Religious Persecution in Salem
Puritans emigrated to escape religious persecution in England. Settlers in North America built communities based on their religious standards. This “New England” would be established with emphasis on humble living and studying the Bible. All members of the community were expected to conform to the Puritan’s religion ideals. This included Native Americans and slaves. These conversions happened in different ways and were taken up by many Puritans in good faith to teach their beliefs. However, in Maryse Conde’s novel, I, Tituba Black Witch of Salem, Tituba becomes an example of what happened if one did not shed their own beliefs in order to adapt to the Puritan way of life through Christianity. Many Christian women (and men) were accused of witchcraft in Salem, but Tituba was at an even greater disadvantage than the other accused. Her race, sexuality, and spirituality made her even more vulnerable to claims of witchcraft.
Tituba obtains her knowledge of the spiritual world through Mama Yaya. Mama Yaya taught her “the prayers, the rites, and the propitiatory gestures…and then she taught [her] the sacrifices” (10). Tituba’s education in herbs and nature were not accepted by Christians, beginning with Susanna Endicott. When Tituba joins John Indian at the Endicott plantation, she is first confronted with the fact that her spirituality was unacceptable. John Indian convinces her to pretend to be a Christian.
John Indian rationalizes the “conversion” and confides that although he conforms to Puritan expectations of Christianity, he does not believe them. He states the importance of Christianity in this society and that “what matters for the slave is to survive. Repeat, my angel. You don’t think that I believe in their story of the Holy Trinity? One God in three distinct persons? But it doesn’t matter. You just need to pretend. Repeat!” (25). After many refusals by Tituba, she gives in to repeat the prayers but feel that “these words meant nothing to me. They had nothing in common with what Mama Yaya had taught me (25-6). These statements by Tituba provide insight into the duality of religion in Tituba life. While keeping personal spiritual beliefs to herself, such as communicating with her mother and Mama Yaya, she must outwardly adhere to the Christian expectations of Salem.
The expectation of Tituba to conform to Christian ideals is expected also by Samuel Parris. But when he catches Tituba and John Indian having sex, his proclamation that “as long as you are under my roof you will behave as Christians. Come and say your prayers” is more of an expectation toward Puritanism than Christianity (41). This particular scene exemplifies the hypocrisy of Puritanism more fully. While the Puritan settlers follow so closely the words of the Bible, sex is frowned upon. However, Tituba and John Indian are married and yet Samuel Parris still does not approve of their lovemaking. Tituba engages freely with her sexuality, rather than suppress it, like Christians, especially Puritans were expected to do.
Her sexuality and spirituality are most intertwined when she decides to abort her pregnancy. Her knowledge of herbs makes possible the termination. She loves John Indian but rationalizes that this eventual child will be subject to oppression and slavery. Her outlook is logical rather than based on Christian ideals.
The accusations of witchcraft that sprang up and started hysteria were based on outlandish fabrications and gossip. The practices that many of the accused, including Tituba, partook in were merely their non-Christian beliefs. Whether pagan, voodoo, or relying on herbs rather than prayer, anyone not conforming to the Puritan ideals of Christianity were outcast. The spiritual zealousness of the settlers created a state of paranoia to rid their village of anyone not following their particular brand of Christianity. So in turn the exclusion and accusations that they so recently faced in their home country of England they were now inflicting on those around them. The hypocrisy of the situation makes the frenzy of witch hunting absurd. Puritans changed their roles from oppressed to oppressor and brought religious persecution to New England in the form of the witch hunt.