My Musings

Salem Witch Judge: A Book Review

Salem Witch Judge: A Book Review

SALEM WITCH JUDGE: The Life and Repentance of Samuel Sewall. Author: Eve LaPlante, Harper-Collins Publishers, New York, NY, 2007.

Eve LaPlante is the great-great-great… great-great-great-granddaughter of Samuel Sewall, a judge during the Salem witch trials. In her biography of Sewall, LePlante pictures her ancestor as a “follower of Christ” who “sought forgiveness and expiation from sin.”


In the late 1600s, it seemed easy to perceive the devil’s handiwork in colonial life. One in two children perished before age five. Colonists lived in fear of Indian raids, droughts, epidemics, fires, and other tragedies. The Puritan ideal was to live to the glory of God until God glorified you. The average life span was 40 years. A popular perception was that “Satan was on the loose.” Fear loomed large in the hearts of those who began to accuse their neighbors of witchcraft–a fear of whatever was contaminating the community. New England was a “howling wilderness” and there was much to fear.


In 1692, Judge Samuel Sewall (1652 – 1730) helped send twenty people to their deaths for witchcraft. It was a five- month ordeal that began when a few misbehaving girls found unexpected access to public power by accusing older women of “afflicting” them with the devil. Playing the victim led to bizarre fits, spasms and outbursts. The girls were pitied instead of punished. Pointing fingers of blame made sympathetic victims out of spoiled brats. Still, the more severe sins lie at the feet of community leaders who fed on the hysteria.

Coerced confessions lent public credibility to the accusations. Others got into the accusation act and a surge of suspects were named. A new governor came to office with the charge to drive out the devil. Local jails were full of accused witches, so he appointed a court of nine judges (five Harvard men).

Soon, outrage shifted to shame. Families began to move away. Local Puritan ministers began to preach against this court and made pleas for reason and restraint. Public opinion turned the tide. The Court was disbanded in October, a decision welcomed by nearly every local leader (but not by every judge).

All told, 144 women and 44 men were accused of witchcraft; 59 were tried and 31 convicted. Sadly, 20 were executed (14 women and 6 men). Many documents were destroyed–evidence of shame that fell short of repentance. Among those put on trial, only those who maintained their innocence ended up on the gallows. Of the nine judges bent on evoking repentance from innocent defendants, only one ended up publicly repenting himself (five years later). That judge is the subject of LePlante’s biography.

Samuel Sewall (1652 – 1730)


By the time of the trials, Samuel and Hannah Sewall had buried five children and were about to lose a sixth and seventh. In 1696, Samuel’s son (Sam, Jr) read a passage from Matthew (12:7) that gripped his father with guilt: “If ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless.” The preaching of Samuel Willard, Sewall’s minister, also cut into his conscience. At age 44, Sewall made the most influential decision of his life. At church, on January 14, 1697, he declared his repentance. He accepted the blame and shame of his actions on the court and pled for pardon from God and men. This was just the beginning of his lifelong repentance. LePlante wrote; “True repentance consists of more than a single act.”

New perspectives on other matters emerged. Sewall began to see a graceful place for the Indians in God’s scheme and had several Indian boys stay in his home and helped them go to Harvard. He began to advocate for the rights of African slaves, rooting his opposition to slavery in Matthew 7:12 (the Golden Rule). His pamphlet, “The Selling of Joseph,” was the first anti-slavery tract ever published in America. He took some grief for it too. His remorse gave rise to activism on behalf of the needy. He sought to, “Produce fruits in keeping with repentance.” (Luke 3:8).


Sewall spent the last three decades of his life seeking to restore himself in the eyes of God. By age 75, he had outlived two wives and 11 of his 14 children. He also outlived all the other Salem witch judges. He served New England as a judge for over 50 years. He represents the perpetrators of one of America’s most shameful moments, and yet he rises out of the dust and ashes of repentance to demonstrate much that is great in the American spirit of the past.

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The views expressed on this blog are personal and belong to Joel Solliday unless otherwise stated. They are not, intended to characterize the views of the Lewiston Church of Christ or other organizations to which I may refer.


About the Author:

Joel graduated from Pepperdine University with a B.A., completing two majors: Art and Religion. He went on to earn the Master of Divinity degree from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. The views expressed on this blog are personal and belong to Joel Solliday unless otherwise stated. They are not, intended to characterize the views of the Lewiston Church of Christ or other organizations to which I may refer.

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