The premier of the Old Town Hall Lecture Series on Thursday evening was a huge success! The talk by Richard Francis, author of Judge Sewall’s Apology, gave an overview of a flesh-and-blood Samuel Sewall, the only one of nine judges presiding over the Salem witch trials to apologize for his part in the tragedy.
Those of us from the Salem Witch Museum who read the book and attended the lecture gained a better understanding of certain nuances of the witch trials through the perspective of this eye-witness and penitent condemner. His prolific diaries show a man who was introspective and sometimes stricken with doubt about his own hypocrisy. Though the nearly lifelong diaries include comparatively fewer entries during the time of the Salem witch trials, it is evident that he was ambivalent about the events taking place:
“…Unease had begun to percolate into his mind. He wrote to his cousin Hull in London: “Are perplexed p[er] witchcrafts: six persons have already been condemned and executed in Salem.” Certain issues must have resonated in his thoughts: Stoughton’s ruling that a simple tendency to the pining and tormenting of the afflicted was sufficient; Nathaniel Saltonstall’s resignation from the court; the way the bench ignored his friend Cotton Mather’s advice in “The Return,” and refused to listen to Susannah Martin’s citation of the precedent of the Witch of Endor; the changed verdict in the case of Rebecca Nurse; above all, the fact that his friend and fellow congregant John Alden had been remanded for trial as a witch. Sewall was respectful of authority – though, as he would prove several times in the course of his life, would defy it courageously on a matter of principal. But he had gone into the trials feeling that he had made a serious judicial error, one caused by being too concerned about how others might think of him. He had pardoned a pirate under pressure from Wait Winthrop, now his fellow judge in the Court of Oyer and Terminer, and later despised himself for his weakness in not holding to what he believed was right. His instinct was now to stiffen his resolve when doubts and merciful feelings sneaked in, to overrule any unease he might be feeling with the implacability he had learned from his colleague and superior, William Stoughton.” [Francis, 130-131]
January 14, 1697, a day of fasting and prayer reflecting on the witchcraft trials five years later, would be the day Reverend Samuel Willard read Sewall’s apology to the congregation:
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: And according to his infinite Benignity and Sovereignty, Not Visit the sin of him, or of any other, upon himself or any of his, nor upon the Land: But that he would powerfully defend him against all Temptations to Sin, for the future; and vouchsafe him the efficacious, saving conduct of his Word and Spirit.
Dr. Francis has written several novels, biographies and non-fiction works about the history of American culture. His most recently released work is called Fruitlands, a novel about an experiment in utopian society established in Harvard, Massachusetts by Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane in 1843.
He and his wife Jo were kind enough to visit us here at the Salem Witch Museum the morning after his lecture. The staff had a wonderful time discussing Judge Sewall, the witch trials and perceptions of American history from the point of view of this learned Harvard fellow. Jo confided in our colleague, Jill Henry, that her husband had written unique talks for each of his ten upcoming addresses!
We are grateful for his gracious willingness to sign several copies of Judge Sewall’s Apology available in our bookshop.
For more information please check out his blog.
OLD TOWN HALL LECTURE SERIES
Celebrating the North Shore’s rich historical past, the Gordon College Institute for Public History is delighted to announce the inaugural season of our annual lecture series at Salem’s historic Old Town Hall.
The Old Town Hall Lecture Series takes place from November 2010 through May 2011 on the third Thursday of the month at 7:30 pm at Old Town Hall, 32 Derby Square, Salem, Mass.
Thursday, December 16, 2010, 7:30 pm
Witchcraft and Conflict in Early New England: Illustrated lecture and book signing with Emerson (“Tad”) Baker of Salem State University
Francis, Richard. Judge Sewall’s Apology. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. Print.
Jones, Heather E., revised by D.J. Ward. “Samuel Sewall.” Salem Witch Trials Documentation and Archive Project. 2006. Web. 16 Nov. 2010.