Salem’s redemption arc: remembering Rev. Joseph Green

The Witch Trial Memorial, of Salem, Mass. Here 14 women and 6 men who were allegedly tried, convicted and executed are remembered. Photo by Keminni Amanor/BU News Service.

By Kristian Moravec

Boston University News Service

On this day 325 years ago, the ordination of the Rev. Joseph Green into the Salem Village Church brought in a new beginning. As the second minister of the parish, Green was tasked in 1698 with leading a congregation still reeling from the Salem Witch Trials.

Six years prior to Green’s arrival, Salem Village had erupted in chaos. In 1692, a strange bout of illness had afflicted ten girls in the community. The affected – Elizabeth Parris, Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam, Mary Walcott, Mary Lewis, Elizabeth Hubbard, Elizabeth Booth, Susannah Sheldon, Mary Warren and Sarah Churchill –  suffered fits of hysteria, convulsions, strange posturing and outbursts. 

Some of these girls held notable connections to leaders of the village. Parris and Williams, for instance, were the daughter and niece (respectively) of the village church’s minister, Rev. Samuel Parris. Putnam was the daughter of the parish clerk. Hubbard was the niece of one of the village doctors, Dr. William Griggs.

At the time, village doctors could not explain the reason for their decline in health, so Griggs had them declared  bewitched. In 1875, one journalist wrote in The St. Cloud Journal that diagnoses of bewitchment were commonly used in the late 1600s for dismissing difficult cases and suggested that the girls were pretending to be ill. However in 1976, historian Linda R. Caporael suggested that ergotism – a food-borne illness contracted from tainted grain might have been the cause of this odd behavior. 

Rev. Parris decided to fast and pray the afflictions away but then chaos ensued as the afflicted girls began accusing other villagers of bewitching them. One such victim, Bridget Bishop, was put on trial and examined by Judges Jonathan Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin. During questioning, the accusers would spasm and act as if they were harmed if Bishop moved her head or looked at them. The judges accused her of bewitching her first late husband and hurting the girls in the courtroom.

“I know nothing of it,” Bishop replied to the accusations. “I am innocent to a Witch. I know not what a Witch is.”

Despite maintaining her innocence, the town sheriff signed Bishop’s death warrant on June 10th, 1692. She was the first to be hanged to death on Proctors Ledge for witchcraft. 

The afflicted girls behaved this way during many trials of the accused. Their victims were often vulnerable from poor social standing, such as Elizabeth How who had been accused of being a witch and ex-communicated from another city’s church ten years prior. They also accused women who had long-standing land disputes with the accuser’s families. Rebeccah Nurse, for instance, had a long-standing land dispute with the Putnams. This resulted in both How and Nurse being  hanged for witchcraft.

The hysterics of the afflicted girls led to the deaths of 25 village members, divisiveness in the community, and Rev. Parris’ eventual exit from the village church in 1696.

Salem residents were still piecing themselves back together by the time Rev. Green arrived in 1698. The church was just three years older than Green. The first minister, Rev. Parris (a merchant before entering the religious field), only served eight years and had exacerbated petty village disputes. Green, a born and bred Massachusetts Bay Colony man, was undoubtedly aware of the situation he was inheriting. 

With a new reverend in the house, friends and relatives of victims turned to Green for help. In December 1702, friends of Martha Corey, a woman accused and executed for witchcraft, convinced Green to reconsider her ex-communication from the church. Green, though knowing nothing about Martha Corey or what she was accused of, decided to let the congregation “determine the mater by a vote ye next convenient opportunity.”

Two months later, this convenient opportunity finally arrived. On the cold and cloudy morning of  February 14, Green put Martha’s redemption to a vote in the congregation. Overwhelmingly, the parishioners voted to absolve her. And yet, not all had moved on from the delusions of the last decade: Green noted six or seven dissenting votes.

Three years later, Green made another pivotal step which moved the village forward. On August 25, 1706, he had Ann Putnam take communion. 

Putnam, who was 12 years old at the time of the trials, played a pivotal role in sending innocent women to their deaths. Perhaps this guilt weighed on Putnam, prompting her to turn to Green for a redemptive connection with God. 

Now 26 years old, she stood in her pew as Green read her confession out loud to the seated congregation. In her confession, Putnam was the first and only accuser to ask for forgiveness. She claimed she was “deluded by Satan” and brought “the guilt of innocent blood” to Salem. On this significant day, Green, in a modest cursive script, simply writes in his personal diary “child baptized” and “anna Putnam to communion.”

Focused on building a future for the Salem community, Green pushed villagers to reconcile with each other. He frequently made the Putnam and Nurse family sit together in church. In 1708, he pushed the community to build a school. Annually, he headed a Thanksgiving collection for the poor.

By the time he was 40, Green had been leading the church for 17 years. This last year of his life seemed uneventful – a stark contrast to the toxic disarray before. He ran errands in town, complained about  hot weather in his diary, and studied. He must have known the end was near – he spent the last several months of his life visiting family and gifting possessions such as farmland.

On the day of his death, July 18, 1715, his last inscription is somewhat illegible. Instead of his usual neat, one-line entries about the weather or errands, he took up two lines with scribbles. It’s possible he wrote “I visited son Will… Showry, unsetled weather….” though the rest is a mystery.

In the First Church of Salem, Mass. records, the only note for the year 1715 is of Green’s death:

“The Rev. Mr Joseph Green, Pastor of the Church of the Village, to the great life of the church of God, was exceedingly lamented.”  

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