Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
In this lively chronicle, historian Francis (Transcendental Utopias) offers a compelling portrait of the decline of Puritan ways in the late 17th century and the ascent of a secular spirit in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Although devout, Samuel Sewall (1652-1730) turned away from an early religious vocation to pursue a career in public office and married into the colony's aristocracy. He found himself catapulted into the limelight as one of nine judges who condemned the alleged witches of Salem in 1692. Francis calls this the turning point in Sewall's life and work. Never convinced that the condemned women were guilty, Sewall felt remorse; in 1697 he walked into a Boston church and offered a public apology, the only one of the three judges to do so. As a result, he was rebuffed by his social circle. Yet, according to Francis, Sewall's courage is magnified by his taking a stand he knew would result in ostracism. In his later years, Sewall wrote tracts opposing the colonists' treatment of Indians and slaves. Francis beautifully captures not only Sewall's personality and significance but also the shifting times in which he lived, when it was becoming no longer possible to "see the world as a simple allegorical struggle between... good and evil." B&w illus. Agent, Caroline Dawnay at PFD, U.K. (Aug. 16) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review
The life and turbulent times of the only judge fully to recant the actions of a court that sent 19 accused witches to the gallows in colonial Massachusetts. Since the copious diary of Samuel Sewall (1652-1730), spanning nearly 57 years, is a principal source of material regarding the motives and reasoning of those who convened the notorious Witch Trials in 1692, it has been well perused prior to being taken up by biographer, novelist and historian Francis (Creative Writing/Bath Spa Univ.; Prospect Hill, 2004, etc.). Yet his is both a sensitive and scholarly rendering, with far-reaching perspectives that bring Sewall off the page as he confronts both the material and spiritual worlds of his time. Francis ferrets out his subject's anxieties, obsessions and anathemas (he was consoled in good measure though not entirely by the rigidly elaborate tenets of his Puritan faith) to conclude: "He was confident for much of the time but could be gauche and awkward too," and though he was devout, he "loved the good things in life, especially music, food and drink." While Sewall often stood unflinchingly in liberal opposition to clerics and leaders on such issues as the treatment of Indians (he favored fairness, education and conversion) and the rights of women, he also courted the in crowd and felt stress whenever his approaches seemed rebuffed. Tapped as a judge in the infamous proceedings that brought down death sentences on the basis of "spectral evidence," his popularity and influence fed into the key decisions on the bench with no hint at how soon they would become onerous. Five years later, his uniquely unqualified apology was read to a congregation commemorating the victims of Salem's trials. "Somehow, by the end of his life," Francis asserts, "the former witchcraft judge had made himself a recognizably modern man." Fresh, insightfully written investigation of how colonial Puritanism's core beliefs and ragged edges produced its most ungodly legacy. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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