The Unveiling of Salem Women

A big transition here from New Deal Salem to Governor Endicott’s Salem but I am joyfully skittering back to the early modern era for #SalemSuffrageSaturday after spending too much time in the twentieth century for the #Salemtogether project of the last month or so! It’s dificult to uncover seventeenth-century women—both in Europe and in the New World: you generally need a flashpoint. Obviously the Salem Witch Trials was a HUGE flashpoint which created a window through which we can see several women closer up at the close of the seventeenth century, but earlier on, there’s not a lot to go on. So a debate about the veiling of women in the 1630s is an opportunity to examine perceptions of women—in a very general sense. Likely at the instigation (or at the very least the encouragement) of Governor John Endicott, often characterized as a “hot-headed” Puritan and certainly a strident separatist, the Reverend Samuel Skelton, the first minister of Salem’s First Church, ordered women to wear veils to church in 1630, “under penalty of non-communion, urging the same as a matter of duty and absolute necessity”. Under the remainder of Skelton’s tenure, and through the short term of his successor Roger Williams, this was the policy, and it was a controversial one, drawing the very public disagreement of the prominent Reverend John Cotton of Boston, who saw veils as more ceremonial than scriptural and demeaning to women in a more representative Reformed perspective.

pixlrThe MEN: pro-veil John Endicott and anti-veil John Cotton.

I have to back up a bit chronologically and go back to England to put this issue in its proper context: Endicott’s point of view is confusing to me as it is actually CONTRARY to that of the Puritans back home, who identified veils with the traditional “churching” ceremony in which new mothers were “purified” through a ritualistic return to the Church. There was no scriptural reference to this ceremony, so Puritans rejected it. But on the other hand, there WAS a very key scriptural justification for women wearing veils in church, from the Apostle himself, St. Paul: “For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a woman ought to wear a veil on her head, for the sake of the angels” (1 Cor. 11:710). So this was a paradox, between tradition, custom, and the Bible—which of course can be interpreted in alternative ways—leading to debate along the spectrum of English Protestantism from the Elizabethan era to the onset of the English Civil War. In the earlier period, Puritan Thomas Cartwright alleged that the customary wearing of a veil was a Judeo-Catholic invention which should be abolished, while Archbishop of Canterbury John Whitgift responded that this was a trifling matter, which women could decide for themselves: “let the women themselves answer these matters”. He asserted further that the wearing of veils was a civil matter, a custom, rather than a ceremony of the Church. Whitgift’s voice of moderation was echoed later by the Reverend Cotton, who not only engaged in a fierce public debate in Boston over the veiling of women, a debate that was so “enthusiastic” that John Winthrop had to “brake [it] off”, but also traveled to Salem to encourage the unveiling of its women in a sermon which was characterized as both enlightening and immediately effective by William Hubbard in his General History of New England (1680): Taking an occasion to spend a Lordsday at Salem, in his exercise in the forenoon, he by his doctrine so enlightened most of the women in the place, that it unveiled them, so as they appeared in the afternoon without their veils, being convinced that they need not put on veils on any such account as the use of that covering is mentioned in scripture…….[He] let in so much light into their understandings, that they who before thought it a shame to be seen in the public without a veil, were ashamed ever after to be covered with them”. Well, this was quite a moment, especially as Endicott seemed to be advocating for a policy in which women should wear veils “abroad”, meaning in public, rather than just in Church, and another reminder (there are so many!) that you can’t paint “Puritans” with a very broad brush, as is definitely the practice in Salem today.

Screenshot_20200515-205634_Chrome

Screenshot_20200515-210231_ChromeThe WOMEN: what were they wearing? Well, these are English women rather than Salem women but they are contemporary and this first portrait is one of my very FAVORITES: an anonymous painter and subject, it it titled “A Puritan Lady”, 1638, Berwick Museum & Art Gallery. I think it was back to the “steeple-crowned hat”, if they ever took them off! You tend to see veils for particular occasions and times of life: the second portrait is of Jane Trevor, Lady Myddleton as a WIDOW, so she is wearing a mourning veil. National Trust, Chirk Castle, c. 1670.


2 responses to “The Unveiling of Salem Women

  • Nancy

    Fascinating, Donna! The Puritan beliefs, especially where witches were concerned, contradictory in a number of ways. But methinks Endicott doth protesteth too much to the unveiling of women…perhaps he had his own demons to battle?

    • daseger

      He had a lot to say about everything! You are so right, there’s a lot of contradiction—-Puritanism is difficult, which is why I dislike the simplistic characterizations.

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