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Samuel Sewall

Samuel Sewall

The voluminous diary of Samuel Sewall (1652-1730), American jurist, provides a vivid picture of the Boston of his day as well as of himself.

Samuel Sewall was born on March 28, 1652, in North Baddesley, Hampshire, England. His father was an occasional minister and cattle raiser who had spent from 1634 to 1646 in Massachusetts, where he had met his wife. After study at a grammar school, Samuel went to Newbury, Mass., where his father had returned two years earlier. Samuel's education continued under the local minister. In 1667 he entered Harvard; he graduated in 1671 and became master of arts in 1674. Unlike most of his classmates, he did not become a minister.

In 1676 Sewall married the daughter of a prosperous merchant. The story that his wife's dowry was her weight in the pine-tree shillings her father minted may not be apocryphal. Sewall went to work for his father-in-law. He became a constable in 1679, and in 1681 he was appointed to the Massachusetts General Court. His wife's inheritance after her father's death in 1683 was substantial, and it permitted Sewall to shift from business to civic service.

Sewall's diary records his daily life, with few opinions and no introspection. He was mainly conservative, conventionally religious, worldly but charitable, a Puritan and a Yankee. His diary indirectly reveals contemporary attitudes. It covers a business trip he made to England in 1688-1689. It is less detailed than one might wish on the Salem witch trials of 1692, when he served as one of seven judges. Eventually he saw the evil of which he had been guilty by his condemnation of "witches," and in 1697 he publicly acknowledged his error.

Following the witch trials, Sewall was appointed a judge of the Superior Court of Massachusetts, a post he held for twenty-five years. Then for eleven years he was chief justice. He was devoted to the cause of Christianizing Native Americans and freeing slaves. To the latter cause he devoted a pamphlet, The Selling of Joseph (1700). Another pamphlet, Phaenomena quadem Apocalyptica ad aspectum Novi Orbis configurata (1687), argued that New England was a suitable site for the new Jerusalem.

Sewall's wife died in 1717. Of their fourteen children, only five survived her. Sewall married two more times. One failed courtship attempt is described in one of the diary's most attractive episodes. Sewall died in Boston on Jan. 1, 1730.

Further Reading

Sewall's diary was published by the Massachusetts Historical Society in three volumes (1878-1882); abridged versions were edited by Mark Van Doren (1963) and Harvey Wish (1967). An attractive biography is Ola E. Winslow, Samuel Sewall of Boston (1964). The Salem witchcraft trials are treated in Chadwick Hansen, Witchcraft at Salem (1969). □

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Sewall, Samuel

Samuel Sewall (syōō´əl), 1652–1730, American colonial jurist, b. England. He was taken as a child to Newbury, Mass., and was graduated from Harvard in 1671. He became a minister but gave up the cloth to assume management of a printing press in Boston and entered upon a public career. He was elected (1683) to the general court and was a member of the council. As one of the judges who tried the Salem witchcraft cases in 1692, he shared responsibility for the condemnation of 19 persons. However, he became convinced of the error of these convictions and in 1697 in Old South Church, Boston, publicly accepted the "blame and shame" for them; thereafter he annually spent a day of repentance in fasting and prayer. Sewall served (1692–1728) as judge of the superior court of the colony, being chief justice during the last 10 years. His diary (3 vol., 1878–82; repr. 1973) is very revealing of the man and of the period.

See biographies by O. E. Winslow (1964), T. B. Strandness (1967), and E. LaPlante (2007); N. H. Chamberlain, Samuel Sewall and the World He Lived In (1897, repr. 1967).

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Sewall, Samuel

Sewall, Samuel

March 28, 1652

Hampshire, England

January 1, 1730

Boston, Massachusetts

Massachusetts businessman and judge

"Tis pity there should be more caution used in buying a horse, or a little lifeless dust, than there is in purchasing men and women. . . . "

Samuel Sewall.

Samuel Sewall was a prominent businessman and judge in Boston during a time of social and political upheaval in the Massachusetts colony. He is perhaps best known for making a dramatic public apology for the role he played as a judge in the Salem witch trials, which resulted in the executions of nineteen people. Sewall is also famous for his diary, a remarkable work that spans more than fifty years and provides modern historians with a vivid picture of life in Puritan New England. (The Puritans were a Christian group who observed strict moral and spiritual codes; they controlled social and political life in Massachusetts.) Sewall also was one of the first colonists to speak out against the keeping of African slaves.

