The persecution of so-called witches in Salem Massachusetts in 1693 is well-known as a notorious event in American history. Not so well-known is the spiritual journey of one of the judges on the panel that ordered the execution of the twenty convicted prisoners. The biography of him by Eve Laplante is not a particularly good book with its chronological skips and copious details that are of not great interest, but she does bring the remarkable land telling story to light.
Samuel Sewall was a good and generous and devout man. Bracket out his voting for the twenty executions and one finds nothing reprehensible about him and much to commend. What happened?
The type of Calvinistic spirituality in colonial Boston posited a God of boundless mercy but a god who could just as quickly break out in wrath. When several of his children died in infancy, Sewall wondered what he had done to deserve this grief. When the English government revoked the colonial charter and then French and Indians attacked and destroyed coastal cities to the north, he wondered what the community had done to deserve these calamities.
Laplante describes Salem Village as “beset with squabbles” where “neighbor battled neighbor over land boundaries, crops, and grazing rights.” Moreover, the congregation habitually battled with successive ministers over due compensation for their work. Not surprisingly, the witchcraft accusations started in the home of the incumbent minister, Samuel Parris. Many of those accused were involved in the various ongoing disputes and many of the accusers were servant girls suddenly empowered to get back at those who were normally their social betters.
Samuel Sewall, accepting the social advancement that came with the appointment to the panel of judges, was among those trying the cases. All of those condemned were convicted on what was called “spectral evidence.” This was the phenomenon of one or more witnesses seeing a spectral image of the accused person committing foul deeds of the devil. There can be no more powerful image for the mirage thrown up by what René Girard calls the skandalon, the stumbling block. One’s rival has been transformed into a spectral image of wickedness.
In the days of the primitive sacred, according to Girard, one death was enough to reconcile a community. In Salem, twenty deaths and counting wasn’t nearly enough. Girard leads us to expect this to be the case in the wake of the Gospel’s unveiling of the truth of collective violence. There are two fundamental reasons the witch trials ceased and the remaining prisoners were all freed. 1) There was never any unanimity that the witches were guilty. One judge had resigned early on in protest. Sewall’s own minister at Third Church was among the clergy who opposed the persecutions. 2) There was no end in sight if the persecutions continued. Anyone at all could be accused regardless of social position.
Although Sewall kept a thorough diary of events and thoughts, the months during these witch trials are surprisingly and dismayingly empty. This is a huge disappointment for one who would like more insight into Sewall’s reflections at the time, but the empty pages speak volumes that no amount of words could tell. Sewall could not face what he was doing.
There are some hints as to what lead to Sewall’s public declaration of guilt and remorse during worship at Third Church. Sewall had been publically snubbed by his minister on more than one occasion. That probably made him think. During a family funeral service for yet another dead child, his eldest son read from Matthew the verse that includes: “”I will have mercy and not sacrifice,” a key verse for the unequivocal love of God and total rejection of persecutory violence.
Through this sobering experience, Sewall went on to show insight into two major issues way beyond that of almost all of his contemporaries. 1) In spite of the Indian attacks that had been the scourge of the colony, Sewall wrote of the inherent dignity of native Americans as worthy of salvation on an equal footing with his own race. 2) Sewall wrote the first anti-slavery treatise composed on North American soil, using the story of Joseph as his proof-text.
Like St. Paul, Samuel Sewall learned some things about victimization from being a persecutor. We can all learn from the man who stood in the midst of his congregation with his head bowed while his minister read his confession.