Diary of Samuel Sewall, edited by Harvey Wish
Samuel Sewall (1652-1730) was born in England of a well-to-do family of the merchant class. At age nineteen, however, Sewall moved with his family to New England, where they lived on a plantation that Samuel’s father had started in 1634. There Samuel attended Harvard from 1667-1671. The strict Harvard regimen, including prohibitions against card playing, profanity, the wearing of long hair and wigs, along with his Calvinistic upbringing, proved to influence him later in life as he served as a Boston magistrate and merchant. Concern over doctrinal orthodoxy and his own personal worth as God’s servant are major themes that run through Sewall’s Diary, which includes the years 1673-1729 (with a mysterious gap from 1677-1684).
Sewall’s Diary is valuable as an historical source because it is a personal, unguarded account of events and issues large on the New England political and social landscape of his time. From his perspective as a merchant and landowner, we see the effect on the people of New England when the crown revokes its charter, and the overall loyalty of the colonials to England despite the revocation. From his perspective as a Puritan magistrate during the Salem witch trials, we see how he was initially caught up in the sense that justice must be dispensed in combating witchcraft —only later realizing “the Blame and shame of it, Asking pardon of men…” (80) From his perspective as a devout Puritan, we see how distressed he was at the disruptive presence of Quakers in the Sabbath meetings, and the constant threat of Anglican Church influence, as evidenced by swearing oaths on the Bible, use of the cross in worship, the observance of Christmas as a holiday, and the battle between Anglicans and Puritans over who could use the town meeting house for church services.
Aside from these, however, perhaps the greatest benefit of the Diary to us is that we are given the opportunity to glimpse the spiritual groaning of a man deeply committed to his Puritan faith, yet constantly unsure of his spiritual worth. For Sewall, everyday events and acts of nature often took on supernatural meanings. After a hailstorm which knocked out the windows in many Boston houses, including his own, Sewall could not help but wonder if God wasn’t making His displeasure known to him. In a separate incident, when Sewall’s house was broken into, Sewall saw it as divine retribution, for he had been feeling “listless as to Spiritual Good” just a day before. (114) Upon the death of his wife, Hannah, he attributed the cause as divine wrath brought down upon himself. These types of accounts, frequent throughout the Diary, make it very tempting to count Sewall among the “second generation,” as outlined in Perry Miller’s “Errand Into the Wilderness.”
Yet Sewall exhibited some characteristics not shown in even the most progressive Puritans. In “The Selling of Joseph,” Sewall’s diatribe against slavery, he convincingly refuted many of the Biblical underpinnings of slavery, while still adhering to the literal school of interpretation. Later, in a Diary entry, he wrote, “I essay’d June, 22, to prevent Indians and Negros being Rated with Horses and Hogs; but could not prevail.” (152) As the Diary portrays it, Sewall stood virtually alone in these opinions. On a more personal level, we are given entries that show Sewall during tender moments —praying with his children, comforting them with Scripture against their fear of death from the “Small Pocks.” Altogether, the Diary of Samuel Sewall portrays a full picture of a Puritan man, his immediate society, and his struggle to relate Divine principles into his everyday life.
PUBLISHER: New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1967.