Begins long public career

Samuel Sewall was born in Hampshire, England, on March 28, 1652, the son of Henry and Jane (Dummer) Sewall. When he was nine years old, his parents emigrated (moved from one country to another) to Newbury, Massachusetts, where he was educated at a private school. In 1671 he graduated from Harvard College with a bachelor's degree and three years later earned a master's degree from the same institution. Sewall was then ordained a minister, but he left the church to go into business when he married Hannah Hull in 1675. Sewall's father-in-law, John Hull, was the master of the mint (a government agency that prints money) for the Massachusetts Bay Colony and therefore had extensive connections in the business community. At Hull's urging, Sewall moved to Boston in 1681 to take over management of the colony's printing press. By the early 1690s he was a prominent figure in Boston business and political circles. He was a banker, publisher, international trader, and member of the colonial court. Although Sewall had no formal legal training, he also served as a judge (at that time a law degree was not required).

Sewall began his long career as a government official in 1683, when he was appointed to the general court. The following year he was elected to the Massachusetts council (governing body). While visiting England on business in 1684, he became involved in unsuccessful efforts to convince British officials to maintain the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter in its present form. Massachusetts Bay was the only self-governing English colony in America (see John Winthrop entry). However, Britain revoked the charter because Massachusetts Bay officials were illegally operating a mint. They were also basing voting rights on religious affiliation instead of property ownership and discriminating against Anglicans (members of the Church of England, the official religion of the country); the majority of the Massachusetts colonists were Puritans.

The Salem witch trials

In 1691 Britain forced the Massachusetts Bay Colony to accept a charter that united it with Plymouth (see William Bradford entry) and Maine (see Ferdinando Gorges box in Thomas Morton entry) to form the Massachusetts colony. Under the new charter, church membership could no longer be a requirement for voting, although Congregationalism (a branch of Puritanism organized according to independent church congregations) remained the established (official) church. Sewall was named a councilor (advisor) in the new royal government, a position he held until 1725, when he decided not to seek reelection.

Historians note that the loss of the original charter led to widespread anxiety in Massachusetts, which may be one of the main reasons for the infamous witchcraft hysteria that followed. Puritan officials believed the colony was under an evil spell cast by witches (people, usually women, with supernatural powers), who had signed a compact with the Devil, the ultimate evil force. Witches were supposedly seeking revenge on particular members of the community. According to the Puritans, the compact empowered a witch to perform such acts as causing a child's death, making crops fail, preventing cream from being churned into butter, or producing sterility (inability to conceive offspring) in cattle. They also believed witches entered the bodies of animals and became beings called "familiars" who prowled around undetected. Yet the witches could be discovered through other forms of witchcraft. The prominent Puritan leader Increase Mather (see box in Cotton Mather entry) wrote Remarkable Providence, a handbook on how to identify a witch. He actively supported holding trials to rid the colony of witches.

"the blame and shame of it"

Samuel Sewall regretted his participation as a judge in the Salem witch trials of 1692–93. On January 14, 1697—a special day of atonement set aside by the Massachusetts legislature—Sewall stood and faced the congregation in the Old South Church at Boston. The Reverend Samuel Willard then read aloud this statement Sewall had written:

Samuel Sewall, sensible of the reiterated [repeated] strokes of God upon himself and his family; and being sensible, that as to the guilt contracted, upon the opening of the late Commission of Oyer and Terminator [the court that conducted the witchcraft trials] at Salem (to which the order for this day relates), he is, upon many accounts, more concerned than any that he knows of, desires to take the blame and shame of it, asking pardon of men, and especially desiring prayers that God, who has an unlimited authority, would pardon that sin and all his other sins; personal and relative: And according to his infinite benignity [kindness], and sovereignty [supreme power], not visit the sin of him, or of any other, upon himself or any of his, nor upon the land: But that He [God] would powerfully defend him against all temptations to sin, for the future; and vouchsafe him the efficacious [having the power to produce a desired effect], saving conduct of his word and spirit.

Reprinted in: Gunn, Giles, ed. Early American Writing. New York: Penguin Books, 1994, pp. 246–47.

