men, women, and children sailed to Massachusetts. The religious and political factors behind the Great Migration influenced the demographics of the emigrants. Rather than groups of young men seeking economic success, Puritan ships were laden with “ordinary” people, old and young, families as well as individuals. Just a quarter of the emigrants were in their twenties when they boarded ship in the 1630s, making young adults not predominant in New England settlements. The New World Puritan population can be seen as more of a cross section in age of English population than those of other colonies. There was little intermarriage with natives. The women who emigrated were critical agents in the success of the establishment and maintenance of the Puritan colonies in North America. Success in the early colonial economy depended largely on labour, which was conducted by members of Puritan families. It was through this labour that Puritans endeavoured to create their “city on a hill”, a productive, morally exemplary colony far from the corruption of the Church of England.


New England theological controversies, 1632-1642

As noted earlier, the vast majority of Puritans who settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were non-separating Puritans. This meant that, while they disliked many of the practices of the Church of England, they refused to separate from the Church of England. This position led to squabbles with Separating Puritans.

Roger Williams, a Separating Puritan minister, attempted to become pastor of the church at Salem, but was blocked by Boston political leaders, who objected to his separatism. He thus spent two years with his fellow Separatists in the Plymouth Colony, but ultimately came into conflict with them and returned to Salem. There, he became pastor in May 1635, against the objection of the Boston authorities. Williams set forth a manifesto in which he declared that 1) the Church of England was apostate and fellowship with it was a grievous sin; 2) the Massachusetts Colony's charter falsely said that King Charles was a Christian; 3) that the colony should not be allowed to impose oaths on its citizens.

Williams' actions so outraged the Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony that they expelled him from the colony. In 1636, he founded the city of Providence, Rhode Island. Williams was one of the first Puritans to advocate separation of church and state and Rhode Island was one of the first places in the Christian world to recognize freedom of religion.

Another controversy erupted around Anne Hutchinson. She and her family moved to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634, following their Puritan minister John Cotton. Following Cotton, Hutchinson took up the idea of double predestination, which held that God chose those who would go to heaven (the elect) and those who would go to hell (the reprobate), and that His decision inevitably and infallibly came to pass. Applying Cotton’s ideas, Hutchinson argued that people were either relying on good works for their salvation, and therefore were really damned (because human beings cannot save themselves), or else they were relying upon God’s grace or His love, and were therefore really saved).

Nineteenth-century painting depicting Anne Hutchinson's (1591-1643) trial before the Massachusetts General Court in 1637, which led to her banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.


By 1637, Hutchinson's teachings had grown controversial within the colony for a number of reasons. First, some Puritans objected to a woman occupying such a prominent role as a teacher in the church. Second, Hutchinson began denouncing various Puritan ministers in the colony and sometimes spoke as if John Cotton were the only minister in the entire colony who was preaching correctly. Thirdly, some of Hutchinson's views were heretical; she seemed to preach that “the elect” or the special “in-group” among them did not have to follow the laws of God or morality.

Hutchinson was called before the court to explain herself. She told them that God had spoken to her and told her the future and what she should preach. The Puritans generally believed that God communicated with individuals only through scripture. As such, the court decided to banish her from the colony. As a result, in 1638, Hutchinson and several of her followers left the Massachusetts Bay Colony and founded Portsmouth, Rhode Island.


Puritan Religion

The central tenet of Puritanism was God's supreme authority over human affairs, particularly in the church, and especially as expressed in the Bible. This view led them to seek both individual and group conformity to the teaching of the Bible, and it led them to pursue both moral purity down to the smallest detail as well as church purity to the highest level.

The words of the Bible were the origin of many Puritan cultural ideals, especially regarding the roles of men and women in the community. While both sexes carried the stain of original sin, for a girl, original sin suggested more than the roster of Puritan character flaws. Eve’s corruption, in Puritan eyes, extended to all women, and justified marginalizing them within churches' hierarchical structures. Women were therefore treated as the spiritual inferiors of men. An example is the different ways that men and women were made to express their conversion experiences. For full membership, the Puritan church insisted not only that its congregants lead godly lives and exhibit a clear understanding of the main tenets of their Christian faith, but they also must demonstrate that they had experienced true evidence of the workings of God’s grace in their souls. Only those who gave a convincing account of such a conversion could be admitted to full church membership. Women were not permitted to speak in church after 1636 (although they were allowed to engage in religious discussions outside of it, in various women-only meetings), and thus could not narrate their conversions.

