Religious Persecutions in Colonial New England Caused Immense Humiliation

Religious Persecutions in Colonial New England Caused Immense Humiliation

Donna Patricia Ward - September 22, 2018

Religious Persecutions in Colonial New England Caused Immense Humiliation
Colonial Witch Trial. Google Images.

14. Executing women for Midwifery

Families settled New England beginning in the 1620s. Large families were the norm. Women were expected to marry in their early 20s and begin having babies immediately. It was not uncommon for one woman to give birth every two years for 25 years! In Puritan New England, wives were to obey their husbands and be “helpmates.” Farm wives were responsible for tending to vegetable and herb gardens, churning milk into butter, fermenting malt into beer, spinning thread and yarn, knitting sweaters and making cloth for clothing, preserving meat from slaughtered livestock, and maintaining a home and caring for her children.

The sphere of womanhood was wrought with challenges. Perhaps the most vexing of these to men was pregnancy and childbirth. In Puritan New England, as with cultures throughout the world, childbirth was the only area that women had any semblance of authority. Childbirth was horrifying and many women died. Only the healthiest of newborns made it beyond their first birthday. For the midwife and her attendants, usually older women who were neighbors, it was imperative to care for the laboring woman and prepare her home for the arrival of a new baby.

Midwives administered herbs to alleviate pain and sought guidance from nature and the supernatural in the hopes of having a good birth. Some female attendants provided prayers and spiritual advice to laboring women. This was in direct defiance of the Puritan church, but it was often overlooked if all turned out well. Life got tricky when mothers died in childbirth. Suddenly a well-respected woman was accused of being a witch for her reliance on herbs which made her “addicted to sorcery.” Puritan magistrates sentenced convicted witches to death by hanging. Women were scrutinized for their actions in ways that men in Puritan New England never could be.

Religious Persecutions in Colonial New England Caused Immense Humiliation
Whipping by the Cat O’Nine Tails. Wikimedia.

15. Puritans used corporal punishment to keep residents in line

Puritans in New England used the Bible as a guide for crimes and punishment. In doing so, they believed that they were fulfilling their obligations to God, who created and provided for them. Any non-normative behavior or any criminal act was cause for a trial and punishment. Crimes could include any deviant behavior, speaking against the authority of church figures, working on the Sabbath, not attending church, sodomy and bestiality, sex outside of marriage, swearing, drunkenness, idleness, gambling, flirting, and gossiping.

Trials and punishment were often public affairs. The most intimate details of a person’s life would be fodder for public debate. Neighbors, ministers, and government officials would scrutinize the accused asking person questions such as marital sex, aliments, or private thoughts. No question was off limit and privacy was nonexistent. Some crimes carried more weight than others. Someone who was convicted of committing heresy, expressing an unorthodox religious view, could be sentenced to death. Views that contradicted or challenged Puritan authority were dangerous and simply could not spread.

Other perceived crimes were controlled with fines and imprisonment. Both were detrimental to a farmer. If he was imprisoned, he would not be able to work his fields or tend to his livestock. If he was fined, it was likely that he would not have monetary means with which to pay the fine until his crop was sold at market. People were also sent to the stocks. The stockades were usual in the town’s square. As the criminal was serving their penance, neighbors were encouraged to yell and throw objects, including manurer and rotten fruits and vegetables.

Bodily harm was administered in one way or another in Puritan New England for what a 21st person would view as petty crimes. For Puritans in New England it was imperative to control their colony and to ensure that those who might speak out against their “holy commonwealth” were quickly punished and publicly humiliated. As Puritan leaders attempted to increase their strict control over residents in New England, the more England took notice. Within 75 years of settlement, Puritans were forced to relinquish control of their “City Upon A Hill.”

Religious Persecutions in Colonial New England Caused Immense Humiliation
“The Witch No. 1” by Joseph E. Baker. Wikipedia.

16. Puritans believed that witches were the spawn of Satan and had to be eliminated

Zealous Puritan ministers increasingly became concerned about the increase in migration into New England in the mid-1600s. The arrival of so many non-Puritans posed a serious threat to the Puritan ideal in establishing a “holy commonwealth.” To thwart Satan’s influence they preached from the pulpit that it was the responsibility of their congregants to weed out the “double-tongued” and those that had an “unruly spirit.” Mass hysteria ensued. Neighbors accused neighbors of witchcraft simply for typical neighborly squabbles. A single misstep could result in hanging from an Elm tree.

To prove that one was not a witch or wizard, the accused had to undergo various types of examinations. These examinations could range from being stripped naked while ministers or their representatives search for a third teat. If one was present the accused would have to sit in a room for 24 hours while bystanders waited to see if a small sprite or imp came to feed. This would look a lot like a breastfeeding mother! Others would have to prove that they were not a witch by staying underwater for 30 minutes. If they floated to the surface, they were a witch and would be hanged. If they did not float to the surface they were not considered a witch and therefore innocent. Of course, the innocent drowned.

Puritan judges permitted circumstantial evidence and here-say to prove guilt during witch trials. Between 1647 and 1662 fourteen people had been executed for being a witch in New England. Most of the hanged were older women. During the hysteria of 1692 in Salem, the judge permitted visions seen only by a few young women to be entered as evidence at trial. Of the 175 people put on trial for witchcraft, 19 people were executed.

The quest for Puritans to create their version of a “City upon a Hill” became their undoing. The King of England took notice and enforced policy that prohibited executions for frivolous accusations. Judges were no longer able to sentence people to death for speaking out of turn, disagreeing with ministers, or being witches. Ironically, the King’s control over his growing North American colonies would eventually lead a war of revolution by the end of the 18th century.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Henretta, James A., Rebecca Edwards, and Robert O. Self, eds. America: A Concise History. 2012.

Hollitz, John, Thinking Through the Past: A Critical Thinking Approach to US History Vol. 1: To 1877 5th ed. Cengage Learning, 2015.

The Whipping Of The Quaker Women. Dover Public Library.

Anne Hutchinson. Wikipedia.

Mary Dyer. Wikipedia.

John Endecott. Wikipedia.

Massachusetts Bay Colony. Wikipedia.

John Winthrop. Wikipedia.

Dorothy Talbye Trial. Wikipedia.

Margaret Jones (Puritan Midwife). Wikipedia.

Peter Stuyvesant. Wikipedia.

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