Parris, Samuel

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Parris, Samuel

Born: 1653 London, England

Died: 1720 Boston, Massachusetts

Minister of Salem Village church

Samuel Parris was the minister of the church in Salem Village during the witch trials in 1692–93. A controversial figure since his arrival in the community several years earlier, he actively encouraged the witch-hunts, which had started in his own household when his daughter and niece lapsed into unexplained fits. Parris used his position to damage the lives and reputations of innocent people, most of whom were members of his own congregation. Despite efforts to remove him from his post after the trials were over, he managed to remain as pastor until he was finally forced to leave Salem five years later. Although he issued an apology for his role in the witch trials, he continued to blame the devil for stirring up trouble among good Christians.

Enters the troubled world of Salem Village

Little is known about Samuel Parris's early life in England. Historians do know, however, that at some point during adolescence he moved with his family to Barbados, an island in the West Indies, where his father owned a successful sugar trading company. Parris was sent to Harvard College to study theology (religion), but he never completed his degree. When his father died in 1678 he moved back to Barbados to take over the family business, and two years later he married Elizabeth Elridge. Parris's efforts to run the company were plagued with bad luck from the outset. At one point a hurricane wrecked the warehouses, and the consistently low sugar prices steadily reduced profits. After eight years of struggling, he and his wife decided to leave the island and make a new start in Boston, Massachusetts. After failing at another business venture Parris began searching for a post as a minister in New England. Since he had not graduated from college, he knew he would not be eligible for a post in a major city.

Salem Village was the only parish that responded to Parris's application, yet he kept the community waiting for over a year while he deliberated (thought about) the offer. The delay resulted from his reluctance to lower himself socially as well as his fear of Salem itself. The village had a reputation for being a difficult place to live because of conflicts within the community. For instance, members of the Towne family were long-time enemies of the powerful Putnam clan, who were pressuring Parris to move to Salem. The feud had begun in 1639, when John Putnam started a dispute over rights to woodlands with his neighbor Jacob Towne. In retaliation (to get revenge) Towne cut down one of Putnam's trees. Putnam returned with a group of his relatives and threatened to cut down all of Towne's trees. Thus began a feud that lasted over fifty years.

Not only did family feuds run deep but Salem Village parishioners generally did not welcome outsiders and they mistreated their ministers. Since the founding of the parish in 1672 the Reverend George Burroughs and the Reverend James Bailey were both forced out of their jobs when the villagers refused to pay their salaries. (Burroughs would later be one of the twenty people executed in the Salem witch trials; see Chapter 4.)

Parris had extensive negotiations with the parish over money and property rights, asking for a high salary and a permanent title to the parsonage (the minister's home) and grounds. Despite the Putnams' assurances that Parris was a talented preacher, villagers dismissed his demands. Half of the townspeople felt he should receive minimum pay and no property rights, while the others were willing to make an investment in the new minister. In the end the Salem Village parish agreed to pay Parris the fairly large salary of sixty-six pounds a year and to give him temporary title (document stating legal ownership) to the parsonage. Many still felt this deal was too generous, however, and it later became an issue during the trials.

Parris had no choice but to accept the offer, so in November 1689 he and his wife arrived with their three children, Parris's eleven-year-old orphaned niece Abigail Williams, and the Carib (native South American) slaves Tituba (see biography entry) and John Indian. Parris took over the parish with such fervor that many villagers suspected him of being power-hungry. Unwilling to appease townspeople, he refused to ordain his deacons until they had served a probation period. He picked on respected members of the congregation and put some through public penance (punishment for sins) for seemingly ridiculous reasons.

Tensions in Salem Village

The Putnam family had been responsible for hiring Parris, and had done so in hopes of establishing a parish that was completely separate from that of nearby Salem Town. (Salem Village, near the Atlantic coast, was a bustling, denselypopulated city. Salem Town, farther inland, was in a poorer, predominately agricultural area.) Many people in the Salem Village congregation were either Putnams or supporters of the Putnam effort to keep the village parish separate from the town. When Parris moved to Salem, the Putnams revoked (reversed) a 1681 agreement that the title to the parsonage would be held by the village rather than by an individual, thus granting him full rights to the land and the house. Tensions had already reached a peak over the issue of the title prior to Parris's arrival, and his presence only worsened the situation. Many villagers resented having to support a minister who had clearly aligned himself with the Putnams.

