Judge Sewall's Apology: The Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of an American Conscience

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9780007163625: Judge Sewall's Apology: The Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of an American Conscience

The Salem witch hunt of 1692 has entered our vocabulary as the very essence of injustice. Biographer and novelist Richard Francis looks at the familiar drama with fresh eyes, grasping the true significance of this cataclysm through the personal story of Samuel Sewall, New England Puritan, Salem trial judge, antislavery agitator, defender of Native American rights, utopian theorist, campaigner against periwigs, family man, gallant wooer.

Sewall's life encompassed the tensions that faced the second-generation colonists, caught between the staunch conservatism of the Puritans and the possibilities their new world offered. Everywhere there was conflict, schism, and violence; the new Americans were pitted against the Native Americans, whose pagan ways terrified them, and a hostile mother country intent on imposing her control over the colony. Out of the struggle to maintain unity emerged the forces that drove the Salem tragedy. For the first time, Francis reveals the nature and scale of the threat the authorities believed they were facing.

Five guilt-wracked years after pronouncing judgment at the trials, Sewall walked into his church in Boston and recanted the guilty verdicts, praying for forgiveness. This extraordinary act not only proved a turning point for Sewall, it marked the moment when modern American values and attitudes came into being -- the shift from an almost medieval and allegorical view of good and evil to a respect for the mysteries of the human heart.

Drawing on Sewall's copious diaries, Francis enables us to see the early colonists not as grim ideologues but as flesh and blood idealists, striving for a new society while coming to terms with the desires and imperfections of ordinary life. Through this unsung hero of conscience, we gain access to the first lost frontier of the New World.

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About the Author:

Richard Francis is a biographer, historian of American culture, and novelist. He was an American Studies Research Fellow at Harvard, and taught American literature at the universities of Missouri and Manchester. He is nowProfessor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University in England.

From Publishers Weekly:

In this lively chronicle, historian Francis (Transcendental Utopias) offers a compelling portrait of the decline of Puritan ways in the late 17th century and the ascent of a secular spirit in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Although devout, Samuel Sewall (1652–1730) turned away from an early religious vocation to pursue a career in public office and married into the colony's aristocracy. He found himself catapulted into the limelight as one of nine judges who condemned the alleged witches of Salem in 1692. Francis calls this the turning point in Sewall's life and work. Never convinced that the condemned women were guilty, Sewall felt remorse; in 1697 he walked into a Boston church and offered a public apology, the only one of the three judges to do so. As a result, he was rebuffed by his social circle. Yet, according to Francis, Sewall's courage is magnified by his taking a stand he knew would result in ostracism. In his later years, Sewall wrote tracts opposing the colonists' treatment of Indians and slaves. Francis beautifully captures not only Sewall's personality and significance but also the shifting times in which he lived, when it was becoming no longer possible to "see the world as a simple allegorical struggle between... good and evil." B&w illus.
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