Samuel Sewall, a judge in the highest court in Massachusetts in the late 1600s, was an outspoken opponent of slavery. In 1700 he wrote an essay against owning slaves called “The Selling of Joseph.” This essay was one of the earliest published anti-slavery works in the American colonies. Sewall wrote in this essay, “It is likewise most lamentable to think how, in taking negroes out of Africa and selling of them here, that which God has joined together men do boldly rend asunder; men from their country, husbands from their wives, parents from their children. How horrible is the uncleanness, immorality, if not murder, that the [slave] ships are guilty of that bring great crowds of these miserable men and women [to America]…”
Sewall was also a judge in the Salem witch trials. In 1693, Sewall was one of nine judges who tried people accused of witchcraft in Salem Town. Sewall was unlike any other judge and greatly regretted his involvement in the trials. In the next several years after the trials, Sewall’s family suffered great tragedy, which he stated was punishment from God for his involvement in the trials. He lost two children, and his wife gave birth to a stillborn child. Additionally, his mother-in-law passed away. Sewall publicly confessed his guilt and called for a public day of prayer and fasting.
Sewall kept a diary for nearly 50 years that detailed his life from 1674-1729. Sewall’s diary provides insight into Boston life during this time period.
CENTERED ON CHRIST
Sewall studied theology at Harvard University and was a faithful Christian. He was convicted by his role in the Salem witch trials and the way in which he believed God reacted to his participation. However, Sewall did not lose faith in God and instead grew nearer to God. As a result, he was a strong advocate for ending slavery and thought that all children of God deserved freedom and respect.
Sewall once wrote, “It is Observable that the Israelites were strictly forbidden the buying, or selling one another for Slaves. Levit. 25: 39, 46; Jer. 34: 8-22… Christians should carry it to all the world, as the Israelites were to carry it one towards another. And for men obstinately to persist in holding their neighbours and brethren under the rigor of perpetual bondage, seems to be no proper way of gaining assurance that God has given them spiritual freedom…These Ethiopians, as black as they are; seeing they are the sons and daughters of the First Adam, the brethren and sister of the Last ADAM [referring to Jesus Christ], and the offspring of GOD; They ought to be treated with a Respect agreeable.”