Presides at Salem trials

In 1691 Britain forced the Massachusetts Bay Colony to accept a charter that united it with Plymouth and Maine to form the Massachusetts colony. Under the new charter, church membership could no longer be a requirement for voting, although Congregationalism (a branch of Puritanism organized according to independent church congregations) remained the official church. Sewall was named a councilor (advisor) in the new royal government, a position he held until 1725, when he decided not to seek reelection. Historians note that the loss of the original charter led to widespread anxiety in Massachusetts, resulting in witchcraft hysteria. Puritan officials believed the colony was under an evil spell cast by witches (people, usually women, with supernatural powers) who had signed a compact (agreement) with the devil (the ultimate evil force). Witches were supposedly seeking revenge on particular members of the community. According to the Puritans, the compact empowered a witch to perform such acts as causing the death of a child, making crops fail, preventing cream from being churned into butter, or producing sterility (inability to conceive offspring) in cattle. They also believed witches inhabited the bodies of animals such as cats and dogs and became beings called "familiars," who could then prowl around and commit evil acts. The prominent Puritan leader Increase Mather wrote Remarkable Providences, a handbook on how to identify a witch, in 1684 (see primary source entry). He actively supported holding trials to rid the colony of witches.

In June 1692, when the Puritans decided to hold formal witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, Governor William Phipps (1651-1695) appointed Sewall as a special commissioner (judge) on the court. Meeting in July and August, Sewall and the other judges interrogated (questioned) suspected witches and gave them a chance to reject their compact with the devil. If the suspects opened themselves to God, they would be reaccepted into the community. But many did not repent (feel regret for one's actions). The court ultimately sentenced twenty people, most of whom were women, to death. The executions were carried out in September: nineteen were hanged and a man was crushed to death. Almost immediately Sewall began to regret the role he played in this tragedy, and the guilt weighed increasingly upon his conscience. In fact, he felt he had greater responsibility in the matter than any of the other judges.

The Selling of Joseph

Samuel Sewall regretted his role as a judge in the Salem trials. Although he made a public apology in 1697, his involvement in sending innocent people to their deaths continued to weigh on his mind for the rest of his life. After the trials he appeared to develop a social conscience. He had long been troubled by the practice of slavery in the American colonies, but he had never taken the time to act on his views. Then, while he was serving as a judge in the Massachusetts General Court, he had to make a decision on a petition to free an African couple who were illegally held in bondage. Sewall therefore resolved to issue a public statement against the holding of African slaves. The result was The Selling of Joseph (1 700), which is considered one of the earliest expressions of the abolitionist cause. The Joseph in the title is one of the heroes in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament of the Bible. The favorite son of Jacob and Rachel, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. They were jealous of his ambitions and the coat of many colors that Jacob had given to him.

In the opening of The Selling of Joseph Sewall argued that:

originally, and naturally, there is no such thing as slavery. Joseph was rightfully no more a slave to [his brothers] than they were to him; and they had no more authority to sell him than they had to slay him. . . . 'Tis pity there should be more caution used in buying a horse, or a little lifeless dust, than there is in purchasing men and women.

Sewall went on to compare Joseph's situation with that of African slaves:

It is likewise most lamentable to think how, in taking negroes out of Africa and selling of them here, that which God has joined together men do boldly rend asunder; men from their country, husbands from their wives, parents from their children. How horrible is the uncleanness, immorality, if not murder, that the [slave] ships are guilty of that bring great crowds of these miserable (unhappy) men and women [to America]. (From Giles Gunn, editor, Early American Writing, pp. 254-57.)

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