Salem was a small village, somewhat isolated from others and fairly autonomous. Churches and other groups today can be just as isolated when they distrust “outsiders”. They may also require attendance and conformity. Religion often plays a large role in every aspect of the lives of church members in such churches–the church may tell members how to dress, what to listen to and watch, what types of jobs to get, where to go to school, when to buy a home or where to rent. These are seen as decisions needing spiritual guidance. Those who do not seek their pastor’s advice may miss the will of God or even “lose out with God” and be condemned to hell.
People in these groups seek explanations for the dangers they perceive–for some, these dangers may include persecution, poverty, or the risk of being lost and sent to hell, while for others the perceived dangers may include popular culture’s influence on their children, the influx of secular thought in public school, or the introduction of thoughts that might be considered too liberal or godless. And just as in Salem, at least some of these are explained by some as acts of the devil.
When anyone in such a group does not conform to the group, there is a risk that one of two things will happen: either the nonconformist will be viewed as an outsider and meet resistance from the group, or the group may begin to seek out those within the group that might be friendly toward the nonconformist or share some of the ideas or questions the nonconformist has mentioned or is thought to have. These people are then brought into question themselves… and a witch hunt of sorts begins.
The nonconformity doesn’t need to be pronounced to be considered dangerous; it just needs to be perceived to exist. In my case, my sin was that I hadn’t married younger and lived alone–I looked and acted as much like them as was possible; I dressed the same, spoke the same, but I wasn’t the same since I wasn’t married. Within the same church some of the others who were “tried” had other faults: one questioned the pastor’s directives on what to wear, another was less educated, another too educated. Two questioned what had happened to me, apparently, and one went to visit another church without permission. Another fell in love with someone the pastor had not approved. These are not things most people would consider dangerous, but in the minds of that pastor and that group, they were.
Perhaps because there is perceived danger everywhere, people start distrusting each other within the group, watching for anything that might be considered dangerous in those around them. In Salem, this distrust was actually encouraged by some of the leaders, and it is in some groups today, as well. As we often heard in my former church, “Be careful who you fellowship!”