Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England

Article excerpt

Damned Women:Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England. By Elizabeth Reis. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. 1997. Pp. xxi, 212. $32.50.)

In this interesting book, Elizabeth Reis argues that ordinary Puritans were as much concerned about damnation as they were about sanctification. Extending David D. Hall's emphasis on popular religious belief, Reis shows that our overemphasis on Puritan elites has obscured appreciation of the powerful hold that ideas about the Devil and demonic activity exerted on ordinary imaginations. In addition, she explores the reasons that women were more likely than men to be damned both in their own eyes and in those of others. Extending backward the observation Barbara Leslie Epstein first made about the gendered nature of conversion in the second Great Awakening, Reis argues that seventeenth-century New England Puritan women were more likely to think of themselves as utterly depraved while men were more likely to focus on particular sins. Thus women were more likely to be accused of, confess to, and accuse other women of the extreme sacrilege of witchcraft.

Preoccupation with actual, physical manifestations of demonic power declined after the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692, Reis argues, partly as a result of ministerial warnings about the mischief resulting from imagined occurrences of demonic possession. While eighteenth-century women were still more likely than men to think of themselves in negative religious terms, they came to think about the Devil in metaphorical terms. They were still more likely than men to think of themselves negatively, but they also perceived themselves to be more responsible for particular sins than earlier women and more capable of overcoming them. …

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