The Devil and Tom Walker | Study Guide

Washington Irving

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The Devil and Tom Walker | Context

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The Earthquake and Christianity

"The Devil and Tom Walker" is set in Massachusetts, and its central events take place between 1727 and the early 1740s. Washington Irving provides two markers of this time period: the 1727 earthquake and the governorship of Jonathan Belcher (1681/82–1757). The 1727 earthquake, a magnitude 5.6, was felt from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, through all of New England and into Canada. After the quake and its aftershocks had subsided, reports of church bells tolling, blue flames from heated sand in open fissures in the ground, and other supernatural occurrences circulated through the countryside.

Christian preachers and ministers took these as signs of God's anger with his flock and encouraged increased piety among their congregations. Just as Tom Walker's religious zeal provoked regular Christians to be "struck with self-reproach at seeing themselves so suddenly outstripped," the earthquake challenged ministers and laypeople to wonder whether they were doing enough pious acts to please God. Among their pious acts, as Tom Walker suggests, is the persecution of Quakers and Anabaptists, whom Puritans believed to be heretics, persons holding a religious opinion that a religious authority believes contradicts established doctrine.

Land Speculation

Jonathan Belcher was appointed governor of the New Hampshire and Massachusetts colonies on behalf of the British crown in 1730. His tenure was marked by widespread land speculation—the practice of buying large tracts of land at cheap prices and waiting for demand to increase the market price—and currency shortages. Belcher's "Land Bank" created currency secured by land mortgages. The narrator in "The Devil and Tom Walker" says, "It was a time of paper credit," meaning that it was a time when the value of currency was not secured by gold or any other standard. As a result, the value of the paper money that people possessed was uncertain, and many of them faced financial difficulties. These economically burdened people made easy targets for a predatory lender like Tom Walker, who would provide loans that he felt certain would not be paid back. He could then foreclose on whatever property or asset was put up as collateral for the loan, adding a new possession to his coffers.

Pirates and Indians

Two historical events precede those of Tom Walker's story: the life and death of Kidd the pirate—Captain William Kidd (1645–1701)—and the First Indian War (1675–76). Captain William Kidd and his ship were hired by the British government to attack French ships, but when his crew attacked a richly laden Armenian ship whose goods were partially owned by a man with powerful connections in the British government, Kidd was labelled a pirate. He made his way to the Caribbean and then to Boston, where he was caught and taken to England to be hanged as a pirate, with the treasure from the Armenian ship never found. This is the treasure that the devil claims to possess and that Tom Walker accepts in exchange for his soul.

The First Indian War was launched by the Wampanoag tribe, led by Metacom (also known as King Phillip), alongside its allies the Nipmuck, Pocumtuck, and Narragansett tribes. Together these Native Americans sought to expel the English colonists—who were aided by the Mohawk and Mohegan tribes—from their territory. This war left an indelible mark on both sides and was, in proportion to population, the deadliest war in American history. The "stories handed down from the time of the Indian Wars" date to this bitterly won war.

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