Samuel Sewall will forever be remembered as a judge in the Salem witch trials in 1692-3, less so for his apology five years later. He also wrote an essay criticizing slavery in 1700 called The Selling of Joseph.
Samuel Sewall was born in England on March 28, 1652. At nine, he moved with his family to Newbury, Mass. He earned two degrees from Harvard, a B.A. and an M.A.
A young woman named Hannah Hull watched the 24-year-old student during his oral exams and fell for him. She pursued him, and they married in February 1676. The couple had 14 children, but only a few lived to adulthood.
Young Sewall married well. His father-in-law, John Hull, a wealthy merchant and mintmaster, treated the young couple generously. He gave them 500 pounds as a wedding gift and let them move into his mansion in Boston.
Samuel Sewall rose to prominence by getting involved in the Hull family’s political and economic endeavors. The Massachusetts Bay Colony named him its official printer in 1681. When his father-in-law died in 1683, Sewall received an appointment to take his place on the colony’s council of assistants. The council served as the upper chamber of the legislature and as a court of appeals.
Salem Witch Trials
Gov. Sir William Phips in 1692 appointed Samuel Sewall to sit as a judge for the witchcraft trials on the Court of Oyer and Terminer. Phips appointed the court for the sole purpose of bringing to trial people accused of witchcraft. The court found 20 people guilty and executed them. It finally disbanded on Oct. 29, 1693.
Five years later Sewall stood before the congregation of the South Church in Boston while the Rev. Samuel Willard read his confession. Willard had strongly opposed the Salem witch trials. The confession read:
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 (to which the order of this Day relates) he is, upon many accounts, more concerned than 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…
For many years he served as chief justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court of Judicature.
He kept a journal from 1673 to 1729, considered one of the most important historical documents of the time. A typical entry describes the day of his birth. Samuel Sewall wrote in his journal:
I was born at Bishop Stoke, March 28, 1652 ; so that the light of the Lord’s Day was the first light that my Eyes saw, being born a little before day-break. I was baptised by Mr Rashly, (sometime Member of the Old Church in Boston) in Stoke Church May 4* 1652. Mr Rashly first preached a Sermon, and then baptised me. After which an entertainment was made for him and many more.
Other New England Historical Society stories about Sewall include his fear of Quakers, his account of the smallpox epidemic, his difficulty in getting a date as a widower, his dismay at the legalization of Christmas and his anxiety over taking an oath as a militia captain.
This story about Samuel Sewall was updated in 2022.