Who is actually on trial in The Crucible?
In The Crucible, Miller puts the Puritan church and theocracy on trial for hypocrisy and abuse of power. While our Constitution maintains the separation of church and state, the America of the seventeenth century was a theocracy, where the church dictated both moral and civil codes of conduct. Religion was a powerful ethical force both in and out of the courtroom, and characters in the play invoke it for personal gain. Elizabeth portrays Abigail as Moses in court because “where she walks the crowd will part like the sea for Israel,” indicating both Abigail’s power as well as the presence of religion in the courtroom. Hale cites God to encourage confession when he tells Tituba that she is “God’s instrument put in our hands to discover the Devil’s agents among us.” By exalting Tituba as a chosen vessel, Hale also imagines himself as the minister God chose to receive her confession and purify Salem. When God can be invoked as the ultimate judiciary, there can be no system of checks and balances, and corruption in the name of religion can run free.
During the witch trials, the Salemites choose easy targets, and the accusations begin with The Crucible’s most vulnerable characters, underscoring the classism and racism of the times. Tituba, who, as a slave, has no power, is the first character to confess to witchcraft. She in turn accuses Sarah Good and Sarah Osburn, who are interchangeably described as homeless drunks, after Putnam offers their names. Parris explains that the town more easily accepts accusations against unseemly characters like “Isaac Ward that drank his family to ruin,” so the accusations overwhelmingly target the indefensible and are easily manipulated to punish the immoral. Initially, the poor and powerless characters are on trial essentially for their life circumstances, rather than any particular crime. As the witch hunt escalates, even the play’s protagonists are assumed guilty despite their high moral and social standing. The play suggests that when we make baseless accusations against our most vulnerable citizens, we are in danger of extrapolating the injustice to all members of society. In this way, a society based on class and race differences is on trial in the play.
In early American settlements such as Salem, churches bound communities in both practical and symbolic ways, with negative and positive implications. As the narrator writes in the beginning, it was initially easy for the settlers to obey their strict, repressive creed, because “hard work kept the morals of the place from spoiling.” However, that same self-sufficiency that enabled the Salemites to leave their homes and endure the harsh conditions of the new world also caused them to imagine threats from within their community once the immediate danger of surviving the wilderness and hostile American Indians had abated. The narrator suggests that the dedication to constant religious devotion became a veiled excuse for “minding other people’s business” that contributed to the hysteria. The church also relies on frequent and vivid threats of damnation to keep parishioners in line, making the devil an active part of the community’s imagination. In critiquing the church’s insecurity about maintaining its congregation, Miller suggests the constant invocation of the devil contributed to the community’s collective fears.
The Crucible posits that the only cure for mass hysteria is for a few brave individuals to refuse to buy into corrupt religious and legal institutions. At the same time, the play acknowledges the necessity of organized social structures to build and police communities. Without their shared belief in a religious creed, the Puritans might have floundered like the immigrants seeking gold, rather than religious freedom, in Jamestown. The Puritans shared religious ideology inspired them to build a successful new society and create a national identity. As the narrator writes, “They believed, in short, that they held in their steady hands the candle that would light the world. We have inherited this belief, and it has helped and hurt us.” Ultimately, Miller is interested in the power of religion to cover and excuse all crimes, especially when backed by the court of law. “Old scores could be settled on a plane of heavenly combat between Lucifer and the Lord.” The final words of the afterward to the play are “to all intents and purposes, the power of theocracy in Massachusetts was broken,” suggesting that theocracy itself is on trial in the play, and found guilty.