On the individual level, the Puritans emphasized that each person should be continually reformed by the grace of God to fight against indwelling sin and do what is right before God. A humble and obedient life would arise for every Christian. Puritan culture emphasized the need for self-examination and the strict accounting for one’s feelings as well as one’s deeds. This was the a very important aspect of their daily experience, which women in turn placed at the heart of their work to sustain family life.

Puritans rejected seeing or staging plays or dramas and other worldly enjoyments. The Pilgrims (the separatist, congregationalist Puritans who went to North America) are likewise famous for banning from their New England colonies many secular entertainments, such as games of chance, maypoles, and drama, all of which were perceived as kinds of immorality.

At the level of the church community, the Puritans believed that worship in the church ought to be strictly regulated by what is commanded in the Bible. The Puritans condemned as idolatry many worship practices regardless of the practices' antiquity or widespread adoption among Christians, which their opponents defended with tradition. Puritans only accepted a minimal amount of ritual and decoration in their worship, but they put lots of emphasis on preaching. They eliminated the use of musical instruments in their worship services, but outside of church, they were quite fond of music and encouraged it in certain ways.

Another important distinction was the Puritan approach to church-state relations. They opposed the Anglican idea of the supremacy of the monarch in the church, and, following Calvin, they argued that the only head of the Church in heaven or earth is Christ (not the Pope or the monarch). However, they believed that secular governors are accountable to God (not through the church, but alongside it) to protect and reward virtue, including "true religion", and to punish wrongdoers — a policy that is best described as non-interference rather than separation of church and state. The separating Congregationalists, a segment of the Puritan movement more radical than the Anglican Puritans, believed the Divine Right of Kings was heresy, a belief that became more pronounced during the reign of Charles I of England.


Other notable beliefs include:

š         An emphasis on private study of the Bible

š         A desire to see education and enlightenment for the masses (especially so they could read the Bible for themselves)

š         The priesthood of all believers

š         Simplicity in worship, the exclusion of vestments, images, candles, etc.

š         Did not celebrate traditional holidays that they believed to be in violation of the regulative principle of worship.

š         Believed the Sabbath was still obligatory for Christians, although they believed the Sabbath had been changed to Sunday


In modern usage, the word puritan is often used in the negative sense for someone who has strict views on sexual morality, disapproves of recreation, and wishes to impose these beliefs on others. This popular image is not very accurate as a description of Puritans in England, but it applies better as a description of Puritans in colonial America, who were among the most radical Puritans and whose social experiment took the form of a theocracy.


The Puritan spirit in the United States

Some have suggested that it is a "Puritan spirit" in the United States' political culture that creates a tendency to oppose things such as alcohol and open sexuality. However, the Puritans were not opposed to drinking alcohol in moderation or to enjoying their sexuality within the bounds of marriage as a gift from God. In fact, spouses (albeit, in practice, mainly females) were disciplined if they did not perform their sexual marital duties. Because of these beliefs, the Puritans did publicly punish drunkenness and sexual relations outside of marriage.

Alexis de Tocqueville suggested in Democracy in America that the Pilgrims' Puritanism was the very thing that provided a firm foundation for American democracy, and in his view, these Puritans were hard-working, egalitarian, and studious. The theme of a religious basis of economic discipline is echoed in sociologist Max Weber's work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.


A 1947 comic book published by the Catechetical Guild Educational Society warning of the supposed dangers of a Communist takeover.

A 1947 comic book published by the Catechetical Guild Educational Society warning of the supposed dangers of a Communist takeover.


McCarthyism is a term describing the intense anti-communist suspicion in the United States in a period that lasted roughly from the late 1940s to the late 1950s. This period is also referred to as the Second Red Scare, and coincided with increased fears about communist influence on American institutions and espionage by Soviet agents. Originally coined to criticize the actions of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, "McCarthyism" later took on a more general meaning, not necessarily referring to the conduct of Joseph McCarthy alone.

During this time many thousands of Americans were accused of being Communists or communist sympathizers and became the subject of aggressive investigations and questioning before government or private-industry panels, committees and agencies. The primary targets of such suspicions were government employees, those in the entertainment industry, educators and union activists. Suspicions were often given credence despite inconclusive or questionable evidence, and the level of threat posed by a person's real or supposed leftist associations or beliefs was often greatly exaggerated. Many people suffered loss of employment, destruction of their careers, and even imprisonment. Most of these punishments came about through trial verdicts later overturned, laws that would be declared unconstitutional, dismissals for reasons later declared illegal or actionable, or extra-legal procedures that would come into general disrepute.