In June 1692, when the Puritans decided to hold formal witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts governor William Phips appointed Sewall as a special commissioner (judge) on the court. Meeting in July and August, Sewall and the other judges interrogated suspected witches and gave them a chance to reject the validity of their compact with the Devil. A suspected witch was usually falsely accused by other members of the community, and soon widespread accusations paralyzed the area. If the suspects opened themselves to God, they would be reaccepted into the community. But many did not repent. The court ultimately sentenced nineteen people, most of whom were women, to death. The executions were carried out in September: eighteen were hanged and a man was crushed to death. Almost immediately Sewall began to regret the role he played in this tragedy, and the guilt weighed increasingly upon his conscience. In fact, he felt he had greater responsibility in the matter than any of the other judges.

Recants role in trials

By 1697 Massachusetts officials realized that witchcraft hysteria was out of control and that the trials had been a terrible mistake, so the legislature designated January 14 as a special day of atonement (expression of regret and request for forgiveness). Taking this opportunity to make a public confession of his sins, Sewall wrote an admission of error and guilt. Then he stood and faced the congregation in the Old South Church at Boston as the Reverend Samuel Willard read the statement aloud. Sewall was the only judge who publicly admitted his own guilt. Increase Mather and his son Cotton, who were a motivating force behind the witch hunts, eventually were instrumental in bringing the trials to an end. Yet the Mathers expressed their doubts only in published written works.

Opposes slavery

After Sewall made his public apology he continued to be a part of governmental affairs and held various judicial offices. He also became involved in abolitionist (antislavery) efforts. In 1700 he published The Selling of Joseph, an essay in which he argued against the keeping of African slaves. Now considered one of the earliest antislavery statements, it is frequently reprinted in American history and literature texts. (Quaker minister John Woolman (see entry) is credited with organizing the first successful abolitionist movement, in 1743.) Sewall also advocated that Native Americans be placed on reservations and taught the English language and social customs. Colonial governments had been adopting this policy since the mid-1600s. The reservation system eventually resulted in the total extinction of the Native American way of life by the early nineteenth century.

Writes famous diary

Sewall wrote numerous historical and religious works as well as unpublished poetry during his lifetime. He is best known, however, for his diary, in which he gave a vivid picture of Puritan life in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century New England. (The diary spans the period from 1674 to 1729; there were no entries from 1677 to 1685.) Sewall was married three times. Hannah Sewall, with whom he had fourteen children, died in 1717. In 1719 he wed Abigail Melyen, who died the following year. One of the most amusing passages in Sewall's diary is his account of courting (seeking to marry) Katherine Winthrop. He wrote that he gave her such gifts as sermons, gingerbread, and sugared almonds. Yet she would not be won over unless he promised to wear a wig and buy a coach. Finally unable to reach a marriage agreement with Winthrop, Sewall turned his affections elsewhere and, at age seventy, took Mary Gibbs as his third wife. He died eight years later, in 1730.

from The Selling of Joseph

Samuel Sewall had long been troubled by the practice of slavery in the American colonies, but he had never acted on his views. Then, while he was serving as a judge in the Massachusetts General Court, he had to make a decision on a petition to free an African couple who were being held in bondage. Sewall therefore resolved to issue a public statement against the holding of African slaves. The result was The Selling of Joseph (1700), which is considered one of the earliest expressions of the abolitionist cause. The Joseph in the title is one of the heroes in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament of the Bible. The favorite son of Jacob and Rachel, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. They were jealous of his ambitions and the coat of many colors that Jacob had given to him.

In the opening of The Selling of Joseph Sewall argued that "originally, and naturally, there is no such thing as slavery. Joseph was rightfully no more a slave to [his brothers] than they were to him; and they had no more authority to sell him than they had to slay him. . . . 'Tis pity there should be more caution used in buying a horse, or a little lifeless dust, than there is in purchasing men and women. . . ." Sewall went on to compare Joseph's situation with that of African slaves: "It is likewise most lamentable to think how, in taking negroes out of Africa and selling of them here, that which God has joined together men do boldly rend asunder; men from their country, husbands from their wives, parents from their children. How horrible is the uncleanness, immorality, if not murder, that the [slave] ships are guilty of that bring great crowds of these miserable men and women [to America]. . . . "

Reprinted in: Gunn, Giles, ed. Early American Writing. New York: Penguin Books, 1994, pp. 254–57.

For further research

Elliott, Emory, and others, eds. American Literature: A Prentice Hall Anthology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1991, pp. 215–17.

