Switching Sides

How a Generation of Historians Lost Sympathy for the Victims of the Salem Witch Hunt

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Tony Fels
  • Baltimore, MD: 
    Johns Hopkins University Press
    , November
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As the subtitle indicates, and as Tony Fels makes explicit early on and throughout Switching Sides: How a Generation of Historians Lost Sympathy for the Victims of the Salem Witch Hunt, he believes that there is a single, proper way to produce historical work on the Salem witch hunts and he understands every scholar after Marion Starkey, the historian whose writing fundamentally influenced the tone of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, to have failed. Essentially, Fels approaches the events of Salem as having a single cause, mass hysteria, and a single meaning, to serve as a cautionary tale against moral panics in the future. Therefore, in order to study Salem properly, Fels believes that scholars must exclusively emphasize the valor of those accused, especially those who insisted on their innocence in the face of the false accusations, and roundly condemn the hunts as simply evil and apparently inexplicable, beyond anxiety caused by dangerous Puritan religion.

Unfortunately, this approach places a great flaw at the heart of the book’s project. Fels insists that attempts to understand structural issues that created an environment in which accusations of witchcraft could occur are the same as justifying the hunts, and ironically he does so in the name of liberalism and intellectual freedom. Taking this position forecloses any possibilities for actually understanding underlying and contributing causes and reasserts a clear-cut world in which there are good people – the accused and the historians that dedicate themselves to championing their suffering – and bad people – the accusers, the broader community that indulged them, and the historians that investigate their complex interrelationships. By taking this position, Fels not only unreflectively reproduces the kind of dichotomous worldview he decries, dividing the world into the virtuous and the corrupted, but also, most damagingly, forecloses possibilities for truly understanding the larger picture of influences and conflicts that culminated in the hunts at Salem. Fels asserts that his goal is to prevent future moral panics, but in order to accomplish this objective pragmatically, historians need to understand what causes them, rather than label them as reprehensible and leave it at that. Logically, then, it would not only be justifiable but imperative to understand the perspectives of the hunters; yet this is precisely what Fels rejects as morally faulty research.

Fels understands his orientation to put him in valiant opposition to what he labels New Left scholarship, essentially any work that considers cultural systems as complex and includes intersecting factors such as class, race, gender, or colonialism in its analysis. His preferred focus is on the causal effects of Puritan theology, which, against the consensus of the academic study of religion, he asserts can and should be analyzed by separating it out from other cultural areas that mutually constitute it. He sees theology’s effects in other social systems, but not the effects of other social systems on it. Further, his work also puts him in opposition to the field of historical witchcraft studies more broadly and betrays an unfamiliarity with major methodological approaches in the discipline, including: distinguishing between the mechanisms of quotidian witchcraft beliefs as compared to extraordinary panics; the social mechanisms of witchcraft beliefs within communities; and the understanding that witchcraft accusations can both serve a larger social function and be personally devastating.

Though outweighed by the inherent flaws of the project, I do want to highlight some positive contributions of the work. First, Fels compiles an incredibly thorough collection of historical scholarship on Salem. The bibliography will be of use to scholars seeking a detailed overview of literature in the field. Nonetheless, because he reads everything with one criterion in mind, whether the authors' “sympathies” properly and exclusively lie with the accused, the usefulness of his analysis of these extensive materials is severely curtailed beyond his personal project. To approach this another way, the book could be understood as an extensive annotated bibliography on a single question. Second, his short aside at the end of chapter 2 gives a very useful summary of the scholarly consensus that no one actually practiced maleficia, or harmful magic, but instead that early modern magical practice, as it did exist, was entirely protective counter-magic. In other words, like Britain and Europe, there were never any actual witches in colonial New England, despite wide acceptance of fears of witchcraft throughout society. This concise overview of the topic could be useful as a teaching tool for courses on historical witchcraft or new religious movements.

Throughout Switching Sides Fels liberally accuses the scholars whose work he analyzes of implicit biases, but seems remarkably unaware of his own. Over the course of the book he reveals tendencies to favor especially the men accused, particularly John Proctor, and passionately defend elites, such as government officials, against implications of incompetence, corruption, or malicious intent. He also has a soft spot for Rebecca Nurse, as an illustrative example of the socially vulnerable victim. These personal sympathies suggest that his introduction to the history of Salem through the affective narrative reflected in The Crucible may be continuing to influence his response to subsequent scholarship that involves different perspectives.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Laurel Zwissler is Associate Professor in the Philosophy and Religion Department at Central Michigan University.

