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Salem judge who saw the light

Salem Witch Judge

Samuel Sewall had the courage to admit he was wrong and to atone for his sin.

Episcopal Life Online  |  01 Nov 2008

Salem Witch Judge: The Life and Repentance of Samuel Sewall by Eve LaPlante (HarperCollins; 352 pages, hardcover, c. 2007, $25.95).

America's nefarious 1692 witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts were made famous in a novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne (himself a descendent of one of the judges) and a play by Arthur Miller. Here is a carefully researched, historically accurate biography of the one judge on that infamous witchcraft court who repented – by one of his own descendants, acclaimed biographer Eve LaPlante.

What separates Judge Sewall from the others is his famous public repentance, immortalized in a mural in the Massachusetts State House. Yet his courage to admit his wrong and atone for his sin led to other inspirations. He penned a reflection on the New England landscape some scholars point to as the beginning of American literature.

He authored America's first antislavery tract, which set him against every other prominent man of his time and place. Then, in a revolutionary essay he wrote not long after the scene in the State House mural, he portrayed Native Americans not as savages – the standard view – but as virtuous inheritors of the grace of God, and personally paid for several promising young Indian men to attend Harvard.

Finally, in a period when women were widely considered inferior to men, he published an essay affirming the fundamental equality of the sexes. To put these ideas into historical perspective, at Sewall's death, in 1730, the widespread belief in the equality of races and genders in America was more than two centuries in the future.

Though the witchcraft trials would make him infamous, there is much, much more to Judge Samuel Sewall. Drawing on documents not available to the public, based on Sewall's extensive personal diaries and letters, as well as archived public documents, this biography offers a fascinating look into daily life in Colonial America, and tells the intimate story of a remarkable figure whose influence on American history cannot be ignored.