Samuel Sewall: Heroic Judge


Samuel Sewall is a hero in the history of liberty. It is a testimony to the strangeness of history that a man who was one of the magistrates presiding over the repressive Salem witchcraft trials should earn such a designation.

It would be irresponsible to claim that Sewall was a classical liberal or a libertarian, but when viewed within his historical context, he was a courageous, forward-thinking, and liberty-loving man. And a pious Reformed, Christian at that! And it would not, I propose, be a stretch to say that he was very much animated by the general spirit of classical liberalism.

A Brief Summary Of His Life

Samuel was born in England in 1652. When Charles II was restored to the English throne, he and his family settled in Massachusetts. He was a classmate of the noted colonial poet, Edward Taylor. In 1681, he was appointed to be the official printer of the colony. Before long, he was elected to the “council of assistants”and became a member of Harvard’s Board of Overseers.

As an assistant magistrate, Sewall became one of the nine judges presiding over the Salem witchcraft trials, though he would later become the only one to publicly express regret over his involvement.

Sewall would continue his career and eventually become chief justice. He died in 1730. To those who aren’t steeped in American colonial history, he may seem somewhat of an obscure figure. And yet, he’s one that we should acquaint ourselves with.

His Contrition Over The Witchcraft Trials

After the Salem witchcraft trials, Sewall called for a public day of prayer and fasting and advocated reparations. He personally visited those affected by the ordeal. He seems to have been quite fervent in regretting and repenting of his involvement in the witchcraft trials.

A Bill that was posted during a fasting day said the following:

“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…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”

Against Slavery

In 1770, Sewall entered a pamphlet debate with John Saffin on the topic of slavery, in which he came out as being solidly against negro slavery.

This debate produced first anti-slavery tract in New England, “The Selling of Joseph. A memorial.”  In the pamphlet, Sewall used Acts 17:26-29 to argue that all “Sons of Adam” are coheirs, have an equal right to liberty, and all other outward comforts of life.” He further pointed to the law against “manstealing” in Exodus 21:16, classifying this sin as “amongst the most atrocious of Capital Crimes.” Sewall’s pamphlet also addresses various objections, such as those raised from Genesis 9:25-27.

The tract also put forward some rather fresh arguments. For instance, Sewall argued that negro slavery, by stealing men from Africa, was “rending asunder” that which God has joined, such as husbands from their wives, parents from their children, etc.  He also forcefully argued against the supposition that slavery could be justified because it would expose the slaves to Christianity.

Peacemaker, and Advocate Of The “Other”

There are many other ways in which Sewall was “progressive” (in the good sense of that word). Sewall worked hard (but unsuccessfully) in opposing laws forbidding interracial marriages and was also concerned about the liberties of Native Americans.

Sewall sought the conversion of the Native Americans and donated land to provide funds for Native Americans to build meeting houses and to attend Harvard, but he also took steps to try to secure peace. He tried to dissuade his countrymen from sending military expeditions against the Indians.

He was also an advocate for women in a time when women had few rights. In his paper Talitha Cumi, he argued against others who were questioning whether there would be any women in heaven. This might seem like a humorously foreign topic in our day, but in that day, it was a serious topic of dispute. Sewall was boldly and rightly defending the Biblical understanding of gender and standing up for our “oneness” in Christ under the rubric of complementarianism over and against a perverted unbiblical machoism.

Sewall’s Legacy

If we read what he wrote through a 21st century lens, we might not be very impressed with what Sewall said. We must remember, however, that colonial America was a very different scene than the one we see today. A lot of upheaval and reform has happened since then. Samuel Sewall’s statements are nothing short of radical if you properly account for his environment and contemporaries. And he helped to pave the way for later reformers.

Vernon Parrington wrote in The Colonial Mind: 1620-1800, that Sewall was a “Puritan magistrate and village capitalist”. He then continued to say “It was [Sewall’s] neighborliness that made him so representative of the leveling tendencies of provincial village life, an easy comradeship with man of all conditions. Sewall is the first Yankee who reveals the native kindness of the New England Village…Growing more human with the ripening years, yet instinctively conservative…he reveals the special bent of the New England character…a practical race that was to spread the gospel of economic individualism across the continent.”

Sewall’s assertion that all men have “have equal Right unto Liberty”, was certainly a wonderfully prescient appeal to what would become a very important part of classical liberalism in particular, and Western thinking in general. There is something distinctly Lockean and Jeffersonian in the way he argued. He should be honored for his steadfast commitment to liberty in a time when it was under assault. He saw liberty as something which had value “next unto Life”. And he believed it was something to be enjoyed and protected, for ourselves and others.  We have a great model of activism here.

I love the way John R. Vile described the life and piety of Sewall in an almost Chestertonian way:

“On the personal side, Sewall was a lively figure whose personality emerges with force in his diary from his succinct, yet colorful, observations of daily life. A short man who weighed as much as 230 pounds, Sewall’s girth reflected his love of good food, good beer, and good wine. Sewall also enjoyed good sermons, good books, and good music—for twenty-four years he led the congregation in singing the psalms at the Old South Church. Although he joined in public fast days and held private fasts of his own, he often carried chocolates, nuts, and fruit to share with others, and after his wife died, he often favored the women he was courting with such treats and with books of sermons.” (from Samuel Sewall: Defender of the Rule of Law?)

Reformed Christians, Libertarians, and Reformed Libertarians all have a lot to learn from Samuel Sewall and his way of reforming and engaging his culture.

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