Puritan Family Life: The Diary of Samuel Sewall

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Historians have commonly characterized Puritan family life as joyless, repressive, even brutal. By such accounts, Puritan parents disciplined their children mercilessly, crushed their wills, responded callously to their deaths, and routinely sent them out of the home to be raised by cold-hearted surrogates. The diary of Samuel Sewall (1652-1730) contradicts this grim portrait of the Puritan household.

Although Sewall was an exceptional Puritan father and not a representative one, his judicial, civic, religious, and business activities projected him far beyond his own privileged and respectable circumstances. As a record of the family and social life of New England's third generation, his remarkable journal, which spans fifty-five years, is rivaled only by that of his friend Cotton Mather. Sewall provides rich details about the home where his and Hannah Sewall's fourteen children were born, and the six who survived infancy were raised. He takes the reader through the streets and byways of Boston, to the meetinghouse, to the places where his children were educated and apprenticed, and to the homes of friends, neighbors, and kin.

Judith S. Graham's close reading of Sewall's diary and family papers reveals that warmth, sympathy, and love often marked the Puritan parent-child relationship. She suggests that the special nature of childhood was a concept that parents understood well, and that there was a practical and clear purpose for the "putting out" of children. Graham provides a much-needed balance to accepted scholarship on Puritan life and offers new insights into the history of both early New England and the family.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Graham joins the ranks of those exceptionally articulate colonial historians—among them John Demos and Edmund S. Morgan—who are interested in the history of the American family.” —Publishers Weekly
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Graham joins the ranks of those exceptionally articulate colonial historians--among them John Demos and Edmund S. Morgan--who are interested in the history of the American family. Basing her study of Puritan family life primarily on the diary of jurist and merchant Samuel Sewall (1652-1730), Graham seeks to topple common misconceptions about Puritan culture. The Sewalls, she contends, were not the joyless, repressive and brutal parents that Puritans are often thought to have been--they were engaged and affectionate. The author's arguments are not always persuasive, however. For example, she tries to make the case that Samuel's union with his wife, Hannah (the daughter of a wealthy silversmith), was not a marriage of mere convenience but a loving, companionate marriage filled with mutual respect. Although not implausible, Graham's claim isn't borne out by the evidence--the diary is all but silent on the subject of the Sewalls'marital relationship. On the other hand, Graham is at her best when discussing the Sewalls' relationships with their children (they had 14, eight of whom died quite young); although Philippe Ari s popularized the view that, until the 18th century, parents treated children as "miniature adults" and childhood wasn't recognized as a distinct developmental stage, the Sewalls, Graham suggests, didn't conform to these stereotypes. Samuel and Hannah took in a niece and nephew and several boys preparing to enter Harvard: these children, according to Graham, were treated as cherished members of the Sewall household. Graham also claims that Sewall remained intimately involved in the lives of his children and grandchildren long after they grew up. Illustrations. (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555535933
  • Publisher: Northeastern University Press
  • Publication date: 10/23/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 296
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Puritan Family Life

The Diary of Samuel Sewall

By Judith S. Graham

Northeastern University Press

Copyright © 2000

Judith S. Graham
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-55553-593-3

Chapter One

"My Comfort and Defense"

The Marriage of Hannah Hull
and Samuel Sewall

* * *

To the Puritans, Edmund S. Morgan writes, love between husband
and wife was a duty imposed by God, and a solemn obligation that
arose from the marriage contract. In The Well-Ordered Family, Rev.
Benjamin Wadsworth explained:

This duty of love is mutual, it should be performed by each, to each of
them. They should endeavour to have their affections really, cordially
and closely knit, to each other. If therefore the Husband is bitter
against his wife, beating or striking of her (as some vile wretches do) or in
any unkind carriage, ill language, hard words, morose, peevish, surly
behaviour; nay if he is not kind, loving, tender in his words and carriage to
her; he then shames his profession of Christianity.... The same is true
of the Wife too. If she strikes her Husband (as some shameless,
impudent wretches will) if she's unkind in her carriage, give ill language,
is sullen, pouty, so cross that she'l scarce eat or speak sometimes; nay if
she neglects to manifest real love and kindness, in her words or carriage
either; she's then a shame to her profession of Christianity.... The
indisputable Authority, the plain Command of the Great God, required Husbands
and Wives, to have manifest very great affection, love and kindness to
one another. They should ... study and strive to render each others life,
easy, quiet and comfortable; to please, gratifie and oblige one another, as
far as lawfully they can.

