Samuel Sewall
Written by Heather E. Jones

Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature
An Undergraduate Course, University of Virginia
Spring Semester 2001

Although described as a "generous, compassionate. . . man of conscience," the late-seventeenth-century New England Puritan Samuel Sewall sat on the court of judges who condemned nineteen innocent men and women to be hanged as witches during the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692. Both Sewall's private diary and the books he published during his lifetime depict his agony over the decisions and his lingering personal distress. Fearful of God's judgment upon himself and his family, he eventually proclaimed his humiliation to God and the Colony in a confession of guilt read before the congregation of South Church in Boston.

Born in England in 1652, Sewall immigrated to Newberry, Massachusetts in 1667. At the age of fifteen, he began theological studies at Harvard to obtain a Bachelors degree and he then continued to achieve a Masters degree. The pursuit of a Masters degree for most people meant a calling to the ministry. However, instead of preaching, in 1675 Sewall married Hannah Hull, the daughter of John Hull, a wealthy mint master in Boston, Massachusetts. With this marriage, Sewall inherited business responsibilities, and thus he began the life, which he would continue until his death, as a merchant in Boston. The choice of ministry or merchandise troubled Sewall, but in reality, his decision to become an active apprentice with Hull was inevitable. During this time period, gradually power was moving away from the pulpit and into the hands of the wealthy: the merchants.

With wealth and power came the opportunity, or rather commitment, to public service. Sewall did not shy away from these duties, but rather embraced them. In 1677 he became of member of the South Church in Boston which enabled him to become a freeman of the colony in 1678. In 1684, Sewall was elected to the Court of Assistants (the legislative body of the Massachusetts Bay Colony), and in May of 1692, Governor Sir William Phips appointed Sewall as a commissioner (judge) in the Oyer and Terminer Court, a court established to bring to trial those accused of witchcraft. Eventually Sewall would culminate his public life with a seat on the governor's council and an appointment as a justice for the Superior Court of Massachusetts in 1698.

During this era, the colony relied mostly on Biblical authority; thus a judge needed to be instructed in the word of God over that of common law. Hence when Governor Phips appointed he judges for the Court of Oyer and Terminer, Sewall was an ideal choice. He had a strong theological background and the contemporary belief in the devil and witches. As the trials progressed during 1692, Sewall joined with the other judges (Richards, Gedney, Winthrop, Sargent, Corwin, Stoughton) and condemned nineteen people to death. Yet, an unanswered question remains. Did Sewall feel remorse at the time for these decisions, or did he truly believe that he was acting correctly and in line with Puritan and biblical values? The answer remains unknown since Sewall's diary entries during the trials primarily tell the facts, if even any of those, rather than his thoughts and opinions.

Yet, Sewall's thoughts after the trials are known because of both his diary and public voice. During the five years following the trials, two daughters, Jane and Sarah, died, as did his beloved mother-in-law. In combination with a stillborn child and the public humiliation he sustained from the trials, Sewall experienced constant distress. He truly believed that the witchcraft accusations and trials "the wrath of God visited upon him" as he was a sinner and had not repented (Lovejoy, 358). At this same time, New Englanders recognized the need for reckoning with God. Thus, on January 14, 1697, all parties, including ministers and government officials, agreed to a colony-wide "Day of Prayer and Fasting." On this famous day, the Reverend Willard read to his Boston congregation a confession of guilt written by Sewall himself:

" 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 that 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: 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. . . "

In his own words, Sewall begged God for forgiveness and asked that that God "cease visiting his sins upon him, his family, and upon the land" (Lovejoy, 360).

Sewall confessed because he believed he had made a "grave error in condemning those tried in the Salem proceedings" and that his belief in the covenant with God would save him (Graham, 45). In the covenant, one enters into a bond with God, he sins, is afflicted, repents, is forgiven, and enters back into the covenant (Miller, 197). Sewall recognized his sins in condemning innocent people to the gallows. Part of the community's hope with the "Day of Pray and Fasting" was that others, too, would recognize their sins throughout the trials and then repent for their actions. If the whole community asked for forgiveness, perhaps God would shed peace on the fragmented community that had faced crop failure, losses at sea, epidemics, Indian raids, and the threat of the French. In the end, no other judge offered a confession, but the Salem jurors and several ministers did so throughout the year.

Although Samuel Sewall's name rarely appears in the actual court documents, he was a prominent figure in the Salem witchcraft trials. Not only do Sewall's diary entries recount the events and provide vital information for scholars studying the trials, but his confession plays a significant role since it is one few. He alone stood before society and proclaimed that society had done wrong. He took responsibility for his actions and thus his outstanding moral character does not diminish because of his mistakes during 1692.


Judith S. Graham, Puritan Family Life: The Diary of Samuel Sewall. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 2000.

Perry Miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953.

Lovejoy, David S, "Between Hell and Plum Island: Samuel Sewall and the Legacy of the Witches, 1692-97," The New England Quarterly. Vol. 70, No. 3 (Sept. 1997): 355-367.

Strandness, Theodore Benson. Samuel Sewall: A Puritan Portrait. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1967.