Samuel Sewall lived a very Puritan life in early colonial Boston. As a man who cared deeply for his religion and his family, Sewall dearly loved his family and viewed their good and poor health as God’s reward or punishment. He did not, however, simply attend to his family to satisfy what he believed was God’s will. Rising rapidly to a position of prominence in society, Sewall was blessed with money and a close relationship with his wife and children. He aided them individually through illnesses, moral dilemmas, and he guided them through the mourning process after any deaths in the family, though he himself suffered most. Samuel Sewall’s relationship with his family was one of close ties and a strong religious orientation; they prayed and read together from the Bible daily which in turn allowed them to grow closer.
Sewall loved his wife Hannah very dearly, and over the years the two of them produced fourteen children, only nine of which lived beyond a year. Of these remaining nine, six had died within sixteen years between 1690 and 1716, and Sewall suffered greatly but did his best to atone for the sins he believed had caused these disasters. He also made efforts to follow up what he saw as signs from God for him to act. In one entry, Sewall described a dream he had in which his wife Hannah died. In the dream he finds that “the death occurred in part because of my neglect and want of love” (Sewall 77). Upon waking up in the morning, Sewall embraces his wife and interprets the dream as God’s request that he pay more attention to his wife. She was Sewall’s foundation in life; he loved her dearly and would do whatever it took to keep her happy.
The hardest blow for Sewall came when Hannah died in 1717. “Lord help me to learn; and be a Sun and Shield to me, now so much of my Comfort and Defense are taken away” (Sewall 4). Sewall lived according to Puritan belief in that he viewed the deaths of family as punishment for his faults. “The Lord pardon all my sin, and wandering and neglect, and sanctify to me this singular affliction” (Sewall 148). Sewall suggests in his diary that the rapid succession of deaths of his children around the late 1690’s and early 1700’s was punishment for his participation in the Salem witch trials. Though the tragedies in Sewall’s life offer a good example of his feelings for family, they are not the only instance of the Sewall family’s closeness. Sewall appeared to be a very successful father figure in his children’s lives. Two examples of this occur in 1696. His daughter Betty came to him one morning in February almost immediately after he awoke to inform Sewall that she believed she is going to Hell. This situation also provides an example of the piety present in Sewall’s daily dealings with his family. As a solution to her problem, Sewall promised her that he would pray for her and advised her to do the same in the hope that “God would pardon her sin and give her a new heart” (Sewall 145). Similarly in the second situation his son Sam Jr. came to Sewall unable to sleep over a sermon they had attended earlier. This sermon had advised against idleness, “which was an affliction to him” (Sewall 144). Sam Jr. believed that his profession was an idle one, and that he did more at home than he did at work. Sewall spoke with Samuel Checkley, with whom Sam Jr. had been apprenticing for several months. Sam Jr. was still upset and in an effort to get things worked out with the boy, Checkley invited him to visit his home more often. As a final measure, Sewall and his son prayed privately that God direct them to the proper calling for Sam Jr.
Sewall’s kind nature was not limited to his wife and children. He enjoyed a close relationship with his wife’s father, John Hull, and inherited his business upon his death in 1683. This in turn made Sewall one of the richest men in eighteenth century Boston. As a result, he was able to take care of his many children as well as provide meals for family and friends whenever necessary. Documented in Sewall’s diary are several visits with his brother Stephen and sisters Jane and Mehitable, either at his own home or occasionally theirs. “Brother and Sister Gerrish (Moses and Jane) lodged here last night” (Sewall 81). They prayed together and supported each other in times of mourning, as in the deaths of Sewall’s children.
Sewall was very much a family man. Evidence of this is found constantly throughout his diary. He would do anything in his power to keep his wife and children happy. Perhaps there was a slight desire for self-preservation on Sewall’s part, as he felt that his actions towards his family were consequently rewarded or punished by God. Even so, according to his writings and even more so to his actions Sewall was very devoted to his children, his wife and his siblings. If he felt his children were straying too far from a Puritan way of life, Sewall would step in and attempt to guide them back to what he felt was the road to salvation. Reading from the Bible, attending mass, fasting and praying were regular occurrences in the Sewall household. His Puritan background played a heavy part in Sewall’s relationships and actions. Sewall’s good fortune was God’s reward, and his bad fortune God’s wrath. A happy family life and his position of prominence in Boston were a result of his piety. Any problems which arose in any of his children’s lives could be resolved by reading the Bible or praying. Sewall’s ultimate solution to any problem lay in his faith. Regardless of the reason, Sewall did a very good job in keeping close relationships with children, siblings and friends. Samuel Sewall suffered many losses which affected him greatly, but recovered from each and aided any who needed it through the difficult times. As much as he depended on his wife Hannah, and as much as he was proud of his children, Sewall above it all answered only to God. He did what he felt was praiseworthy in God’s eyes, and on those occasions where he felt that he had erred, Sewall prayed and fasted to compensate. Sewall was a man who adored his family and led a very successful life, but above all strove to please his God as best he could.
The Diary and Life of Samuel Sewall, Ed. Mel Yazawa, NY: Bedford, 1998.