The beliefs of Puritan moralists, David Hackett Fischer remarks,
were not different from those of most Westerners, but "Puritanism
was a form of social striving which labored obsessively to close the
gap between ideals and actuality." The marriage of Samuel Sewall
and Hannah Hull, as it is revealed in Samuel's diary, seems to have
been one in which ideals and actuality nearly did merge. Though
Sewall occasionally notes his sense that he was not sufficiently attentive
to his wife, he mentions no instance of either spouse behaving in
a "surly" or "pouty" manner toward the other. It is regrettable that we
have no record of Hannah's own feelings about their relationship, but
her husband's diary provides a useful, if limited, guide.

Sewall's diary is silent on his courtship and marriage, even though
his first entry is dated 3 December 1673, more than a year before the
wedding. But in the autobiographical letter he wrote to his son Sam
in 1720, when the elder Sewall was sixty-eight, he explained that Hannah
first took notice of him when she was the guest of her kinsman, President
Leonard Hoar, at the August 1674 Harvard Commencement at which he received his
M.A. "She saw me when I took my degree and set her affection on me, though I
knew nothing of it until after our marriage, which was Feb 28th. 1675/76."
Perhaps Hannah was captivated by the scholar's adept manner of responding (in
the affirmative) to the master's question, An Peccatum Originale sit &
Peccatum & Poena?
: Whether original sin be both sin and its punishment?

Hannah was the only living child of the wealthy and influential silversmith,
mint-master, and, in 1676, treasurer of Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Hull, and
Judith (Quincy) Hull. Samuel and Hannah's respective ages at marriage were
twenty-four and eighteen, younger than the typical New England Puritan marriage
age of twenty-six for men and twenty-three for women, a deviation that the Hull
fortune can perhaps explain. The marriage took place in the Hull family home,
with Assistant (and later Governor) Simon Bradstreet officiating. The marriage
figures in Nathaniel Hawthorne's historical tale "Grandfather's Chair": The John
Hull character's daughter is described as "having always fed heartily on
pumpkin-pies, doughnuts, Indian puddings, and other Puritan dainties, [so] that
she was as round and plump as a pudding herself." After the ceremony, in
Hawthorne's story, the father brought out a large pair of scales, placed his
daughter in one pan and filled the other with the pine tree shillings he had
minted until the coins "fairly weighed the young lady from the floor," and then
presented the shillings to his new son-in-law as his daughter's portion.
Hawthorne's account must of course be regarded as what M. Halsey Thomas calls a
"pleasant fiction"; Sewall's ledger indicates that the dowry was £500.

Samuel and Hannah began their married life in the Hull family home on the
main street of Boston (now Washington Street), and they remained there
throughout their lives. In 1693, ten years after John Hull's death, a chimney
fire in the old kitchen, and probably the needs of a growing family, prompted
Sewall to have a large brick addition built on to the original house, a project
that took over two years. After his marriage, Sewall put aside any plans for
entering the ministry, rejecting a call from Wood-bridge, New Jersey, a town
settled mainly by Newbury people; instead, with the assistance of his
father-in-law, he began to learn "the manner of the Merchants."

One Sewall biographer, Ola Elizabeth Winslow, observes that the marriage
brought mutual happiness and advantages. In addition to shared love and faith,
Winslow writes, Hannah's marriage to Samuel gave him early wealth, an
established merchant business, and a start to his illustrious career in public
office. For his part, Samuel brought his wife "the dignity of a magistrate's
home and by his many public services a continuance of the high place socially to
which she had been born as the daughter of John Hull." Love and respect
motivated Samuel Sewall to seek the hand of John Hull's only living child,
but the union also brought him the enormous benefits of financial security and
access to the Boston elite. That the bridegroom sometimes paid a price for his
fortunate situation is indicated by Sewall's account of a humiliating encounter
with his father-in-law that occurred less than a year after his marriage. Sewall
wrote the passage in Latin, something he did only rarely, when dealing with
sensitive matters. Hull was furious at a taxpayer who had brought him (as
treasurer of the colony) oats instead of money as a tax payment. He turned
his anger on his son-in-law, berating him for his profligacy and bad judgment in
having thrown too much wood on the fire. The younger man took the unwarranted
reprimand very much to heart, and turned to Scripture for guidance and

