31 October 2009

Samuel Sewall: Salem witch judge

Samuel Sewall by Smybert
Samuel Sewall (1652-1730) was a devout Puritan, a Boston merchant, and a magistrate who was actively engaged in his community. The reason we know so much about him was that for most of his life he kept a diary. He detailed the sermons of the day, his travels, his mercantile interests, politics, deaths, and private musingsthe minutiae of life in colonial America. But oddly enough, he wrote very little about being one of the nine judges that made up the Court of Oyer and Terminer in 1692 Salem, Massachusetts.

Sewall received a Master’s degree in Divinity from Harvard College in 1674, but never became a minister like many of his classmates. Perhaps it’s because in order to become a member of the Puritan church, he had to tell the congregation of a personal conversion, an experience that proved God’s saving grace. Apparently, Sewall believed the more dramatic, the better. He had religious doubts and overcame them, rather than experiencing a change, a leap of faith. Although he became a “visible saint,” with church membership and full communion, he didn’t always feel worthy of the status.

He also believed, like other Puritans did, that bad things happen to show God’s displeasure. It was personal, between man and God. The death of his young son Henry, Sewall believed, was God’s punishment to him as a parent. Since Sewall had 14 children, and only six survived childhood, he had a lot of guilt for earning God’s wrath.

Sewall believed in the existence of witches and probably heard from some Puritan ministers that witches were being used by the Devil to destroy the Puritan church. Even though the witch trials ended in 1693, calamities continued to strike at Sewall and the colony. And for that, the Massachusetts government decided to hold a public day of fasting and prayer in 1697. On that day, Sewall publicly repented for his role as a Salem witch judge and asked God to stop punishing him for it.

The minister of the Third Church in Boston read Sewall’s confession to the congregation. “Samuel Sewall, sensible of the reiterated strokes of God upon himself and family and being sensible that as to the guilt contracted upon the opening of the late Commission of Oyer and Terminer at Salem (to which the order for this day relates), he is, upon many accounts more concerned than any he knows of, and desires to take the blame and shame of it, asking pardon of men, and especially desiring prayers that God, who has unlimited authority, would pardon that sin and all other of his sins, personal and relative, and according to His infinite benignity and sovereignty, not visit the sin of him, or of any other, upon himself or any of his, nor upon the land. But that He would powerfully defend him against all temptations to sin, for the future; and to vouchsafe him the efficacious, saving conduct of His word and spirit.”

Today, we remember Sewall as the Salem Witch Judge, not because he was an active and vocal member of the court
like William Stoughton and John Hathornebut because of his confession. Twelve jury members also confessed their guilt on this day, but none of the other judges did. Sewall would have hated the moniker Salem Witch Judge, but it was just one more thing he would have to bear, much like the hair shirt Sewall's descendants claimed he wore for the rest of his life to remind him of his guilt in sending innocent people to their deaths.

For further reading:

Salem Witch Judge: The Life and Repentance of Samuel Sewall by Eve LaPlante

Judge Sewall's Apology: The Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of an American Conscience by Richard Francis

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