Puritan Family Life: The Diary Of Samuel Sewall, by Judith S. Graham
In the popular culture, and even among a great many academics, the Puritans suffer from being considered cosmic killjoys who had no sense of fun and who were truly monstrous parents obsessed with gloominess and original sin . The author, through a very detailed discussion of the diary of Samuel Sewall as well as the writings of his family members and contemporaries, manages to provide a compelling case that Samuel Sewall was a moderate Puritan whose seriousness about moral issues and his encouragement of his offspring in their various callings was also accompanied by his being loving and compassionate with his wife and children, many of whom were afflicted by various physical illnesses and difficulties. All in all, this book manages to succeed wonderfully in large part because the subject is such an appealing one. Sewall comes off as a really decent guy, a person of incessant labors, an observant but generally sympathetic eye, and someone who was as reflective of himself as he was critical of the evil in the world around him, something that could inspire others to be like him even in our own present world.
This book, which is a bit over 200 pages, discusses Sewall’s family life and his own personal writings–mostly his diary but also his letters–in a thematic fashion. While the writing is generally very solid, there were some sections that were harder to get through than others because the research had to be read more carefully and slowly. The author focuses on Sewall’s first marriage, his views on birth, childrearing, the concept of children as miniature adults, the illness and death of children, education, the calling, the matter of children taken into the Sewall home, sending out and taking in, courtship and marriage, and the relationship between generations, before concluding on a generally favorable light. The author takes a lot of fault with many biased looks at the Puritans that used very selective citation and failed to show a knowledge of the wide body of Puritan literature, a problem this author definitely does possess, as she freely quotes from not only the Sewalls and their descendants’ writings but from the Winthrops and quarrelsome Mathers as well as the writings of historians like Bailyn. The result is a book that shows powerful research and makes a point on the basic humanity of Sewall, who publicly apologized for his role in the Salem Witch Trials as a judge and managed to write the first antislavery tract in American history in the early 18th century.
Overall, while the author is herself a competent writer and a sound historian, the book itself largely shines because of its choice of a subject. Samuel Sewall is an inspired choice as a rich and complex and exceptionally decent person, someone who combined a great deal of compassion for human frailty with incessant labors to make his own life and the lives of his children better. His generosity, his focus on education, and his thoughtful and reflective writings, as well as the way that he was deeply involved in the lives of his fellow New Englanders all combine to make his life an interesting one, and it is the interest of the subject matter that makes it possible to read this with a great deal of enjoyment. The book would not have been nearly as pleasant had it been about a less interesting and less worthwhile figure. This book is a good example of what happens when someone takes a compelling figure and then writes about that person showing a great deal of familiarity with their life and their writing, along with a great deal of sympathy for their mindset. The result is a book that can make the open-minded reader a lot less critical of the Puritans, and certainly aware that they were human beings too with the milk of human kindness inside of them.
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