Gunn, Giles, ed. Early American Writing. New York: Penguin Books, 1994, pp. 246–47, 254–57.

Images from the Salem Witchcraft Trails.http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/SA Available July 13, 1999.

Johnson, Allen, and others, eds. Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribner, 1946–1958, pp. 610–12.

Stephen, Leslie, and Sidney Lee, eds. The Dictionary of National Biography. London, England: Oxford University Press, 1917, pp. 1217–18.

Winslow, Ola Elizabeth. Samuel Sewall of Boston. New York: Macmillan, 1964.

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Sewall, Samuel

Sewall, Samuel

Diary Entries of Samuel Sewall

Apology of Samuel Sewall

Both reprinted in Early American Writing in 1994

Edited by Giles Gunn

Samuel Sewall (1652–1730; see biography entry) was a prominent Boston businessman who served on the panel of judges for the Salemwitch trials. He is best known today for his diary, which provides an eyewitness account of the internal workings of the procedings. The trials were conducted by a group of elite Puritan leaders who were convinced that they were following the will of God. Sewall was a member of that group. Selected diary entries from April, August, and September 1692—at the height of the trials—show that judges and other Puritan officials regularly consulted about strategy, and they were determined to obtain confessions from suspected witches. Yet they were also anxious to justify their decisions. For instance, interrogators piled stones on Giles Corey for nine days until he died because he would not admit to the charges against him. Sewall apparently needed to defend this act because he noted that Corey himself had crushed someone to death eighteen years earlier. As proof against Corey he cited spectral evidence: Corey's "specter" (spirit) appeared to Ann Putnam, Jr. the night before the execution and told her he had killed the man. Sewall took comfort in Cotton Mather's view that the several convicted witches "all died by a righteous sentence." (See biography and primary source entries for both Put nam and Mather.) Sewall noted that some people thought George Burroughs (one of the executed men) was innocent, but he dismissed them as merely "unthinking persons." In the brief but dramatic description of the reprieve (the release from her death sentence) of Dorcas Hoar, Sewall indicated that the Puritans would call off an execution if a person confessed. Sewall later repented for his role in the trials.

Things to remember while reading the Diary Entries of Samuel Sewall:

  • Sewall was actually an ordained minister, not a judge. However, at the time of the witch trials, people were chosen to sit on courts as judges based on their social standing and not on whether or not they had any legal training.
  • Giles Corey was pressed to death because he contested the charges of witchcraft against him and refused to stand trial. Historians suggest that Corey must have known his case was hopeless, and therefore decided to defend the truth by refusing a trial.
  • The witch trials were brought on by a mass hysteria that made many people actually believe that they were being haunted or possessed by evil.

From Diary Entries of Samuel Sewall

April 11, 1692. Went to Salem, where, in the meeting-house, the persons accused of witchcraft were examined; was a very great assembly; 'twas awful to see how theafflicted persons were agitated. Mr. Noyes pray'd at the beginning, and Mr. Higginson concluded.

August 19, 1692. This day George Burroughs, John Willard, John Proctor, Martha Carrier and George Jacobs wereexecuted at Salem, a very great number of spectators being present. Mr. Cotton Mather was there, Mr. Sims, Hale, Noyes, Chiever, &c. All of them said they were innocent, Carrier and all. Mr. Mather says they all died by a righteous sentence. Mr. Burroughs by his speech, prayer,protestation of his innocence, did much move unthinking persons, which occasions their speaking hardly concerning his being executed.

August 25.Fast at the old [First] Church, respecting the witchcraft, drought, &c.

Monday, September 19, 1692. About noon, at Salem, Giles Corey was press'd to death for standing mute; much pains was used with him two days, one after another, by the Court and Capt. Gardner of Nantucket who had been of his acquaintance: but all in vain.

September 20. Now I hear from Salem that about 18 years ago, he [Giles Corey] was suspected to have stampd and press'd a man to death, but was cleared. Twas not remembered till Ann Putnam [Jr.] was told of it by said Corey's spectre the sabbath-day night before execution.

afflicted: distressed, suffering

executed: to put to death in compliance with a legal sentence

protestation: a solemn declaration

fast: going without eating food

September 21. A petition is sent to town in behalf of Dorcas Hoar, who now confesses: accordingly an order is sent to the sheriff toforbear her execution, notwithstanding her being in the warrant to die tomorrow. This is the first condemned person who has confess'd.

