The economics of Puritanism’s treatment of bewitchment: exorcism as a potential market-pull innovation?


A long history of research on the witchcraft hysteria in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692 contends that a group of Puritan ministers, including Salem Village’s Samuel Parris, developed and used the witchcraft hysteria in order to boost religiosity and church attendance in an effort to augment corporate and personal wealth. In carrying out this effort, these ministers pitted churched colonists against unchurched colonists, resulting in the wrongful convictions of 20 American colonials. This study argues that it might have ended without the executions of the colonists, and perhaps in even greater corporate wealth for the Puritan church, had Puritanism been receptive to the potential market-pull innovation represented by exorcism. Scrutiny of this proposition through the lens of rational choice theory suggests, however, that exorcism was inferior to executions as a technology choice for the congregant-maximizing Puritan ministers in Salem Village in 1692.

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  1. 1.

    As Boyer and Nissenbaum (1974: 29) indicate, the Northampton congregation was “ever eager to hear... the words of the minister as they came from his mouth...[and t]he place of resort was... no longer the tavern, but the minister’s house.”.

  2. 2.

    The counterfactual is grounded in an economic model of the medieval Catholic Church as a (quasi-)monopoly firm (Ekelund et al. 1989). See also Ekelund et al. (1992a, b, 1996, 2006) and Ekelund and Tollison (2011).

  3. 3.

    During the Middle Ages exorcism was associated with the Cult of the Saints, and seen as the “premier miracle” and mark of true sanctity (Bhogal 2015).

  4. 4.

    As Bhogal (2015: 162) explains, cessationism is based on the idea that miracles were permitted for three main reasons: to demonstrate the power and glory of God, to demonstrate the power and glory of Jesus in order to confirm his status as the Messiah and Son of God, and to aid in the spread and confirmation of the truth of the Gospel. Once the identity of Jesus as the Son of God and the truth of the Gospel had been firmly established, there was no longer any need for miracles because believers live by faith, based on scripture, alone (Bhogal 2015: 162).

  5. 5.

    As Bhogal (2015: 153) asserts, this controversy highlights the issues that arose at the intersection of demonology and cessationism.

  6. 6.

    Deacon and Walker (1601) argued that it was to prevent individuals from misguiding others by claiming miraculous powers for themselves that miracles had ceased (Bhogal 2015).

  7. 7.

    Both sides of this debate accepted the doctrine of cessationism (Bhogal 2015).

  8. 8.

    Darrell viewed possession as a natural disease and exorcism-based “prayer and fasting” as its ordained remedy because it provided a means of worshipping God and humbling the soul in the face of the affliction (Bhogal 2015: 169).

  9. 9.

    This episode became known as the “Darrell controversy.”

  10. 10.

    As Bhogal (2015) indicates, Darrell’s method was based on scriptures found in “Matthew 17:21” and “Mark 9:29,” wherein Jesus proclaimed that “this kind can come out only by prayer and fasting.” Bhogal (2015: 156) also adds that the publicity that Darrell’s activities garnered was in fact integral to their purpose because exorcisms were meant to be public displays of God’s glory and power that exhorted people toward a holier life.

  11. 11.

    As Bhogal (2015) explains, passage of canon 72 allowed the Church of England to police ministers and deprive any minister who performed exorcisms of his livelihood.

  12. 12.

    This doctrine meant that one’s admittance into Heaven was determined prior to birth, and, as a result, the Colonial Puritans who inhabited Massachusetts Bay Colony sought to outwardly reflect that they possessed the personal qualities of one who was predestined for Heaven. Such a process required hard work, doing good deeds, having strong faith and attaining Church Covenant membership (Yerby 2008; King and Mixon 2010).

  13. 13.

    Our use of the industrial organization term, “dominant firm,” to describe the economic power of the Puritan church in Colonial Massachusetts follows Ekelund et al.’s (1992a, b) description of medieval Catholic Church in the thirteenth century.

  14. 14.

    Massachusetts Bay Colony’s Puritan church traditionally followed the practice of conversion relation, through which prospective members of the Puritan church were examined by members of the congregation, a process often described as unpleasant (Mixon 2015; Bridges and Mixon 2020). The Halfway Covenant, on the other hand, allowed prospective members to attain at least partial church membership without a conversion relation (Ahlstrom 1975; Bridges 2014; Mixon 2015; Bridges and Mixon 2020).

  15. 15.

    See Boyer and Nissenbaum (1974) for the origins of this assertion.

  16. 16.

    See Ekelund et al. (1992a, b) for a similar discussion, based in part on Pelikan (1984), of Purgatory’s role in medieval Catholicism.

  17. 17.

    As Ekelund et al. (1992a, b) indicate, this suggests that the demand curve (i.e., the demand for sin) is downward sloping.

  18. 18.

