A change of heart in Salem, Mass.

How a Salem witch trial judge came to repent and champion the oppressed.

I still remember sitting in Mr. Tarrant's 11th-grade English class the day that copies of our next reading assignment – Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" – were handed out. I picked up a copy of the dog-eared paperback and, flipping through it, was absolutely shocked to realize that this was a true story – that somewhere in American history there really was a chapter in which people were publicly executed for the crime of witchcraft.

Most people who receive a standard US public school education were probably taught more or less what I was about the Salem witch trials – that in 1692 a fearful form of hysteria gripped New Englanders and before it was done, hundreds of people had been imprisoned and 20 executed, all charged with practicing witchcraft.

But very few will have the unusual "what came later" perspective revealed by Salem Witch Judge: The Life and Repentance of Samuel Sewall. Author and journalist Eve LaPlante tells the story of Sewall, who is an ancestor of hers and who was the only one of the nine judges involved in the Salem witch trials to later repent publicly.

The narrative LaPlante offers is two-fold. One part of the package is the compelling personal story of an earnest, well-intentioned man who, befogged by the mental atmosphere around him, was complicit in a terrible error. In the long run, however, Sewall was too honest to continue to fool himself. He came to see clearly that he had done wrong – and he suffered cruelly from that consciousness.

As he sat at the funeral of one his infant daughters (only three of his 14 children outlived him), Sewall was struck by Jesus's words to the Pharisees: "If ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless." "He had 'condemned the guiltless,' LaPlante writes. "He observed that this verse 'did awfully bring to mind the Salem tragedy,' which he had been going over and over in his mind."

From the moment of his public apology (read by Sewall's minister in front of the full congregation of Sewall's church), Sewall wore sackcloth under his clothing as a form of penitence. But he did not retreat from public life.

On the contrary, he became a champion of the oppressed, speaking out publicly against slavery and for the rights of both native Americans and women. (These were brave stances to adopt in his era – even in New England at that time 1 in 5 families owned slaves, native Americans were regarded as savages, and the notion that women had rights was anything but a given.)

He also developed a deep, spiritual attachment to the New England landscape and went on to write a book that some see as a precursor to this country's environmental movement.

Intertwined with Sewall's personal story is the larger question of the changes that came to US society after that time. LaPlante connects the failure of the Salem witch court to the creation of America's first independent judiciary (the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts – today the oldest independent court in the Western hemisphere) and then to the separation of church and state in Massachusetts, which she says ultimately led to the formal separation of church and state throughout the United States.

But perhaps most fascinating to me as a reader was the portrait that LaPlante paints of life in Massachusetts during the 77-year span of her ancestor. Drawing on his voluminous diaries, she's able to give us a window into the world of the educated elite of Sewall's era.

It's both remarkably different from and similar to the world we know today. Religion and the Bible were the dominant intellectual features of a tiny society in which a few leading families intermarried, did land deals, studied at Harvard, and attended church together. (Due to her descent from Sewall, LaPlante is also related to Anne Hutchinson, Anne Bradstreet, Louisa May Alcott, and a man who once broke the heart of Jefferson Davis's daughter.)

But at the same time, it was a world governed by fears and disagreements only too comprehensible to us today. There was no Middle Eastern terrorism to worry about, but the colonists lived in constant fear of attacks by Indians, pirates, and the French. They worried about relations with England and the heavy debt their local government carried.

And while some today revere their era as a time of great godliness, many of them actually feared that the opposite was true – that theirs was an era of dangerous decadence and movement away from God.

In an era of memoirs in which we've become accustomed to gut-wrenching personal confessions from ex-presidents, spymasters, and actors alike, Sewall's thoughts and words might seem spare to contemporary readers. But for those willing to look a bit deeper, "Salem Witch Judge" offers an intriguing journey into a world as far away as colonial America – and yet at the same time as close as the human heart.

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