By 1697 Massachusetts officials realized that the trials had been a terrible mistake, so the legislature designated January 14 as a special day of atonement (expression of regret and request for forgiveness). Taking this opportunity to make a public confession of his sins, Sewall wrote an admission of error and guilt. Then he stood and faced the congregation in the Old South Church at Boston as the Reverend Samuel
Willard read the statement aloud. As reprinted in Early American Writing, in the apology Sewall said he was taking "the blame and shame of it [the trials], asking pardon of men, and especially desiring prayers that God, who has an unlimited authority, would pardon that sin and all his other sins." Sewall was the only judge who publicly admitted his own guilt. Increase Mather and his son Cotton Mather (see biography and primary source entries), who were motivating forces behind the witch-hunts, eventually were instrumental in bringing the trials to an end. Yet the Mathers expressed their doubts only in published written works. Sewall continued to be troubled by his involvement in sending innocent people to their deaths. For the rest of his life he set aside a day of fasting a year to atone for his sins.
After Sewall made his public repentance he developed a social conscience, becoming active in abolitionist (antislav-ery) efforts. In 1700 he published The Selling of Joseph, an essay in which he argued against the keeping of African slaves (see box). Now considered one of the earliest antislavery statements, it is frequently reprinted in American history and literature texts. Sewall extended his concern to Native Americans, advocating that they be placed on reservations (lands set aside by the federal government solely for the use of different Native American peoples) and taught the language and customs of the English colonists. Colonial governments had been adopting this policy since the mid-1600s. Sewall's well-intentioned efforts were misguided, however, for the reservation system eventually resulted in the near extinction of the Native American way of life by the early nineteenth century.
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