    Ekelund et al. (1992a, b) point to Kamien and Schwartz (1982) on this point.

  19. 19.

    See also Weisman (1984).

  20. 20.

    Starkey (1963) indicates that spectral evidence was the acceptance by the court of dreams, hallucinations and fancy as factual evidence, not of the accuser’s psychological condition, but of the actions and behavior of the accused.

  21. 21.

    Interestingly, Mather maintained the Puritan belief that the Devil could impersonate an innocent person and that witchcraft did exist in 1692 Salem. He also accepted that the courts should accept confessions from witches (Levin 1960; Mixon 2000).

  22. 22.

    One of Ekelund et al.’s (1992b: 7) final observations regarding demand considerations in the emergence of Purgatory is that innovations, when they arise, come in clusters. The “cluster effect” was evident in medieval Roman Catholicism given that no fewer than three interrelated doctrinal innovations—Purgatory, indulgences, and auricular confession—emerged within a relatively brief span of time during the thirteenth century. Interestingly, had the Puritan church allowed for the practice of exorcism in the middle of the seventeenth century, a small cluster of doctrinal innovations would, given the acceptance of the Halfway Covenant, have arisen in a relatively brief span of time.

  23. 23.

    One could also argue that Massachusetts Bay Colony’s founding as a religious state offers even stronger evidence in support of the point that the Puritan church operated within a legal/institutional environment that permitted it to protect its doctrine as a rent-yielding asset.

  24. 24.

    As Starkey (1963: 19–24) asserts, once the girls’ afflictions had been relegated from the physical world to the spiritual world wherein the doctors where helpless, the responsibility for their treatment was thrust upon the Puritan ministry.

  25. 25.

    According to Leeson and Russ (2018: 2069), religious beliefs often facilitated criminal justice in medieval Europe, while ritual-purity beliefs have promoted social order in American gypsy communities (see Leeson 2013b) and witchcraft and divination beliefs have resolved conflict between neighbors in early twentieth-century Africa (see Leeson and Coyne 2012).

  26. 26.

    Similarly, Leeson (2012a: 193) argues that medieval clerics used maledictions—“fulminating their foes, humiliating saints, and casting calamitous curses”—in order to protect their property against incursion when and where government and traditional forms self-protection were ineffective. Relatedly, a contemporaneous study by Leeson (2012b) asserts that the use in criminal proceedings of clergy-conducted physical tests known as “ordeals” leveraged the medieval superstition of iudicium Dei (i.e., judgments of God) in order to separate the guilty from the innocent. The manipulation of these ordeals by medieval clergy worked to exonerate the innocent, while the guilty would, based on their belief in iudicium Dei, be expected to confess (Leeson 2012b).

  27. 27.

    Leeson and Russ (2018) cite Mixon (2015) on this point.

  28. 28.

    King and Mixon (2010) cite Ekelund et al. (1989, 1992a, b, 2002, 2005) and Mixon (2000) on these points.

  29. 29.

    See also Ellsberg (1997).

  30. 30.

    See also Faber (1970).

  31. 31.

    See also Ellsberg (1997) and Gomes (2002).

  32. 32.

    See also Crawford (1970).

  33. 33.

    See also Bremer (1995).

  34. 34.

    See also Bremer (1995).

  35. 35.

    See also Roach (2002).

  36. 36.

    In the case of Biblical scriptures, the ministers availed themselves of the argument that if someone fearing a witch (Satan) sought protection, it is not logically consistent to consider a witch (Satan) as a source of that protection (King and Mixon 2010: 681).

  37. 37.

    See also Blumberg (2007).

  38. 38.

    See also Mixon (2000) and Ray et al. (2008).

  39. 39.

    See Leeson (2012b) for a deeper discussion about how priests manipulated ordeals in a way that produced a separating equilibrium.

  40. 40.

    The subject of spectral evidence fell under the expertise of Puritan ministers, who published papers and books on how to deal with witchcraft accusations (Mixon 2015).

  41. 41.

    See also Craker (1997) and Kreutter (2012).

  42. 42.

    Data from Ray (2008) that are analyzed in Mixon (2015) provide a weaker case for this geography-based public choice explanation for the allocation of death in Salem.


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The authors thank two anonymous referees, Tobin Grant and Alain Marciano for many helpful comments and suggestions on a prior version. The usual caveat applies.

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Correspondence to Franklin G. Mixon Jr..

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Mixon, F.G., Upadhyaya, K.P. The economics of Puritanism’s treatment of bewitchment: exorcism as a potential market-pull innovation?. Eur J Law Econ (2020).

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  • Market-pull innovation
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Exorcism
  • Rational choice theory
  • Public choice theory
  • Witch trials
  • Economics of religion

JEL Classification

  • D23
  • D25
  • L12
  • L21
  • L22
  • O31
  • O35
  • Z12