Witchcraft in Colonial America

Witchcraft was not a significant problem, and witch-hunts were extremely rare, throughout almost all of the European colonies in the New World. The major exception occurred in the British colonies in New England, where significant witch-hunting did occur in the 17th century. In all, more than 200 people were put on trial for witchcraft in New England, over half in the single famous outbreak at Salem, Massachusetts, and 36 were executed, with 20 of these occurring at Salem alone. This number is significant given that the population of the New England colonies at this time was only around 100,000 people. Thus courts in New England executed something like 50 percent more witches per capita than were sentenced to death in the British Isles, even if statistics from Scotland, where witch-hunting was more severe, are included along with figures from England itself.

In many ways, in fact, witchcraft in New England followed more of a continental pattern than the pattern most common in the British Isles. In particular, aspects of diabolism—consorting with Demons or the devil, entering into Demonic pacts, attending sabbaths, and cases of possession—all figured significantly in cases of witchcraft in New England. In contrast, in England itself, the diabolic aspects of witchcraft were never fully accepted, even by authorities, and most accusations and trials focused instead simply on maleficium, the practice of harmful sorcery. As a crime, such sorcery was typically regarded as far less serious and threatening to the community as a whole than the Demonically inspired conspiracy that underlay the notions of diabolism in witchcraft.

The greater emphasis on diabolism in New England, and the greater concern exhibited by the population as a whole in regard to witchcraft, may be easily explained in terms of religion. Founded as religious havens, these colonial communities were essentially theocratic in nature. Both individually and collectively, the colonists of New England were deeply concerned with matters of moral and spiritual purity, and were wary of any potential signs of Demonic assault on their communities. Although witchcraft was regarded as a secular offense and was tried in civil court, members of the clergy played a major role in directing the trials and larger hunts. These men were often readily inclined to view any evidence of sorcery or possession as a sign of a larger satanic conspiracy that needed to be rooted out for the good of the community.

Taken from the : Historical Dictionary of Witchcraft – Written by Michael D. Bailey

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