The most famous examples of McCarthyism include the Hollywood blacklist and the investigations and hearings conducted by Joseph McCarthy. It was a widespread social and cultural phenomenon that affected all levels of society and was the source of a great deal of debate and conflict in the United States.


Origins of McCarthyism


Herbert Block (aka 'Herblock') coined the term "McCarthyism" in this cartoon in the March 29, 1950 Washington Post


The historical period that came to be known as McCarthyism began well before Joseph McCarthy's own involvement in it. There are many factors that can be counted as contributing to McCarthyism, some of them extending back to the years of the First Red Scare (1917-1920), and indeed to the inception of Communism as a recognized political force. Thanks in part to its success in organizing labor unions and its early opposition to fascism, the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) increased its membership through the 1930s, reaching a peak of 50,000 members in 1942.

While the United States was engaged in World War II and allied with the Soviet Union, the issue of anti-communism was largely muted. With the end of World War II, the Cold War began almost immediately, as the Soviet Union installed repressive Communist puppet régimes across Central and Eastern Europe.

Events in 1949 and 1950 sharply increased the sense of threat from Communism in the United States. The Soviet Union tested an atomic bomb in 1949, earlier than many analysts had expected. That same year, Mao Zedong's Communist army gained control of mainland China despite heavy financial support of the opposing Kuomintang by the U.S. In 1950, the Korean War began, pitting U.S., U.N. and South Korean forces against Communists from North Korea and China. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were arrested in 1950 on charges of stealing atomic bomb secrets for the Soviets and were executed in 1953.

There were also more subtle forces encouraging the rise of McCarthyism. It had long been a practice of more conservative politicians to refer to liberal reforms such as child labor laws and women's suffrage as "Communist" or "Red plots." This tendency increased in reaction to the New Deal policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Many conservatives equated the New Deal with socialism or Communism, and saw its policies as evidence that the government had been heavily influenced by Communist policy-makers in the Roosevelt administration. In general, the vaguely defined danger of "Communist influence" was a more common theme in the rhetoric of anti-Communist politicians than was espionage or any other specific activity.

Senator Joseph McCarthy

Senator Joseph McCarthy


Joseph McCarthy's involvement with the ongoing cultural phenomenon that would bear his name began with a speech he made. He produced a piece of paper that he claimed contained a list of known Communists working for the State Department. McCarthy is usually quoted as saying: "I have here in my hand a list of 205 — a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department." This speech resulted in a flood of press attention to McCarthy and set him on the path that would characterize the rest of his career and life.

The first recorded use of the term McCarthyism was in a political cartoon by Washington Post editorial cartoonist Herbert Block. The cartoon depicted four leading Republicans trying to push an elephant (the traditional symbol of the Republican Party) to stand on a teetering stack of ten tar buckets, the topmost of which was labelled "McCarthyism."


The institutions of McCarthyism

There were many anti-Communist committees, panels and "loyalty review boards" in federal, state and local governments, as well as many private agencies that carried out investigations for small and large companies concerned about possible Communists in their work force. In Congress, the most notable bodies for investigating Communist activities were the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Between 1949 and 1954, a total of 109 investigations were carried out by these and other committees of Congress.


Loyalty-security reviews

In the federal government, President Harry Truman initiated a program of loyalty reviews for government employees in 1947. Truman's mandate called for dismissal if there were "reasonable grounds... for belief that the person involved is disloyal to the Government of the United States." Truman, a Democrat, was probably reacting in part to the Republican sweep in the 1946 Congressional election, and felt a need to counter the growing criticism from conservatives and anti-communists.

When President Dwight Eisenhower took office in 1953, he strengthened and extended Truman's loyalty review program, while decreasing the avenues of appeal available to dismissed employees. Hiram Bingham, Chairman of the Civil Service Commission Loyalty Review Board, referred to the new rules he was obliged to enforce as "just not the American way of doing things." Similar loyalty reviews were established in many state and local government offices and some private industries across the nation. In 1958 it was estimated that roughly one out of every five employees in the United States was required to pass some sort of loyalty review.

Once a person lost a job due to an unfavourable loyalty review, it could be very difficult to find other employment. "A man is ruined everywhere and forever," in the words of the chairman of President Truman's Loyalty Review Board. "No responsible employer would be likely to take a chance in giving him a job."

