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Judge Sewall's Apology: The Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of an American Conscience Hardcover – August 9, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
In this lively chronicle, historian Francis (Transcendental Utopias) offers a compelling portrait of the decline of Puritan ways in the late 17th century and the ascent of a secular spirit in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Although devout, Samuel Sewall (1652–1730) turned away from an early religious vocation to pursue a career in public office and married into the colony's aristocracy. He found himself catapulted into the limelight as one of nine judges who condemned the alleged witches of Salem in 1692. Francis calls this the turning point in Sewall's life and work. Never convinced that the condemned women were guilty, Sewall felt remorse; in 1697 he walked into a Boston church and offered a public apology, the only one of the three judges to do so. As a result, he was rebuffed by his social circle. Yet, according to Francis, Sewall's courage is magnified by his taking a stand he knew would result in ostracism. In his later years, Sewall wrote tracts opposing the colonists' treatment of Indians and slaves. Francis beautifully captures not only Sewall's personality and significance but also the shifting times in which he lived, when it was becoming no longer possible to "see the world as a simple allegorical struggle between... good and evil." B&w illus.
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Disquiet about the propriety of the Salem witch trials of 1692 existed even when they were under way, and the affair was quickly terminated when accusations of devilry began to nick the Puritan elite. One of the doubters was Samuel Sewall (1652-1730), a member of the court and a diligent diary keeper. Biographer Francis exploits this primary document to present Sewall as a figure imbued with the Calvinist mentality of the Puritans who shed some of its strictures, at least concerning law; theologically, Sewall remained true. More to the point of reading interest, Francis finds through the diary a genial but psychologically complicated figure who recorded the panoply of daily occurrences, such as his business and legal affairs, harmony and strife in his family, and, after the death of his wife, his courting of widows. Sewall was a remarkable witness to colonial life, but it is his repudiation of his role in the witch trials that centrally engages the author's curiosity. Evocatively detailed and clearly written, Francis' biography will be crucial for students of Salem. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top customer reviews
The cover blurb ("The Story of a Good Man and an Evil Event") and the title inflate the importance of the notorious Salem witch trials in the book. The publisher can be forgiven for this exaggeration: scandals grab public attention just as much now as then. If the witchcraft "angle" induces more people to take a look at this interesting book, the exaggeration will prove worthwhile.
The witchcraft angle made me pick it up. I live scarcely a mile from the homestead of one of the women accused in that terrible crisis, and I am quite interested in what happened.
Sewall was a Puritan magistrate. They sat in a panel over various trials, including the witchcraft trials. The nuances of Sewall's interior experience of those trials are revealing about the late Puritan age's issues of gender, social standing, and economic class that underlay the witchcraft panic: it started among women in run-down rural Salem Village (now Danvers) and was prosecuted by men in wealthly Salem Town. Both Sewall and his biographer convey an understanding of these struggles straightforwardly without polemic. Francis just tells the stories, and resists the temptation to draw simple moral lessons from what happened. By doing this he cuts through the illusion that Puritan culture was morally simple-minded and brings it to life.
The people of the Puritan Commonwealth felt the presence of God looming over them with a clarity and intensity that is very difficult for us to understand in the 21st century. Those people thought their culture was destined to be the fulfillment God's divine Providence. Everything that happened, from earthquakes to the birth of infants to the attacks of Native Americans, they understood as expression of God's approval or disapproval of their personal conduct. Sewall was a diligent student of meteorology. He repented and apologized for his role in the witch trials partially because he saw signs of divine disapproval in the elements, and believed that the trials were a sign of collective delusion.
Sewall's accounts of trying to persuade his contemporaries of this position are especially revealing about the complexity of the American attitude towards official mistakes and misconduct. He worked hard to declare a day of public fasting and repentance five years after the trials. He tried to get Minister Cotton Mather (that ghoul!) to write a declaration for the fast day specifically acknowleging the collective evils committed during the trials, but Mather would not go beyond broad generalities.
Sewall's acceptance of personal responsibility for official misconduct is as American as roast turkey and apple pie. Unfortunately, so is Mather's refusal to accept it. This fine biography presents clearly that contradiction in American character in all its complexity.
A respected member of the community, he was appointed to be one of nine judges at the witch trials which resulted in the judicial murder of twenty people. The witch craze was short-lived. The public quickly began to doubt that the community was handling Satan's evil in the right way. Officially, there was a call to ask pardon for the errors of 1692, and in 1696 Cotton Mather himself was called upon to draw up a proclamation for a fast to ask God's pardon. Mather, who had himself participated in the trials, made a long list of evils and errors, including a little insertion about how "Hardships were brought upon Innocent persons". During the next year, inspired by hearing his son read Matthew 12:7 ("But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless"), Sewall contemplated what he had done. There had been apologies for the witch trials from other officials, but they tended to seek contrition while blaming others, or to blame ignorance or "being under the power of a strong and general Delusion." Sewall's apology was different. It would be too much to ask that he took on our modern understanding of delusions; he knew that there was a Devil working among his neighbors, but he refused any longer to accept that Satan was trying to colonize the colonies, admitting only that Satan was whipping up widespread fear. His confession, written out and read aloud by his minister to their congregation, puts no blame on people, situations, or Satan. It admitted his own guilt, and that he desired "to take the Blame & Shame of it" upon himself.
Sewall emerges from these pages as a bit of a prig; what puritan wouldn't? He rejected the celebration of holy days, and was grumpy about such frivolity as April Fool's Day. It seems that in 1708 he had been a victim of a "Your shoes are unbuckled" prank (contemporary wits use the "shoelace untied" version), and wrote to a schoolmaster, "If you think it convenient, as I hope you will, Insinuat into your Scholars, the defiling and provoking nature of such a Foolish practice: and take them off from it." He was led by his religion to reject slavery, although many of his neighbors disagreed. While there is a chapter here on his anti-slavery campaign, there is also one on his campaign against periwigs, which horrified him. He railed against others "wigg'd and powder'd with pretence." He wrote a little obituary of a friend which praises his piety and strength, but concludes with the decisive tribute, "He abominated periwigs." There are so many comments in the diary that throw light upon how daily life was lived; one time he returns home to find that the chimney had caught fire, but this was so common an occurrence, he remarks that it "made a great Uproar, as usual." The final, funny chapters have to do with his becoming a widower and pursuing widows; he may have been a Puritan, but life was to be lived. This is a welcome portrait, full of quotations from the diary, which excels in demonstrating the Puritan philosophy as manifest in a remarkable individual who is well worth knowing.