In 1691 five Parris supporters on the village governing committee were replaced by five anti-Putnam villagers who sought closer contact with Salem Town. Viewing the appointment of Parris as a political move on the part of the Putnams, the committee voted to not pay taxes (which paid Parris's salary) and not attend worship services at the meetinghouse. They also revoked Parris's ownership of the parsonage and the adjoining land. This was a financially devastating blow to Parris, who was now faced with the prospect of surviving entirely on voluntary contributions from the Putnams.

Fits and hallucinations

The final months of 1691 were a tense period in the Parris household. Not only was Parris's position in the community uncertain, but Elizabeth Parris was frequently ill. When she was well enough to go out, the Parrises were usually away from home on parish business. Thus the children spent most of their time with Tituba, who entertained them with stories about voodoo (magic) practices in Barbados. These forbidden tales contrasted starkly with the Bible stories and sermons the children were accustomed to hearing from Parris. As a strict Puritan, he considered all pleasure to be sinful and he tried to keep absolute control over the children. In January 1692 Parris's nine-year-old daughter Elizabeth (called Betty) and her cousin Abigail started behaving strangely and talking incoherently (in a confused and unclear way). (Records hint that there was deep psychological distress in the Parris children even before the witch trials.) The following month Tituba and John Indian baked a "witch cake" containing the girls' urine and fed it to the family dog in an attempt to identify whether or not any witches were casting a spell on them.

Soon, other girls in the neighborhood, including Ann Putnam, Jr. (see biography and primary source entries), had joined Betty and Abigail in having fits. They accused three women—Tituba, Sarah Osborne, and Sarah Good—of bewitching (casting a spell upon) them. In early March the women were taken to the meetinghouse for questioning, and during the investigation Tituba confessed to practicing witchcraft. Tituba, Good, and Osborne were all put in jail. By the end of May thirty-seven people had been arrested as suspected witches.

In the meantime Samuel Parris had taken control of the situation in his household. Alarmed that the devil had come into the very heart of the religious community, Parris knew events could easily be turned against him. His own slave, Tituba, had already admitted to being a witch, so he manipulated the crisis to his advantage by encouraging the girls to accuse other townspeople of practicing witchcraft. His plan was to divert attention away from his family and target members of the community whom he thought were trying to destroy him. In mid-March Parris sent Betty to live with the family of Stephen Sewall in Salem Town. (Sewall was the brother of Samuel Sewall, one of the judges in the Salem trials; see biography and primary source entries.)

Parris and the Salem trials

During the trials Parris aggravated tensions in the village by persecuting his parishioners and delivering sermons that encouraged anti-witch hysteria. In an especially damaging gesture, he excommunicated (expelled from church membership) accused witches Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse, prominent members of the community who were eventually hanged (see Chapter 4 and primary source entry). When the elderly Nurse was in jail Parris gave a fiery sermon, "Christ Knows How Many Devils There Are," which contributed to the evidence against her. He also harassed relatives of accused witches. Parris's notes from that period show that he hounded Nurse's husband Sam to attend church when they missed even a single sermon. In the case of the Nurses, Parris clearly had political motivations: Nurse's maiden name was Towne, thus placing her in the anti-Putnam and anti-Parris camp, although there is no evidence that she was ever directly involved in the conflict surrounding Parris's appointment.

Parris also had a confrontation with Nurse's sister, Sarah Towne Cloyce, when Cloyce abruptly left a worship service, slamming the door behind her. From the pulpit Parris accused her of being yet another witch spreading evil among the good Christians of Salem. Her defenders asserted, however, that she had suddenly been taken ill and that a gust of wind had slammed the door as she left in haste. Cloyce was later arrested and found guilty of being a witch. As the trials continued through spring 1693, many were afraid to stop going to Parris's services and waited until the trials were over to drop out of the parish, but others risked being accused of witchcraft and simply stayed home.

