The Salem Witch Trials and the First Great Awakening

Today I was teaching about religion and the founding as a guest lecturer in a colleague’s ‘Religion in the United States” course at Messiah College. After class a student asked me if I knew of any historians who have connected the “enthusiasm” or “fits” of the girls supposedly afflicted by witches in Salem (Betty Paris, Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam, and Elizabeth Hubbard) with the “enthusiasm” or “fits” displayed nearly 50 years later by those who experienced the First Great Awakening.

As I chatted with this student I began to wonder whether critics of the Great Awakening–Old Lighters like Charles Chauncy, for example–ever made direct links to the enthusiasm and emotional outbursts of the Salem Witch Trials as a means of discrediting the Awakening.  In other words, did anyone believe that the emotional fits exhibited by those under the spell of an evangelical revivalist were similar to the emotional fits exhibited by those under the spell of a witch or the devil?

Any thoughts?

3 thoughts on “The Salem Witch Trials and the First Great Awakening

  1. In my own undergraduate days, this connection made very clearly by my lecturer, and I have since praised Edwards in my own seminars for not triggering another witch hunt through his positive analyses of the new wave emotional fits.

    I will have to have look at Gura's biography to support this more robustly in my future lectures.

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  2. Thanks, T.J. Yes I had a hunch about this when the student raised it, but I also cannot think of any study that makes this connection. This student is really onto something. A real lacunae in the scholarly literature. This might make for a nice little article.

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  3. Philip Gura's biography of Jonathan Edwards, __America's Evangelical_, contains a quote from Nathan Bowen, of Salem, MA (appropriately enough) who said the following about the First Great Awakening: “Many actions of the persons affected have put some of the more thinking in that town, in mind of ye worm wood and ye gall of 1692.” (p.117) In short, I think the student you spoke with is absolutely right. I also suspect that the word “enthusiasm” was used by contemporaries to describe both events. Interestingly, I can't think of an article, essay, or book that explores this issue in a focused way.

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