Affable, He Convicted Salem Innocents

Samuel Sewall; portrait by Nathaniel Emmons, 1728
Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston/Bridgeman Images
Samuel Sewall; portrait by Nathaniel Emmons, 1728

By the time Samuel Sewall made his way home to Boston from Cambridge, across the frozen Charles River on January 13, 1696, it was well after dark. He found his wife anxiously awaiting him just inside the front door. Their fifteen-year-old daughter Betty had seemed out of sorts all day; after dinner she emitted a howl of anguish, startling her siblings, who burst out crying in turn. Hesitantly, through floods of tears, Betty revealed that a few lines from the Gospel of John tormented her. A passage she had read from Cotton Mather further exacerbated the distress. She was destined for hell.

It was an anxious season in the Sewall household: Betty’s seventeen-year-old brother soon began to mope and weep as well. He could not sleep. He fainted dead away. His father was still sorting out Sam’s despair when, in mid-February, Betty appeared at the bedroom door, moments after their father had woken. Again she was inconsolable, fixated on her damnation. Sewall comforted her as best he could. He was familiar with her doubts; father and daughter had wept together over a passage from the book of Isaiah six years earlier. Again that February morning the two prayed, side by side, in tears. Betty begged God to “give her a new heart” but months later was still without relief. In August she was packed off for a change of air. The wailing continued through the winter.

Betty’s three-century-old spiritual crisis survives not because she set it to paper but because her father did. In 1674, months before earning his Harvard MA, two years before his marriage, the twenty-two-year-old Sewall began a diary. A merchant and magistrate, the manager of a printing press, a militia captain and a pillar of his church, he nonetheless found the time to document his life, more or less regularly, over the next fifty-five years. In his first pages he tackled his brother’s laundry, a few personal honors, the weather, Harvard politics, a haircut, and the hanging of a Roxbury teenager for “Bestiality with a Mare.” (The malefactor’s partner, Sewall noted, was “first knocked in the head under the Gallows in his sight.”) In his last entry Sewall negotiates a match—a fine one, he thinks—for an orphaned granddaughter. He died ten weeks later, on January 1, 1730.

In between, the wealthy, portly, and popular Sewall—he would be elected to the Massachusetts council thirty-three times—comes to radiant life. We know him better than any other seventeenth-century American. Constant in his devotions, he is a man of habit and precision. He disapproves when his minister ends a sermon fifteen minutes early. He complains when—fumbling the pitch—the congregation sings tunelessly. He thrills to learned discussions of theology. More intimately than anyone else, he charted the current of faith…

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