Visions of the Daughters of Zion: Female Revelation and Agency in the Salem Witch Trials Testimony
While both scholarly and popular writing on the subject has often focused heavily on the motives of the accusers, the explanations offered – religious mania, greed, spite, ergot poisoning, etc. – have tended towards the shallow and simplistic. Moreover, they have tended to operate on shallow or simplistic understandings of the role of women in colonial Puritan culture, and to ignore the ways that women actively participated in the margins of their faith community. This paper examines the testimony of the trials and the conduct manuals of Puritan New England to identify the ways in which the accusers reacted to a Puritan culture that did not allow them the direct experience of the divine, and which saw them as uniquely susceptible to the experience of the demonic.
Using the work of scholars such as Richard Godbeer and Elizabeth Reis, as well as the writings of Puritan thinkers such as Cotton Mather, notably Mather’s conduct manual Ornaments for the Daughters of Zion, this paper will explore the cultural context for the witchcraft accusations before turning to the testimony of the witnesses themselves. This testimony, much of it filtered through or dictated to men, is decidedly visceral in nature, with apparitions and supernatural assaults, and represents a stark counterpoint to the impersonal “signs and wonders” which formed the basis of divine revelation for Puritan males. Using the writing of scholars such as Carol Karlsen, this paper will then weave these threads into a portrait of the ways that the accusers negotiated their presumed profanity and spiritual blindness through the use of demonic visitations that emphasized their physicality.
This physicality has been an important part of the study of accused witches, and of the nature of their supposed crimes, but its role in the lives of accusers, especially female accusers, has often been downplayed in the scholarship on the subject. This paper seeks to shed new light on the lives of the accusers, and on Puritan society in general, and contribute to our understanding of what is often a grossly misrepresented group of people.