BACKGROUND: He was born in London, England, the son of a cloth merchant. When his father died in 1673, Samuel left Harvard to take up his inheritance in Barbados. He maintained a sugar plantation and bought two Carib slaves to tend his household, one by Tituba Indian and the other John Indian. In 1680, after a hurricane hit Barbados damaging much of his property, Parris sold a little of his land and returned to Boston.
The slaves Tituba and John remained a part of his household. Although the plantation supported his merchant ventures, Parris was dissatisfied with his lack of financial security and began to look to the ministry. In July 1689, he became minister of Salem Village (now Danvers), Massachusetts. There was tension when he arrived because he delayed his acceptance of the position, factionalism already presented within the town, and his lack of ability to resolve his parishioner’s disputes.
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There were also disputes over Samuel Parris’ pay, and once again, the town proved reluctant to pay their minister his due wages. This came to a head in October 1691 in a town meeting where a portion of the town vowed to stop paying his wage. The issue was further antagonized by Parris’ perceived arrogance when he purchased gold candlesticks for the meetinghouse and new vessels for the sacraments. In this atmosphere, serious conflict may have been inevitable.
The events that led to the Salem witch trials began when his daughter Betty Parris, and her cousin Abigail Williams, accused the family’s slave Tituba and Sarah Good of witchcraft. Then, in February 1692, Betty Parris began having “fits” that the doctor and other ministers could not explain. It soon spread to include her cousin, Abigail Williams, among others. The hysteria and trials lasted sixteen months, concluding in May 1693.
His church brought charges against him for his part in the trials, leading him to apologize for his error. However, despite the intense dislike of the villagers, Parris stayed on for another four years after the panic had run its course. Finally, in 1697, he accepted another preaching position in Stow and eventually moved on to Concord and Dunstable before his death in Sudbury on February 27, 1720.
In the play: Parris is the church’s reverend, and the first impression is that ‘there is very little good to say about him. Reverend Parris is the minister of Salem’s church. He is the father of Betty and the uncle of Abigail Williams. In the very first scene, we see him standing over his daughter Betty’s sickbed. At first, the audience might sympathize with him. But then they quickly realize that Parris is just worried about his reputation. He is scared that if people think there is witchcraft in his house, he’ll lose his position as minister of Salem and the fact that this concern outweighs his worry over his suffering daughter clearly paints a picture of him as selfish.
Further examples of Parris’s greed include: quibbling over firewood, insisting on gratuitous golden candlesticks for the church and demanding (against time-honoured tradition) that he have the deed to the house he lives in. PARRIS: Abigail, I have fought here three long years to bend these stiff-necked people to me, and now, just now, when some good respect is rising for me in the parish, you compromise my very character. I have given you a home, child. I have put clothes upon your back – now give me an upright answer. Your name in the town – it is entirely white. (page 232)
After seeing the girls dancing in the forest, Parris recognizes the possibility that the witchcraft being practiced has originated in his own household, and he worries about the possible danger to his reputation if the townsfolk learn that his daughter and niece could be consorting with the devil. More to the point: the townspeople may already have heard rumours that Abigail is not a proper girl if Elizabeth Proctor talked about her in the town. “Thirty-one pound is gone. I am penniless.” “He covers his face and sobs.”
Most despicably, we see Parris cry; it is not because of all the people who he’s helped to senselessly murder, but because Abigail stole his money and he’s now broke. PARRIS: No–no. There be no unnatural cause here. Tell him I have sent for Reverend Hale of Beverly, and Mr. Hale will surely confirm that. Let him look to medicine and put out all thought of unnatural causes here. There be none.” (page 230)
He quickly moves to try and forestall any comments that Betty’s “sickness” has anything to do with witchcraft. Reverend Parris distinguishes himself as rather a weak character in Act One. Above all, we get an impression that he cares far more about his own reputation and public standing than he does about his daughter Betty’s poor condition of health. PARRIS: And I pray you to feel the weight of truth upon you, for now, my ministry’s at stake, my ministry and perhaps your cousin’s life. Whatever abomination you have done, give me all of it now, for I dare not be taken unaware when I go before them down there.” (page. 232)
From what he says to Abigail, this quote again portrays his self-centred character. It shows him to be paranoid to a certain extent by the way he repeatedly talks of his “enemies” and presents his position as being under threat and in danger. PARRIS: It is great service, sir. It is the weighty name; it will strike the village that Proctor confesses. I beg you, let him sign it. The sun is up, Excellency! (page326) This shows Parris’ fear of being false throughout, so he is happy seeing John Proctor confess to witchcraft.
Miller could be using Parris to reflect the restrictive society and reinforce this restriction and fear that the people have by using religion to scare people. Parris is a symbol of religion. Thus his character could reflect the restrictive nature of religion as it has been used to scare individuals. Thus religion can also be used as a form of control. Additionally, Parris thinks purely from one perspective suggests that Miller is trying to use Parris to reflect the extent to which religion has affected society. It has manipulated Parris into thinking that restriction, conformity and lack of amusement is the right way to live life.