Date of Review: 
January 31, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tony Fels is an associate professor of history at the University of San Francisco.


Anthony D. Fels

Laurel Zwissler misunderstands the purpose of my book. It is not a call to write a simplified moral history of the Salem witch hunt. It is a historiographical study of how scholarship on the subject has shifted from the era following World War II to the present. Marion Starkey’s 1949 classic (The Devil in Massachusetts) was not alone in recognizing the paramount role played by Puritan intolerance in launching the witch hunt. So too did the works of such other postwar intellectuals as Perry Miller, Aldous Huxley, Edmund Morgan, David Levin, Arthur Miller, and Kai T. Erikson (who employed the term “religious absolutism” in his 1966 study, Wayward Puritans). Citing liberal benchmarks in the history of the United States, these same thinkers highlighted the courage of those who were falsely accused in standing up for truth in the face of a rush to condemn by the New England crowd and its elected officials.

By contrast, the leading New Left historians of witch hunting, writing from 1969 into the early 2000s (Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, John Demos, Carol F. Karlsen, Mary Beth Norton, and others), place religious practice on the back burner in favor of economic, anthropological, gendered, and ethno-political explanations. In so doing, these historians champion the accusers – the Puritan farmers of Salem village, the ordinary residents of New England’s towns and its northeastern frontier, and the afflicted girls and young women (including the slave Tituba) who did most of the accusing – if not the murderous result of their actions. “Oddly enough,” Boyer and Nissenbaum noted in Salem Possessed, “it has been through our sense of ‘collaborating’ with Parris and the Putnams in their effort to delineate the larger contours of their world…that we have come to feel a curious bond with the ‘witch hunters’ of 1692” (p. 180). The actual victims of the Salem witch hunt (the twenty executed individuals and the five who died in custody) barely appear in these studies, while almost nothing is said about their acts of resistance. In her book In the Devil’s Snare, Norton is openly hostile toward three of the accused, including one who was executed. Surely such a dramatic shift in historical interpretation of so iconic an event as the Salem witch hunt is worthy of modern scholars’ attention and explanation.

Zwissler assumes I am hostile to social structural elements in the interpretation of witch hunting. Not at all. I am a social historian myself, as readers will immediately recognize from my close analysis of the arguments of the New Left historians, complete with maps, charts, and statistical reasoning. Historical works must be judged in the first instance by how well they support their arguments with their evidence. The bulk of my study offers detailed refutations of the leading empirical claims of these historians: that the Salem witch hunt was caused by the resentments held by a group of hardworking but declining village farmers toward their more prosperous, capitalistic neighbors; that the story of New England’s witch hunting can be told with its largest outbreak by far (the Salem witch hunt) left out; that witch hunting can best be understood simply as a chapter in the long history of men’s oppression of women; and that the Salem events came about because the colony’s officials sought a way to divert attention from their failing efforts to defeat the neighboring Wabanakis in warfare. My book shows how each of these broad explanations falls down under close scrutiny. Only then does it note the family resemblance among them all in their altered sympathies for the participants, as compared to the sympathies expressed by the post-World War II generation of Salem commentators. I conclude by suggesting an underlying ideological explanation for this dramatic shift in paradigms, owing to the replacement of a liberal outlook by a populist one.

No one disputes that religions are shaped by all the other components of human life (one’s psychology, family ties, economic position, ethnic identity, and more). But sometimes, especially at the outset of a new religious movement, the utopian impulses in religious practice can be so powerful as to exert a determining influence on virtually everything else. Seventeenth-century Puritanism was that kind of all-encompassing movement, in which average people really did try to live as closely as they could to what they took to be the ideals of Christian love. Tragically, such religious radicalism often leads to sharp intolerance, directed both at the self and, when combined with certain features of communal scapegoating – witchcraft, for example, was believed to run in families – at others. One would hope that religious scholars would be among the first to recognize such dangers.

Tony Fels

Professor Emeritus of History

University of San Francisco


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