Samuel Sewall (1652-1730)
Contributing Editor: Carla Mulford
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Most students have trouble placing the reading of a diary within the context of traditional literary study. Students find Sewall's apparent preoccupation with merchant ships' arrivals, the costs of nutmeats and madeira, the problems of dress and so forth a little disarming, for they are used to finding meaning in texts according to standards (e.g., images, metaphors) artificially set up.
To address this issue, I stress two main points--one about aesthetics, the other about culture. Sewall's diary offers us a direct glimpse into the life of a private Puritan. Unlike the diaries of Winthrop, Edwards, Bradstreet, and other early writers, Sewall's diary was probably written for his eyes alone, not to be passed around among friends and family members. The diary offers us signs of real change, in both ideology and culture. Thus, the notations about practical affairs become signs of culture and signs of Sewall's life-preoccupations. Fruitful discussion often arises when I ask students to compare Sewall's seeming preoccupation with material goods with their own preoccupation about name-brand clothes and cars and videotaped weddings. He works particularly well with a middle-class student body.
Students are likely to find the pamphlet The Selling of Joseph remarkably conservative in its approach to the issue of slavery. They will seek for openly aggessive statements about the negative moral implications of holding people in bondage. What they will find in the pamphlet, on the other hand, will be exacting biblical exegesis that points to the perceived God-given injunction against holding slaves. Students will want to discuss not only the issue of slave-holding in New England (some tend erroneously to think, given what they've heard about the Civil War, that New Englanders never held slaves, that only southerners held slaves) but the potential usefulness (or lack of usefulness) of Sewall's constant reference to biblical texts to create a sense both of "expert testimony" and of historical necessity for these New Canaanites.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
I have successfully used the Sewell selections as a sign of a culture in transition, noting with students the seeming shift in Sewall's interests from spiritual to secular issues. (In a broader sense, from Christianity to capitalism, some students like to add.) I usually treat the fact that Sewall--very humanly--seems to have wanted to enter the church in order to get his first child baptized. I usually talk about the Salem witch trials and discuss Sewall's retraction of his behavior during the trials, along with his writing of the first Puritan anti-slaveholding tract, The Selling of Joseph.
In addition to the interests which Sewall's diary suggests about early eighteenth-century culture, his many writings that arose from his public positions address specific concerns about the rights of Native Americans and of African-Americans brought as slaves to the colonies. When Sewall felt concerns about Native Americans, he expressed them in council and sometimes circulated his speeches in manuscript so that others outside council would be clear about his positions on key issues. If we consider his diary as only a record of events and material things peculiarly of interest to Samuel Sewall, we cannot begin to assess the importance of the social issues of racial equality and liberty in Sewall's life, as evidenced by even the briefest of diary entries, like this one for June 22, 1716: "I essay'd June, 22, to prevent Indians and Negroes being Rated with Horses and Hogs; but could not prevail." Sewall's pamphlet, The Selling of Joseph, is perhaps the most public but certainly not the only sign of Sewall's concerns about the inhumanity of his townspeople.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Sewall's diary seems to have been private. Thus, we don't find the form of spiritual autobiography that we find in Winthrop's "Christian Experience" or in Edwards's diary of the early 1720s.Yet Sewall's diary provides a wonderful glimpse into the concerns both secular and spiritual of a man whose life was well known and very public in his own day.
Students will want to discuss the constant citation, in The Selling of Joseph, of biblical texts. It might be useful to have them discuss Sewall's writing style here in light of the style Cotton Mather, Sewall's contemporary, uses in the Magnalia Christi Americana and also in light of another important anti-slavery tract by John Woolman, Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Contrast the diary with Winthrop 's "Christian Experience" (as spiritual autobiography) and with Winthrop's journal. The first contrast will show the differences between public and private documentation of spiritual questioning; the second, the differences between public history and private meditation.
Contrast the diary with Taylor's Preparatory Meditations.
The Selling of Joseph should be compared and contrasted, as suggested above, with the writings of both Cotton Mather and John Woolman. In terms of biblical citation, students might wish to explore the kinds of texts Sewall cites as expert biblical testimony in support of his position against slave-holding. Are these the same kinds of texts referenced in Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative? Is Sewall signalling a similar kind of spiritual urgency as evident in the Rowlandson narrative?
Compare the notions of liberty held by John Winthrop (as shown in the journal entry of his speech before the General Court, 1645), by Samson Occom (as implied in his sermon on the execution of Moses Paul), and by Lemuel Haynes (in the two selections in the anthology).
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. Sophisticated students note that Sewall has for the most part internalized the religious value system after which he strove so heartily early on, so that he is moved to act upon his dealings in the witch trials (and make the retraction) and his attitudes about slavery (and write the anti-slavery pamphlet, The Selling of Joseph ), rather than simply to be obsessive about these issues privately.
2. Fruitful class and written discussion occurs when students compare and contrast Sewall with other anti-slavery writers, such as John Woolman and Benjamin Franklin, and with the racism of his contemporaries, John Saffin and Cotton Mather.
3. Both Sewall and Cotton Mather wrote about the Salem witch trials, yet their ultimate assessments of this situation were remarkably different. Students might be encouraged to work independently on a project that would compare the records of the two men in light of this question: Was Sewall's behavior in keeping with his authorship of The Selling of Joseph and to what extent was his work humane and enlightened?
4. Students might wish to compare and contrast, in independent work, Sewall's incidental journal comments about Indians and blacks with those offered by Sarah Kemble Knight and William Byrd, persons roughly his contemporaries.