Read CHAPTER VI of Dulcibel A Tale of Old Salem , free online book, by Henry Peterson, on

A Disorderly Scene in Church.

If anything were needed to add to the excitement which the condition of the “afflicted children,” as they were generally termed, naturally produced in Salem village and the adjoining neighborhood, it was a scene in the village church one Sunday morning.

The church was a low, small structure, with rough, unplastered roof and walls, and wooden benches instead of pews. The sexes were divided, the men sitting on one side and the women on the other, but each person in his or her regular and appointed seat.

It was the custom at that time to select a seating committee of judicious and careful men, whose very important duty it was to seat the congregation. In doing this they proceeded on certain well-defined principles.

The front seats were to be filled with the older members of the congregation, a due reverence for age, as well as for the fact that these were more apt to be weak of sight and infirm of hearing, necessitated this. Then came the elders and deacons of the church; then the wealthier citizens of the parish; then the younger people and the children.

The Puritan fathers had their faults; but they never would have tolerated the fashionable custom of these days, whereby the wealthy, without regard to their age, occupy the front pews; and the poorer members, no matter how aged, or infirm of sight or hearing are often forced back where they can neither see the minister nor hear the sermon. And one can imagine in what forcible terms they would have denounced some city meeting-houses of the present era where the church is regarded somewhat in the light of an opera house, and the doors of the pews kept locked and closed until those who have purchased the right to reserved seats shall have had the first chance to enter.

The Reverend Master Lawson, a visiting elder, was the officiating minister on the Sunday to which we have referred. The psalm had been sung after the opening prayer and the minister was about to come forward to give his sermon, when, before he could rise from his seat, Abigail Williams, the niece of the Reverend Master Parris, only twelve years old, and one of the “circle” cried out loudly: “Now stand up and name your text!”

When he had read the text, she exclaimed insolently, “It’s a long text.” And then when he was referring to his doctrine, she said: “I know no doctrine you mentioned. If you named any, I have forgotten it.”

And then when he had concluded, she cried out, “Look! there sits Goody Osburn upon the beam, suckling her yellow-bird betwixt her fingers.”

Then Ann Putnam, that other child of twelve, joined in; “There flies the yellow-bird to the minister’s hat, hanging on the pin in the pulpit.”

Of course such disorderly proceedings produced a great excitement in the congregation; but the two children do not appear to have been rebuked by either of the ministers, or by any of the officers of the church; it seeming to have been the general conclusion that they were not responsible for what they said, but were constrained by an irresistible and diabolical influence. In truth, the children were regarded with awe and pity instead of reproof and blame, and therefore naturally felt encouraged to further efforts in the same direction.

I have said that this was the general feeling, but that feeling was not universal. Several of the members, notably young Joseph Putnam, Francis Nurse and Peter Cloyse were very much displeased at the toleration shown to such disorderly doings, and began to absent themselves from public worship, with the result of incurring the anger of the children, who were rapidly assuming the rôle of destroying angels to the people of Salem village and its vicinity.

As fasting and prayer were the usual resources of our Puritan fathers in difficulties, these were naturally resorted to at once upon this occasion. The families to which the “afflicted children” belonged assembled the neighbors who had also fasted and, under the guidance of the Reverend Master Parris, besought the Lord to deliver them from the power of the Evil One. These were exciting occasions, for, whenever there was a pause in the proceedings, such of the “afflicted” as were present would break out into demoniac howlings, followed by contortions and rigid trances, which, in the words of our manuscript, were “enough to make the devil himself weep.”

These village prayers, however, seeming to be insufficient, Master Parris called a meeting of the neighboring ministers; but the prayers of these also had no effect. The “children” even surpassed themselves on this occasion. The ministers could not doubt the evidence of their own reverend eyes and ears, and united in the declaration of their belief that Satan had been let loose in this little Massachusetts village, to confound and annoy the godly, to a greater extent than they had ever before known or heard of. And now that the ministers had spoken, it was almost irreligious and atheistical for others to express any doubt. For if the ministers could not speak with authority in a case of this kind, which seemed to be within their peculiar field and province, what was their judgment worth upon any matter?