Chapter 1: Early American Literature to 1700
and Puritanism

Samuel Sewall

Paul P. Reuben
  October 13, 2016

Page Links: | Primary Works | Selected Bibliography 1980-Present | MLA Style Citation of this Web Page |

| A Brief Biography |

Site Links: | Chap 1 - Index | Alphabetical List | Table Of Contents | Home Page |

Source: Long Road-Slavery 

Famous for his Diary, Sewall was a representative of a new breed of Puritans who took more interest in secular matters like business, politics, and good living. Sewall kept a diary for almost fifty-seven years (1673-1729). It was an excellent indicator of the manners and mores of the times. A good edition is The Diary of Samuel Sewall edited by M. Halsey Thomas, 1973.

Primary Works

The Revolution in New England Justified, 1691; Phaenomena quaedam Apolyptica, 1697; The Selling of Joseph, 1700; Proposals Touching the Accomplishment of Prophecies, 1713; Diary of Samuel Sewall, 1674-1729.

Selected Bibliography 1980-Present

Elliott, Emory. ed. American Colonial Writers 1606-1734. Detroit : Gale, 1984.

Hall, David D., John M. Murrin, and Thad W. Tate. eds. Saints & Revolutionaries: Essays on Early American History. NY: Norton, 1984.

Samuel Sewall (1652-1730): A Brief Biography
A Student Project by Pamela Altman

Samuel Sewall was born in 1652 in Hampshire, England. The Sewalls were a wealthy family that had numerous interests in colonial America. After a separation of two years nine year old Samuel, his mother, and four siblings joined his father, Henry Sewall in Massachusetts. The family resided in Newbury where Samuel attended the local schools until 1667, when he left to attend Harvard College (Strandness 9). It was while he was finishing his education at Harvard that Sewall began keeping the Diary that would become so famous.

After leaving Harvard in 1674, Samuel followed the Sewall family tradition of marrying well and made his match with Hannah Hull. Hannah's father, John, was America's first goldsmith, the colony mint master and perhaps the wealthiest man in the colonies (Winslow 50-54). Sewall worked for his father-in-law until Hull's death in 1683 when Sewall began his career in public service (Winslow 61). In 1692 Sewall was appointed as Justice of Superior Court of Judicature. It was in this capacity that he became involved in the Salem witch trials (Winslow 65-66). Although history holds the trials in Salem as very significant, Sewall makes very few comments in his Diary on the remarkable case. In her article "The Other Diary of Samuel Sewall," Mary Adams Hilmer makes the point "That Sewall was the only one of those judges who ever recanted and asked for public forgiveness for his part in the trials seems only to make keener the disappointment at not finding in the diary any substantial comment on the trials." It is notable that his puritan beliefs regarding the interpretation of random events as Godly punishments led to Sewall's posting of a public statement confessing his sins in the matter of the Salem trials. In the year preceding his statement, three of Sewall's children had died. Despite the Salem witch trials Sewall's career as a judge continued unhindered and he became Chief Justice in 1718 (Winslow149). In 1728, after 50 years of public service Sewall resigned all of his positions due to illness. He died two years later, January 1, 1730.

Samuel Sewall's Diary does more than record 57 years of his life, it gives the reader a unique insight into the life of a pious Puritan. In his article "Sewall's Diary and the Margins of Puritan Literature," Lawrence Rosenwald recognizes two sorts of puritan diaries. "The Diary of spiritual experiences, Cotton Mather's sort of diary, is one; Sewall's is the other."(327) Rosenwald goes on to define Sewall's sort as an almanac-diary. This he defines as "the portrait of a particular man in his particular calling."(329) Sewall gives a glimpse of the puritan good life, a view into a world where widowed judges clumsily and sweetly court love a second and then a third time around. Sewall speaks of sharing wine and brandy with his lady friends and of asking to hold the bare hand of a lady he is smitten with. According to Rosenwald, "what Sewall has written is not so much anecdote as drama." (339)

Looking deeper into Sewall's Diary then the day to day accounts and the story that he tells, in her article "The Other Diary of Samuel Sewall," Mary Adams Hilmer states that "In the interstices of his diary, Sewall lets happen what was allowed to happen almost nowhere else in his Puritan world &emdash; except perhaps, in a distorted way, at the Salem witch trials: he has allowed the human body to appear and be recognized; he has taken it seriously; he has let it matter." (362-363) By his graphic descriptions Sewall gives great weight to the various injuries and deaths that he witnessed. To Sewall the body matters and this is contrary to Puritan thinking. According to Hilmer, " As far as the ruling Puritan consciousness knows, nothing has the right to be itself but God." (363) Yet, Sewall allows the body, in all of its wonder and gore, to be itself. Hilmer goes on to reason that Samuel Sewall's accounts of giving and receiving finely made gifts and of sharing good food and drink show that "for him material goods are just that: good." (366)

In his Diary, Samuel Sewall gives an unusual and fine accounting of Puritan life. He shows a side of Puritan living that is absent in the spiritual diaries of his contemporaries and by doing so allows the modern reader to view the Puritans as the complex and very human beings that they were.

Works Cited

Rosenwald, Lawrence. "Sewall's Diary and the Margins of Puritan Literature." American Literature 58.3 (Oct 1986): 325-341.

Hilmer, Mary Adams. "The Other Diary of Samuel Sewall." The New England Quarterly 55.3 (Sep 1982): 354-365.

Strandness, T.B. Samuel Sewall: A Puritan Portrait. Michigan State University Press, 1967.

Winslow, Ola Elizabeth. Samuel Sewall of Boston. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1964.

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page:

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 1: Samuel Sewall." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. WWW URL: (provide page date or date of your logon).

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