Aftermath of the trials

Not only had Parris inherited an explosive position as the village minister, he had also encouraged the witch hysteria. When the trials were finally over, twenty people had been executed and many others had lost their property and reputations. Faced with a divided and bitter town, Parris was slow to address the central role he had played in the affair. Instead he chose to hide behind the excuse that the devil had been at work during that turbulent (unrestful) period. His behavior only intensified the deep hatred and tension in the village. Many people felt that as a leader he should not have allowed the trials to take place. The Nurse family was especially resentful of him, as he had done nothing to defend an innocent and beloved old woman. Two years later, in 1694, Parris finally offered an apology in a sermon, "Meditations For Peace," but it was not a heartfelt admission of error. He blamed the devil for being able to enter possibly innocent people and make them appear to carry out evil on his behalf:

The matter being so dark and perplexed as that there is no present . . . appearance that all God's servants should be altogether of one mind in all circumstances touching the same, I do most heartily, fervently, and humbly . . . beseech pardon of the merciful God, through the blood of Christ, of all my . . . mistakes and trespasses in so weighty a matter, and also all your forgiveness of . . . every offense in this and other affairs wherein you see or conceive I have erred or . . . offended, professing in the presence of the Almighty God that what I have done . . . has been, as for substance, as I apprehended was duty. However, through . . . weakness, ignorance, etc., I may have been mistaken. (From Chadwick Hansen, Witchcraft at Salem.)

Forced out of Salem

Most of the people who had been ruined by Parris refused to attend his services during the trials, and they were determined not to return to church after the trials were over. Continuing to withhold all financial and public support from him, in 1695 they went before the governing council to seek formal conflict resolution with Parris. In diplomatic terms the council recommended that if Parris could not resolve his differences with the village he should leave, implying that he would not be dishonored if he choose to go. He refused to leave his post, however, and two years later he was again called before the council. This time the Inferior Court of the Common Pleas heard the case. The main complaints against Parris were that he had encouraged the girls' accusations and that he had forsaken (abandoned) his duties as a minister by not showing compassion for the victims of the trials. The court issued a statement that read in part:

His believing the Devil's accusations and readily departing from all charity to . . . persons, though of blameless and godly lives, upon such suggestions; his . . . promoting such accusations; as also his impartiality therein in stifling the accusations of some and at the same time vigilantly promoting others . . . are just causes for our refusal. . . . Mr. Parris by these practices and principles has been the beginner and the procurer of the sorest afflictions, not to this village only but to this whole country that did ever befall them. (From Chadwick Hansen, Witchcraft at Salem.)

The judicial panel decided to bring an end to the matter, ruling that Parris should be discharged from his post but paid for his property and some of the salary he had lost. By this time Parris had little to lose. His wife had died the year before he lost his job, leaving him a widower. He had sold Tituba to another owner after the trials in order to pay her jailing fees and he had sent Abigail to live with other relatives during the trial. Parris left Salem with young Betty and his son Noyes, who had been named for a witch-hunting parson. Noyes lapsed into insanity during adulthood, and there is no record of what became of Betty, other than the fact that she eventually married and moved away.

Reverend Green Starts the Healing Process

When Samuel Parris was forced to resign as the minister of Salem Village church and leave the community in 1697, he was replaced by the Reverend Joseph Green. More sophisticated and accepting than his predecessor, Green immediately tried to heal the community. He preached forgiveness in his sermons and even changed the seating arrangement in the church, forcing former enemies to acknowledge one another. He also brought justice to victims who had been ignored by the courts. In 1703 Green formally reversed Martha Corey's excommunication from the church, thereby restoring her reputation and assuring the relatives of other executed people that their loved ones would not be damned to hell. In 1712 he revoked (reversed) the excommunications of Rebecca Nurse and Giles Corey. Although Green's efforts eventually helped the community to recover from the devastation caused by the trials, Salem remained a symbol of fanaticism and injustice.

Parris went on to another post in an even more remote village, Stow, Massachusetts, which had a population of only twenty-eight families. Located on the border of Native American territory, Stow had a history of troubles with Native Americans and years of poor harvests. Nevertheless, Parris again demanded a high salary and the deed to the parsonage. The people of Stow balked at his requests, and he was discharged within a year. Luckily, Parris had married a wealthy woman and spent the rest of his days in Boston, financed by his new wife's fortune. He tried his hand at several different careers, including teaching, farming, and running a shop, but he left enormous debts when he died in 1720.

For Further Reading

Hansen, Chadwick. Witchcraft at Salem. New York: George Braziller, 1969.

Hill, Frances. A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials. New York: Doubleday, 1995.

Kallen, Stuart A. The Salem Witch Trials. San Diego, California: Lucent Books, 1999.

Rice, Earle, Jr. The Salem Witch Trials. San Diego, California: Lucent Books, 1997.

The Salem Witch Museum. [Online] (Accessed July 7, 2000).

Starkey, Marion L. The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry into theSalem Witch Trials. New York: Doubleday, 1989.

Wilson, Lori Lee. The Salem Witch Trials. New York: Lerner, 1997.