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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Samuel Sewall
For fifty-six years (1674–1729) Samuel Sewall diligently kept a diary that scholars and historians value for its details about colonial culture, including entries about the weather, births, marriages, arrivals, departures, legal proceedings, and deaths in Sewall’s Boston community. As a chronicler of his times, Sewall also provided insight into the psychology of Puritan thought, reading the physical world for its spiritual messages. For example: “Nov. 11 [1675]. Morning proper fair, the weather exceedingly benign, but (to me) metaphoric, dismal, dark and portentous, some prodigies appearing in every corner of the skies; Satterday, June 27th [1685]. It pleaseth God to send Rain on the weary dusty Earth; Wednesday, P. M., July 15 [1685]. Very dark, and great Thunder and Lightening; July, 1 [1707]. A Rainbow is seen just before night, which comforts us against our Distresses.” For Puritans like Sewall, natural events conveyed divine meaning. Thunder and lightning portended the awful power of Providence; rainbows brought reassurance. This duality was both Platonic and biblical, suggesting an ideal world mirrored below and rising a method called typology, where events from the Old Testament foreshadowed those in the present. As a Puritan, Sewall held to the Doctrine of Preparation and believed he might be called to God at any moment. In order to “prepare,” he needed to be in a constant state of self-examination, an onerous and stressful task. David D. Hall points out that although Sewall’s notations “represent a mental world very different from our own,” the diary also reopens “a world of wonders,” as Sewall scanned the skies for divine messages and sincerely tried to reconcile discrepancies.

Samuel Sewall was born on March 28, 1652, at Bishop Stoke, in Hampshire, England. His father was Henry Sewall, a wealthy merchant, and his mother was Jane Drummer Sewall, whose highly regarded merchant family had migrated to the colonies in 1634. In 1661, Sewall’s family migrated to New England when Samuel was nine years old. In Newbury, Sewall resumed his grammar school education under the tutelage of a prominent Oxford and Leyden-trained scholar, Dr. Thomas Parker. Entering Harvard in 1667, he trained for the ministry and for two years roomed with Edward Taylor, who would become a lifelong friend. Sewall received his B.A. in 1673 and his M.A. in 1674. During this time, he met Hannah Hull, whose father, John Hull, was the colonial treasurer, master of the mint, and the wealthiest man in Boston. Hannah and Samuel married on February 28, 1675 a bond lasting forty-two years that produced fourteen children, six of whom survived. When Sewall graduated from Harvard (rather than enter the ministry), he joined his father-in-law as a merchant. He exported turpentine, fish, and furs to the Caribbean and Europe, bringing back luxury items. Unusual for their time, neither Hull nor Sewall engaged in the slave trade. Sewall also held positions as a banker, bookseller, and printer. He was appointed deputy of the General Court (the colonial legislature) in 1683 and managed the colony’s printing press. He was a member of the town Council (1684–1725), he served as chief justice of the Superior Court (1718–1728).

Sewall was married three times: to Hannah Hull until her death in 1717; to Abigail Tilley in 1719 until her death a year later; and to Mary Gibbs in 1722. In one of the more endearing sections of his diary, Sewall narrates his courtship of Madame Katherine Winthrop, who eventually rejected him but not until after receiving several visits and gifts from Sewall of luxuries like sugared almonds, whose amounts he meticulously recorded in his diary as well as the heartaches of a failed romance. On a very different note are Sewall’s political activities. In 1692, he was appointed by Massachusetts governor William Phips to serve as one of nine judges of the Salem witchcraft trials, and he was the only judge to publicly apologize for his participation in the gruesome events. In 1697, after his minister, Samuel Willard, preached on the misguided actions of those dark days, Sewall wrote a formal statement that he presented to Willard and that was publicly displayed. He also entered the statement in his diary. In 1700, Sewall wrote an anti-slavery tract, The Selling of Joseph, that condemned the slave trade on two main points: that blacks and whites are all descended from Adam and Eve and therefore slavery is anti-doctrinal, and that indentured servitude with the promise of release was a preferable system. Although there is much to praise about Sewall’s pamphlet, Emory Elliott is right to point out that Sewall’s anti-slavery stand was not necessarily a call for racial equality. Still, the document predated the abolitionist movement by a hundred years and reminds us that the debate began long before the Civil War. In 1721, Sewall wrote A Memorial Relating to the Kennebeck Indians, arguing for humane treatment of Indians. He remained actively involved in his community and entered detailed accounts in his diary to the end. On January 1, 1730, Samuel Sewall died in Boston at the age of seventy-seven.

Susan Clair Imbarrato
Minnesota State University--Moorhead

In the Heath Anthology
from The Diary of Samuel Sewall (1673 - 1728)
The Selling of Joseph, A Memorial (1700)

Other Works

Cultural Objects
IMAGE filePuritan Gravestones and Attitudes Toward Death

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Excerpts from Sewall's Diary
Offered by Bibliomania.

Samuel Sewall
Brief biography and a scanned painting, both part of a larger web project on the Salem Trials.

Samuel Sewall speaks out
A site about The Selling of Joseph, Sewall's anti-slavery pamphlet.

Secondary Sources

E. Elliott, "New England Puritan Literature," in The CHAL: Volume I 1590-1820, 1994

David D. Hall, Worlds of Wonder: Days of Judgment, 1989

Steven E. Kagel, American Diary Literature, 1620-1799, 1979

David S. Lovejoy, "Between Hell and Plum Island: Samuel Sewall and the Legacy of the Witches, 1692-97," The New England Quarterly, 70, 1997: 355-68

L.W. Towner, " The Sewall-Saffin Dialogue on Slavery," William and Mary Quarterly, 21, 1964: 40-52

Ola E. Winslow, Samuel Sewall of Boston, 1964

Harvey Wish, Introduction: The Dairy of Samuel Sewall