Thursday, October 29, 2015

From Witchcraft Judge to Abolitionist

This guest post was written by Marguerite Most, Reference Librarian and Senior Lecturing Fellow.

"Men think 'tis a disgrace to change their mind… But there is not a greater piece of folly than not to give place to right reason." Samuel Sewall, January 1689. Source: Salem Witch Judge: The Life and Repentance of Samuel Sewall, a 2007 biography about Sewall in the Goodson Law Library collection.

Scholars of colonial history will know the name Samuel Sewall. He was one of nine judges who presided over the 1692 witchcraft trials in Salem, and the only one to publicly acknowledge and accept blame for the harm and horror of the trials. Sewall is almost as well-known as the author of the first abolitionist tract in colonial America.

Portrait of Samuel Sewall by Nathaniel Emmons
(1728). Massachusetts Historical Society.
In May 1692, Samuel Sewall was appointed by Massachusetts Governor William Phips to sit on the Court of Oyer and Terminer, a court created specifically to bring to trial the growing number of accused witches in Salem and nearby towns. Phip's lieutenant governor William Stoughton was appointed to head the court; it was William Stoughton who made the decision to admit spectral evidence of ghostly apparitions – spirits that were alleged to be witches and allegedly were attacking Salem residents. Stoughton's zeal as a judge seems to have equaled the Puritan religious leaders' passionate belief that the colony was under attack by the devil. Within two weeks of the court's establishment, the first witch was hanged. Before the court was disbanded on October 29, 1962, 19 people were hanged.

Five years later, Samuel Sewall stood before the congregation in the South Church in Boston as his confession of wrongdoing was read:
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 of 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 other his sins; personal and Relative...

Sewall was the only judge to publicly repent; after his 1697 confession, he set aside a day each year to fast and pray for forgiveness for his sins in the witchcraft trials. He went on to serve for many years as the chief justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court of Judicature, the province's high court. The court operates today as the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, the oldest continuously operating court in the United States.

Best known today as a judge in the Salem witchcraft trials, Sewall partly redeemed his reputation with his public confession. Richard Francis, the author of Judge Sewall's Apology: The Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of the American Conscience opens his 2005 book with a description of the Salem witch hunt and goes on to consider how Sewall's confession before the South Church congregation should be viewed as a turning point toward modern American values, and away from a world of evil to a world in which forgiveness is possible.

Following his witchcraft confession, Samuel Sewall became an outspoken abolitionist. In 1700, his 3-page tract, The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial, was published in Boston. This was the first public plea in America against slavery. The text contains numerous biblical references in support of Sewall’s position and sets out his understanding of a God-given command against holding slaves. Countering the prevailing social mores of the time, he argued that all men are created equal. The tract includes these words: "It is most certain that all Men, as they are the Sons of Adam, are Coheirs; and have equal Right unto Liberty, and all other outward Comforts of Life. GOD hath given the Earth [with all its Commodities] unto the Sons of Adam, Psal. 115. 16. And hath made of One Blood, all Nations of Men, for to dwell on all the face of the Earth."

In his diaries, housed in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Sewall expressed his concern not only for all slaves in the colonies, but for all men. This comment is from a diary entry in 1716: "I essay'd June, 22, to prevent Indians and Negroes being Rated with Horses and Hogs; but could not prevail."

The appendix of Salem Witch Judge includes the text of The Selling of Joseph and the text of Talitha Cumi: Or an Invitation to Women to Look after their Inheritance in the Heavenly Mansions. In Talitha Cumi, Sewall argued that women as well as men would be resurrected. The essay has been called an early argument for the equal rights of women.

The only known copy of Sewall's anti-slavery tract is in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society. A copy is on display in the Riddick Room display cabinet of the Goodson Law Library, as are several of the biographies mentioned in this post.

--Marguerite Most, Reference Librarian and Senior Lecturing Fellow