The Hairshirt of the Witch Judge

(Galations 6:1-5, 7-10)

On the day of his public repentance, in 1697, before the assembled congregation of South Church in Boston, Judge Samuel Sewall put on an undershirt of coarse, harsh animal hair. No judge had ordered him to do it, any of it – but every day for the rest of his life the honorable Samuel Sewell would wear that hairshirt under his clothes, to needle him with the itch and scratch of conscience that he had ignored five years before, in 1692, when he as a judge had put to death twenty innocent people. That year, 1692, was at the height of the witch hunting mania that had begun in Salem, Mass, and had swept across Puritan New England.

The Devil, you see, had come unleashed, and he was running loose over all the hills and dales while doing his dirty work. Actually, the Devil was having other people do his dirty work for him, people who you may not at all suspect, covert agents, people who were secretly witches and wizards. In particular, the Devil liked to operate in unsuspecting towns through women who practiced the arts of herbal medicine, and through men who harbored heretical notions, and through children who became too friendly with Caribbean-Africans and Indians. This disease of deviltry was spreading, and all sorts of strange behaviors became symptoms of it.

And so the good pious Puritans panicked.  They knew they had to act quickly to stop the demonic disease from spreading.  So they set about purifying their towns of witches.      If you see something, say something. And once you started to look, you could find all kinds of evidence of witchcraft. In Salem, they were accusing so many people of witchcraft that they needed to send out for more judges from Boston to do all the trials.

One of those judges was Samuel Sewall. He was one of the most learned men in Boston, one of the wealthiest and well esteemed, and one of the most pious. He had studied at Harvard to become a Puritan minister. He ended up instead becoming a judge and a merchant.  But he wrote about religious matters and he was well known for being rigorous in his faith and devotion and piety.

And so, this pious man went to Salem to serve his public duty on a panel of judges. In doing so they found 20 women and men guilty of being witches. This included a minister who had been a classmate of Sewall’s at Harvard, and this is what started Sewall’s secret misgivings about the whole thing, but he was still busy sewing seeds in the lower nature of fear and hate. 19 people were hung and one was pressed to death under rocks.

There were people at the time who protested all of this, especially in Boston. And the panic did die down, after I think the horror of the purge caused more and more people to realize that these were innocent people getting punished for nothing. Pretty quickly the general sentiment became, “oops, we got a bit carried away there.” “We made some mistakes. Mistakes were made (but not by me). How about we let bygones be bygones and move on.”

However, the conscience of Judge Sewall had begun to itch. He had voted to put innocent people to death. And the minister at Sewall’s church, Rev. Samuel Willard, started insisting to everyone that they learn the moral of this story. He preached from the pulpit that the devil had indeed been at work during the witch trials – not in the so-called witches, but in the panic about witches itself that the Puritans had let take possession of them.

So the itch and scratch at Judge Sewall’s conscience became worse. He had sewn in his lower nature and he was reaping corruption. Then two of his children died. And in that heartbreak something in him broke and he became convinced that God was punishing him for his sins during the witch trial.

So, Sewall repented. He fasted as a penitent and he donned his hairshirt, and he humbled himself before his congregation at South Church while Rev. Willard read his public letter of repentance. Most people who were there and who heard about this thought he was way off here, he was being rather dramatic in taking personal responsibility for what was just society’s mistake, a strange episode that, well, everyone for whatever reason had gotten swept up in. It’s just better to forget about.

Sewall wouldn’t hear any of that. He took responsibility and he repented for his personal role.   And after he repented, Sewall felt a spiritual relief deep inside him. Grace, a gift from from God. But he did not treat that that gift of grace from God as if it were cheap. He kept wearing that hairshirt. Now, I want to say that this is a severe approach to repentance that I’m not advocating literally, but what is important is that in wearing that rough shirt, he kept the itch and scratch of conscience close to him. This continued the working of grace, on him – changing him. It made him sensitive to the unjust suffering of more and more people, in ways that he hadn’t been before.

In 1700 he shocked everyone again, this time by publishing his argument that the institution of slavery was an affront to God. He wrote that people from Africa are children of God just like people from Europe, and that the colonists shouldn’t do to them what they wouldn’t want done to themselves – which rules out slavery. The tract was called the “Selling of Joseph.” It was forceful and biblical. It was the first abolitionist tract in America. It did not make him many friends.

Next, he realized the same thing about Native Americans. He wrote that they are just as much children of God as anybody else, and that the colonists shouldn’t do to them what they wouldn’t want done to themselves. This did not make him many friends either.

And then, shortly before he died, Judge Sewall wrote something similar about women. He even used the term “the rights of women.”

Now, I’m not going to say that this Puritan’s views on women, or on Africans or Native Americans, were totally enlightened. But they were courageous statements of a conscience and a soul that had become remarkably sensitive to the humanity of those that his society treated as inhuman. Judge Sewall is an historic figure for this reason. He’s important in the larger story of the struggle for a more tolerant and just social order. Learning from the witch trials was also important in developing an independent judiciary, as well as the separation of church and state.

It started with his willingness to repent of his role in his society’s sin – not just confess it or admit it, but to genuinely suffer for it and humble himself and accept grace and the change that it makes on us. He kept that repentance and grace close with him, working at him, literally against his skin, for the rest of his life.  He sewed in the Spirit and he reaped new life, eternal.

As Congregationalists, and as members of the United Church of Christ, we at this church have the Puritans as one of our ancestors in the faith – as different as we are now from them. The South Church in Boston, Sewall’s church, is a prominent UCC congregation these days.

Samuel Sewall is emblematic of the kind of evolution, the personal and moral and I hope collective evolution, which characterizes the activity of our United Church of Christ faith in our country and in our world – at its best, and we’re usually not quite there.

It’s an itchy and scratchy kind of faith, a faith that does not rest comfortably with the sins of our past or the sins of our present. It’s the kind of faith that does not put off responsibility by saying “oh, we all got swept up in it, and mistakes were made, but let’s let bygones be bygones.” Rather it’s the kind of faith that puts on that responsibility, and trusts in the redeeming power of God’s grace to work on us and through us, so that we may live out the Gospel free from the ways that violent powers, the powers that produce witch hunts and witch judges, the powers that produce scapegoats and executioners, still can possess churches and people of faith. This kind of faith isn’t always comfortable, it can be scratchy and itchy and, frankly, irritating.  But it is the path to a peace that surpasses understanding. There is always grace that awaits us, as a gift. That is something to rejoice in.

Thanks be to God.

(Delivered July 3, 2016. First Congregational Church of Walla Walla. Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)

Image: The trial of George Jacobs for witchcraft at the Essex Institute in Salem, Mass. Artist, Tompkins Harrison Matteson

#WitchTrials #Scapegoating #Puritans #Galatians #Congregationalism #Repentance #Grace #VoiceofConscience #UnitedChurchofChrist

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