Paul Boyer, historian altered views of Salem witch trials


NEW YORK - Paul S. Boyer, an intellectual historian who wrote groundbreaking studies of the Salem witch trials, the history of apocalyptic movements, and the response of the American public to the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, died March 17 in Madison, Wis. He was 76.

The cause was cancer, said his wife, Ann.

Mr. Boyer, a professor of US history at the University of Wisconsin from 1980 until his retirement in 2002, was known for his research on the religious underpinnings of American culture and especially for his interest in how Americans respond to perceived existential threats.


He first received wide notice in 1974 with “Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft,’’ which suggested that social envy motivated many of the accusers in the 17th-century witch trials.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

That book, written with Stephen Nissenbaum, made innovative use of historic land records and tax receipts to show that in many cases the accused were members of Salem’s social establishment, if only peripherally, while their accusers were lower-ranking citizens who had tangled with the victims over financial matters.

The book so radically changed the previous historical understanding of the episode, said a reviewer for The Times Literary Supplement of London, “that virtually all the previous treatment can be consigned to the historical lumber room.’’

In 1978, his “Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920’’ explored the way leaders and immigrants in the United States came to grips with what they saw as the loosening of behavioral norms caused by immigrants’ loss of traditional ties to institutions like church and family. Critics across the political spectrum praised the book, although their interpretations of Mr. Boyer’s nuanced findings varied widely.

Writing in The New York Times, the neoconservative urban affairs writer Roger Starr saw the book as Mr. Boyer’s endorsement of the need for “traditional values and modes of behavior’’ in modern urban life. In the left-leaning magazine The Nation, the cultural historian Thomas Bender described it as an account of the well-meaning but largely unsuccessful efforts of reformers to provide immigrants with a moral order “that was receding irretrievably into the past.’’


In 1992, Mr. Boyer’s “When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture’’ was somewhat ahead of the pack in identifying the growing power of fundamentalist religious groups in the United States and explaining how their millennial views were being incorporated into mainstream political views about international affairs.

Mr. Boyer - a lifelong pacifist raised in the Brethren in Christ Church, an offshoot of the Mennonites - was probably best known for two books about the long-term cultural impact of the US decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, at the end of World War II.

“By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age’’ (1985) and “Fallout’’ (1998), a collection of a half-century of his essays, described the bomb’s impact on the American psyche, culture, and politics. Among the threads Mr. Boyer traced was how the bomb impelled a generation of scientists to political activism, which helped spark the broad-based antinuclear movement of the 1950s and indirectly paved the way for activism against the war in Vietnam in the 1960s.

Millions of Americans initially viewed the bomb as a turning point in human history, he wrote, and understood viscerally that it meant the end of human history unless all the nations of the world agreed to give up their nationalist ambitions and evolve some form of world government. When the Cold War emerged as the defining reality of international politics, he contended, people lost the clarity of that initial insight.

Mr. Boyer, who never did, was intrigued by how casually many people accepted the threat of instant incineration. In the introduction to “By the Bomb’s Early Light,’’ he wrote that so little is made of it that, a thousand years in the future, a scholar reading contemporary books and periodicals about the current age “would hardly guess that such a thing as nuclear weapons had existed.’’


He added, “We have somehow managed to avert our attention.’’

Paul Samuel Boyer was born in Dayton, Ohio, one of three sons of Ethel and Clarence Boyer. His father ran a small store that sold typewriters and religious novelties. His brother Ernest, who died in 1995, became a prominent educator.

In addition to his wife, he leaves a son, Alex; a daughter, Kate; two grandchildren; and a brother, William.