Thursday, September 22, 1692. William Stoughton,Esqr., John Hathorne, Esqr., Mr. Cotton Mather, and Capt. John Higginson, with my Brother . . . were at our house, speaking about publishing some Trials of the Witches.

forbear: to hold back or abstain

Esqr.: esquire—used as a title of courtesy

What happened next?

As the witch-hunts continued into October 1692, the jails were continually filled with people accused of being witches and practicing witchcraft. However, by mid-October people seemed to start questioning whether the accused were witches, or whether they had just been "possessed" by the devil. Suddenly the courts were looking at the accused with more caution, as they believed a person possessed was not aware of what evil they were performing. Finally, after the publication of Increase Mather's speech "Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men," which called into question the use of spectral evidence in the witchcraft trials, Massachusetts Governor William Phipps called an end to all witch trials.

As the Salem trials gained momentum and continued into 1693, the Puritan elite began expressing grave doubts about the witch-hunts. In addition to Increase Mather's changing his position on the use of spectral evidence, to condemn people, Increase's son Cotton also changed his mind, eventually supporting his father's view that the witch-hunts had been unjustified. Finally, in 1697, Massachusetts officials concluded that the trials had been a terrible mistake. The governor pardoned all condemned prisoners, and the legislature designated January 14 as a special day of atonement (expression of regret and request for forgiveness). By this time Samuel Sewall deeply regretted the role as judge he had played in the tragedy. Unlike the Mathers, Sewall had not been one of the main promoters of the trials; yet he had cooperated with those in power by sentencing and executing the accused witches. Sewall was so remorseful that he wrote an admission of error and guilt. Then on January 14, the day of atonement, he stood in front of the congregation in the Old South Church at Boston as the Reverend Samuel Willard read Sewall's statement aloud.

Things to remember while reading The Apology of Samuel Sewall:

  • The guilt and shame of the execution of the first accused witch (Bridget Bishop ; see biography entry) led to the resignation of magistrate Nathaniel Saltonstall. Unable to be a part of the trials any longer, he left saying that the fits that a handful of Salem girls used as evidence of being "bewitched" and spectral evidence were not good sources for primary evidence. He was replaced by Johnathan Corwin.
  • At the end of the trials, when the court of Oyer and Terminer was closed, Sewall was the only judge who felt enough shame for what had occurred that he apologized in front of the church congregation.

The Apology of Samuel Sewall

reiterated: repeated

Oyer and Terminer: the court that conducted the witchcraft trials

Samuel Sewall, sensible of thereiterated strokes of God upon himself and his family; and being sensible, that as to the guilt contracted, upon the opening of the late Commission ofOyer and Terminer,

[Image not available for copyright reasons]

he is, upon many accounts, more concerned than any that he knows of, desires to take the blame and shame of it, asking pardon of men, and especially desiring prayers that God, who has an unlimited authority, would pardon that sin and all his other sins; personal and relative: And according to his infinitebenignity, andsovereignty, not visit the sin of him, or of any other, upon himself or any of his, nor upon the land: But that He [God] would powerfully defend him against all temptations to sin, for the future; andvouchsafe him theefficacious, saving conduct of his word and spirit.

benignity: kindness

sovereignty: supreme rule or excellence or an example of it

vouchsafe: to grant as a privilege or special favor

efficacious: having the power to produce a desired effect

What happened next?

Sewall, broken and shamed for his part in the trials, worked to become more socially active in the later years of his life. He became a vocal advocate for the rights of the oppressed, including Native Americans and African slaves. He also set aside one day of fasting each year to atone for his involvement in the deaths of so many.

Did you know?

  • Samuel Sewall wrote an abolitionist pamphlet called The Selling of Joseph, condemning the selling and trading of African slaves.
  • Sewall was one of the first would-be Native American advocates who suggested placing tribes on reservations.

For Further Study

Discovery Online—A Village Possessed: A True Story of Witchcraft.http://www.discovery.com/stories/history/witches/witches.html (Accessed July 7, 2000).

Gunn, Giles, editor. Early American Writing. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.Hansen, Chadwick. Witchcraft at Salem. New York: George Braziller, 1969.

Hill, Frances. A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials. New York: Doubleday, 1995.