In his biography of Samuel Sewall, T. B. Strandness remarks that
his subject says little about his married life, rarely mentioning so
much as a conversation with his wife: "One almost thinks of her as
permanently retired to an upper chamber for the purpose of child
bearing, something she did with fearsome regularity for twenty-five
years." Whether or not she was as plump as Hawthorne imagined,
Strandness writes, after years of child-bearing "she was so stout that
she could no longer be sure whether she was 'with child or no.'"
Strandness continues: "In one of his few references to the subject,
Sewall wrote 'Uxor praegnans est,' a three-word description of his
marriage." These assertions about Hannah are unfounded. Her
cited uncertainty about being "with child or no" was not related to
her weight. The pregnancy to which Strandness refers, which will be
discussed shortly, was troubled by Hannah's illnesses and her fall on
the stairs, which gave her good cause to fear that she might have lost
the child. Sewall makes no mention of his wife's physical characteristics,
and no portrait of her is available, so her supposed plumpness
cannot be substantiated. Nor is "Uxor praegnans est" an adequate
summary of the couple's marriage. Surely many of Sewall's references
to Hannah are related to childbirth. But child-bearing was not a trivial
matter in Puritan fife, and we will see that Sewall himself had a
profound interest and a substantial role in this most dangerous and
spiritual event. Moreover, the diary suggests other dimensions to
Hannah and Samuel's life together.

That child-bearing, nursing, and illness kept Hannah at home
much of the time is undeniable. Just seven months after her marriage,
when she would have been about three months pregnant, Hannah
was "called up by the Flux." For the next three weeks, Sewall closely
monitored his wife's recovery from her illness, observing the efficacy
of the "Diacodium" and "Peppar boyled in Milk and Water" prescribed
by the doctors, until at last he could report a "Good night, all
Hands." The attentive husband found it troubling that as his career
progressed, his many political, business, and court obligations took
him away from his wife and family. Reverting to Latin, Sewall tells
of a dream he had on a stormy summer night in 1685. In the dream,
Sewall went away, perhaps to Newbury, and in his absence his wife
died. The news of her death upset him terribly, and he repeatedly
called out Hannah's name. He inquired where his father-in-law was,
and learned that John Hull had set out for England, his daughter's
death freeing him to travel as he wished. As the dream continued,
Sewall's daughter Elizabeth, then four years old, "whispered that the
death had occurred in part because of my neglect and want of love."
When Sewall "shook off sleep, I embraced my wife for joy as if I had
newly married her."

Sewall recounts a number of his dreams in his diary, and in setting
them down he probes them for meaning. His dreams represent much
more than the repressed wishes or fears of modern psychoanalytic
interpretation. They reflect the Puritan "mental world" described so
vividly by David D. Hall, a world comprising not only traditional
theology, but also rituals, portents, and prodigies, a world in which
inexplicable "wonders" become signs of God's judgment. Sewall's
dream of his wife's death leaves him feeling guilt-ridden and exposed.
Perhaps the diarist is troubled that he, like Father Hull in his dream,
might like to be free to travel without feelings of self-reproach.
Shortly after this disconcerting dream, a contrite Sewall took Hannah
on an outing to the home of Rev. Josiah Flynt: "Carried my Wife to
Dorchester to eat Cherries, Rasberries, chiefly to ride and take the
Air: the Time my Wife and Mrs. Flint spent in the Orchard, I spent
in Mr. Flint's Study, reading Calvin on the Psalms &c. 45. 68. 24."
Four days later, he took his wife to the Cambridge Lecture.

In the late summer and fall of 1687, after the death of three of
their infants in as many years, Hannah and Samuel made several trips
together. At the end of August they spent a few days visiting with
Hannah's cousins (on the Quincy side) on the South Shore. In early
October the couple rode out to the family property at Sherborn,
where they husked and "traced" corn (that is, braided ears of corn
together by the husk), viewed the meadow, and visited the farm,
"where we eat Apples and drank Cider. Shew'd her the Meeting-house."
Sewall inspected the stone wails and trees that marked the
boundaries of their property: "Set an H on a sear Pine, which Morse
shewed me that it was certainly our Bound-Tree."