The Department of Justice started keeping a list of organizations that it deemed subversive beginning in 1942. This list was first made public in 1948, when it included 78 items. At its longest, it comprised 154 organizations, 110 of them identified as Communist. In the context of a loyalty review, membership in a listed organization was meant to raise a question, but not to be considered proof of disloyalty. One of the most common causes of suspicion was membership in the Washington Bookshop Association, a left-leaning organization that offered lectures on literature, classical music concerts and discounts on books.


J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI

J. Edgar Hoover in 1961

J. Edgar Hoover in 1961


The FBI have been called "the single most important component of the anti-communist crusade." FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was one of the nation's most fervent anti-communists, and one of the most powerful. Hoover designed President Truman's loyalty-security program, and its background investigations of employees were carried out by FBI agents. This was a major assignment that led to the number of agents in the Bureau being increased from 3,559 in 1946 to 7,029 in 1952. Hoover's extreme sense of the Communist threat and the politically conservative standards of evidence applied by his bureau resulted in thousands of government workers losing their jobs. Due to Hoover's insistence upon keeping the identity of his informers secret, most subjects of loyalty-security reviews were not allowed to cross-examine or know the identities of those who accused them. In many cases they were not even told what they were accused of.

Hoover's influence extended beyond federal government employees and beyond the loyalty-security programs. The records of loyalty review hearings and investigations were supposed to be confidential, but Hoover routinely gave evidence from them to congressional committees such as HUAC. From 1951 to 1955, the FBI operated a secret "Responsibilities Program" that distributed anonymous documents with evidence from FBI files of Communist affiliations on the part of teachers, lawyers, and others. Many people accused in these "blind memoranda" were fired without any further process. The FBI engaged in a number of illegal practices in its pursuit of information on Communists, including burglaries, opening mail and illegal wiretaps.


The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was the most prominent and active government committee involved in anti-Communist investigations. Formed in 1938, HUAC investigated a variety of "activities," including those of German-American Nazis during World War II. The Committee soon focused on Communism. HUAC achieved its greatest fame and notoriety with its investigation into the Hollywood film industry. It was during these investigative hearings that what became known as the "$64 question" was asked: "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States?" Anyone who refused to answer the Committee’s questions on the grounds that the constitution protected their free speech and freedom of assembly was sentenced to prison for contempt of Congress. In the future, witnesses who were determined not to cooperate with the Committee would claim their Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. While this usually protected them from a contempt of Congress citation, it was considered grounds for dismissal by many government and private industry employers. The legal requirements for Fifth Amendment protection were such that a person could not testify about his own association with the Communist Party and then refuse to "name names" of colleagues with Communist affiliations. Thus many faced a choice between "crawl[ing] through the mud to be an informer," or becoming known as a "Fifth Amendment Communist,"—an epithet often used by Senator McCarthy.



Red Channels, a 1950 publication claiming to document "Communist influence in radio and television"


In 1947, the Motion Picture Association of America made a public statement that it would not hire anyone who was a known communist. This open capitulation to the attitudes of McCarthyism marked the beginning of the Hollywood blacklist. In spite of the fact that hundreds would be denied employment, the studios, producers and other employers did not publicly admit that a blacklist existed. Books such as Red Channels were published to keep track of communist and leftist organizations and individuals.


Laws and arrests

There were several attempts to introduce legislation or apply existing laws to help to protect the United States from the perceived threat of Communist subversion. The Alien Registration Act or Smith Act of 1940 made it a criminal offence for anyone to "knowingly or wilfully advocate, abet, advise or teach the […] desirability or propriety of overthrowing the Government of the United States or of any State by force or violence, or for anyone to organize any association which teaches, advises or encourages such an overthrow, or for anyone to become a member of or to affiliate with any such association". Hundreds of Communists and others were prosecuted under this law between 1941 and 1957.

Popular support for McCarthyism

Flier issued in May 1955 by the Keep America Committee urging readers to "fight communistic world government" by opposing public health programs

Flier issued in May 1955 by the Keep America Committee urging readers to "fight communistic world government" by opposing public health programs


McCarthyism was supported by a variety of groups, including the American Legion, Christian fundamentalists and various other anti-communist organizations. One core element of support was a variety of militantly anti-communist women's groups such as the American Public Relations Forum and the Minute Women of the U.S.A.. These organized tens of thousands of housewives into study groups, letter-writing networks, and patriotic clubs that coordinated efforts to identify and eradicate subversion.