Rice, Earle, Jr. The Salem Witch Trials. San Diego, California: Lucent Books, 1997.

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Sewall, Samuel

Sewall, Samuel

Born: March 28, 1652
Hampshire, England

Died: January 1, 1730
Boston, Massachusetts

Businessman and public official

Samuel Sewall was a prominent businessman and judge in Boston, Massachusetts, during a time of social and political upheaval in the New England colonies. He is known today for making a dramatic public apology for the role he played as a judge in the Salem witch trials, which resulted in the executions of twenty people. Sewall is equally famous for his diary, a remarkable work that spans more than fifty years and provides modern historians with a vivid picture of life in Puritan New England. The diary offers an eyewitness account of the role of the Puritan elite in manipulating evidence in order to eliminate accused witches (see Diary Entries and Apology of Samuel Sewall in the Primary Sources section). After the Salem trials, Sewall went on to be a vocal advocate (supporter) of slaves' rights and tried to improve the living conditions of Native Americans.

Becomes Massachusetts judge

Samuel Sewall was born in Hampshire, England, on March 28, 1652, the son of Henry and Jane (Dummer) Sewall. When he was nine years old his parents moved to Newbury, Massachusetts, where he was educated at a private school. In 1671 he graduated from Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a bachelors degree and three years later earned a masters degree from the same institution. Sewall was then ordained a minister, but he left the church to go into business when he married Hannah Hull in 1675. Sewall's father-in-law, John Hull, was the master of the mint (a government agency that prints money) for the Massachusetts Bay Colony and therefore had extensive connections in the business community. At Hull's urging, Sewall moved to Boston in 1681 to take over management of the colony's printing press. By the early 1690s he was a prominent figure in Boston business and political circles. He was a banker, publisher, international trader, and member of the colonial court. Although Sewall had no formal legal training, he also served as a judge (at that time a law degree was not required).

Sewall began his long career as a public official in 1683, when he was appointed to the Massachusetts General Court. The following year he was elected to the Massachusetts Council (governing body). While visiting England on business in 1684, he became involved in unsuccessful efforts to maintain the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter in its present form. Massachusetts Bay was the only self-governing English colony in America. Finally Britain revoked (canceled) the charter because Massachusetts Bay officials were illegally operating a mint. They were also basing voting rights on religious affiliation instead of property ownership and discriminating against Anglicans (members of the Church of England; the majority of the Massachusetts colonists were Puritans).

Presides at Salem trials

In 1691 Britain forced the Massachusetts Bay Colony to accept a charter that united it with Plymouth and Maine to form the Massachusetts colony. Under the new charter, church membership could no longer be a requirement for voting, although Congregationalism (a branch of Puritanism organized according to independent church congregations) remained the official church. Sewall was named a councilor (advisor) in the new royal government, a position he held until 1725, when he decided not to seek reelection. Historians note that the loss of the original charter led to widespread anxiety in Massachusetts, resulting in witchcraft hysteria. Puritan officials believed the colony was under an evil spell cast by witches (people, usually women, with supernatural powers) who had signed a compact (agreement) with the devil (the ultimate evil force). Witches were supposedly seeking revenge on particular members of the community. According to the Puritans, the compact empowered a witch to perform such acts as causing the death of a child, making crops fail, preventing cream from being churned into butter, or producing sterility (inability to conceive offspring) in cattle. They also believed witches inhabited the bodies of animals such as cats and dogs and became beings called "familiars," who could then prowl around and commit evil acts. The prominent Puritan leader Increase Mather wrote Remarkable Providences, a handbook on how to identify a witch, in 1684 (see primary source entry). He actively supported holding trials to rid the colony of witches.

In June 1692, when the Puritans decided to hold formal witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, Governor William Phipps (1651–1695) appointed Sewall as a special commissioner (judge) on the court. Meeting in July and August, Sewall and the other judges interrogated (questioned) suspected witches and gave them a chance to reject their compact with the devil. If the suspects opened themselves to God, they would be reaccepted into the community. But many did not repent (feel regret for one's actions). The court ultimately sentenced twenty people, most of whom were women, to death. The executions were carried out in September: nineteen were hanged and a man was crushed to death. Almost immediately Sewall began to regret the role he played in this tragedy, and the guilt weighed increasingly upon his conscience. In fact, he felt he had greater responsibility in the matter than any of the other judges.

