Salem Witch Judge The Life and Repentance of Samuel Sewall
The winner of the Winslow House Book Award and the Massachusetts Book Award in Nonfiction
Author: Eve LaPlante Publisher: HarperOne, a division of HarperCollins Website: www.EveLaPlante.com Available in: Hardcover, 352 pages. $25.95 (ISBN 0060786612) Paperback, 352 pages. $14.95 (ISBN 0060859602) E-book. $8.99 (ASIN B000W916MU)
About Salem Witch Judge
In 1692, in one of American history’s darkest hours, Judge Samuel Sewall sent 20 innocent people to their deaths on trumped-up witchcraft charges. Sewall’s involvement in the Salem witch hunt would have doomed him to infamy, if not for his public acceptance four years later of the “blame and shame” for the wrongful deaths.
Remarkably, the judge’s story did not end there. Having realized his error, Sewall turned his attention to other pressing social issues. Struck by the injustice of the New England slave trade, a commerce in which his relatives and neighbors were engaged, he authored America’s first anti-slavery tract, “The Selling of Joseph,” for which he was ridiculed. While his peers viewed Native Americans as savages, Sewall advocated for their essential humanity and rights and encouraged their education, even paying for several Indians to attend Harvard College. At a time when women were universally considered inferior to men, Sewall published an essay affirming the fundamental equality of the sexes. That essay, composed in 1724 at the deathbed of his adult daughter Hannah, is republished for the first time in Salem Witch Judge.
In Salem Witch Judge, acclaimed biographer Eve LaPlante narrates the psychological journey of a man who personified superstition and discrimination but transformed himself into a forefather of equal rights and civil liberties.
Topics to Consider
1. Why did Samuel Sewall decide, as a judge at the Salem witchcraft trials, to condemn and hang people as witches? Had you been there, appointed by the governor to serve as a judge of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, what would you have done? How would you have justified your actions to your peers?
2. Consider this quote by the historian Frank Grinnell in 1942 at the dedication of the Sewall mural (“Milestones on the Road to Freedom: 1697, Dawn of Tolerance in Massachusetts: Public Repentance of Judge Samuel Sewall for his Action in the Witchcraft Trials”) in the Chamber of the House of Representatives at the Massachusetts State House: “[Sewall’s] repentance represents the greatest movement in modern history, not only in theory, but in its practical application … [It marks] the beginning of the recognition of the ‘quality of mercy’ in human affairs. No principle of Christ has been longer in obtaining whole-hearted acceptance than…the saying, ‘Be ye merciful even as your Father is merciful.’” Do you agree with Grinnell? What other people or movements in American history emphasize the “quality of mercy” in human affairs?
3. What sort of wife was Hannah Hull Sewall? How did her personality – what we know of it – complement Samuel’s character? Could Samuel have accomplished what he did without her?
4. Sewall’s final work, published in 1725, concerns his sense of a natural “right of women,” a revolutionary notion in English America then. That essay, Talitha Cumi, or “Damsel, Arise,” was ignored then and until now existed only in draft manuscript form at the Massachusetts Historical Society, inaccessible to the public. What life events contributed to Sewall’s late views on gender equality. How did his long repentance for the Salem witch hunt contribute to the ideas in Talitha Cumi?
5. Samuel Sewall once described himself as a “lover of music to a fault.” How did music affect him throughout his life? In particular, how did his daily singing of the Psalms inform him spiritually and emotionally?
6. Eve LaPlante compares the Reverend Samuel Willard to Nathan in the Old Testament, and Sewall to King David. Do you agree?
7. Given that Puritans left England largely to escape Catholic influences in the Church of England, it’s surprising that scholars find so many similarities between the devotional practices of seventeenth-century Puritans and Roman Catholics. Considering in particular Chapter 15 of Salem Witch Judge, “The Blame and Shame of It,” analyze these links between Catholic and Puritan devotional practices. Do you see similar links today among their spiritual descendants?
8. In his 1697 essay Phaenomena quaedam Apocalyptica, Sewall determines that Plum Island, in northeast Massachusetts, is a likely place for Jesus Christ to return to earth at his Second Coming. Perry Miller and other literary scholars consider this essay the first work of American literature in the sense of being conscious of itself as American. Do you agree?
9. What was it about Sewall’s character and experience that enabled him in 1700 to stand apart from his society, which was actively engaged in the slave trade, and write the first abolitionist statement in American history?
10. What aspects of the Puritan worldview do you see in modern American life? What modern figures or situations might benefit from a perspective like Sewall’s? How might someone today, following his example, experience a change of heart?
About the Author
Eve LaPlante, a sixth great-granddaughter of Judge Samuel Sewall, is the author of Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother (2012), Salem Witch Judge (2007), American Jezebel (2004), and Seized (1993), and the editor of My Heart Is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother (2012). LaPlante’s articles have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Gourmet, Ladies’ Home Journal, Country Living, and Parents. Visit her online at www.evelaplante.com.
“Salem Witch Judge upends popular stereotypes about Puritans…and reminds us how quickly the conventional wisdom can shift, forcing even the powerful to move … LaPlante’s touching biography of Samuel Sewall seems hauntingly familiar. Beneath the sensational title is a figure more familiar than we realize.” — The New York Times Book Review
“LaPlante’s splendid biography brings a personal touch to Sewall’s story … Much as she did in American Jezebel, the marvelous biography of her 12th-generation ancestor Anne Hutchinson, LaPlante richly narrates his life.” — Publishers Weekly
“Affectionate and affecting … LaPlante’s portrait of a man whose second act became one of atonement as well as contrition is finely drawn…” — Philadelphia Inquirer “Well researched, readable, and engaging … Fascinating … Recommended.” — Library Journal
“LaPlante’s insightful account is fortified with descriptions of…New England and its history (including psalms recited by Sewall), creating a vivid sense of place and context. A reformative, assenting spin on Salem’s hellfire and brimstone history.” — Kirkus Review
“Salem Witch Judge offers an intriguing journey into a world as far away as colonial America – and yet at the same time as close as the human heart…” — Christian Science Monitor