The Salem tragedy… developed from a paradox… Simply, it was this: for good purposes, even high purposes, the people of Salem developed a theocracy, a combine of state and religious power whose function was to keep the community together, and to prevent any kind of disunity that might open it to destruction by material or ideological enemies. It was forged for a necessary purpose and accomplished that purpose. But all organization is and must be grounded on the idea of exclusion and prohibition, just as two objects cannot occupy the same space… The witch-hunt was a perverse manifestation of the panic which set in among all classes when the balance began to turn toward greater individual freedom. (I.15)
As part of the initial setting, the narrator explains how a theocracy—which is based on the principle that some people should be included and some excluded from society because of their religious beliefs and actions—would lead to a tragedy like the Salem witch-hunts. This is basically the idea that religious fervor, taken to extremes, results in tragedy.
The parochial snobbery of these people was partly responsible for their failure to convert the Indians. Probably they also preferred to take land from heathens rather than from fellow Christians. At any rate, very few Indians were converted, and the Salem folk believed that the virgin forest was the Devil’s last preserve, his home base and the citadel of his final stand. To the best of their knowledge the American forest was the last place on earth that was not paying homage to God. (I.10)
The narrator explains why the forest was symbolically important to the people of Salem. This helps us understand why the townsfolk responded in such horror when they learned that the girls, with Tituba, had been dancing in the forest.
PROCTOR: Can you speak one minute without we land in Hell again? I am sick of Hell! PARRIS: It is not for you to say what is good for you to hear! PROCTOR: I may speak my heart, I think! […] PARRIS, now he's out with it: There is a party in this church. I am not blind; there is a faction and a party. PROCTOR: Against you? PUTNAM: Against him and all authority! PROCTOR: Why, then I must find it and join it. There is shock among the others. REBECCA: He does not mean that. PUTNAM: He confessed it now! PROCTOR: I mean it solemnly, Rebecca; I like not the smell of this "authority. " REBECCA: No, you cannot break charity with your minister. You are another kind, John. Clasp his hand, make your peace. PROCTOR: I have a crop to sow and lumber to drag home. (I.275-277; 278-289)
Parris tries to assert his religious authority over Proctor, but Proctor is uninterested in the minister’s message. Parris suggests that there is a battle going on, a battle of good vs. evil, and Proctor is on the wrong side.
Reverend John Hale
HALE: Mr. Proctor, your house is not a church; your theology must tell you that. PROCTOR: It does, sir, it does; and it tells me that a minister may pray to God without he have golden candlesticks upon the altar. HALE: What golden candlesticks? PROCTOR: Since we built the church there were pewter candlesticks upon the altar; Francis Nurse made them, y’know, and a sweeter hand never touched the metal. But Parris came, and for twenty week he preach nothin' but golden candlesticks until he had them. I labor the earth from dawn of day to blink of night, and I tell you true, when I look to heaven and see my money glaring at his elbows—it hurt my prayer, sir, it hurt my prayer. I think, sometimes, the man dreams cathedrals, not clapboard meetin' houses. HALE, thinks, then: And yet, Mister, a Christian on Sabbath Day must be in church. Pause. Tell me—you have three children? PROCTOR: Aye. Boys. HALE: How comes it that only two are baptized? PROCTOR, starts to speak, then stops, then, as though unable to restrain this: I like it not that Mr. Parris should lay his hand upon my baby. I see no light of God in that man. I'll not conceal it. HALE: I must say it, Mr. Proctor; that is not for you to decide. The man's ordained, therefore the light of God is in him. PROCTOR, flushed with resentment but trying to smile: What's your suspicion, Mr. Hale? HALE: No, no, I have no— Proctor: I nailed the roof upon the church, I hung the door— HALE: Oh, did you! That's a good sign, then. PROCTOR: It may be I have been too quick to bring the man to book, but you cannot think we ever desired the destruction of religion. I think that's in your mind, is it not? (II.219-232)
Instead of conforming to the outward signs of religion, Proctor can’t stand greed and hypocrisy of the Reverend Parris—and so he stays home. Does the play suggest that characters can get along better without religion?
HALE, quietly—it has impressed him: Proctor, let you open
with me now, for I have a rumor that troubles me. It's said you hold no
belief that there may even be witches in the world. Is that true, sir? PROCTOR, he knows this is critical, and is striving against his disgust with Hale and with himself for even answering:
I know not what I have said, I may have said it. I have wondered if
there be witches in the world—although I cannot believe they come among
us now. HALE: Then you do not believe— PROCTOR: I have no knowledge of it; the Bible speaks of witches, and I will not deny them. HALE: And you, woman? ELIZABETH: I—I cannot believe it. HALE, shocked: You cannot! PROCTOR: Elizabeth, you bewilder him! ELIZABETH, to Hale:
I cannot think the Devil may own a woman's soul, Mr. Hale, when she
keeps an upright way, as I have. I am a good woman, I know it; and if
you believe I may do only good work in the world, and yet be secretly
bound to Satan, then I must tell you, sir, I do not believe it. HALE: But, woman, you do believe there are witches in— ELIZABETH: If you think that I am one, then I say there are none. HALE: You surely do not fly against the Gospel, the Gospel— PROCTOR: She believe in the Gospel, every word! ELIZABETH: Question Abigail Williams about the Gospel, not myself! Hale stares at her. PROCTOR: She do not mean to doubt the Gospel, sir, you cannot think it. This be a Christian house, sir, a Christian house.
HALE: God keep you both; let the third child be quickly baptized, and
go you without fail each Sunday in to Sabbath prayer; and keep a solemn,
quiet way among you. (II.277-292)
Reverend Hale urges Elizabeth and John Proctor to adhere to the external rituals of religion for their own safety. He hopes to prevent an outcome that by now is pretty much inevitable: an accusation of witchcraft.