The Selling of Joseph

Samuel Sewall regretted his role as a judge in the Salem trials. Although he made a public apology in 1697, his involvement in sending innocent people to their deaths continued to weigh on his mind for the rest of his life. After the trials he appeared to develop a social conscience. He had long been troubled by the practice of slavery in the American colonies, but he had never taken the time to act on his views. Then, while he was serving as a judge in the Massachusetts General Court, he had to make a decision on a petition to free an African couple who were illegally held in bondage. Sewall therefore resolved to issue a public statement against the holding of African slaves. The result was The Selling of Joseph (1700), which is considered one of the earliest expressions of the abolitionist cause. The Joseph in the title is one of the heroes in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament of the Bible. The favorite son of Jacob and Rachel, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. They were jealous of his ambitions and the coat of many colors that Jacob had given to him.

In the opening of The Selling of Joseph Sewall argued that:

originally, and naturally, there is no such thing as slavery. Joseph was rightfully no more a slave to [his brothers] than they were to him; and they had no more authority to sell him than they had to slay him. . . . 'Tis pity there should be more caution used in buying a horse, or a little lifeless dust, than there is in purchasing men and women.

Sewall went on to compare Joseph's situation with that of African slaves:

It is likewise most lamentable to think how, in taking negroes out of Africa and selling of them here, that which God has joined together men do boldly rend asunder; men from their country, husbands from their wives, parents from their children. How horrible is the uncleanness, immorality, if not murder, that the [slave] ships are guilty of that bring great crowds of these miserable (unhappy) men and women [to America]. (From Giles Gunn, editor, Early American Writing, pp. 254–57.)

Develops a social conscience

By 1697 Massachusetts officials realized that the trials had been a terrible mistake, so the legislature designated January 14 as a special day of atonement (expression of regret and request for forgiveness). Taking this opportunity to make a public confession of his sins, Sewall wrote an admission of error and guilt. Then he stood and faced the congregation in the Old South Church at Boston as the Reverend Samuel Willard read the statement aloud. As reprinted in Early American Writing, in the apology Sewall said he was taking "the blame and shame of it [the trials], asking pardon of men, and especially desiring prayers that God, who has an unlimited authority, would pardon that sin and all his other sins." Sewall was the only judge who publicly admitted his own guilt. Increase Mather and his son Cotton Mather (see biography and primary source entries), who were motivating forces behind the witch-hunts, eventually were instrumental in bringing the trials to an end. Yet the Mathers expressed their doubts only in published written works. Sewall continued to be troubled by his involvement in sending innocent people to their deaths. For the rest of his life he set aside a day of fasting a year to atone for his sins.

After Sewall made his public repentance he developed a social conscience, becoming active in abolitionist (antislavery) efforts. In 1700 he published The Selling of Joseph, an essay in which he argued against the keeping of African slaves (see box). Now considered one of the earliest antislavery statements, it is frequently reprinted in American history and literature texts. Sewall extended his concern to Native Americans, advocating that they be placed on reservations (lands set aside by the federal government solely for the use of different Native American peoples) and taught the language and customs of the English colonists. Colonial governments had been adopting this policy since the mid-1600s. Sewall's well-intentioned efforts were misguided, however, for the reservation system eventually resulted in the near extinction of the Native American way of life by the early nineteenth century.

Writes famous diary

Sewall wrote numerous historical and religious works as well as unpublished poetry during his lifetime. He is best known, however, for his diary, in which he gives a vivid picture of Puritan life in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century New England. (The diary spans the period from 1674 to 1729; there were no entries from 1677 to 1685.) Sewall was married three times. Hannah Hull Sewall, with whom he had fourteen children, died in 1717. In 1719 he wed Abigail Melyen, who died the following year. One of the most amusing passages in Sewall's diary is his account of courting (seeking to marry) Katherine Winthrop, whom he hoped would become his third wife. He wrote that he gave her such gifts as sermons, ginger-bread, and sugared almonds. Yet she would not be won over unless he promised to wear a wig and buy a coach. Finally unable to reach a marriage agreement with Winthrop, Sewall turned his affections elsewhere and, at age seventy, took Mary Gibbs as his third wife. He died eight years later, in 1730.

For Further Reading

Gunn, Giles, editor. Early American Writing. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

Winslow, Ola Elizabeth. Samuel Sewall of Boston. New York: Macmillan, 1964.

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