Although far-right radicals were the bedrock of support for McCarthyism, they were not alone. A broad "coalition of the aggrieved" found McCarthyism attractive, or at least politically useful. Common themes uniting the coalition were opposition to internationalism, particularly the United Nations; opposition to social welfare provisions, particularly the various programs established by the New Deal; and opposition to efforts to reduce inequalities in the social structure of the United States.

One focus of popular McCarthyism concerned the provision of public health services, particularly vaccination, mental health care services and fluoridation, all of which were deemed by some to be communist plots to poison or brainwash the American people. Many ordinary Americans became convinced that there must be "no smoke without fire" and lent their support to McCarthyism. In January 1954, a Gallup poll found that 50% of the American public supported McCarthy, while only 29% had an unfavourable opinion of the senator. Earl Warren, the Chief Justice of the United States, commented that if the United States Bill of Rights had been put to a vote it probably would have been defeated.


Victims of McCarthyism

It is difficult to estimate the number of victims of McCarthyism. The number imprisoned is in the hundreds, and some ten or twelve thousand lost their jobs. In many cases, simply being asked to appear before the HUAC or one of the other committees was sufficient cause to be fired. Many of those who were imprisoned, lost their jobs or were questioned by committees did in fact have a past or present connection of some kind with the Communist Party. But for the vast majority, both the potential for them to do harm to the nation and the nature of their communist affiliation were tenuous. Suspected homosexuality was also a common cause for being targeted by McCarthyism. According to some scholars, this resulted in more persecutions than did alleged connection with Communism.

In the film industry, over 300 actors, authors and directors were denied work in the U.S. through the unofficial Hollywood blacklist. Blacklists were at work throughout the entertainment industry, in universities and schools at all levels, in the legal profession, and in many other fields. A port security program initiated by the Coast Guard shortly after the start of the Korean War required a review of every maritime worker who loaded or worked aboard any American ship, regardless of cargo or destination. As with other loyalty-security reviews of McCarthyism, the identities of any accusers and even the nature of any accusations were typically kept secret from the accused. Nearly 3,000 seamen and longshoremen lost their jobs due to this program alone.


Critical reactions

The 1952 Arthur Miller play The Crucible used the Salem witch trials as a metaphor for McCarthyism, suggesting that the process of McCarthyism-style persecution can occur at any time or place. The play focused heavily on the fact that once accused, a person would have little chance of exoneration, given the irrational and circular reasoning of both the courts and the public. Miller would later write: "The more I read into the Salem panic, the more it touched off corresponding images of common experiences in the fifties."

News analyst Edward R. Murrow

News analyst Edward R. Murrow


One of the most influential opponents of McCarthyism was the famed CBS newscaster and analyst Edward R. Murrow. On October 20, 1953, Murrow's show See It Now aired an episode about the dismissal of Milo Radulovich, a former reserve Air Force lieutenant who was accused of associating with Communists. The show was strongly critical of the Air Force's methods, which included presenting evidence in a sealed envelope that Radulovich and his attorney were not allowed to open. On March 9, 1954, See It Now aired another episode on the issue of McCarthyism, this one attacking Joseph McCarthy himself. Titled "A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy," it used footage of McCarthy speeches to portray him as dishonest, reckless and abusive toward witnesses and prominent Americans. In his concluding comment, Murrow said:

We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men.

This broadcast has been cited as a key episode in bringing about the end of McCarthyism. As the nation moved into the mid and late fifties, the attitudes and institutions of McCarthyism slowly weakened. Changing public sentiments undoubtedly had a lot to do with this, but one way to chart the decline of McCarthyism is through a series of court decisions.

Though McCarthyism might seem to be of interest only as a historical subject, the political divisions it created in the United States continue to make themselves manifest, and the politics and history of anti-Communism in the United States are still contentious. One source of controversy is the comparison that a number of observers have made between the oppression of liberals and leftists during the McCarthy period and recent actions against Muslims and suspected terrorists. In The Age of Anxiety: McCarthyism to Terrorism, author Haynes Johnson compares the "abuses suffered by aliens thrown into high security U.S. prisons in the wake of 9/11" to the excesses of the McCarthy era. Similarly, David D. Cole has written that the Patriot Act "in effect resurrects the philosophy of McCarthyism, simply substituting 'terrorist' for 'communist.'"