In April 1686 Hannah and Samuel took their son Hull, then
twenty-one months old, to Newbury, in the hope that a stay with
Grandmother and Grandfather Sewall would help him to recover
from his persistent convulsions. On the way home, Sewall was able
to attend the Rowley Lecture; he learned that Lynn's monthly Lecture
as also being held at that time, but "my wives painfull Flux
such, that had we known of Lin Lecture before past the Place, could
not have took it." Such trips came to take their toll on Hannah's
health. Her presence is not mentioned on other difficult missions
to place their children in situations for the sake of their health or

As the diary proceeds, it seems that illness and frailty often made
it difficult for Hannah to participate in family or social gatherings: In
December 1691, Sewall attended a dinner party given by Joshua and
Mary Gardener at Muddy River (Brookline) to celebrate the rebuilding
of the house that had been burned the previous January, in a fire
that had taken the lives of two of their children. Sewall, as always,
enjoyed the dinner and the company, and he set the tune for the
psalm-singing, a duty that he was about to assume officially as precentor
of the South Church. But Hannah did not attend the gathering:
"Wife was invited, but went not by reason of the Cold."

In June 1697, Sewall rode with his wife and friends to Newton "to
take the Aer" and dine at the home of Rev. Nehemiah Hobart. Sewall
"walk'd out before dinner and gather'd my wife a handfull of strawberries."
Two days later, she was "taken with extream Pain and Illness,
Vomiting and Flux. Told me when I came home, was afraid should
never have seen me more. Took a Pill in the night: Disease abates."

Hannah, "through Indisposition, could not goe" when, in the fall
of 1697, Sewall took his children, along with some of his friends and
their children, on an outing to his property on Hog Island. Nor did
she join her husband at the graduation of their son Joseph from Harvard
College in July 1707. Sewall's niece, Jane Toppan, set out with
him early on the "fair and pleasant" morning, riding in a calash from
Charlestown to Cambridge. As a devoted alumnus and overseer of
the College, Sewall participated in Commencement Days with great
interest and enthusiasm, never missing the ceremonies except when
he was forced to by serious family concerns. The Sewalls' older son,
Samuel, had been apprenticed to a bookseller after showing himself
to be an indifferent scholar, so surely the graduation of their only
remaining son, Joseph, was an important day for the family. Sewall
listed some of the distinguished women who attended the ceremonies,
but he wrote that his wife "durst not go out of Boston," even in
fine weather with comfortable transportation. When Joseph received
his master's degree, on another "cool and pleasant" July day in 1710,
Hannah again stayed at home, while Sewall went in a calash with a
niece's husband, Rev. Moses Hale of Newbury. Sewall notes with
regret the absence of his other children: "Neither Son Sewall, nor
Hannah nor Betty were at the Commencement. Sam and Betty were

Hannah was "sick, fain to keep the Chamber and not be at Dinner"
on a November Thanksgiving Day in 1714. In September, a carpenter
had completed the installation of a new window on the northeast
side of Hannah's bed chamber, "a little to enlighten the darkness
of it."

Excerpted from Puritan Family Life
by Judith S. Graham
Copyright © 2000 by Judith S. Graham.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix
Acknowledgments xi
Introduction 3
Chapter 1 "My Comfort and Defense" The Marriage of Hannah Hull and Samuel Sewall 23
Chapter 2 "Herein is my Father glorified" Birth 34
Chapter 3 "The sorrowfull remembrance of Adam's carriage" Child-Rearing 61
Chapter 4 "A red Coat for her little Aaron" Children as "Miniature Adults" 78
Chapter 5 "Give her a Lift towards heaven" The Illness and Death of Children 99
Chapter 6 "Your Son is now one of us" Education 109
Chapter 7 "A Trade that might be good for Soul and body" The Calling 121
Chapter 8 "No man came with him to me" Children Taken into the Sewall Home 135
Chapter 9 "Hopes by going to Sea ... after his Time is out, may get a livelihood" Sending Out and Taking In 144
Chapter 10 "A Stone-Ring, and a Fan ... with a noble Letter to my daughter" Courtship and Marriage 167
Chapter 11 "Govr Dudley mention'd Christ's pardoning Mary Magdalen" The Relationship between the Generations 181
Chapter 12 "The Fruit of the Womb is a Reward" Conclusion 217
List of Abbreviations 227
Notes 229
Bibliography 267
Index 275
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