1697: The Dawn of Tolerance in Massachusetts: Public Repentance of Judge Samuel Sewall for his Action in the Witchcraft Trials

Milestones on the Road to Freedom

By Albert Herter, 1942

Oil on canvas, 110 x 130 in.

Gift of the artist and his son, Governor Christian Herter.
Unveiled December 16, 1942.

The widespread belief in witchcraft and the presence of the devil was swept into an outburst of confusion and accusation in 1692 when a small group of men and women of Salem (now Danvers) were arrested for bewitching their neighbors. Samuel Sewall (1652–1730), a local magistrate, was a member of the court that ultimately sentenced nineteen people to be hanged. The tragedy was realized several months later: those still being held were released, all judgments reversed, and records of excommunication expunged. At Sewall's urging, the General Court appointed a "Fast Day" during which all jury signed a confession of error in the convictions.

Sewall is seen standing in Old South Church in Boston with his head bowed as his confession and prayers for pardon are read aloud. Sewall is said to have fasted one day each year, praying for his soul and the souls of those wrongfully put to death. At the dedication of the murals, this event in particular was singled out as a turning point, for it represented "the beginning of the recognition of the 'quality of mercy' in human affairs."

mural of 1697: The Dawn of Tolerance in Massachusetts: Public Repentance of Judge Samuel Sewall for his Action in the Witchcraft Trials