1696 Three Hundred Years Ago

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The year 1696 was not a good one for Samuel Sewall of Boston. In May his wife delivered a stillborn son, and in July he heard of the deaths of a pair of favorite uncles. Furthermore, two of his older children were struggling with their religious faith. Late in the year things got even worse: His wife fell gravely ill, and their two-year-old daughter, Sarah, died suddenly. To top it all off, the Massachusetts legislature declared a day of fasting and repentance to atone for the 1692 Salem witch trials.

Sewall had served as a judge in those proceedings, which condemned twenty people and two dogs to death. Later, when the witchcraft hysteria had subsided, its instigators began having second thoughts. As often happens in the aftermath of mass delusions, a miasma of shame and guilt hung over Massachusetts. Neighbor criticized neighbor with veiled charges and allusions, and everyone involved tried to shift the blame or made futile attempts to forget the whole affair.

In the years after Salem, Sewall experienced a series of calamities out of a Stephen King novel. A friend saw balls of fire in the air; a “strange plague of flyes” spoiled the colony’s pea crop; Sewall had a nightmare in which almost all his children were dead; a late-April hailstorm shattered the windows of his new home. Upon this last event, a worried Sewall wrote in his diary that “more Ministers Houses than others proportionably had been smitten with Lightening” and wondered “what the meaning of God should be in it.” One of Sewall’s daughters gashed her head in a terrible fall, while another was afflicted with fits. News of the death of England’s young Queen Mary, a Protestant heroine, arrived in 1695, and the following year brought its fresh batch of troubles.

On the morning of December 25—no holiday for the Puritans—Sewall buried his little daughter Sarah. That afternoon he sat in the family tomb and contemplated the coffins of his mother, father, cousin, and six dead children. In these gloomy surroundings he must have meditated on the Bible verses his son had read the previous day, especially Matthew 12:7 (“And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless”), which “did awfully bring to mind the Salem Tragedie.” Over the next three weeks Sewall prayed fervently for help, and by the time of the appointed fast day, he knew what he had to do.

On January 14 Sewall stood in Old South Church while the minister read his agonized confession of error: “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 … he is, upon many accounts, more concerned than any that he knows of, Desires to take the Blame and shame of it. …” At the end of his statement, Sewall bowed to the congregation. Others who had been involved at Salem made their own halfhearted apologies and confessions, mostly of the mistakes-were-made variety, but Sewall’s was by far the boldest and most unequivocal.

After his confession Sewall became more liberal. He went on to publish The Selling of Joseph , a landmark antislavery tract; to modify a strict law against miscegenation; and to oppose capital punishment for counterfeiting. Twenty years after the trials Massachusetts tried to close the book on Salem by annulling the witchcraft convictions and paying the victims’ heirs, but the stain would not wash out. As late as 1720, while reading a historian’s account of the Salem delusion, an aging Sewall was moved to cry, “The good and gracious God be pleased to save New England and me, and my family!”